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Spotlight: Orlando Ballet brings a fresh twist to The Nutcracker

Orlando Ballet dancers pose for a portrait in front of set pieces for The Nutcracker.
Zavescophotography
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Orlando Ballet
Orlando Ballet dancers pose for a portrait in front of set pieces for The Nutcracker.

Christmas is just around the corner, and few things scream Christmas more than The Nutcracker.

The Orlando Balletis putting a fresh twist on the holiday classic, which runs December 8 to 24 at the Dr. Phillips Center.

Artistic Director Jordan Morris spent three years reimagining the Nutcracker, rebuilding it from scratch with new sets and expanded story lines.

Morris says this new rendition is a needed update.

Talia Blake: Give us the scoop on this new version of the Nutcracker that will be premiering on December 8.

Jordan Morris: It's a complete revisioning of the traditional Nutcracker. I've expanded some characters. I've made Clara a much more empowered character in the Nutcracker. She has a lot more dancing roles, particularly in the second act where normally Clara would sort of sit on the throne and just watch all the divertissements, I've really tried to weave Clara and the Nutcracker Prince into the production a little bit more successfully, and obviously a little bit more dance wise, as well. Then looking at the sets that we designed, we went sort of in the direction of a lot of different sizes of snow globes. At one point the entire theater is lit to be feeling like you're in a snow globe, itself. Then there's other life sized snow globes on stage that the snowflakes appear from, and Drosselmeyer brings a very magical snow globe to the Stahlbaum family, which I won't give away too many secrets, but does some pretty magical things when the mice in the house at midnight.

(The video below is courtesy of The Orlando Ballet.)

OB Nutcracker VNR.mp4

Talia Blake: It sounds like you're putting your own flavor. As you said you're expanding characters (and) you're having the audience feel like they're in their own snow globe. The fact that the Nutcracker is a Christmas classic, why decide to do this show in this way?

Jordan Morris: I think there were many things that I felt could have been and should have been updated, as this production has been around for decades and decades. I also thought that it could be a lot more entertaining and captivating for children and their imaginations. So I've incorporated a lot of puppetry into the show. There's little marionettes, there's larger animatronic puppets, and then there's some really big huge puppets in the battle scene and also in act two as well. So I've tried to add a lot of elements that I think children are really going to be entertained by and spark imagination in the young people as well as the older people. I just thought there was a lot more room for some really beautiful creative stuff, especially at this time of year, that would bode really well in this production.

Talia Blake: Talk to me about what the journey has been like to get this production going. Tell me about some of the highs and lows.

Jordan Morris: I've been working on this for three years. So it's very much like creating a movie in Hollywood. You start talking with writers and designers. Then I built a storyboard of what we thought each scene would be and then we flesh out those scenes. From the design phase that goes into the build phase. A lot of things that we wanted built were very challenging to build, some of the larger puppets and some of the actual scenic elements as well, because they're much larger than life. It's been a challenge to get some of those to fit and working in the theater. So really, like I said, sort of like a movie where it starts with a lot of preproduction. And then of course, you get in the studio and you start choreographing with the dancers, and then integrating that. All brand new costumes, which of course, each costume in the show has to be individually designed and then fit two or three times to the artists that's dancing that role. Then we find out with the costumes as well that costume looks fabulous, but it's very difficult to dance in, or it's very difficult to partner in and lift somebody. So there's all those sort of known unknowns and unknown knowns that that you sort of uncover. Sometimes it can be quite challenging, and sometimes we are pleasantly surprised that some of our ideas actually did work.

Talia Blake: So it sounds like you kind of were navigating a little wobbly road as you find some things that don't work, but some things that do. Can you talk to me about how much it's cost to put all this on? Because it sounds like there has been some trial and error in some areas of it.

Jordan Morris: Originally, we started out with a $3.5 million production, and we expanded that to just $3.6 million for this production. When you look at that as an investment over 20 years, $3.6 million sounds like a big number going into December 8, 2023. But if you look at $3.6 million over the next 20 years, the number is not that large. But contrary to that, we have done our math and we expect that over a million people will see it in the next 20 years. So when you look at 3.6 million dollars to provide a production of this caliber for over a million people, then it starts to become a much more acceptable risk on return, and also a really wonderful gift that's going to last for generations.

Talia Blake: It sounds like it's going to be a gift that will continuously keep on giving. So kind of bringing it back to the journey, the Orlando Ballet is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, as you've been preparing to put on the Nutcracker, what lessons are you taking with you from the past half century?

Jordan Morris: What I really wanted to do, and that was part of premiering the new Nutcracker this season in the 50th anniversary season, is it's been quite some time Orlando Ballet through its sort of maturity, and the past 50 years has sort of the old version of Nutcracker were used sets that were bought from Hong Kong that were already used. There's sections and ideas from four different directors in the past production. So really, the lessons learned are, and I've done a lot of big productions throughout my career is to really cohesify, and bring one of the team's creative version to mind. You always tend to get a much better clearer product when it comes from a finite team, as opposed to sort of that patchwork production and adding elements. There tends to be a residue that's left. When you create something from the ground up that is brand new and exciting, and sort of driven by the same creative mind, you tend to have a much clearer delivery of the product. I think that makes a big difference.

Talia Blake: It kind of sounds like that lesson of having too many cooks in the kitchen, and the problems that could arise with that.

Jordan Morris: Exactly.

Talia Blake: There are a lot of people out there who may not think that the ballet is for them. Why should they see the show?

Jordan Morris: I think a lot of people who have not seen ballet, or maybe it's not their favorite performing arts type of jam, are going to be pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the dance element. This incredibly timeless Christmas tale is very festive for the holiday season. Along with we were talking about the puppetry earlier and the new set designs as well, I've added elements of almost a Cirque du Soleil performance element to it, where in the second act, the Desert Princess dances inside a seer wheel. Then looking at some of the cultural aspects and the diversity and inclusiveness of what Tchaikovsky originally wanted to share with his music, I've taken a lot of those stereotypes away from the divertissment in second act, and really created magical energies of those parts of the world. What Tchaikovsky wrote as the Chinese Dance, I have turned into a beautiful, and the girl has feathers underneath her wings. So we've taken a lot of the stereotypes out and really made it something that's accessible, beautiful, creative, and colorful. It really combines a lot of the other performing arts sort of into one beautiful package of imagination.

Talia Blake: Jordan, without giving away too much, are there any big surprises people can expect from this Nutcracker?

Jordan Morris: Yes. I did my production of Peter Pan in 2006, and I started working with the Foy Flying team out of Las Vegas. They do all the major flying in Broadway productions and on movie sets, etc. I've been working with them for a long time and I thought what could we do in Nutcracker that is completely magical and is going to surprise people. I do have Clara flying in the battle scene. She gets an aerial view of the battle scene before she lands, and she does quite a bit of aerial choreography as well. Then in Act Two we also have one of the baby pulcinella who is late for their dance. I've also put them on a Foy system. After Mother Goose and all the other children have left, this little goose rapidly flies across the stage to catch up with the rest of the party. That's sort of another big theater element that I've added to it, which takes more time, and rehearsal but I think it's definitely something that everybody finds magical in the theater is when people just magically start to fly across the stage.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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