Hacks for Virtual Holiday Rituals: Nutcracker Goes Digital

By Alyssa Rapp, CEO of Surgical Solutions; Author, Leadership and Life Hacks: Insights from a Mom, Wife, Entrepreneur and Executive
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I have the fondest of lifelong memories of going to see the Joffrey’s Nutcracker ballet or The Goodman Theater’s A Christmas Carol (streaming on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day here!) as a child growing up in Chicago, and later, as a parent with children of my own.

It was our shared love of dance, shared battle wounds as MBA women and moms managing organizations, and more, my deep admiration for her charisma and capacity as a leader that sparked my friendship with Kara Medoff Barnett, the indomitable executive director of American Ballet Theatre.  It is because of Kara that I agreed to join ABT’s Global Council. While the memories of taking Audrey and Henriette to see ABT kids performances at the Harris Theater or Whipped Cream ballet‘s premiere cannot be relived in person in 2020, the nostalgia, beauty, and flawlessness that characterize ABT’s virtual Nutcracker performance is a close second. (Find an excerpt here on YouTube!)

For today’s blog, we gain ABT Executive Superstar Kara Medoff Barnett’s leadership hacks, about what’s it’s been like to lead America’s national ballet company through this pandemic – and to what she looks forward to in 2021.

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AJR: Our family tradition has included going to the Nutcracker, and in more recent years, also traveling to see ABT’s “Whipped Cream” full-length fairytale.  How are you bringing these seasonal greats to audiences virtually amidst Covid-19?

KMB:  ABT’s Nutcracker production includes over 100 performers on the stage and close to 100 people behind the scenes, even before you add thousands of children and families in the audience. Clearly, live performances at epic scale are not happening this holiday season.

Instead, we are exploring the most powerful ways to share the magic of ballet on digital platforms.  For The Nutcracker, we created a short film of the pas de deux between Clara and the Prince. With the help of our partners at Matador Content and LG Signature, we shot ABT principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in 8K, and we premiered the film on a billboard in Times Square as a gift to New Yorkers this holiday season.

In more normal years, ABT performs The Nutcracker—created by MacArthur Genius and ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmanksy, with costumes and sets by Lion King designer Richard Hudson—for audiences in Orange County, California. This year, we’ve shared a climactic highlight of the production – for free—with millions of fans on a variety of digital platforms (billboards, YouTube, etc.).  I think that screen fatigue is real, and ten minutes of extraordinary artistry is the perfect dose of holiday joy.

During the pandemic, we’ve focused on commissioning and creating new work in Covid-safe, NBA-style “ballet bubbles” for dancers and choreographers.  In 2021, we’ll continue to build on this experience with additional bubbles and collaborations for digital capture and distribution.  We’ll also rehearse and film excerpts from several of our beloved classics, deploying cutting edge technology to vivify these performances in ways that will dazzle audiences.  We’ll explore and share the behind-the-scenes narratives and human stories of ABT’s extraordinary artist-athletes in docuseries and podcasts. And we’ll present live performances to safely distanced outdoor audiences in communities nationwide, sharing ballet with families who might not have access to digital devices and high-speed internet, as well as individuals across America who have been staring at screens for far too long.

AJR:  What has been the biggest “silver lining” and learning opportunity for you personally as the Executive Director of American’s National Ballet company throughout the pandemic?

KMB:  The biggest silver lining in my family life has been daily dinner with my parents, husband, and children (and sometimes my siblings).  As the leader of an arts organization, I’m usually out in the evenings attending performances and events.  It’s nice to spend more time barefoot and less time in high heels, more time reading bedtime stories and less time sitting in traffic on my way to Times Square or Lincoln Center.

In my professional life, I have been learning from colleagues I admire who lead an array of mission-driving institutions, from museums to social service organizations, and from libraries to theater companies. I meet weekly with the executive directors of the ten largest ballet companies in the country. The collaborative spirit and generosity of time and advice as leader’s problem-solve through the Class V rapids of 2020 has been inspiring and energizing.

At American Ballet Theatre, we defined our mantra in March: “ABT: Alone But Together.” I have seen our staff face adversity with resilience and ingenuity.  I have seen our artists flex new entrepreneurial muscles as they help us innovate and transform.  I have seen educators pivot to distance learning with an unwavering commitment to their students’ progress.  I have seen an entire organization engage in candid dialogue about racial justice and work together to propel positive change.  This is ABT’s 80th Anniversary year, and after eight decades of pursuing and achieving excellence in an activity that is utterly impossible in the current environment, I think it’s remarkable that we’ve had the courage to take risks, fail fast, and learn. We decided early in the pandemic that hibernation was not an option.  We are rapidly evolving, and we are playing to win.

AJR:  If you have one big wish this holiday season for your dancers, your audiences, and yourself in 2021, what would it be?

KMB:  
Rapid, widespread adoption of vaccines, so that we can return to hugs, handshakes, and standing ovations!

Also, I wish for the investment of time and resources in activities and experiences that bring us together and restore optimism.  The isolation and divisiveness of 2020 can give way to community-building and collaboration in 2021.  One of the choreographers we commissioned in 2020, Darrell Grand Moultrie, named his (phenomenal) world premiere “Indestructible Light,” a reference to the light inside each one of us that can be dimmed by external forces but never destroyed. My wish is that each one of us can find strength in our indestructible light.

To continue to help ABT sustain artists through the pandemic, please visit www.abt.org.