Even amid a pandemic, ‘The Nutcracker’ must go on

Hey, dance fans, how are you going to get your annual Nutcracker fix in year when theaters are dark?

How about watching a Nut movie in the comfort of your car at a drive-in? 

Or would you prefer watching the Sugar Plum Fairy and pals on your trusty computer at home?

In this crazy COVID time, you can do either one—or both.

Megan Maltos, a tap dancer and owner of Danswest Dance Studio, is the mastermind behind the drive-in option. With a lot of help from her friends, she put together Not Your Ordinary Nut, a 45-minute movie of her studio’s young dancers performing a decidedly contemporary version of the venerable Nutcracker. 

With the pandemic making it impossible to stage the annual production in a theater, a movie version was Maltos’ only choice. 

“The theaters were closed,” she says. “We had to get creative.” 

Likewise, over at Ballet Tucson, artistic associate Margaret Mullin realized that the company, the city’s only professional ballet troupe, couldn’t possibly deploy its usual large cast of pros and kids on stage.

She and Clayton Frey, a film editor who, like Mullin grew up dancing in the company’s school, put their heads together to think of an alternative. They came up with Virtual Nutcracker Storytime, an online combo of footage from the company’s extensive Nutcracker archive, and a narration by actor Joseph McGrath, who reads the story aloud while dressed as the magical character Drosselmeyer. 

“We have all that archival footage,” Mullin says. “And we thought it would be great to do a story time.” And Frey did the editing.

As a bonus, in this last weekend before Christmas, Ballet Tucson is giving Tucson a holiday gift: a bit of live Nutcracker dancing at the St. Phillip’s Plaza Farmers Market. The troupe’s marvelous Prima Ballerina Jenna Johnson will perform her acclaimed Sugar Plum Fairy solo this Sunday morning. Also on the program are holiday dances performed by the school’s advanced teens. 

The innovative projects Danswest and Ballet Tucson dreamed up are bright lights in this dark art season.

For years, Tucson has been a fanatic Nutcracker town, with multiple dance troupes offering at least eight different productions of the beloved ballet. Every Christmas season, crowds clamor to see the enchanting ballet about the young girl who travels to the land of sweets, and along the way sees a magical growing tree, mice at war and a Snow Queen dancing under snowflakes. First performed in 1892 in Russia, Nutcracker boasts a gorgeous Tchaikovsky score and choreography by Petipa and Ivanov.   

But this year, fans can’t cram togethers with fellow Nutcracker nuts to watch beautiful dancers leaping across stages in big theaters. (Ballet, with its duets and lifts, is in no way compatible with social distancing.) Nor will they listen to live symphonies playing the time-honored music. 

Most of the studios, including Tucson Regional Ballet and Dancing in the Streets, canceled their shows this year, with hopes of returning in December 2021. Ballet Rincon arranged small private performances for the dancers’ families. 

Danswest came up with the most elaborate solution. Operating some 30 years in Tucson, the studio started performing Moltos’ Not Your Ordinary Nut in 2018. The production more or less tells the familiar Nutcracker story. But the dancing is a riot of dance genres, from tap, jazz, hip-hop and, yes, ballet.  

 “We’re not a ‘ballet’ school,” says Maltos, the energetic director, and with so many studios staging traditional Nutcrackers, she saw no reason to create a pure ballet. “We stepped out of the box.”

So when the corona virus turned the world upside down, Maltos stepped out of the box again. By early summer, with the virus worsening, it was clear that the Nut show would not go on as usual this year.

Maltos was already teaching kids in hybrid classes, with a few coming to the studio to dance while and socially distancing, and others learning alone over Zoom in their living rooms. 

It occurred to her that filming a dance would be a little bit like teaching hybrid. She could film the dancers in small separate groups, at different times, and keep them safely apart. 

The movie version of Not Your Ordinary Nut was born. But Maltos still had a lot to learn.

“This was my first time in film!” she says. “I had a big learning curve.”

Luckily, Josh Harrison, whose daughter was a longtime student at Danswest, is an experienced moviemaker, and he volunteered to help.

“He’s a great teacher,” she says.

The production went at warp speed. Auditions were in August. The chosen 60 dancers had six weeks of rehearsal to learn the pieces, all of them choreographed by local talents, including Maltos.

“We do most of usual Nutcracker dances—Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic,” she says.

And when the rehearsals were finished, “we had three weekends of filming, seven days total,” she says. “Each dance took four hours for filming.”

The dancers performed for the camera in eight locations all over town, primarily outdoors, including in the Tucson Museum of Art patio and in the posh neighborhood west of El Mercado. The basement of the Danswest studio was turned into “a candy world” for the Land of Sweets dances. 

Meantime, Maltos was contacting composers who had written jazz and hip-hop versions of Tchaikovsky’s score. When they heard that it was a project for a kids’ dance performance,  “They just let us have it for free.” 

It turned out that Maltos loves filmmaking.

“I really liked the locations, the energy, the editing,” she says. Film creates “a whole other layer of choreography.” 

With the camera’s ability zoom in to do closeups and bring attention to specific moves, she says.  “I don’t know if I want to do it on the stage again!”

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