This year’s crop of ‘Nutcrackers’ require major pivots for local ballet companies

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Imagine being on stage during a professional ballet production of “The Nutcracker.”

Fantasy and reality would collide.

There would be scenes not visible from any theater seat, like the raised eyebrows of the Cavalier, as he lifts the Sugar Plum Fairy into the air, or the sweat glistening on the forehead of the Russian dancer as he demonstrates the athletic prowess of the exuberant trepak, or folk dance.

Instead of watching from a distance, one could see the defined musculature of the dancers responding to the complex demands of the music, and the rich hues of satin corsets, glistening tulle and jeweled bodices.

City Ballet choreographer Geoff Gonzalez, who is helping to present “A Masquerade Nutcracker” this month as both a streaming event and as a live, drive-in production at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, says that audiences will enjoy a “more immersive experience.”

“The idea behind everything we have been filming in digital format is to shoot it so that you would never be able to see it that way unless you were a dancer, live onstage,” says Gonzalez, who is known for his rendition of last year’s popular “Carmina Burana.”

“Watching ballet is usually frontal and two dimensional, so I used my gut instincts to show people a 360-degree format. It’s really exciting for me to have you see it from all perspectives and angles because there is so much more life in the movement and in the human touch. You are so close that you can feel that energy.”

City Ballet of San Diego, founded in 1993 by the husband-and-wife team of Steven and Elizabeth Wistrich, brings “A Masquerade Nutcracker” to the stage as part of the aptly named “Season Like No Other.”

It’s a family-run operation with daughter and principal ballerina Ariana Gonzalez playing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her husband, Geoff, assuming multiple roles, dancing the parts of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara’s dad, in addition to being resident choreographer and now, videographer.

Like every dance organization in San Diego, the pandemic has forced unexpected and often uncomfortable changes.

Everyone in “A Masquerade Nutcracker,” for example, wears a tailored mask that matches his or her costume, which is particularly demanding for dancers performing athletic movement.

But some challenges have opened the door for new perspectives and enhanced creativity — especially in the digital realm.

City Ballet invested in new technology and professional filmmaking equipment, and on its website, one can purchase tickets to view the season’s online dance productions through 2021.

Assisting with filming responsibilities is dancer and videographer Jaroslav Richters, who Gonzalez refers to as “his number one” when it comes to managing multiple camera shots.

Richters was born in the Czech Republic, trained in Prague, and in addition to filming video, he performs in “A Masquerade Nutcracker” as the Russian dancer and as Mother Ginger, the character on stilts wearing a giant skirt.

Filming dance allows for do-overs, an enticing option that doesn’t exist in live performance.

But Richters had to learn to limit the number of his own performance takes or face exhaustion.

“You are dancing for yourself with no feedback from an audience and we judge ourselves very harshly,” Richters says.

“Not every step is perfect, so we edit how we want it to look. At some point, you start to get tired, so you have to make yourself do it perfectly the first or second time.”

Though filming a performance has advantages, every professional dancer longs to perform in front of an audience again. Many have participated in “The Nutcracker” throughout their careers — it’s a holiday tradition that guarantees an audience and garners enough ticket sales to keep ballet schools and dance organizations solvent.

When CBF Productions approached City Ballet with the idea of staging “A Masquerade Nutcracker” as part of its Concerts in Your Car drive-in series at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, City Ballet considered the pros and cons.

“Negotiations went on for a month,” says choreographer and City Ballet co-founder Elizabeth Wistrich.

“It’s an entirely new experience, from beginning to the end. The concept is usually for rock concerts — it’s huge and so out of our comfort box.”

Instead of facing an audience at the opulent Spreckels Theatre, where City Ballet has performed accompanied by a live orchestra for decades, the company will dance outdoors, surrounded by a sea of more than 300 cars. Radios will be tuned to the familiar Tchaikovsky score and instead of Victorian-era sets, gigantic LED screens will display an enlarged version of the live production. To enhance social distancing, performers travel to the stage by golf cart. There’s no green room; quick changes happen under the stage.

And instead of applause, cars honk.

Still, it’s a chance to dance.

“There are a lot of adjustments we have to make, but we are well-equipped,” Wistrich says.

“We are always up for a challenge. Our organization lives by taking chances.”

City Ballet of San Diego

“Behind the Mask”: Streams at 6 p.m. Dec. 12. Free.

“A Masquerade Nutcracker”: Streams Dec. 18 through Jan. 3. $29-$99.

“The Nutcracker” live: 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 18. $99-$279. Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar. Tickets are only available online, in advance. Each ticket is valid for one car, the number of passengers must match the number of seatbelts.

More ‘Nutcrackers’

Inspire School of Ballet: Nutcracker Under the Stars (film of the 2019 performance) screens at 6 p.m. Dec. 8. $22. Cinema Under the Stars, 4040 Goldfinch, San Diego.

Hip Hop Nutcracker: The family-friendly contemporary dance spectacle streams Live and On Demand at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 and 2 p.m. Dec. 13. $25-$50.

San Diego Civic Youth Ballet: The “Nutcracker Project 2020”: Advanced students perform excerpts in Balboa Park. Two versions of the video with different casts will premiere at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 19. Streaming Dec. 19-Jan. 1. Access to view for 48 hours. $5.

Manna is a freelance writer.

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