When planning to present an all-virtual version of “The Nutcracker” to the community this year, Mick Gunter said he had one main goal.
“I wanted to do it in such a way that it was safe for everybody but it wouldn’t look like a 2020 version of ‘The Nutcracker,’” said Gunter, who owns Centralia Ballet Academy with his wife, Nancy.
For Gunter, they hit the mark. Speaking over the phone on a recent afternoon, Gunter said he had just viewed the finished version of Centralia Ballet Academy’s 2020 production of “The Nutcracker” and was so excited to share it with the community.
This would have been the fourth year Centralia Ballet Academy offered a full-length performance of “The Nutcracker.” For a handful of years prior to offering a full version, the studio also offered a Christmas season performance with selections from “The Nutcracker.” Gunter said when he realized COVID-19 restrictions were likely to make staging a live performance of “The Nutcracker” impossible this year, he began researching how to create a professional-quality show that could be offered on a streaming platform.
For the recording, they enlisted the assistance of videographer Beau Chevassuss, who recorded a version of “The Nutcracker” by a dance studio in Enumclaw that Gunter found on Amazon when researching other recorded shows.
“He’s an amazingly talented guy and we were really lucky to have him be a part of our production,” Gunter said.
Gunter said they feel lucky to have community members really rally around the production. In addition to their army of parent volunteers who work on props and costumes, this year the Evergreen Playhouse and Theatre of Arts Discipline (TOAD) Theatre helped with costumes as well. The first act of the show was filmed inside the barn at Red Barn Studios in Chehalis and act two was filmed inside the Centralia Square Ballroom in Centralia. Gunter recalled that during filming of one of the scenes at Centralia Square, they realized that a prop of a bowl and spoon had been forgotten.
“So, we ran downstairs to Berryfields and they were willing to lend us a bowl and spoon and you’ll see that in the film,” Gunter said. “This was a total community production and I’m so thankful for everybody who worked together and recognized the importance of it.”
The first job was to keep the more than 50 local dancers, ranging in age from 8 to 65, safe during the filming. Gunter said he consulted with doctors and health professionals about ideas he had to create a COVID-safe environment for dancers that also gave them the most aesthetically pleasing results. Gunter said they had dancers in each number come to the recording locations at different times, with time allotted between each group for disinfecting, so that they did not have too many people gathered together at any given time.
Even the casting for the production reflects the COVID-19 safety measures the dance company is following as characters needing to dance closely with one another were kept within households. Gunter said they were lucky to have two very strong dancers who are siblings, Jenova Williams and Marius Williams, Jr., who they could cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Because the two live together in the same household, they were able to film their dance together mask-less and with the “pas de deux” partnering that makes the piece so powerful.
“Most Nutcrackers were canceled this year but for the few that are doing a Nutcracker this year were unable to do the traditional pas de deux,” Gunter said.
In another example, when Wesley Wilhelmi was chosen to dance the role of the Nutcracker/Nephew, his father, Paul Wilhelmi, was asked to dance the role of the Rat King. Gunter explained that Centralia Ballet Academy’s version of “The Nutcracker” includes an epic, “WWE-style,” choreographed fight scene between the two. Casting family members in the role meant the extremely physical fight scene could stay in the show.
Other than those dancing with members of their own household, Gunter said all other dancers were masked for the performance. But they even worked to find a way to make the masks fit seamlessly into the costuming. For example, Gunter said an expert on Middle Eastern dance worked with their dancers for the Arabian scene and helped them to design face masks for the dancers that look like traditional veils worn by Middle Eastern dancers. And in the beginning party scene for the show, they created a storyline that the butler keeps trying to light the fire but Clara’s, danced by Jamiah Wood, naughty brother Fritz, danced by Cael Best, keeps blowing it out. So, when the guests come into the family’s home, they are cold, and keep their scarves over the noses to keep warm, hiding the face masks for the dancers.
“I wanted it to look like any other Nutcracker, not one made in the time of COVID, and I think we did a pretty good job,” Gunter said. “I’m excited for the community to see it.”
The Centralia Ballet Academy’s recording of “The Nutcracker” has been submitted to Amazon to be streamed on Prime Video. Gunter said they are awaiting the vetting process that goes into every video submitted to Amazon. If all goes according to plan, the piece should be available to rent and purchase soon. But on Dec. 20, they have scheduled “Nutcracker Night” where the show will stream for free for one day only. Gunter said they chose the date because it is the Sunday night before Christmas and because even dancers who perform in “The Nutcracker” in their communities are usually done performing by that evening, so could watch the performance.
“What’s really important is we want it to be accessible to everybody,” Gunter said. “We love the idea of families getting together and watching it together.”
Gunter said his first request for anyone planning on taking part in the free streaming of “The Nutcracker” for free on Dec. 20 has nothing to do with his dancers, but everything to do with the community they call home.
“First, order a big take-out meal from a local restaurant to enjoy with the show,” he said. “Our local restaurants have suffered this year and they really need it.”
If you’d like to further enhance your Nutcracker Night, gift baskets will be available for sale on the Nutcracker Night web site that feature treats for the whole family to enjoy. On the Nutcracker Night website, audiences can reach not only information on how to stream the performance but also stories, crafts, a boutique, a blog and information on virtual field trips that will be offered soon.
“We just want to make it a fun and interactive experience for the family,” Gunter said.
Gunter said he is hopeful that “The Nutcracker” will be able to be held as a live performance next year. Regardless, he sees Nutcracker Night as being a tradition that continues and streaming “The Nutcracker” to continue to be an option for those who want it. If they sell enough copies and rentals of “The Nutcracker” this year, Gunter said they hope to be able to produce a version of his own book “Fritz the Rat King: A Nutcracker Adventure Story” next year. And he would like to see the Nutcracker Night website become a hub where different small ballet companies like themselves can produce a recorded version of their own “The Nutcracker” to be featured on the site.
“Of course, everybody knows New York City Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet but we want to shine the light on some smaller studios that are out there performing great ballet, too,” Gunter said.