In this the strangest of all seasons with routines disrupted everywhere, First Soloist Allison Miller found herself — along with other members of Houston Ballet — dealing with a holiday production differing in just about every way from her normal involvement in The Nutcracker.
"It's very strange to have a Nutcracker season where I don't know what's happening. We're used to such a routine. You know what to expect with 37 shows. This is totally flipped on its head," she said with a laugh in a phone interview.
"Stanton has just had such a great attitude about how to make it work. To keep us working, keep us putting new work out, managing all of these obstacles."
Instead of months of rehearsal room practice, her communications with Artistic Director Stanton Welch came via a Zoom meeting to discuss his vision of the role she would dance. Instead of dancing with other company members, she and all other dancers were filmed one at a time in the ballet's dance lab, with a camera operator, lighting professional and Welch, all in masks.
Editing magic was applied afterward to pull each dance sequence together in what will be virtual instead of a performance before a live audience.
The Nutcracker became instead Nutcracker Sweets: an hour-long mixed rep program with an abbreviated version of Welch’s choreographed The Nutcracker and new works for this holiday season. Miller will be dancing to "Jingle Bells," the Barbra Streisand version. Among the other songs is a new dance to Eartha Kitt's version of "Santa Baby."
The excerpt from The Nutcracker is taken from 2018 performance footage and features Yumiko Fukuda as Clara, Oliver Halkowich as Drosselmeyer, Mónica Gómez as The Sugar Plum Fairy and Luzemberg Santana as the Nutcracker Prince.
Although the company's dancers have had some experience with filmed productions during the 2020 restrictions, this effort took some getting used to, Miller said.
Welch would give them a phrase of choreography, maybe eight counts or so which they would practice several times to the music while wearing a mask. "He'd say 'OK time to take your mask off and let's film this bit,'" Miller said. "So we would film section by section." She said this was the first filmed project that they removed their masks for.
Without the constant practices and performances they are used to, none of the dancers have the stamina they usually have so Welch took that into consideration, she said.
"It's sort of like the beginning of creating choreography. But we were in the outfits and filming it and it was the final product at the same time," she said. "It was fun to have the opportunity to do something so different.
"It's more spur of the moment than ballet dancers are used to being. I think there will be some silly moments that got caught on camera after the step finished or in-between one thing and the next. We’re used to everything being so manicured that film is just a lot different."
Dancers had to learn to dance past where their final step might end. "You just can’t stop dancing because they need to edit it together. We're used to finishing a dance step and then you're done. Or you finish with a pose. You have to twist your brain and keep the character going. That was one of the challenges actually."
Miller acknowledged the Houston tradition of so many people coming to The Nutcracker every year. "It just isn't possible this year. It's heartbreaking for those people, itt's heartbreaking for us. Everybody behind the scenes at The Nutcracker. All the children normally in the show. So just that we get to put something out that's fun and creative, I think it's really, really special.
"We are so so lucky that people are supporting us still that we’re able to work. We're so fortunate for our patrons and donors and people sticking with us. I just think that this is going to be a nice little gift back to everybody for their support."
Nutcracker Sweets is scheduled for December 15 through January 8. For information and tickets, visit houstonballet.org. $35.
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