Arts & Culture

Nolte Academy puts a new spin on 'Nutcracker' with virtual event

Coralville dance studio, Englert Theatre put annual holiday classic online amid coronavirus pandemic

#x201c;The Nutcracker#x201d; Flowers prepare to waltz in the vineyard at Walker Homestead in rural Iowa City. Warm days
“The Nutcracker” Flowers prepare to waltz in the vineyard at Walker Homestead in rural Iowa City. Warm days in late summer and early fall allowed Nolte Academy to film several scenes outdoors for this week’s presentation of a new twist on the classic holiday ballet. (Nolte Academy)
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Clara dreaming her way through an Iowa journey, tap dancers battling on the Old Capitol steps and Leslie Nolte choreographing masked flowers waltzing in a vineyard.

These are just a few of the peppermint twists in a re-imagined “Nutcracker” ballet that isn’t all ballet, and isn’t all onstage.

After 15 years of offering a traditional in-person “Nutcracker” for the holidays, Nolte Academy in Coralville and the Englert in Iowa City have produced their first virtual production of the time-honored tale of a young girl whisked through magical adventures. It will stream online Friday night and twice on Saturday. Find details at Englert.org/events.

The team had more than a few hurdles to dance around before making the leap to film.

First and foremost was safety, with more than 100 dancers ages 7 to 18 in the production.

Around June, when it became apparent that the Englert wouldn’t reopen by December, Nolte said the answer was to move as much filming as possible outdoors. While physical distancing in open spaces would provide a measure of protection from coronavirus spread, the dancers still had to rehearse, and when the weather turned cold, some scenes would need to move to the Englert for filming.

Nolte Academy surveyed dancers and their families about their comfort levels for rehearsals and filming. Some were open to physically distanced, masked rehearsals, others preferred participating online all the way through.

“We just knew that for the dancers themselves, they need this annual work,” Nolte said.

Nolte, 44, of Iowa City, who owns the studio, has served as producer for “The Nutcracker” through the years, but hasn’t choreographed the show. So she turned to her ballet director, Sarah Barragan, 42, of Iowa City, for the role of artistic director. She served as rehearsal assistant for last year’s Nolte production, but also has staged 10 “Nutcracker” ballets at her own studio, City Ballet of Iowa, with her husband, Eloy Barragan, who also is a certified ScreenDance filmmaker.

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The challenge was to re-imagine the show during the pandemic and keep everyone safe. Barragan said her first question was, “How do we make this work?”

In addition to Nolte, the creative team includes tap director Robyn Watson; contemporary dance choreographer Rylee Villhauer; and visual arts director Kyle Powell. Nolte alum Ellison Brown also worked with Barragan on writing the storyline.

“And then I wanted to include Iowa City, because the original Nutcracker story ... was created in 1892 and has a lot of traditions and storylines that don’t apply to who we are today,” Barragan said. “Because of the separation, I wanted people to see Iowa City. If people are isolating and staying at home, I wanted them to be reminded of the different locations in Iowa City — especially the ones that are affiliated with the arts.

“But of course, we still have the general story of ‘The Nutcracker.’ I’ve turned it into the dream of a local girl, and her dreams, aspirations and hopes.”

All of the dancers come from Nolte Academy. Barragan chose Zuri Alvira, 8, of Iowa City, to portray Clara, and included her memories and visions of what dance is in a studio in Iowa City and on the stage.

Barragan set the outdoor scenes around such iconic sites as Hancher Auditorium and the Old Capitol building, as well as the University of Iowa’s Art Building West, and city parks containing art pieces.

“I wanted to make physical art a big part of what we’re doing,” she said.

Nolte set part of her “Waltz of the Flowers” scene at the Walker Homestead vineyard in rural Iowa City.

“As choreographers, we looked around our community and thought, ‘Where would dance be beautiful and the storyline be appropriate?’ So to have my bright pink flowers in the fall columns of the vineyard, it was beautiful,” Nolte said. “I was super pleased.”

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Part of Nolte’s scene also was filmed indoors at the Englert, with the dancers wearing masks, in addition to traditional tutus and toe shoes.

The music was recorded on the Englert stage, as well, but without any dancers onstage and without a full orchestra dancing through the familiar Tchaikovsky musical score. In years past, Carey Bostian of Iowa City has wielded the baton over “The Nutcracker” orchestra. Since that wouldn’t be safe to do during the pandemic, he and his wife, Miera Kim, the core musicians of Red Cedar Chamber Music, and their sons, Oliver and Adrian, performed as a string quartet.

“It was quite beautiful during the filming of that,” Nolte said. “It’s lovely to be able to still incorporate a piece of the orchestra and our longtime conductor.”

Filming began in late August and wrapped in late November, and Nolte enjoyed watching the process of going from live stage to captured material.

“That’s been really fun to watch and learn about,” she said.

Cost also was a consideration at a time when budgets are tight. This virtual production was much less expensive to produce, she said, but she’s proud of what her team is offering to the dancers and viewers.

“For audiences, we want to keep the tradition alive,” she said. “We want to kick off their holiday and we’re really asking everybody to support the production, so that both Nolte Academy and the Englert can continue once the pandemic is over, bringing this to our community.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

How to watch

• What: Nolte Academy and Englert Theatre present: “The Nutcracker: 2020” a new, filmed production featuring Nolte Academy dancers

• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

• Where: Online access with ticket package purchase

• Tickets: $20 to $250, including sweet treats, individual and family pricing, and donation options, at Englert.org/events/

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