For the first time in over 50 years, area audiences will not see UNC School of the Arts’ "The Nutcracker" in the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem. But the alternative — a film of the Christmas classic — might turn out to be just as much fun, and it can be watched from the comfort of your home.
What you will see are four of the state conservatory’s five schools — Dance, Music, Design and Production, and Filmmaking — collaborating for the first time to create a 30-minute film.
You’ll see the Sugar Plum Fairy’s beloved solo; the Spanish, Russian, and many other dances; much of the music; and a younger, quirkier version of the mysterious, magical Drosselmeyer.
It will be available online on demand starting Dec. 17. "The Nutcracker" Opening Night Scholarship Benefit, a fundraiser for student scholarships on Dec. 12, will include live interaction with cast and creators, holiday treats mailed to your door, and more.
To comply with COVID-19 restrictions and keep everyone safe, UNCSA moved everything out of its customary performance space in the Stevens Center and into the filmmaking school’s largest soundstage: the sprung floor, light towers, and light plots.
Musicians and dancers performed and were filmed six feet apart wearing masks, but with the magic of filmmaking — including visual effects and CGI — it looks as if they are all on stage together.
School of Dance faculty member Ilya Kozadayev created all-new choreography for a production that honors the traditional story while reflecting modern sensibilities and situations. Rosemary Harris, an award-winning actor and widow of the late UNCSA founder John Ehle, will deliver a new narration written for the film. You may remember her as Tobey Maguire’s Aunt May in the 2000s "Spider-Man" franchise.
Maestra Karin Hendrickson, who has previously guest-conducted at UNCSA, is directing an abridged score that she arranged. Chris Heckmann, a UNCSA film composition graduate and now professor, did the sound mixing. The student musicians were filmed to appear on screen.
Headlining the student cast is Eleanor Broughton 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 14 to 19. In last year’s stage production of "The Nutcracker," she danced the role of Flower.
Anthony Santos will perform the newly expanded role of Drosselmeyer, the mysterious visitor who sets the "Nutcracker" magic in motion. The New York City native took time for a phone interview recently after taking, then teaching, a ballet class at the Dance Theatre of Harlem where he’s a company member."
Usually Drosselmeyer is the wise old owl," says Santos. "I felt like a young Drosselmeyer would be full of energy and have an innocence about him. This Drosselmeyer is just starting on his creative life where he is just making ‘The Nutcracker,’ and having other life events that are adding to his experience.
"I can relate to this Drosselmeyer as 25-year-old Anthony."
There is a bit of the mad scientist in this Drosselmeyer.
"There are scenes where I’m doing ballet vocabulary, but his movements are very quirky," he says. "In the opening scene, he’s full of excitement because he knows he’s about to create something magical, but he doesn’t know what it is.
"The more mature Drosselmeyer knows what he can do, and he has mastered his craft. The young Drosselmeyer doesn’t yet know what he’s capable of; he’s still figuring that out."
Santos received a bachelor’s degree in Dance from UNCSA in 2017. Since then, he’s performed all over the world, including in Bahia, Brazil, and with Zest Collective, Caitlin Trainor Dance in New York, and Antonio Ciacci’s La Spezia Jazz Festival. "In some ways, I feel like I just graduated yesterday."
Santos says. "As soon as I hit Winston-Salem, I felt like a student again. "I will always remain somewhat of a student because I am so hungry to keep learning about my craft and about myself."
Stage to Screen
Back in May, the directors and deans of the schools decided to transition the ballet from stage to film. They modeled both COVID-19 compliance and creative pivoting for their students.
"It is critical during this unprecedented time that we teach our students how their industries have adapted to the pandemic," says director Jared Redick, the interim dean of Dance. "We saw the writing on the wall, and we started talking about what we were going to do this year."
The other deans are Michael Kelly, Design and Production; Saxton Rose, interim dean of Music; and Henry Grillo, the interim Filmmaking dean.
"We all spoke the same language but sometimes with different dialects," Redick says. "It took openness, patience, and understanding from everyone involved to get us safely through. Everyone rowed in the same direction so beautifully.
"We have pulled off an all-school production in six months. We have adopted industry standards in every aspect of this production, from socially distant performance by dancers and musicians, to health and safety protocols for filming and postproduction, to incorporating face coverings into costumes.
"All of the dancers wear "beautiful costume masks," he says. In one dance, "Coffee," an Arabian-inspired piece, the dancers’ veils function as masks.
Despite following safety precautions — from ensuring that there were only a certain number of people on stage, wearing masks, and dispensing hand sanitizer at regular intervals — a few obstacles appeared on the path to the finished film.
Two of the mice who battle the Nutcracker Prince had to be quarantined on a Thursday and quickly replaced for shooting the next day. All are well now, Redick says.
Then, the day after conductor Karin Hendrickson left the project to return to England, the directing team discovered that eight musical counts had been dropped out of the recording for the Russian dance.
"Chris [Heckman, the sound mixer] was able to go back and edit that in," Redick says. "It’s been an honor to work with the other artists so openly and collaboratively. Collaboration is what we teach our students to do in all of our schools.
"I feel so privileged and honored to be driving this production with the amount of talent that’s in every corner."
The advantage of a film is that viewers will get to see the ballet from different angles, instead of just head-on the way you would watching it on stage. "We did all the dances with them facing upstage and downstage and facing the throne," Redick says. "We had an overhead camera, as well. "I think people will be surprised with how well it flows — with all the music and all the dance that’s in there. It’s a cinematic rendering of ‘The Nutcracker.’"
Traditionally, ticket sales for "The Nutcracker" provide major funding for student scholarships. This year’s Opening Night Scholarship Benefit is an effort to raise money to recruit and retain outstanding students.
Two packages are available, with each getting access to exclusive online content starting Dec. 7, access to the world premiere on Dec. 12, and unlimited access to the on-demand film.