Despite the closure of the Mariner Theatre and large audience restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s annual Homer Nutcracker Ballet will continue for its 32nd year — but in a reimagined form.
Like so many artistic endeavors in the pandemic, the community ballet will happen virtually, as a short film to be broadcast soon on the Homer Nutcracker Production’s YouTube channel. Titled “The Petite Nutcracker Ballet: A Cinematic Adaptation,” in a first for the production, it also features music from Tchaikovky’s ballet performed by the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.
“I think it’s a wonderful element to have the live music and our local musicians included,” said Jennifer Norton, artistic director of the film.
Breezy Berryman did the principal choreography. Filmed by local cinematographer Bjørn Olson, “Petite Nutcracker” features the classic dances of the stage production that show the dream vision of Clara as she helps to rescue the Nutcracker Prince, imprisoned in the form of a nutcracker. Olson also filmed several small musical ensembles at Soldotna Lutheran Church. Other music was recorded individually by some musicians, and after sound engineering, edited into the film to make it appear as if the dancers are moving to live music.
“There will be times when you see the performers perform a certain track, but you’ll also see the orchestra,” Olson said. “… It’s a way to showcase we’re not just hearing the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra, but acknowledging their presence.”
Last summer as Berryman would have started dance camp at the start of the months-long project to make the Nutcracker happen, she, Norton and producer Ken Castner asked themselves if the pandemic would die down enough to have large-audience performances. That didn’t seem likely, Norton said.
“We said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do anything,” she said. “We anticipated things would be more difficult this time of year.”
The core production crew also realized people would be disappointed not to have an event that for decades thousands of dancers and supporting crew have made through community effort, and that has been a highlight of winter in Homer.
“We kept getting messages: ‘Is there going to be a Nutcracker this year? What is that going to look like’ or ‘I’m so sad there’s not going to be a Nutcracker,’” Norton said. “Breezy concocted this idea of a film that would be highlights of the Nutcracker.”
“That’s the story,” Castner said. “We weren’t going to have it at all. We’re having it by film.”
Then the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra came in. Scott Bartlett, a percussionist with the orchestra and the president of its board of directors, said the orchestra had already been planning to do some remote recording. That kind of pandemic innovation is becoming more common, as evidenced by the Homer Youth Orchestra’s video production, “Playing Together Apart.”
The orchestra also does an annual winter concert and had thought of doing that remotely.
“This seemed like a good pairing to collaborate in a virtual production,” Bartlett said.
For “Petite Nutcracker,” solo musicians recorded their parts listening to a scratch track — a recording of the music. Some also recorded on a set tempo to a click track — a recorded metronome beat. Bartlett and other sound engineers edited the various tracks together.
“There’s definitely a number of musicians who haven’t recorded like this before,” Bartlett said. “It was definitely an experience and a learning curve.”
Some ensembles, like a string quartet, performed together wearing masks and spread apart in large spaces like the Soldotna Lutheran Church. Bartlett said when being filmed, they played in separate rooms and had good ventilation. Olson said as a cinematographer he also wore a face mask, even when filming outdoors.
COVID-19 safety practices were applied throughout, including mask wearing for any groups indoors, spreading out in dances and taking temperatures. Some of the dances were filmed outdoors at the Wynn Nature Center, the Homer Boat House Pavillion and on the deck of the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Association Co-Op building. Some even did a photo shoot on the frozen Grewingk Glacier lake with Olson.
Castner said one concern he had was that the dancers would lose a year. For many who have risen through the ranks from mice in the party scene to principal dancers, the Nutcracker Ballet also is the culmination of their youth artistic experience. Immensely popular, he said thousands of children have been in the Nutcracker over its 32 productions.
“It just seems so unfair,” Castner said. “The Nutcracker experience is a year-to-year thing, especially for these young girls.”
Putting on a virtual show meant high school seniors like Aiyanna Cline could still have a final season in the pandemic year that has caused heartache for athletes, performers and others.
“I’m glad we did it, because although we didn’t get a normal season this year, it was nice to dance with all my dancer friends,” Cline said. “… It was a unique experience being filmed. … It was the real deal.”
Cline said when she first heard the Nutcracker might be canceled, she was pretty upset.
