‘The Nutcracker’: Sugarplum Dreams Under the Palm Trees in Miami
Lourdes Lopez, the artistic director of Miami City Ballet, is facing a new unknown. It’s a fear she’s never had. And it stresses her out.
“I just hope that at the last minute that they don’t close us down,” she said.
It’s no surprise that she has been wondering what it was like to run a ballet company in London during the Blitz. Against the odds during a pandemic, the company will present its reimagined production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” this month. Normally, Ms. Lopez said, her worries would fall more along the lines of, are the costumes going to be ready? Will an injured dancer recover in time to perform?
Now she is thinking about the backstage choreography of the crew and the dancers, since masks will not be worn during performances. “We have to make sure that when you’re exiting, no one is in that wing,” she said. “We have to figure out what we do with masks up until the last moment.”
“The Nutcracker” is more than a beloved holiday staple. For ballet companies across the country it’s a financial lifeline that supports the repertory for the rest of the year. This year, most productions have been relegated to virtual offerings, but Miami has something that some other cities, like New York, don’t: warm weather at holiday time.
The company’s production of Balanchine’s 1954 classic already pops with an abundance of color and heat. In 2017, it was given a vibrant Miami makeover, with designs and costumes by Isabel and Ruben Toledo and projections by Wendall K. Harrington. (Details include iridescent pastel dots on the Sugarplum Fairy’s tutu and a pineapple throne.)
And now it’s being overhauled again for the outdoors. Retitled “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the Park,” the ballet is being performed outside at Downtown Doral Park and features a combination of live action and new digital animation by Ms. Harrington, as well as new illustrations by Mr. Toledo. (Isabel, the fashion designer, who created its array of fanciful costumes, died last year.)
Miami City Ballet’s production is, Ms. Lopez noted, a true community effort. “Think of a hospital, a government agency, a real estate investment firm and a ballet company somehow coming to the table,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I ever, ever have thought of that.”
She hadn’t planned for this to happen. “This is not because I’m a visionary,” Ms. Lopez said. “It was just opportunities that arose and it came, honestly, from a ‘What can we do?’ It’s so dismal out there and it’s our responsibility — or mine — to to figure out something for the dancers and for the audience.”
It was Ms. Harrington who, over the summer, suggested to Ms. Lopez that the company should present a “Nutcracker.” Her idea was to beam it onto electronic billboards in Florida. “It would be for the people because I’m an old hippie,” Ms. Harrington said. “Needless to say, that was not possible because it would have been free.”
But she persisted. “I mean, I’m not like the hugest fan of ‘The Nutcracker’ in all the world, but I do know of its healing effects,” she said. “And right now we need a little Christmas, as the song goes.”
When she heard they could make use of an outdoor space, things began to fall into place. The park in Doral, where the ballet is being staged, is part of a mixed-use development by Codina Partners, whose chief executive officer is Ana-Marie Codina Barlick, a former president of Miami City Ballet’s board. “We have a large residential component,” Ms. Codina Barlick said. “So literally we’re giving them a unit for washing tights with a washer and dryer in between performances.”
The company has teamed up with a health care partner, Baptist Health South Florida, and abides by a stringent testing and safety protocol. Masked audience members will be seated in socially distanced pods that accommodate up to four people each. The intermission has been cut to five minutes — more of a pause — and the idea is to get people in and out efficiently.
Ms. Lopez credited early actions that the Miami City Ballet organization took when the coronavirus forced a shutdown in March. It quickly formed a Covid task force, which led to engaging an industrial hygienist who examined the studios for safety.
“They handed us an 82-page report,” she said. “The beauty of this is that they were able to determine how many dancers or students or individuals could safely train in any studio or safely be in any office based on the measurements of the room and the calculations from the airflow.”
Ms. Lopez was able to hold the school’s summer course — an indoor, in-person program for 100 students — for five weeks in July. “We were biting our nails because Florida in July was a red-hot state,” she said. “And we didn’t have one single case in those five weeks. We sent the staff home. You couldn’t come into the building if you weren’t part of the school or faculty.
