Imagine: it’s late December.
Clouds cast a soft veil over the moonlight. Street lamps illuminate the last trailing flurries of the evening. Before heading inside, you kick off the snow that’s been stuck in the crevices of your boots. Once inside, you carefully place freshly-chopped wood in the fireplace, feel the warm embers on your frost-nipped toes, and breathe in the familiar scent of slow-burning oak. You finally settle into place with your family and face the entire bright-eyed cast of The Nutcracker waiting to perform in the comfort of your living room.
“How can this be?” you ask. Well, although this may sound out of the ordinary, the Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble has pulled together quite a treat for this December. In celebration of their 41st anniversary of The Nutcracker, Alison Frankel, Associate Artistic Director of the Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble and Coupé Theatre, teamed up with Marta Renzi, director of numerous festival-featured dance films, to piece together a viewing experience that evokes the wonder of a live performance—all through the convenient and safe vessel of your screen at home.
Despite the mandate to shut down theaters across the country and the world, the Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble figured out a way to rise above these circumstances and bring people together in a different way. I sat down with Alison on a step just outside the Nyack mansion set to discuss COVID protocol, creative process, and all things performance.
“Last year was the big 40th anniversary of our Nutcracker, and because of the pandemic, we knew we wouldn’t be able to perform in a theater with an audience this year…And suddenly, a thought came up: Well? Why don’t we do a movie version of it?” Alison exclaimed.
Although the idea seemed a simple solution to this new-age problem, it was anything but. “We decided to do it and held auditions the weekend after Labor Day,” continued, “but we wondered: would enough children audition? Would parents want to commit? How would we keep everybody safe during rehearsals?” With these questions in mind, Alison knew the exact professional to call upon. “I knew that Marta was the expert with movies and dance. So I called her, we met, and she happened to have a friend who had an empty mansion,” she chuckled. “We connected with the real estate agent and got the ball rolling for what became the perfect venue for our film version of The Nutcracker.” The first issue they tackled was establishing and maintaining proper COVID-19 protocol.
Alison stated, “Being protected was our number one priority. We ended up having about 120 children audition, assigned the roles, and began building the choreography.”
They established that all rehearsals would be done with masks on and that they would maintain as much social distancing as possible. Additionally, the usher committee that was once in charge of ticketing became the safety committee, keeping recordsof everyone’s temperatures and COVID test results. Everybody, including Head of Costumes Charlene Yan, Head of Backstage Emily Antione, and Head of Security Erika Fonseca had a hand in protecting the cast, crew, and parents. They also reduced the number of dancers in the space. “Instead of having sixteen flowers during the quarter ballet part, we cut it down to eight, adapting the choreography to make it work within our limits,” Alison explained, “which was actually very exciting.” This excitement grew further, as the team took these so-called pitfalls as artistic challenges. Generally, performing in a proscenium theater requires dancers to face forward. But with a three-dimensional mansion to work within, Alison and Marta strived to create the essence and drama of a proscenium with the dynamic space they had.
Alison stated, “That was really exciting, because I’ve done the last 20, 30 productions of The Nutcracker, and even though each year is different, this version still has the same theatrical drama as a proscenium theater, and then some.”
Additionally, Gene Meienhofer, an Emmy-nominated lighting director, was “exacting” and “meticulous” when it came to designing the scenes. The production even had their own “moonlight” shining in through a window, bringing realism to the already beautiful set. The set was also vitalized by personal belongings, lent and donated, by the volunteering parents.
“[They enhanced] the setting of the show with tables and chairs, lamps, rugs, vases, oil paintings, and glassware, bringing life to the once empty mansion,” Alison said with admiration. The best thing though was upon filming, when Alison got to see the children’s happy, smiling faces. “That is why we’re doing this,” she declared, “for these children who love to come and do this with us.
“It is an experience that we will never forget.”
Special thanks to Diane Frankel, Artistic Director, Julie Schwartz, Executive Producer, and Gil Giannini, Chairperson. To find out more information about how you can stream or purchase the DVD, visit rocklandyouthdanceensemble.org and their Facebook page. The film will be ready to view sometime between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. More details and opportunities to donate to offset the production costs will also be available on the Coupé Theatre Studio website, coupedance.com. You’ll be able to cherish this film for not only this holiday season, but for many to come. So fill up your fireplaces, boil some tea, and dust off the snow—for the Rockland Youth Dance Ensemble’s holiday magic is here to stay.
Samantha Finch is a graduate of Pace University with a MA in Media Communications and Journalism and a minor in Photography. She has been photographing across the Hudson Valley since 2007, telling the stories of the amazing residents and business owners of our Rivertowns.