“Everything has been different,” she said. “It’s really disappointing, but I’m glad I was able to do something and had a chance to perform.”
Some veteran dancers who have graduated high school but who still live in Homer because on-campus housing at college got closed also participated in “Petite Nutcracker.” Ruby Allen started her first year at Columbia University in New York, but couldn’t attend live classes or live in the dorms. She joined the production after one dancer dropped out.
“I’m really glad they decided to do something, especially for the seniors,” she said.
“Petite Nutcracker” also got her back into dancing after she injured herself earlier this year and couldn’t dance for several months.
“It’s definitely, definitely great to get back into it,” she said.
Berryman said that because so much of dance is facial expression, she came up with the idea of putting clear masks on some of the dancers. Wina Wade, lead costumer, and her assistants came up with ways to incorporate masks into costumes, like on the King Rat head. Some dancers had tulle over their clear masks to soften the look.
“It was a challenge but also fun to think of creative ways to make the masks,” Berryman said. “I didn’t want it to look like everyone was wearing a COVID-cloth mask. I wanted to see their expressions.”
Since they couldn’t use the Mariner Theatre stage to film, the production company made a space in the Wildberry Building on Pioneer Avenue. Borrowing a dance floor from the Art Barn, they made sets and gathered props. Most of the dances were filmed in groups of two or three. One larger dance had the groups separated on the stage.
Olson was finishing up final edits earlier this week. The final product should be up soon on Homer Nutcracker Productions’ YouTube channel, with a trailer already up. They also will have links on their Facebook page. Norton and Berryman suggested people hold family watch parties.
“I’m excited to share some happiness and festivity with the community,” Berryman said. “It’s fun that it’s on YouTube. Kids who have grandmas in different states can watch it — something uplifting for the holidays.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Petite Nutcracker Ballet”
Story: Breezy Berryman and Jennifer Norton
Choreography: Breezy Berryman
Musical Direction: Kent Peterson
Sound Engineering: Scott Bartlett, Kent Peterson, Eric Simondsen
Sound Editing: Michael Halstead
Cinematography: Bjørn Olson
Costumes: Wina Wade, with assistants Robin Hilts Hoffman, Heidi Cox, Jill Berryman, Pepper Martushev, Jalee Martushev, Ellirene Miller
Set Construction: Breezy Berryman, Jennifer Norton, Bobby Copeland-McKinney, Michael McKinney, Syd Paulino, Jill Berryman, Laura Norton.
Additional Choreography: Rhoslyn Anderson, Jill Berryman, Kathy Brennan, Jennifer Norton
Producer: Ken Castner
Teen Dancers: Bryson Brewer-Dell, Aiyana Cline, Lauren Harris, Alectra Miller, Alexis Miller, Hannah Stonorov and Ireland Styvar
Young Snowflakes: Grayce Geagel and Mary Brewer-Dell
Young Clara: Swift Blackstock
Adult Dancers: Ruby Allen, Rhoslyn Anderson, Breezy Berryman, Kathy Brennan and Emerald Miller
Drosselmeyer: Aaron Walbrecher
String Ensemble: Sue Biggs, Jack Will, Ida Pearson, Stephen Pearson, Mary Broderick
Soldotna Brass Ensemble: Kent Peterson, Frances Jureck, Emily Theim, Mark Jurek, Cole Watkins
Homer Brass Ensemble: Eric Simondsen, Mary Ferris, Larry Dunn
Flute Choir: Virginia Cuffe, Mi’shell French, Wendy Bales, Heather Callum
Percussion Ensemble: Steve Alvarez, Matthew Anderson, Scott Bartlett, Corliss Kimmel
Advertising: Jody Mastey
Volunteer Coordinator: Kiirsten Styvar
Sponsors: Subway, Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware, South Peninsula Hospital, Moore & Moore Services, Halibut Cove Live, Two Sisters Bakery, the UPS Store
Special thanks to Mako’s Water Taxi, Homer High School Mariner Theatre, Kachemak Shellfish Growers, Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies: Wynn Nature Center, The Art Barn, Pier One Theatre, Joy Steward and Stu Schmutzler, Feral Aerial, The Boathouse