Dance academy films annual production of ‘The Nutcracker’

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KEEPING A TRADITION San Benito Dance Academy’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker” is going virtual this year. Photo courtesy of San Benito Dance Academy

What’s in a tradition? 

More than a song from a beloved Broadway musical in the 1960s, for one thing. 

It’s the passing down of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, and without them, some have said that the holidays are…well, just another day. 

San Benito Dance Academy (SBDA) owner and instructor Lara Lichten refuses to resign the tradition of her annual recitals and performances, though.

“We are artists; we are resilient; we are creative—we can rise out of the ashes, so to speak, and figure out a new way to do it,” she said. “I believe that not everything needs to be cancelled; we just need to pivot and figure out a more creative solution to enabling a virtual event.” 

When the onset of Covid-19 called for the cancellation of the dance academy’s annual June recital, she sought a different approach to showcase her students’ skills. Adhering to state mandates, she decided to film dance routines in her studio with small groups at a time, and live-stream it as a virtual watch party for families and friends. She later downloaded it digitally and on DVDs for her students. 

“People in their homes, with their small family viewings, were able to still enjoy a digital version of the recital,” she said.

She was met with the same obstacle as SBDA’s annual performance of the Nutcracker approached. But Lichten said she never doubted the 12-year tradition would happen. 

“It was just a matter of how we could pivot again to accommodate the current circumstances,” she said. 

The ballet production had been performed at Salinas’s Sherwood Hall for the past several years—always the weekend before Christmas—so Lichten originally imagined a “Nutcracker in the Park” for this year, on an outdoor stage. 

“But then there was the question of weather and freezing temperatures. And then people were saying, ‘Well, how many people are allowed to gather?’” 

With too many risky details, and with venues unwilling to commit (with the unpredictable nature of the pandemic), Lichten decided to film a digital version of the production, as with June’s recital. But this time, the viewing party would be for the community to watch on a big screen—drive-in style. 

With that decision, Lichten came to the greater realization of how this local production could benefit the entire community. 

“Being able to do a drive-in production really opens the door for Hollister and San Benito County residents to actually patronize, and come to an event and celebrate,” she said. “Whereas, maybe they don’t want to make the drive to go do that in another county. So with this, it keeps the revenue in our county.”

After casting roles in late September, and with the assistance from a student’s parent, Steve Doerr, filming began in mid-October (and is still doing so, at press time). A variety of venues, businesses, and historic landmarks in San Benito County have been used as settings for each of the dances. Lichten said she hopes that by incorporating the community, she can help promote businesses “that have had it tough this year.”

“We’re doing something exciting and different to accommodate our times,” she said. “[Everyone involved] got behind it and got excited about it. Not just for the performance reason, but for the community aspect.”

Lichten said that Doerr, for instance, “has a great eye and is very improvisational—go with the flow—but also very dependable.” 

Doerr, a television news photographer and camera person, has also produced, filmed and edited various videos for many businesses. For this production, he filmed many of the segments (along with Lichten), but he handed Lichten the reins to create the final product.

“Miss Lara is producing, directing and editing all segments,” he said. “I want to be surprised as any other parent at the premiere with her work.”

Sharing the coveted role of Clara are Ali Gillio and Megan Vass, who will split the role for different performances. Both noted that even though this year’s unique production has been a positive one, they originally had skepticism. 

“In the beginning, the thought of not being in the theater was disappointing,” Vass said. “But as more and more ideas were brought to life, I became excited to be able to play a part in this new and exciting community experience.” 

Gillio originally shared in Vass’s disappointment, and also found the experience of filming every weekend stressful at times. 

“But then I realized that this is something different; [something] everyone is going to remember,” she said. “I’m excited for the community to see the whole show and to see all the hard work pay off.”

Lichten has already seen the hard work pay off with her dancers during this unique time and non-traditional performance.

“We are a dance academy; we pride ourselves on the technical academic training of our dancers and on giving them a fun way to exercise and stay healthy,” Lichten said. “But to be academically enriched with the production side of dance and filming, it brings a whole new level of education to these kids.” 

San Benito Dance Academy’s filmed production of “The Nutcracker” will be playing Dec. 18-23 (double features on Saturday and Sunday) at 790 Bolsa Road in Hollister. 

Visit www.sanbenitodanceacademy.com for updates and information on ticket sales/showtimes. 

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