In the wake of a meeting with the Allen County Board of Health, the plan for Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual tradition of staging The Nutcracker became somewhat fuzzy.
Karen Gibbons-Brown, artistic director for Fort Wayne Ballet shared her thoughts the day after the meeting.
“Things are changing rapidly,” she said. “But whatever happens, we are committed to bringing The Nutcracker to the community in some fashion.
“It’s such an important part of the tradition, and we are looking at ways that we can work through some of the challenges. We just don’t know how that’s going to work yet.”
Unfortunately within a couple days, the plan became clear — and disappointing.
Live performances of The Nutcracker are not feasible at this time due to the very limited capacity allowed, one which is almost equal to the number of dancers and staff required to stage the production.
The plan is now for virtual performances, similar to what was done for the spring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
While certainly not an ideal situation, one advantage is that those who are not yet comfortable with attending public events can now enjoy the ballet’s stellar production from the safety and comfort of their own home.
Even before the recent adjustments, Gibbons-Brown shared earlier in November how the process for the production — from auditions to rehearsals — had already provided some unique challenges, adjustments that took them outside the norms they’ve experienced for decades of this annual production.
“The auditions were different this year, and we used multiple studios,” Gibbons-Brown said. “We only auditioned five at a time, distancing them, and wearing masks. We had about 100 kids audition which was more than we expected right now, so we had to figure out how to do it safely.”
Part of the performance process has been casting two different groups, allowing for those in more strenuous roles to alternate with other dancers on those two performance days.
This year, that gave way to a process which would only have one group in the theater at any time which provides time to thoroughly clean the costumes from one cast to another.
Care has to be taken with props as well, and the cast was someone pared down from previous years.
Protecting the community
One element missing this year is something that is near and dear to Gibbons-Brown as a part of the Nutcracker tradition.
“We usually have members of the community involved in the party scene, but we can’t bring in members of the community this year to the same extent that we normally do, both for the protection of the dancers and for the community members.”
Jim Schmidt will return for his 25th turn as Drosselmeyer, and Kent Bixler returns as the father. But many of the usual performers from the community will be absent this year. Even the roles filled by children have been provided understudies in case of illness.
“I’m sad that we won’t have that element this year,” Gibbons-Brown said. “I think it’s so important to have that buy-in so that the dancers and the members of the community who support us all year can work together. We are this community’s ballet company, and our production is in its 65th year.”
The Fort Wayne Ballet production of The Nutcracker is not only held in high regard in Fort Wayne and throughout Indiana, but it was even heralded by The Wall Street Journal as one of the top five productions of the show in the country.
Fresh yet classic
Keeping that level of excellence means constantly refreshing the formula while maintaining the traditions. In the last decade alone, Gibbons-Brown has brought new elements to the show, many of which are now part of the show’s enduring charm.
The snow that falls on the audience at the end of Act I always brings gasps from children and adults alike, and the inclusion of the “Muttcrackers” — adoptable dogs which participate in the party scene — has led to more than 100 dogs finding forever homes through a partnership with Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control.
Gibbons-Brown also looks to her creative team, including costume mistress Nan Possemato, to keep the look of the show fresh.
This year, Gibbons-Brown went outside the local team to bring new masks to the production. Eric Borenstein of Behind the Mask in Sommerville, Mass., was tapped to provide new elements to the classic show. Having provided masks for productions around the world, Borenstein was more than up for the task.
“He is an amazing mask maker,” Gibbons-Brown said. “He’s making new masks for many of the dancers and a new head for our Nutcracker. We always try to add something new to each production. This year, out of necessity, we have changed some of the choreography, too.”
The virtual video offering of the full version of The Nutcracker will be available in lieu of the live performance for previous ticket holders or for those supporting the organization with a donation of $50 or more.
Those donations can be made at fortwayneballet.org/donate.
Gibbons-Brown, while adapting to these extraordinary times, promises the dancers have worked hard and will provide another delightful holiday sensation.
“We are grateful to be the longest standing Nutcracker in our community,” she said. “And we are doubly grateful that we’ve been able to offer the community our dancers in the last few months. We want to provide it safely and will follow all of the protocols, but we won’t disappoint you, that’s for sure.”
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