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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.

Q: What were some of the pleasant surprises in filming this work in this way?

A: The whole filming process was just incredible. When we were filming, I was able to see on the monitor exactly what it would look like on screen. It was an experience I will never forget. Being able to see the product immediately was mind-blowing in the best way. We could make changes in real time and then show our dancers the result. It was such a wonderful learning experience for all of us.

Q: How fascinating! Did the choreography translate easily to film, or were there major adjustments to be made for your dancers?

A: Well, there's such a difference when you're on stage with a ballet. We always teach our students to make every motion huge because we have to play to the back row in a large hall. With film, there were moments that Jef and Sara Lynn had to say, "Okay, take it back a little bit. This is film and we can really get into your emotions because can see what you're feeling and what you're doing. Even the smallest gesture is picked up on camera, and it will read differently to the viewer. Try again. Give us more subtle movements."

Q: How did those moments impact you as a director?

Oh, so much. There were multiple times that I was watching the monitor and I got teary-eyed. It's hard to explain. It was just beautiful to watch our dancers translate their work to the screen. I just can't wait for you to see it. Everything about it was magical.

Q: Do you have any favorite moments in the process that stick out to you?

A: Yes. The biggest one would be one of the very last shots. In the scene, we have Clara who is Mary Frances. She turns away from The Nutcracker Prince and he steps out the shot and then comes back and she turns back around and he's transformed back into the Nutcracker doll. We shot it, and the young man who's our Nutcracker Prince stood beside me at the monitor to watch. He got very emotional and said, "I just would never have imagined that it could be like this beautiful." It was a very special moment I won't forget. It was magic.

Q: I truly cannot wait to watch this with my family at home. And speaking of watching at home, can we talk about how incredible it is that everyone in our community will be able to watch this for free?!

A: Oh yes! We are so happy and grateful to have secured two different spots on FOX-54 that will allow people to watch the show for free. The idea that this is really making a way for anyone and everyone to see The Nutcracker makes me so happy.

It even goes beyond our city, because we're also streaming it live on Facebook as well. When we secured that aspect, I was so happy. We have a kid whose grandparents are all in Canada. How sweet that they'll be able to watch it! We have families with relatives in China and someone from Denmark was mentioning that they wanted to tune in as well. It's been incredible to think how many people can possibly see this work

Q: Arts accessibility is an important issue that we need to address in our community. Not everyone can afford to attend a show or has the transportation to get to a theatre. I honestly feel as though this is an incredible step toward making artistic experiences more accessible to everyone in our community. How does that make you feel? It's got to be wonderful to know you've been a part of that.

A: Absolutely. Everyone at the Ballet is so grateful to have the opportunity to share our work with so many people. It's been made possible by so many partners in our community. This amazing, collaborative effort by so many people is just a really beautiful thing that's come out of a horrible time.

Q: Exactly. Accessibility to the arts is a real, active issue here, but what's so impactful to about The Masked Nutrcacker is that it sets a wonderful precedent. It's just beautiful to see so many people becoming imaginative and using their resources to impact many, together. My question is how can we these kind of things happen long after they're an absolute necessity?

A: I couldn't agree more. It's been a really great lesson for our team, for sure. Normally, we take scenes from The Nutcracker into some of the local schools. We're typically able to do outreach performances, and we try to get to as many schools as we can. But this time around, we are sending them all a downloadable link to the film, and a study guide that goes with it.

So our hope is that there may be people that get to witness this gorgeous piece of collaborative art together for the first time. The idea is that you can sit on your couch and watch as a family.

Q: Beautiful. I mean really, Kylie, I'm just so thankful that you've all done this. It really has the potential to make such an impact. Here's my last question. What has been the most transformative for you personally about this?

A: It's taught me so much. I'm a very Type A person. I used to be someone that would shut down if anything like got thrown completely out of the loop, or wasn't how it's supposed to be. But what I noticed with this project is that when we first started bringing it up, and first started talking about the idea of doing a feature film, and then we started talking to Jef and Sara Lynn, I didn't feel any of that. I just felt excitement. Somehow, I kind of knew from the start that this was going to be okay.

Thing in the world are so tough right now. But I knew we had a plan and multiple backup plans if we needed them. Then, like I said, when we were on set and I was able to see these little moments that were caught on film, it just completely blew my mind. I have loved every minute of it and the lessons it's taught me along the way.

So that's my answer personally. My professional answer is that it is wild for this to be my first The Nutcracker that I've directed. (laughing) Jef has joked with me a lot. He's like, "You can just put this on your resume and then retire." I mean, he's kidding, but it's just the thought that I'm able to put film producer and director on my resume now... who knows what doors that could open in the future? I'm just really grateful to have had this opportunity, and I can't wait for Columbus to share in the magic with us. ◼︎

Watch The Masked Nutcracker for free!

Tune into WXTX-Fox 54 on the following dates either on your TV or on their Facebook livestream.

December 12 from 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.

December 20 after the Falcons Game

Participating Organizations:


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