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Ballet Western Reserve creates a drive-in ‘Nutcracker’

Riley Wilson, center, performs a scene in Ballet Western Reserve's production "The Nutcracker." This year's production was recorded and will be shown as a drive-in performance this weekend at the Eastwood Field parking lot. (Submitted photo)

Most ballet companies perform “The Nutcracker” in December, and many of them have experimented with different ways to present the holiday classic — changing the setting or altering Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score.

A different kind of experimentation became a must in 2020.

Masked dancers from Ballet Western Reserve will appear on a movie screen instead of a stage this weekend as the dance company presents a drive-in version of the ballet that will be shown in the parking lot of Eastwood Field in Niles.

“The thing we’re really trying to push is keeping a holiday family tradition alive during a pandemic,” Executive Director Katie Merrill said. “You don’t have to throw 2020 in the bag because you can’t do what you normally do.”

When Cate Greyjoy was hired as the BWR’s new artistic director in July, they already realized the odds of a traditional “Nutcracker” presentation were unlikely.

Initially, they considered creating an online production, which many arts organizations have done due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they hired Advantage Video Productions to create it. Merrill said they realized if they were making a movie, they could show it like a movie with the audience socially distanced in the cars like a drive-in.

“I thought it was a terrific idea,” Artistic Director Cate Greyjoy said. “I want our entire community to look back on this production as what can be accomplished despite the odds.”

However, most existing drive-ins have gravel parking lots, which couldn’t be plowed if the snow-filled ballet was shown at a time when snow covered the ground. They looked for an alternative sites and approached the Cafaro Company about using the ballpark parking lot that is part of the Eastwood Mall complex.

“The Cafaro Foundation has been wonderful to us in the past,” she said. “They’ve always been a sponsor of ‘The Nutcracker’ and generously support Ballet Western Reserve. We reached out, and they were 100 percent on board from the get-go.”

A screen will be set up outside the ballpark on the third base side, and there will be room for about 200 cars at each of the performances, which are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday. There will be food trucks on site, and refreshments will be available.

Tickets are $45 per carload and are available online at balletwesternreserve.org/events/.

With the show not confined to a stage, they decided to open up the ballet, using a variety of locations in Trumbull and Mahoning counties as backdrops for the production, including Eastwood Mall, the Peter Allen Inn in Kinsman, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngstown, the lobbies of the DeYor Performing Arts Center and Stambaugh Auditorium, and the Packard Music Hall stage.

“I wanted to keep it very versatile as well as featuring local landmarks, but not so local that we only filmed in downtown Youngstown,” Greyjoy said. “I relied on Katie’s help to create this really beautiful ballet but also an introduction to our neck of the woods.”

Auditions for “The Nutcracker” were held in August as usual, but that was one of the only aspects of the process that was normal. Safety protocols were in place for rehearsals, and dancers had to learn to perform on camera instead of for a live audience. Instead of having until December to hone their performances, the recording process started in November and was completed before Thanksgiving.

On the plus side, dancers had multiple takes to get their movements just right, and filming was staggered for the most demanding numbers so the dancers would be fresh, especially considering the face masks could impact their breathing during such aerobic activity.

The adjustments were easier for the younger dancers, who had less experience, Greyjoy said, compared to the older students, who were accustomed to the rehearsal routine from past productions.

The artistic director had to make some changes as well.

“It certainly challenged me to consider the final product from multiple perspectives, to have a director’s eye every single moment of the ballet,” Greyjoy said. “Being able to choose where the audience focuses attention is a huge responsibility.”

Greyjoy said she is happy with the final product, from both an artistic and educational standpoint.

“I think this experience was the centerpiece for an unprecedented and unpredictable year. Challenging times are an opportunity for growth and being required to place yourself in unfamiliar circumstances, the dancers raised themselves to this challenge in a way we hoped they would, but they absolutely surpassed our expectations with their enthusiasm and tireless effort to create a product that will live beyond 2020.”

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