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Collaboration & Dedication Brings Columbus Ballet's 'The Masked Nutcracker' to Families at Home

Story by Carrie Beth Wallace

Images courtesy of The Columbus Ballet via Kylie Casino and Argo Navis Studios.

When I heard The Columbus Ballet was still producing The Nutcracker this year, I honestly couldn't imagine how. The global pandemic has shut down theaters across the globe, I thought, How are they able to stage a ballet safely?

The answer? They weren't.

Thanks to the dedication and perseverance of the team at The Columbus Ballet, and the wholehearted collaboration from countless individuals and organizations in our community, The Nutcracker is - in fact - coming to Columbus, GA this year.

What's more? It's got the potential to reach more people than the annual Christmas tradition has ever reached before... and anyone, anywhere can view the entire performance for free.

To learn as much as I could about the project, I reached out to Kylie Casino this year's director and primary choreographer for The Columbus Ballet's The Masked Nutcracker.

Read our conversation to learn all about the process, the collaborative effort across our community that's made it possible, and yes - all about the how and where you can view The Masked Nutcracker for free from the comfort and safety of home.

Q: First of all, when did you know you were directing The Nutcracker this year? How did that process happen?

A: Back in February I was approached by the Ballet's Board of Directors. They asked if I would take on the role of artistic director as well as being main choreographer for Nutcracker this year. I accepted immediately because I've been wanting to direct the show for a very long time. This is my sixth or seventh Nutcracker and my first time directing, so I was really excited..

I wasn't allowed to tell anybody I was directing - just because of marketing purposes. Typically, the director only stays a secret until around April, but then the pandemic hit, and it got to the point that we were debating whether it The Nutcracker was even going to happen this year.

Q: I can't imagine. So much was changing so fast. What was it like to navigate that as you tried to plan?

A: Well, RiverCenter closed down pretty quickly, which they absolutely should have done. I highly respect them for making that decision. Safety has to come first, always.

So our team at The Columbus Ballet decided to just wait and see what happened. In July, we began to discuss The Nutcracker again. We had just done a whole bunch of online classes for the conservatory, and were still chugging along still trying to do everything we could to keep our kids in class.

Q: Yes. I remember those online initiatives. I was so impressed by the Ballet's perseverance. Was it a challenge to even consider the move beyond virtual teaching though?

Absolutely. Laura and Bridget reached out to me, and we all agreed that we still wanted to do the show. I wanted to make sure The Nutcracker happened this year because of the tradition it is in Columbus. I felt really strongly that our community needed The Nutcracker this year- possibly more than ever. But we knew for it to happen, we had to find a way to keep everyone safe first, and then figure out how to get it into peoples homes via livestream.

Q: So livestream was the original plan?

A: Yes. Our initial plan to try to perform at the River Center because they had setup a live-streaming capability. We were initially thinking we'd try to get into the theater and just record the performance on video. We knew we'd have to perform to an empty house, but the idea was to livestream it on what was supposed to be our original performance date.

Q: What prevented that plan from working? Obviously, you did not end up going with this plan.

Q: As RiverCenter continued to navigate the pandemic, they ended up having to put in more restrictions that couldn't accommodate our entire cast. Which, again, I totally understood and support. We wanted to keep everyone safe, and we knew that the most recent data had indicated that putting our entire cast in the theater was simply not an option. So we went back to the drawing board.

As we started talking, we'd heard of another company in Alabama that was going to do a film version of a site-specific Nutcracker cool. And so Laura was like, "Well, maybe we could do something like that?"

Q: What was your initial reaction to that concept? It's very different from performing a ballet and recording it for livestream.

A: I was all over it from the beginning. I loved the idea, and I actually have a background in a lot of site-specific dance. It's what I did my MFA work on.

Q: Oh really? How interesting! So they picked the perfect person then!

A: It's been really fun to get to pull that work back out and put it to use under such interesting circumstances.

Q: How'd you get everyone on board with the idea?

A: Well, I came up with a proposal and we submitted it to the board. Everyone was completely for it. It was incredible. So then, we started rehearsing and in the meantime, we began getting the details in place for how we'd film, who we'd work with, and where we'd be.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges about this sort of undertaking?

A: Well again, safety was our top priority. We have taken unbelievable precautions at the conservatory to make sure everyone stays. Our team knew we had to translate that to this project and ensure that everyone would be safe at each site.

Q: Where are we on the timeline at this point?

A: In August, I was able to share that I was directing The Nutcracker this year. Around this time, we were also able to share the plan with our families at the Ballet. Then things just took off. All of our dancers were so excited.

Q: I'm so glad they've gotten the opportunity to perform this year, and that you and your team have found a way to keep everyone safe in the process. What incredible perseverance the Ballet has shown!

A: We're very fortunate to have such incredible partners in our community. The Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley assisted us in getting the financial support we needed through the Knight Foundation Fund. We are so very grateful for their support! Without them, we would not have been able to make this project happen.

Q: I understand that you've also partnered with many of our local arts organizations for the project?

A: Yes! We reached out to several of our partners and said, "Here's what we're doing, and we'd love to find a way to film at your location." Everyone was so supportive, and we were able to film on location throughout Columbus. We've worked with partners at The Columbus Museum, The Columbus Convention & Trade Center, the National Civil War Naval Museum, The Columbus Public Library, the Columbus Botanical Garden, and CSU's Rankin Gardens & Atrium. Each of them were incredible to work with and just so supportive of our efforts.

Q: Was it an intentional move to showcase some of the most beautiful parts of our city? Or was that just how it worked out?

A: It was definitely intentional. I mean, what better way to celebrate Columbus as a whole? Here are all of these places that make up this wonderful community we live in. It just made so much sense to us. That's also what the Knight Foundation is all about, so it just fit with the project we presented perfectly.

Q: Tell me about Argo Navis Studios. They've filmed the entire project. How did you find them?

A: Argo Navis Studios is Jef and Sara Lynn Holbrook's new production company. Our team wanted to hire a local company, and when we approached them about the project, they were immediately on board. They have been absolutely wonderful to work with, and have taken on this project with such care.