Update Nov. 24: “The Nutcracker” dates, times and locations have changed since the original release of this story. Updated information is below the article.
Despite COVID-19, Ballet Northwest’s “Nutcracker,” a South Sound holiday tradition for 35 years, is on for the holidays, but the company’s 2020 edition of the Tchaikovsky classic — a perennial favorite about a young girl who travels to magical places with the nutcracker she got for Christmas — will be a film rather than a live performance.
The movie will be filmed on The Washington Center’s main stage Nov. 13-15 with the usual sets and costumes and 125 dancers, who’ll perform in small groups with physical distancing. It will play on the center’s big screen Dec. 4-20, before physically distanced audiences of about 180 people per performance, less than 20 percent of the theater’s usual capacity. And those who’d rather avoid public gatherings can rent the film or buy a DVD.
“It’s a big step for the arts in our community,” said Ballet Northwest co-artistic director Ken Johnson. “So many arts organizations have been sadly pretty dormant these past few months and unable to do performances, so we’re excited for people to get back into the Washington Center. It’s going to be a fun thing for the community and especially the arts community.”
More good news for audiences eager to get out of the house and into the holiday spirit: The center, which is able to show films under the state’s reopening guidelines for cinemas, is planning to add more holiday offerings beginning Thanksgiving weekend, said executive director Jill Barnes.
“Ballet Northwest is working really hard to create something really special for their dancers and the community, and we’re working really hard to delivery something special to the community,” she told OLY ARTS. She promised not only snowfall outside the theater before performances but also other festivities to be announced.
“Nutcracker” on film will be mix of traditional and new. “There will be sets and costumes and dancers that audiences have come to know and love but in a new updated version for 2020,” Johnson told OLY ARTS. The update, like the traditional staged version, will feature two casts of dancers, so there’ll be two versions of the film showing at alternate screenings.
“We’re using video footage from last year’s party scene and fight season, because those scenes involve lots of individuals, and lots of kids in particular, and it’s hard to tell the story of those scenes with the current restrictions,” he said. For the new scenes — including the dances in the Kingdom of the Sweets and the snow scene — there’ll be some new choreography to accommodate social distancing. Scenes such as the Russian dancers and the Waltz of the Flowers will feature groups of 6 to 7 dancers, while the biggest scenes last year featured about 50 dancers.
Precautions aimed at keeping the dancers as safe as possible are also affecting the ballet’s romantic scenes. “We’re not doing any pas de deux work to keep the social distancing and to minimize risks,” Johnson said. The film will include 2019 footage of Clara’s duet with the Nutcracker, which comes at the end of the fight scene.
But the big, showy duet between the Sugar Plum Fairy (played by Elina Brein of Chehalis and Megan Meier of Olympia) and the Cavalier (a role shared by Bina Anvari, a senior at Olympia High School, and Jacob Brein of Chehalis) won’t work in the age of coronavirus. Asked why the Breins, who are siblings, couldn’t pair up for the pas de deux, Johnson explained that the two lead dancers were paired by height. “On pointe, Elina is taller than Jacob,” he said.
Ballet Northwest’s dancers were eager to get back to work, Johnson said. “We had a record number of dancers audition for the company this year, and that showed us that there was really a demand and need for this,” he said. The production includes 125 dancers compared to 200 most years, but most of those are the more advanced dancers who are part of the ballet company.
There are a few 8- and 9-year-olds in a new sequence that’s a physically distanced replacement for the popular scene in which a larger-than-life Mother Ginger hides some of the littlest dancers under her voluminous skirt. “It’s hard to do that with social distancing, so instead of Mother Ginger, we have a baker who dances with little gingerbread cookies,” Johnson said. “That dance uses some of the younger dancers who would usually be in the fight scene.
“We’re excited to have our dancers back in the studio and practicing and working towards a goal,” he added. “Since they’re all in online school, it’s been great for them to have that physical activity and that experience even though they’re still in a socially distanced environment in small groups.”
The different practice times for small groups and the distanced filming process, spread out over three days to minimize risks, means that the dancers haven’t been watching each other’s performances the way they have in other years, Johnson pointed out. “The thing that’s kind of fun is that none of the dancers have seen each other’s,” he said. “And we’re not having open rehearsals, so none of the parents and families have seen the dances. It’s going to be a surprise for everyone.”
Ballet Northwest’s “The Nutcracker”
Skyline Drive-In, 182 SE Brewer St, Shelton
7 p.m. Dec. 3 and 17 (gates open at 6 p.m.) *
* Red Cast
** Green Cast
At-home streaming options will be available soon