Mouse King (center) and mice performing the Battle Scene in the Commons as pedestrians watch on the sidelines.

December 3, 2020

Special Feature: The Making of A New Kind of Nutcracker

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The performance industry has been hit hard by this pandemic, and our own local Ithaca Ballet is no exception. COVID-19 has impacted one of the most important seasons for the ballet world: Nutcracker season. The famous New York City Ballet has canceled its entire winter and spring 2021 seasons. And Washington Ballet is providing a virtual Nutcracker with “behind-the-scenes content” to offer a taste of the winter tradition to their faithful audience. Ithaca Ballet plans to put on their very own virtual Nutcracker during these unprecedented times. The show is bound to look a little different, though. Masks will hide stage smiles, and larger scenes will be performed outside so as to adhere to social distancing protocols.

Ithaca Ballet was forced to shut down in March at the onset of the pandemic. Artistic Director Cindy Reid recalled the exact day: “It was March 14, and even though we knew we wouldn’t be doing Giselle, we did a full day of rehearsal. I was so heartbroken about not being able to get back together with my company and my dancers.”

Ithaca Ballet reopened this summer on a modified schedule, following strict COVID-19 protocols to ensure the safety of their students and staff. Everyone had and still has to be temperature checked upon entering the studio. Masks are required in the studios at all times, and students can step outside for a mask or water break. The classes are limited to 10 students per studio, and there are now 15-minute breaks in between each class to wipe down the barres and reduce traffic in the hallway. Reid noted that “working with 10 eager students in the morning or afternoon this past summer was fantastic, and so it gave me hope that we can hold classes in the fall.” 

Under normal circumstances, Ithaca Ballet would have a four-tiered season: A fall show, Nutcracker, winter repertoire and spring classical show. Now, the future of their seasons is up in the air, and the class schedule is less stringent. But Reid noted that “[She] doesn’t see a problem with the kids not getting in as many classes because when they’re there, they’re much more focused and hard working.” 

Though Reid was unable to hold auditions for the company – or for Nutcracker, for that matter – she and the students wanted to establish a strong company this year, even – and especially – among all of its uncertainty. She wanted to provide a space for her dancers to do what they do best: To perform.

Cast members gather in the Commons to prepare for the Battle Scene. Center is Artistic Director, Cindy Reid.

The Ithaca Ballet will be filming scenes of their virtual nutcracker performance in indoor and outdoor venues in November, and they’ll be livestreaming the finished product in December, closer to the holiday season.

18 company dancers, 13 guest children, and several adults – stage veteran actors and dancers – are scheduled to perform in this year’s nutcracker. Reid mentioned that this year’s cast is cut down by roughly half of what it would’ve been under normal circumstances to adhere to maximum capacity protocols. She also noted that “the fact that they’re not running the ballet in order allows students to do more parts that they usually wouldn’t do because the quick changes would make it impossible to do so.” One of the company members is performing 5 roles in this year’s nutcracker: the lead role of Marzipan, a member of the Corps in the Snow Scene and Waltz of the Flowers, one of the two Lieutenant Mice in the Battle scene, and a Teen in the Party Scene. The dancer mentioned that it could get tiring “jumping from role to role,” but that she was grateful for the opportunity to expand her repertoire.

Ithaca Ballet will be working with the film crew from IC Park Production to put on this year’s Nutcracker. The film crew is headed by a professor of film but largely staffed by post grads and current students at Ithaca College. Reid and her team have had numerous zoom meetings with the crew to plan their filming. The film crew will have roughly a month to piece all the shots together, from November to December, and Reid anticipates that the “editing is going to be crucial.” They plan to implement special effects into some of the scenes as well. Cartoon characters will make guest appearances in the Battle Scene, and they’ll be using CGI to reproduce bodies on the screen so that the “Tin Soldiers can keep coming out, one after another after another…” The pieces will be tied together with narration as well, a unique addition to a classical tradition that only technology allows us to incorporate.

Ithaca Ballet plans to perform the entire Snow Scene using full backdrop, full costume, and falling snow at the state theater. They’ll also perform the special scenes of Spanish (Chocolates), Russian (Candy Canes), Mother Ginger and Gingerettes, and the Sugar Plum variation at the state theater. The film crew will cut and splice clips from old nutcrackers into this new nutcracker, as well. They’ll be taking the Sugar Plum pas de deux with her Cavalier from a previous nutcracker and using it for this year’s pas de deux.

Flower Waltz will be filmed on the stage and at the Park Production studio behind a green screen. It would have been fitting to dance the Flower Waltz among real flowers in a garden or on grass, but the image of unsteady ankles in pointe shoes atop soft grass was too scary to imagine. Also, it would be almost impossible for Dew Drop to execute her fouettés at the end of the scene on unsteady ground, so a hard floor was deemed essential for this piece.

The Battle Scene will be performed in the Commons in a couple of different locations. This way, the film crew can cut and splice the videos in order to follow the characters in their movement through the fight scene. The Battle Scene will conclude at the Bernie Milton Pavilion, where the Mouse King will perform his penultimate death. The Tin Soldiers have neutral colored masks with rosy red cheeks painted on them to fit their roles. For the most part, the masks were made to “fade into the face,” but some other characters have masks to match their costumes. For example, the Party Girls will be wearing masks that match their dresses.

The problem with staging a production as large as the Nutcracker in a global pandemic is that it requires a lot of bodies. For this reason, they were forced to cut the finale. “It’s sad. The dancers miss it because the finale is such a joyous scene… But we have to stay vigilant” said Reid.

The final product of Ithaca Ballet’s virtual Nutcracker will be livestreamed by the state theater from Friday, Dec. 18 to Sunday, Dec. 20, with specific showing times on their website. Tickets will be for sale prior to that in hopes that they can recoup some of the lost income.  

A virtual Nutcracker for a small-town studio is ambitious. Ithaca Ballet, it seems, is showing up when all else is showing out. And this won’t be the only opportunity for the studio to give all it’s got. This pandemic is here to stay for a while, and Reid anticipates experimenting with indoor and outdoor venues for the remaining seasons of this calendar year and possibly next as well.

Isabelle Pappas is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at icp6@cornell.edu.