Founded by Marnell Himes-Ushijima and located in Huntington Beach, CA., Ballet Etudes is the resident youth ballet company of the Huntington Academy of Dance. It has among its repertoire such classic ballets as Cappélia, Candyland, Yellow Brick Road, Alice in Wonderland and, of course, The Nutcracker. Because of the restrictions caused by the Covid pandemic, on Saturday, December 12, 2020 the company premiered its film version of the iconic holiday ballet appropriately reimagined as The Nutcracker, A Pandemic Tale. Filmed at the Rose Center Theater, this was Ballet Etudes 24th production of the show.

In the company’s program, new board president, Stephanie Aksdal writes: “I could not be prouder of the Ballet Etudes Board of Directors and the Artistic Directors, who spent countless hours making lemonade out of some pretty sour lemons. The dancers jumped right in, albeit with facemask, and embraced the direction of the show.”

The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet that premiered in 1892 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the libretto was based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Over the years this ballet has been restaged by every major ballet company in the world, as well as local ballet companies such as Long Beach Ballet and Ballet Etudes. The work also has been reimagined by other well-known choreographers. In 1991, Mark Morris premiered his The Hard Nut, and right here in Los Angeles Debbie Allen premiered her The Chocolate Nutcracker in 2009. Musicians such as guitarist Tim Sparks and composer Duke Ellington have albums covering The Nutcracker Suite. For many ballet companies, it is a huge source of annual income because the ballet is so popular with families.

Ballet Etudes - "The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale" - Isabella Graves as Clara - Photo by Collyns Photography

Ballet Etudes – “The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale” – Isabella Graves as Clara – Photo by Collyns Photography

The Nutcracker, A Pandemic Tale includes original choreography by Marnell Himes-Ushijima, Gary Joyce, Muriel Joyce, Judith Hawkesworth, and Marie de la Palmer, with additional choreography and restaging by Sasha Robertson, Bridgette Burnett, Madison Simons, Megan Pulfer, Jessica Austin, Melody Plastow, and Kennedi Simons.  The story has been amended to find young Clara (Isabella Graves) ill with an extremely contagious Russian flu and the family’s annual Christmas Eve party forced to be cancelled.

The curtain goes up on Act I with Clara confined to her bed and wearing a mask which has become all too familiar to us all. There is a small, decorated Christmas tree surrounded by presents upstage center and an armoire stage left. It is a somewhat stark, but beautiful set and painted backdrop. Clara is soon joined by the family maid (Lyla Davey); her mother, Mrs. Stahlbaum (Jeslyn Russell); and a truly mischievous and taunting younger brother, Fritz (Mia Yang). A fever soon overtakes Clara, causing her to fall asleep and her dream fantasies begin.

The gift bearing magician Herr Drosselmeyer is welcomed into Clara’s home. Fritz is given a trumpet and Clara a Nutcracker doll. Not satisfied with his gift, Fritz grabs Clara’s Nutcracker and smashes it into pieces. Herr Drosselmeyer quickly repairs it with a wave of his ornate cape, which is the first of three times that he comes to the rescue of the enchanted doll. The Nutcracker Soldier/Prince is not a very good swordsman and continuously gets slain. It is also the first of many special effects that occur throughout the film. Herr Drosselmeyer tosses his cape to the maid and it vanishes. He plays hat  tricks on Fritz and through magic, he brings to life the Harlequin, Columbine and Soldier dolls.

Ballet Etudes - The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale - Isabella Graves as Clara, Ian Roman as the Nutcracker Ballet Etudes - The Nutcracker - Kristin Hagen as the Arabian Lead - Photo by Collyns Photograph Ballet Etudes - The Nutcracker - Ian Roman as The Prince - Photo by Collyns Photography Ballet Etudes - The Nutcracker - Sugar Plum, Lyla Davey - Photo by Collyns Photograph
Ballet Etudes - The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale - Isabella Graves as Clara, Ian Roman as the Nutcracker - Photo by Collyns Photography

Via sometimes very rough editing, Clara’s teenage friends appear, dance and then suddenly vanish. Clara moves back and forth between feverish reality and fantasy. One of this ballet’s most memorable stage treats, the growing Christmas tree, is missing, however. Instead, the tree, the presents and the Nutcracker doll instantly become larger by the flick of an editor’s splicing tool. Not as thrilling! Another distraction was very frequent “pixilation” of the video. By replaying segments of the video, the same faults appeared in the same sequences, an indication of either a problem in the hosting of the video, or some other issue introduced during upload to the host or production.

Some of the memorable scenes from other productions are somewhat watered down in Ballet Etudes’ version. The Battle between the Rat King (Elise Conlay), the Nutcracker’s Lieutenant (Haylee Vujicic) and the soldiers (Natalie Brill, Noelani Daro, Audrey Schneider, and Emalynn Wood) is one example. Though wonderfully performed, the choreography and staging was missing the expected action and drama. Also odd, was the Pas de Deux between Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Lyla Davey), which, if I am not mistaken, is not usually performed by Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky’s music is powerful and dramatic for this pas de deux. As passages in the music swelled, I could actually visualize the lifts that I expected to be there in the dance. The choreography for this duet was at best, anti-climactic, appearing as a last minute filler.

Also reduced was the lead role of the Nutcracker Prince. When he danced, Ian Roman appeared strong and well suited for the role, but the choreography that he was given was primarily pantomime laced with a few well executed movement phrases. Perhaps time and the actual pandemic were factors in this choreographic decision.

Ballet Etudes - "The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale" - Grace Ng as the Dew Drop - Photo by Collyns Photography

Ballet Etudes – “The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale” – Grace Ng as the Dew Drop – Photo by Collyns Photography

The scenes that stood out were Kingdom of Snow, Gingerbread, Waltz of the Flowers, and Chocolate with special mention going out to Jeslyn Russell for her stunning performances. Guest artist Edward Johnson was wonderful as Herr Drosselmeyer, Graves made a charming Clara performing with wonderful sensitivity and control. Yang was a terrific Fritz, Sophia Cardenas a perfect Columbine Doll, and Kristin Hagen shone as the Arabian Princess.

Even with its production flaws, this young company is exciting to watch and the training at the academy is obviously excellent. The dancers’ performance was almost flawless and every one, including the tiniest and youngest children, were beautifully rehearsed. Kudos to Rehearsal Assistants Melody Plastow, Kennedi Simons, and Jessica Austin.

The cast of The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale is too large for me to mention each and everyone by name, but they all did an excellent job during these truly unprecedented times. Special praise goes out to the Artist Director Sasha Robertson and Assistant Directors Bridgette Burnett and Madison Simons, to Megan Pulfer (Film Producer and Director of Photography), Kimberly McEachern (Managing Director),  (Lighting Designer), Costume Coordinator Jen Russell (Costume Coordinator), and everyone else involved who made this film production possible.

To visit the Ballet Etudes website, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Ballet Etudes – “The Nutcracker, a Pandemic Tale” – Rat King, Elise Conlay and Ian Roman, Prince – Side Rat Squires, Alison Conlay and Dilan Le – Photo by Collyns Photography