Reel deal: Inside Ballet Vero’s filming of ‘Nutcracker’

[Photo: Kaila Jones]

When the coronavirus put a halt to in-person productions, Ballet Vero Beach found a way to not just think outside the box, but outside the theater – filming and offering free viewings of a condensed version of their original holiday production, “Nutcracker on the Indian River.”

A local take on the famed Nutcracker, this ballet takes place in 1919. It follows young Marie Stahlbaum on a trip to Vero Beach to spend the holidays with her Uncle Drosselmeyer and is replete with the flora and fauna of the Indian River Lagoon.

Adam Schnell, artistic director/CEO of Ballet Vero Beach, says the filming concept began forming when the impossibility of large assemblages of dancers and audiences became clear.

Schnell says he spoke to his filmmaker, Lance Glenn, who has filmed numerous BVB rehearsal footages and shots, saying, “Let’s figure it out.”

“He’s been around dance so long that even though he’s not a dancer, he has such an eye for bringing out what choreographers want and how dancers want to be filmed,” says Schnell. He adds that in April, when they released their season finale on film, they were already on a trajectory to do more of the same.

His next call was to Ken Grudens, executive director of the Indian River Land Trust, which has been a partner since the conceptualization of Nutcracker on the Indian River.

“We always wanted to highlight the fragility of the lagoon; that’s where it takes place,” says Schnell. He recalls saying to Ken, “This is going to sound crazy, but I want to do it as a film outside, and I want to offer it to the whole community for free. Are you in?”

Without missing a beat, Grudens replied, “Absolutely.”

After explaining that they would a need property with a large enough clearing to set up a dance floor and space for their camera crew, Grudens and his staff determined that the newly acquired Hoffmann property would fit the bill.

“He took me out there and what I love about that property is we could shoot from all sides. So, then the wheels started turning,” says Schnell. Grudens suggested the Oyster Bar Marsh Conservation Area and the Toni Robinson Waterfront Trail as options for additional scenes.

“So that all came together very quickly with Ken. They were incredibly generous and basically split the cost of improving the Hoffmann property – mowing and leveling and all that sort of stuff – because they saw the potential to be able to promote what the Land Trust is doing.”

After discussions with Linda Downey, BVB board chair, and Kelly Ward, a founding board member, about a place to represent Marie’s home, Ward contacted the Indian River County Historical Society about using the Hallstrom House, the majestic home built in 1909 by Swedish immigrant Axel Hallstrom.

“I thought with the pandemic, there is no way they’re going to let us in there. Just every step of the way I thought, it’s a dream but this is not going to happen.”

That part of the dream came true when Historical Society board member Al Smith said yes.

“So, we had our locations and then really, from there, I knew I wanted it to be free. I just thought that it could be one of the very few bright spots in this pandemic,” says Schnell. “I said, our community needs this. We need to be able to celebrate how amazing our community is, how resilient we are, how beautiful it is – and I want it to be for free.”

After some internal numbers crunching, they set a modest goal and instituted a Nutcracker Partners Campaign, asking donors to give $1,000 to be credited in the film, and to help ensure Ballet Vero Beach would not only survive the pandemic but thrive.

“People got it, people understood that they were basically giving us $1,000 to make magic and to be able to offer that magic for free,” said Schnell. The campaign more than doubled their goal.

TV 30, a local fledgling broadcast station, donated three showings, and they knew they could air the production on the BVB website, but Schnell wanted to “think bigger.”

“PBS has always been a childhood dream of mine; it used to be the only place to see the arts on television,” says Schnell. “I grew up thinking that it was the be all and end all.”

He approached the Cornelia T. Bailey Foundation, which had provided a grant toward their student matinee program, and they made a connection with South Florida PBS, who said they were interested.

“This had to have been late July, early August, and I wasn’t planning on filming until November, because that’s when it gets cool and stops raining around here in a typical year,” Schnell recalls.

When PBS said they needed the final cut by mid-October, everything was thrown into high gear.

“It just exploded with this goal of possibly getting on PBS,” says Schnell, still amazed that despite a few hiccups they were able to get it done so quickly.

Emily Luongo, assistant technical director at Riverside Theatre, constructed a 40-foot-square sprung floor for the dancers, which he says was made by made by making plywood pallets with a hardboard cover that was painted to blend in with the surroundings.

Luongo built and placed the floor on the Hoffmann property Thursday and Friday, anticipating the start of filming on Monday.

“She went out there and she’s sending me pics and it looks great,” Schnell recalls. His excitement turned to dread when torrential rains Saturday turned the entire area beneath the floor into a lake.

“I mean, if you had told me it was the great flood, I would have believed it. It wasn’t floating, because of the way we placed it, but the water had gone under the tarp and sucked into the hardboard cover and completely warped it,” says Schnell. “She and I spent all Sunday, between the rainstorms, pulling off the hardboard cover and trying to paint the plywood, so at least it looked like something.”

Fortunately, Monday was sunny, and they were able to film everything in two and a half days.

“The clouds parted and by the end of that week, we had a rough cut. It was everything we thought we wanted it to be,” says Schnell.

The film is a half-hour condensed version of the production, which PBS recommended. It includes a small portion of the first act to set things up, and all the second act dances except the Waltz of the Flowers (too many dancers to keep everyone safe). They even made a version, with writing on props in Spanish.

The cast included 16 professional dancers: Camilo Rodriguez, BVB ballet master, resident professionals Anders Southerland and Katherine Eppink, and 13 from their sister company, Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami. Gina Marie Saxton returned as a guest artist to play Marie, and Eva Guerra, daughter of the artistic director at Dimensions, returned as the ‘naughty manatee.’

The other 12 children, fewer than normal for safety and the time frame, included eight from the Riverside Theatre dance education program, and, in keeping with their community engagement initiatives, four from the Homeless Children’s Foundation of IRC.

“Really, thank goodness for the Historical Society and the Land Trust. It looks spectacular. It is exactly what I wanted it to be. It’s just been an amazing experience start to finish,” says Schnell. “I don’t know if it’s the pessimist in me or if it’s the world as we currently know it, but it was this little idea in the middle of the summer, and now all of a sudden it’s happening.”

He is particularly pleased that the film has the broadcast potential to reach viewers from Key West to Indian River County. “That’s crazy to me! They have an audience of over 6 million people.”

Nutcracker on the Indian River will be available for viewing from Dec. 22 through Jan. 6. Visit balletverobeach.org for a complete schedule of free broadcasts and streaming options.

Photos by: Kaila Jones
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