MILWAUKEE— There’s a big Christmas party down the street. All of the neighbors are invited, and lots of family from all over. There is sure to be music and dancing, and it’s guaranteed to snow later.
You’re even invited.
Don’t worry, no COVID rules are being broken. It’s actually all happening from the comfort of your screen.
This holiday, you can cozy up on the couch and enjoy Milwaukee Ballet’s newest twist on a Christmas classic, “The Nutcracker: Short and Sweet.” It’s a reimagined, shortened version of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” being offered for rental streaming through Dec. 27. Once you submit a $25 payment, your entire household can watch the 40-minute on-demand performance for 72 hours.
The at-home holiday ballet has been in the works for months. Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director, Michael Pink started working on this adaptation in the spring. He had already been planning to spruce up the traditional production, but it quickly became clear this year’s show necessitated a complete overhaul.
“You do what everybody does: You run every possible scenario. You panic; you don’t panic; you resign to it,” Pink says. “You run all of the emotional responses, and then you start to go, ‘Okay, what is possible? Let’s focus on what we can do and not what we can’t do.’”
And what they could do, ended up being creating holiday magic in a world where many thought doing just that would be impossible.
With a lot of flexibility, determination, and some monetary help for things like cameras from the United Performing Arts Fund Kasey’s Fund, Pink and his company pulled it off.
Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers have been able to rehearse the adaptation for months. Masks are on, at all times: Even during the show. That’s just one of the multiple precautions Milwaukee Ballet is taking. They started a health and safety committee, which includes three medical doctors. The committee works with the board of directors, to develop protocols. This includes limiting how many dancers can be together at one time. That made for smaller cast sizes, but this production is still an all-hands-on-deck performance.
There are two casts to choose from for streaming purposes, the “Sugar” and the “Spice” casts, which are listed on the site.
Annia Hidalgo, a leading artist with the company, dances the role of Clara in one performance, and portrays the Snow Queen in the other.
“It’s been like a dream come true after seven months not dancing, and just to bring a little joy to people and their families is super amazing. At the same time, they’re giving us the pleasure of… being there,” she says. “This is why we keep going. It’s important to keep the spirit of the holidays alive.”
Even though this is a situation Hidalgo never imagined she’d be in, she says it’s well worth it.
She starts every day with a two-hour ballet class at 9:30 a.m. before heading to rehearsals. That mask stays on the whole time. While it was definitely an adjustment, she says it’s actually impressive how Pink has been able to tell a story so well without anyone showing their entire face to the audience.
Drosselmeyer, one of the characters in the ballet, actually narrates the ballet. While it’s something that most dancers, and audiences, aren’t accustomed to, Pink says it’s been well received.
“We’ve got Drosselmeyer actually telling the story, so he’s talking to the audience… I’ve already had a couple of people who have seen it go, ‘Oh, I get it now,’… and so it fills in a few of the gaps,” he says. It’s been a good fit for “all those dads and family members who love ‘The Nutcracker’ but perhaps sometimes don’t want to sit for two hours.”
In fact, he’s considering using this ballet, which focuses on Drosselmeyer, Clara and Fritz’s adventures, with Milwaukee Ballet II dancers or for outreach programs.
“Most of the ingredients were already there… I just had to bring it together,” he says. “It’s the perfect length… It could have a life beyond this moment in time.”
Hidalgo puts it simply: “It’s amazing.”
While most of the public can only experience the magic from home, a handful of people have gotten to see it in person. In a 190-seat theater at the Baumgartner Center for dance, Milwaukee Ballet dancers have been dancing the steps again and again. They’re giving in-person shows for 10 people at a time. Tickets are only available for families at Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, or those who are current subscribers. It’s the same show you can stream.
But, it keeps the dancers energized all season long.
Hidalgo says that prepping for each show varies based on what role she’s dancing. If she’s portraying the Snow Queen, she can be found backstage listening to the “Frozen II” soundtrack and running her number with the other Snowflakes. If she’s dancing the role of Clara, she tries to preserve her energy since she will practically be on stage moving in some capacity for the show’s entire duration.
She says having even just four people watch her dance and clap for her makes a world of difference. One of the major takeaways from “The Nutcracker: Short and Sweet” for Hidalgo is something many of us have learned over the course of 2020: “I miss people… I will never take [being on stage for an audience] for granted again,” she says. “You get more mature out of every situation in life. You grow; you grow as a person… I have found a lot of growth for sure.”
And with that newfound love for those watching, now from home, she has a Christmas wish for them.
“I hope they can take away the magic. Get inspired,” she says. “I want a little bit of hope for everyone who comes to see the show or who’s watching it online… I just want them to feel inspired and a little bit of hope that things are going to be better. No matter what, we are doing it… we’re making magic.”
And with that, Milwaukee’s own prima ballerina wants to remind everyone that anything is possible.
More information on streaming “The Nutcracker: Short and Sweet” is available here.