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UNCSA presents reimagined “Nutcracker” for film

UNCSA presents reimagined “Nutcracker” for film

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This year’s "The Nutcracker" by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts will be totally different from years past as the production moves from the Stevens Center stage in downtown Winston-Salem to a sound stage.

UNCSA’s schools of Dance, Design & Production, Filmmaking and Music have teamed up to create a film version of the holiday ballet.

"This semester at UNCSA has been like no other in our history," Brian Cole, chancellor of UNCSA, said in a press release. "Despite the limitations we have had to face with the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been blown away by the creativity and innovation that our students and faculty have shown."

Cole said that the reimagined "The Nutcracker" project is an example of how UNCSA with its five disciplines on campus "is continuing to bring art and creative expression into the world at a time when it is so desperately needed."

In the film, special guest performer Anthony Santos of the Dance Theater of Harlem dances the role of Drosselmeyer. In addition, Rosemary Harris, award-winning actor and widow of UNCSA founder John Ehle, narrates while a cast of student dancers interprets the classic tale with all-new choreography by faculty member Ilya Kozadayev.

Jared Redick, interim dean of UNCSA’s School of Dance, directs with Kozadayev and conductor Karin Hendrickson, guest artist, to conduct an abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score performed by the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra. The music was recorded on UNCSA’s film scoring stage in socially distanced sections and edited together by students and faculty in the film music composition program.

UNCSA stated that "The Nutcracker" film flows from our present time into the miraculous holiday realm of Godfather Drosselmeyer on Christmas Eve.

The visual effects were created by the UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking under the direction of faculty member Bob Keen ("The Empire Strikes Back," "Superman," "Alien"), and with cinematography directed by faculty member Thomas Ackerman A.S.C. ("Beetlejuice," "Christmas Vacation," "Jumanji").

The film’s world premiere will be at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12 to raise money for student scholarships. The virtual Opening Night Scholarship Benefit will include live interaction with cast and creators. Registration is still available for an all-access pass to the event. Access information for the virtual event will be emailed to ticketholders. Tickets are available at www.uncsa.edu/nutcracker. Beginning Dec. 17, the film will be available for free on-demand viewing.

Totally new in COVID-19 era

In a recent interview, Redick talked about how pretty much everything is different this year about "The Nutcracker" production, from choreography to sets to the dancers, students and faculty advisors.

"We have a new medium," Redick said. "Even the theater is new because the theater is not actually a theater this year. It’s actually a sound stage in the School of Filmmaking."

Although the schools of Dance, Design & Production and Music have worked together regularly in the past, this is the first time the School of Dance has done a collaborative project with the School of Filmmaking.

"Adding in the school of filmmaking makes it a whole new adventure for us, and an adventure it was," Redick said.

He said the decision to do the film started in early June.

"We realized that given the state of COVID and the possibility or the improbability that we would have live performances, we needed to rethink what we were going to do, when we came to our performances, especially 'The Nutcracker' in December," he said.

The decision to use film was the only way to present a production and give students the opportunity to have that performance experience, Redick said.

He also wanted to make sure that all students from all the schools were engaged in the artistic process.

"It was not just something that we were going to make a documentary style film where we are basically setting up a camera and videoing a performance live," Redick said. "We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to take advantage of every possibility of what would be possible this year….We wanted to have different angles, different viewpoints of the storytelling," he said.

For example, they used an overhead camera to take shots from above and created a new set design.

"We have hard pieces of the set design but then we also have visual effects and CGI (computer-generated imagery) that is being added into the film in postproduction," he said.

He said working with the School of Filmmaking was a great learning opportunity for everyone involved.

"What was wonderful about this production was watching the students from all the different schools watching the craft from their peers that they normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to see," Redick said.

In terms of the pandemic, Redick said they adopted industry standards in all aspects of the production, including socially distant performance by dances and musicians, health and safety protocols for filming and postproduction, and the incorporation of face coverings into costumes.

He said audiences will notice a new visual look about "The Nutcracker," new dances, and probably be surprised by how short the production is.

"We’ve taken an hour and 40-minute production, and we’ve cut it down to under 30 minutes," he said.

Working together

More than 200 people worked on the production, including numerous musicians and 63 dancers.

In the film, Santos, a UNCSA alumnus, performs a newly expanded role of Drosselmeyer. Since graduating, the New York City native has performed with Zest Collective, Caitlin Trainor Dance in New York City, and Antonio Ciacci’s La Spezia Jazz Festival.

Juliana Rella, a fourth-year film student at UNCSA specializing in cinematography, was a student camera operator for the film.

She said students in the School of Filmmaking are used to making films, but this was different because of the pandemic.

"Navigating that at first posed more issues than we are used to on film sets," Rella said. "That was interesting, but I think that worked out."

She said she learned a lot because of the collaboration with students in other schools on campus.

"It was definitely a learning experience for me, and I had a lot of fun," she said.

Eleanor Broughton headlines the student case as the Sugar Plum Fairy. A high school junior, Broughton was recently accepted for the Prix de Lausanne 2021, a prestigious international ballet competition for dancers aged 14-19. In last year’s stage production of "The Nutcracker," she danced the role of Flower.

Broughton said she loved seeing all the students and faculty coming together during what she described as a "crazy year."

"We’ve been able to create this project, under safety protocols obviously," Broughton said. "But just being able to create something like this in a short amount of time and under the circumstances we’ve had to be under, it’s been so incredible to watch everyone and it’s been very inspiring."

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