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Misty Copeland On Rubbing Elbows With A-Listers on the Set of The Nutcracker & The Four Realms

Sergei Polunin and Misty Copeland lead a corps of 18 dancers in choreography by Liam Scarlett. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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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