Misty Copeland On Rubbing Elbows With A-Listers on the Set of The Nutcracker & The Four Realms
The wait for Disney's reimagining of The Nutcracker is over. Although The Nutcracker and The Four Realms is not a full-length ballet, woven into the plot is a five-minute performance by megastars Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin alongside 18 supporting dancers, with a CGI Mouse King moved by jookin sensation Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley). Royal Ballet artist in residence Liam Scarlett led the film's choreography in his first major motion picture experience. "It was a call I didn't expect to get," says Scarlett. "I really am the biggest Disney fan, so I couldn't believe it!"
While the plot is based upon E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic story, this adaptation takes some dark turns, like recasting Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) as an evil tyrant who serves as the film's main villain. The music is a uniquely arranged version of the Tchaikovsky original composed by James Newton Howard, a mashed-up score guiding the tale. The A-list cast also features Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer, Keira Knightley as Sugar Plum Fairy and Mackenzie Foy as Clara. Though Copeland was on set for less than a week, she did overlap with Knightley. "Keira and I were able to talk in between scenes," she says. "She would stay and watch us dance. It was really cool to perform for her."
The Disney production team reached out to Copeland early on to perform the role of Ballerina Princess. "I was able to suggest who I wanted to work with and who would choreograph," says Copeland. She and Scarlett had previously worked together on With a Chance of Rain, a polarizing contemporary piece he choreographed for American Ballet Theatre in 2014. "Liam is in an amazing place in his career," she says. "He brings a lot of energy."
Scarlett and Copeland review footage on set. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The differences between creating dance for camera and for the ballet stage are vast. "We don't have a fourth wall because the camera shoots from every angle, so the movement needs to be aesthetically pleasing from any view," says Scarlett. "We always had several options up our sleeve." Scarlett often fine-tuned choreography on the spot, right up until the performances were filmed. His spontaneity was sparked by the sweeping camera angles used by director Lasse Hallström and cinematographer Linus Sandgren, whose work on La La Land won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 2017. Scarlett also worked on scenes throughout the movie as movement director, including the party scene with Freeman. "The transitions between dance sequences are seamless—the whole movie feels very dance-like," says Scarlett.
Scarlett gives notes to Copeland and Polunin on set. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Copeland and Polunin admit the logistics of shooting movie scenes are challenging on bodies more used to performing full-length ballets onstage. "It's difficult to stay warm and rested, to have to wait around for the next scene," says Copeland. "I took naps in my pointe shoes and wig, with a space heater by my feet. The crew would wake me up when it was time to shoot." Polunin, who dances the Cavalier to Copeland's Ballerina Princess, says during live performance, dancers know what to expect and can regulate energy expenditure. "On a movie set you repeat a lot and have no idea how many times you'll have to do the movement, and sometimes the muscles just give up."
Copeland on set. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
While spectacular effects are a definite from Walt Disney Pictures, Polunin says much of what is seen during the ballet scenes is real magic constructed by larger-than-life sets: "Even the sky was painted with clouds and stars—it was a whole different world built around us!"
The Nutcracker and The Four Realms opens nationwide November 2.
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In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.