Documentary will take viewers behind the scenes of ‘Nutcracker’
Jamestown’s Elizabeth Congdon grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the shadow of the Lincoln Center. Her family loved ballet, and the New York City Ballet Company’s “Nutcracker” became an annual ritual for her family.
“It was always part of my birthday celebration to go,” said Congdon, who was born on Dec. 30. “I love ‘Nutcracker.’”
With that background, it may have been inevitable that Congdon would someday find herself involved with a Nutcracker production. When her daughter landed a role in the Island Moving Company’s production at Rosecliff, Congdon volunteered as a “mouse mother,” taking charge of young dancers while they waited in the wings.
Congdon brought on Newporter Sky Sabin as the director. Congdon is the producer.
The film, “Dancing with Sugar Plums,” will tell the story of how two casts of 75 children have literally grown up with the production, which in December completed its 11th year. Several Jamestowners have been part of the ballet for years, and in the film, the children talk about returning to Rosecliff every year and feeling as though they are actually living in the mansion while they rehearse, perform and play cards.
Congdon said the house, which architect Stanford White built for silver heiress Tessie Oelrichs, becomes a character in the film.
The ballet famously moves through the mansion and features the gold and white ballroom for a party scene. It also flourishes the heart-shaped staircase, which serves as setting of the battle between the mice and toy soldiers.
Rosecliff was the first “inside” location that the Island Moving Company ever used for a production. The company has no permanent home and no performance space, according to Dominique Alfandre, the company’s executive director. The choreographers and dancers have always put on productions in borrowed spaces. The practice has become the company’s signature.
But the experience of rehearsing at Rosecliff made for a unique behind-the-scenes documentary.
Congdon became involved with the production when her own daughter, Evelina Pinto, now 13, landed a role as one of the mice. Evelina was only 5 or 6 when her mother took her to see the ballet. She wanted to dance but was too little. She went to the tryouts and eventually landed a role as one of the mice.
Congdon said there were so many children – counting the mice and rats and sugar plum – the ballet company needed some mothers to step in and monitor the children, especially while they were off stage. The task isn’t easy.
There are two flights of stairs at Rosecliff, and Congdon says that the 20 minutes between scenes gives the children too much time to get creative. It’s tough for children to resist the temptation to slide down a red velvet staircase in a “fluffy mouse costume,” she laughed.
One day, as she was trying to rein in “eight or nine mice,” some of the teenagers, who had graduated to the role of rats, were listening to music drifting up from the gold and white ballroom. The dancers in the ballroom were performing around the Christmas tree, and one of the teenage rats upstairs grabbed one of the rats and started doing the dance, too. It was a spontaneous moment, Congdon said, and she suddenly realized the youngsters knew the entire ballet. Some had even danced every part.
“Some of these kids have been doing the ballet for six years,” she said. It was at that moment that she understood she had the makings of an incredible behind-the-scenes feature.
She talked the idea over with some friends and colleagues and ultimately presented it to Alfandre, who liked the concept.
“We have already received a $4,500 grant from a private foundation and are about to launch a blog and a Kickstarter,” Congdon said. Kickstarter is a website that boasts it is the “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.”
The grant was from the Froleich Foundation and she anticipates the Kickstarter pledges will start in April.
“And we are garnering corporate sponsorship and applying for many other grants as well,” she said.
Congdon is one of the founders of the Jamestown Arts Center and she has experience writing grants.
“I’m brave, or maybe just plain stupid, about asking for help,” she said.
Sabin came on board on the recommendation from the Lisa Randall, executive director of the arts center. He estimates the feature film will run between 60 and 90 minutes and cost about $100,000 to produce, including the postproduction work and fees to enter film festival.
“We’re going to do the film festival route,” he said. Sabin also indicated he would like to aim high and try for the Sundance, as well as some local festivals.
Sabin has filmed numerous sports videos, and although he has not photographed dance before, he has had exposure to ballet. He was a music major at Wheaton College.
“In filming the dancers, I related through what I knew: music, motion, creativity and athletics,” he said.
Sabin wanted to make the film because the story grabbed him. “There’s so many different layers of story. The way I do it, I kind of focus on certain kids in different age ranges.”
Some of the children have just landed a part and are full of excitement. He said some of the children are getting older and their days in “The Nutcracker” are coming to an end. The documentary is making them wonder.
Said Sabin, “They’re asking, ‘What now?’“