Nearly 40 years ago, Baltimore School for the Arts, a public high school located in Mount Vernon, started an annual winter tradition to perform the classic ballet The Nutcracker by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The performance features high school and TWIGS dancers and is staged in the BSA’s grand ballroom and theater to sold-out and diverse audiences, many of whom return every year.
During 2020, they took a pause in production, but it wasn’t time wasted. This year, the BSA added a contemporary spin on The Nutcracker, choreographed by resident artist Amy Hall Garner, an internationally known choreographer based in New York City, known for works in the ballet, modern, and theatrical genres. With dance department head Laura Halm, they made changes in staging that would ground this 1892 classic in their students’ world.
For the first time, the BSA featured a rotating cast of principal dancers selected regardless of race, gender, or body type. The on- and off-stage talents of BSA students—including stagehands, set and costume designers, and dancers showcasing contemporary choreography—resulted in a sold-out week of The Nutcracker: A Magical Tale in Mount Vernon from December 9–18, 2021, and they graciously offered me an opportunity to visit behind the scenes and create photographs of the iconic performance.
When I first stepped into the rehearsal studio, I hadn’t considered how dancers have an advantage to communicate without relying on the mouth. Body language! Despite a continuing pandemic, BSA dancers would perform The Nutcracker once again for live audiences, but this time with masks and a new sense of conviction. As I observed behind the scenes of their penultimate performance, Tchaikovsky’s score piped into the maze of dance studios and dressing rooms, where tired teens finished their homework, watched TikTok, and rested, waiting for their chance to perform.
The following morning, The Rockettes in New York announced they were canceling the rest of their season’s performance and I realized the BSA had ended the run of The Nutcracker just in the nick of time, before Omicron cases put a stop to holiday performances and traditional gatherings. Perhaps we can no longer rely on the quintessential Christmas traditions, but what I witnessed at BSA is that artists, performers, and the larger cultural community can continue to rely on one another. The show must go on.