“And so there was a real sense that we could do this, that we knew how to do it safely in the building. That’s really how it started.”
When Downtown Doral Park became available, Ms. Harrington refocused her thinking. The new idea was to recreate the ballet using additional projections to make up for fewer dancers onstage. Children’s roles — normally prominent in Act 1 — have been substantially scaled back; along with Marie and the Prince, Act 2 features eight children in “Hoops, or the Candy Cane,” variation; and eight polichinelles, who emerge from underneath Mother Ginger’s skirt.
“I had to look through the ballet and figure out how the storytelling can continue without the numbers of people that you would want in the party scene and the battle scene and to try to glue it all together,” Ms. Harrington said. “I’ve been taking what was scenery and building them into projections.”
One big change is an Act 2 overture in place of the young children who usually play Angels. For it, she created a journey from the snow scene that ends Act 1 to the beach, “because it’s Miami,” Ms. Harrington said. “I wanted to do this for the show anyway because I’m distracted by Act 2. I’m a theater person. I’m always trying to connect the dots.”
She was always baffled by the abrupt change in setting, from the Act 1 snow scene to Act 2’s tropical Land of the Sweets. “It was snowy and now there’s a pineapple onstage,” she said. “How did they get there? I’m confused! Look, it’s also the ‘Nutcracker’ — it’s very 19th century in its style. And we did update it with Ruben and Isabel’s beautiful designs. So it was within my grasp to fill in the gaps.”
For this outdoor version, Mr. Toledo “built a few new frames,” she said. “It’s a little trippy. Ruben’s made a beautiful watercolor beach.”
In his imagery, Mr. Toledo said, Marie and the Prince “float down South on a flock of migrating birds who form a magical spinning spiral vortex tunnel, which morphs into angels, orchids, tropical fruits, dolphins” and more before, he added, “delivering us onto the soft, sandy Miami Beach front.”
To get the dancers performance ready, rehearsals took place in morning and afternoon blocks; for safety, the company of 50 was divided in two. But before anything started, Ms. Lopez proposed the idea to the dancers, telling them, she said: “‘I can’t do this unless I have buy-in from all of you, because we are all responsible for one another. So think about it.’ But they — and dancers everywhere — understand that time is not their friend.”
That is not lost on the principal Katia Carranza, who will be dancing the Sugarplum Fairy. The pandemic has given her a new sense of gratitude for her job. “We appreciate it triple to be in the studios and to rehearse and have these experiences,” she said. “I know maybe we feel that we lost a year of dancing, but I try to take it like I learned other things. I have the opportunity to teach online. I have the opportunity to be with myself. We need to see it that way.”
Of course, shifts in thinking are necessary at the moment. Ms. Lopez said she had no idea what Balanchine, for whom she danced at New York City Ballet, would think about her outdoor version of his classic work. “I would hope that he would say, ‘Good for you: You’re giving your dancers some hope, you’re bringing some hope to people in during Christmas, you’re doing it as safely as you possibly can.’”
But it’s Ms. Toledo who is really on her mind. Last December, Ms. Lopez attended a memorial for her in New York; the program was tied with a piece of red string. Ms. Lopez kept it in her office. “When this ‘Nutcracker’ happened, I opened the door and a few papers flew out in my office and one of them was that with the red string,” she said. “I thought to myself, I just need something of hers, and so I have that red string wrapped around my wrist. Honestly, the idea to be able to do this for her is another driving force for me, more than Balanchine.”
It’s clear that this is more than just another show. Ms. Harrington, who lives in Washingtonville, N.Y., is canceling her Christmas plans with her family; she won’t have enough time to quarantine after traveling to Miami.
Still, since it was her idea in the first place, she said she’s fine with “taking one for the team.” And as she see it, dance is the body.
“It’s being in the room with it,” she said. “So that’s why I felt like this could be a thrill. I hope I’m right. I believe in theater and art like other people believe in God, and I just need this to happen. I didn’t care if I did it. I just needed it to happen.”