Ballet Austin's 'The Nutcracker' is coming home for the holidays
- Luckily, Ballet Austin filmed "The Nutcracker in 2019 and plans to stream it this season.
- Ventana Ballet, Red Nightfall Productions and Metamorphosis Dance also reinvent "The Nutcracker."
- The holiday season in Austin would not be the same without some version of "The Nutcracker."
To many Austinites, it just isn’t the holidays without “The Nutcracker.”
In a normal year, at least six local performing arts companies stage versions of the tale between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Annually, almost 30,000 people attend Ballet Austin’s version alone.
Meanwhile, the Tchaikovsky music typically resounds at festooned stores and during holiday festivals.
More than a dozen films are based on “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” written in 1816 by E.T.A Hoffmann. And that doesn’t count the numerous TV variants.
The company now known as Ballet Austin staged its very first “Nutcracker Suite” at what was then called the Municipal Auditorium on Dec. 10, 1962. It wasn’t the whole story ballet, however, but rather excerpts presented by Austin Ballet Society dancers, along with holiday music sung by the 1,482-voice Children’s Choir.
From the original Russian ballet, leader Barbara Carson selected “Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Kingdom of Snow” and “Kingdom of Sweets,” along with “Arabian and Chinese dances” for that one Monday night performance.
It was a big deal: The news made it above the fold on the front page of the newspaper.
“We have the longest-running ‘Nutcracker’ in the state,” says Cookie Ruiz, Ballet Austin’s executive director. “At some point, it’s about tradition. Some people have been coming 30 or 40 years. So we had to do something.”
This year, the company can’t safely put dancers, musicians and crew members together onstage, backstage or in the pit.
Ruiz: “But we can have a Nutcracker.”
How is that possible? Because, in a stroke of great luck, Ballet Austin filmed its 2019 staging with three cameras, a treatment usually reserved for new works by Artistic Director Stephen Mills.
“We got lucky on this one,” Ruiz says. “We captured this one cinematically and can share it now based off our website.”
This time, you don’t buy a ticket. You give a gift in exchange for digital access. And you may obtain access to the film and other additional online material for anyone else, even if they don’t live in Texas.
A gift of $30 to the nonprofit allows your family nine days to watch the digital recording from Dec. 12 to Dec. 20. A gift of $100 or more gives your group until the end of the year to see the film, as well as access to interviews, holiday recipes, holiday-themed dance classes and more. Find more information at balletaustin.org.
“When we realized there was not a safe way to do the show, we asked the dancers, staff and others to make creative suggestions,” Ruiz says. “Within about three weeks, we had a 23-page document of idea after idea after idea, some of the most interesting coming from the dancers themselves. We extracted from these the idea of bringing our community ‘The Nutcracker: Home for the Holidays.’”
It helps that Ballet’s Austin’s staff has for a long time created top-notch film and video work.
Not every American dance company is playing it this safe.
“Some of my colleagues are convening dancers this season and making new recordings of ‘The Nutcracker,’” Mills says. “Texas has the most coronavirus cases of any state, so that’s not something I am interested in doing. During this period, it is not possible for dancers to be involved en masse.”
Any other year, Mills would be in the wings watching all 15 performances of “The Nutcracker.” During December, he’d also be in the studio coming up with new dances.
He is playing that second role in 2020, although with dancers working in five-person pods.
“Dancers are now in the studio, making work,” Mills says. “The second we can get out of this and into a space, they will be recorded. We are a company that makes so much new work, and the dancers are making their own new work, too. We intend to film that as well.”
As difficult as this period has been for everyone, Mills points out some little silver linings.
“We have more time to focus on invention and innovation,” he says. “That’s been a plus. One aspect of it: We have 40 company members, including apprentices, who all must have class every. The day gets eaten up quickly. The people most in danger of getting lost in this are these young dancers who are not quite professionals and not quite students.”
Mills says that Associate Artistic Director Michelle Martin has done an amazing job of finding ways to keep the company physically active.
“Everything minus the performance aspect,” he says. “It’s about their bodies and their physicality. We can’t take a year and a half off and expect everybody to be back at a performance level. So we are going about it as if we were in performance every day.
“There will be a morning after. We’re not preparing for today, we are preparing for the future.”
As for the company’s most popular ballet, Mills and Ruiz are pleased that, at least, families will be able to watch “The Nutcracker” together.
“We are trying to bring back that sense of community,” Ruiz says “That sense of tradition and sense of humor. We want people to connect to ‘The Nutcracker’ in a way that will be meaningful. And you can send it to people not in Austin — give it as a gift rather than a fruitcake.
“The Nutcracker: Home for the Holidays”
Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker” is virtual this year, but at least the leading dance company in town presciently filmed its 2019 performance with a cinematic three-camera method. A gift of $30 to the nonprofit gives your family nine days to watch the digital recording, from Dec. 12 through Dec. 20. A gift of $100 or more allows your group until the end of the year to see the film, as well as access to interviews, holiday recipes, holiday-themed dance classes and more. (balletaustin.org)
More "Nutcracker" in Austin
Dec. 11-24: “The Nutcracker.” In Metamorphosis Dance’s charming version of the old holiday tale, Clara has just turned 18 and is excited about what her future holds. During a holiday party, her world-traveling aunt arrives with amazing tales, and Clara dreams of joining her. The performance was recorded on Nov. 21 at the Boyd Vance Theater. For $10-$50, audiences may purchase a private link to view it Dec. 11-24. (metamorphosisnutcracker2020.eventbrite.com)
Dec. 11-19: “The Watchmaker’s Song: A Drive-In Nutcracker Experience.” Ventana Ballet and Red Nightfall Productions collaborate on this re-imagining of “The Nutcracker” for the third year. It is set to Duke Ellington’s jazzy rendition of the Tchaikovsky music. A limit of 20 cars per show. Tickets: $25 per driver and $25 for each additional passenger (plus applicable taxes & Eventbrite fees). 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 11-12 and Dec. 18-19. 2400 E. Cesar Chavez St. (ventanaballet.com)