It was not Troy Schumacher's dream to create a Nutcracker. And yet there he was, a few weeks ago, standing in the middle of a large gymnasium in Dutchess County, New York, directing a group of dancers as they flew through the air to the "Waltz of the Flowers." Schumacher, a New York City Ballet soloist who directs his own small ensemble called BalletCollective, is the choreographer and director of the new Nutcracker at Wethersfield, a production being performed live, for very small numbers of people, at the Wethersfield Estate December 4 to 23.
His Nutcracker is a response to a deep need, in this year in which most live performances have been canceled and dancers have had few opportunities to work. As he said, "I think that right now, a lot of us are craving some sort of return to the familiar, craving even just a little morsel of tradition." It's a feeling we can all relate to.
New York City Ballet soloist Ashley Laracey poses outside the Wethersfield Estate in Amenia, NY.
The moment, back in September, when Schumacher stepped on the Wethersfield property—a stately house surrounded by formal gardens and woodlands two hours north of Manhattan—the idea of creating a Nutcracker there began forming in his mind. "Something immediately felt magical," he says, "and I asked myself, 'Is this the set of The Nutcracker?'" The house, with its formal parlors and fireplaces, is a good stand-in for the ballet's original setting, a bourgeois household in Nuremberg. There is even the odd mouse, as NYCB principal dancer Jared Angle, who has been deputized as company manager for the production, told me. (He has the problem under control.)
The small number of guests at each performance (seven to eight socially distanced groups of two to six people) are led from room to room to experience the early scenes of the ballet. Then, they are ushered out into the gardens, through topiary passageways and pavilions to a large tent that contains the dreamlike Kingdom of the Sweets. For this scene, Schumacher has conceived the dances to be experienced in the round, so that each family is surrounded by the action, while keeping a safe distance. (The fantasy décor is by designer Elizabeth Mayhew.)
Troy Schumacher and Ashley Laracey rehearse the dancers at a nearby school gym. The cast of The Nutcracker at Wethersfield has been living on site for over a month.
The choreography, for 22 of Schumacher's NYCB colleagues and former ABT dancer Julio Bragado-Young, is intentionally expansive. "It has felt so nice to be able to really move in space," says corps member Ralph Ippolito, who is interpreting several roles, including the Toy Soldier in the party scene. "And Troy is so musical, he has been able to find new accents and nuances in the score."
In other words, it feels like a real Nutcracker, with multiple Flowers, and Snowflakes, and some divertissements, like the Spanish Dance and Marzipan (but no Tea or Coffee). There are two alternating casts of Sugarplum Fairies and Cavaliers: Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley in one, and Ashley Laracey (Schumacher's real-life partner) and Tyler Angle in the other. Much of the Sugarplum choreography was developed in Schumacher and Laracey's living room; Laracey also assists in rehearsals and teaches morning class.
Assuring everyone's safety has been paramount, and has included extensive quarantining for the dancers, as well as COVID-19 testing before and during the rehearsal period and housing the cast on-site for the entire five-week period. ("It's a little bit like living in 'Downton Abbey,'" jokes Schumacher.) Rehearsals are held in a nearby school gym, used only by them. Meals are brought in—no one leaves the pod. The attendees will be masked and carefully stage-managed. "The pathway that each family takes does not cross paths with another family throughout the entire process of walking around the grounds," Schumacher assures.
All of this has required meticulous planning and protocols, overseen by medical professionals, including Dr. Lipi Roy, an NBC News medical contributor. The final price tag of around $400,000 has been underwritten by private donors, whose gifts of $5,000 or more offers them an invitation to see the production. About 40 percent of spots have been donated to local nonprofits, including Grace Immigrant Outreach and Food of Life/Comida de Vida Food Pantry, so that families who have been particularly impacted by the pandemic can attend. And access for essential workers in the Rhinebeck community will be underwritten by a local dairy. A free streamed version will be available December 23 to 26; go to the event website to access the link.
Beyond the final product, which will be viewed live by a lucky few, the production has provided work and a sense of purpose for 23 dancers, normally so busy during Nutcracker season. "It's just so nice to be back in the studio," says Angle, "around people doing the physical work of ballet."