“Getting to the Nutcracker”: A Moving Portrait of One School’s Remarkable Journey

The “Nutcracker” season is upon us. And in the U.S. that means the annual explosion of both professional and amateur performances that reaches all corners of the country. “Getting to the Nutcraker”, Serene Meshel-Dillman’s new documentary, offers a comprehensive and emotional look behind the scenes at one Los Angeles ballet school and its pre-professional company as they make the journey toward a final performance. Fresh from a win at the Atlanta Film Festival and an official selection of the Mallorca International Film Festival, “Getting to the Nutcracker” is bound to be a hit with young dancers who have lived the experience. It should also be something of an education for many who may not quite understand the artistic dedication and long arc of preparation that goes in to producing any full scale ballet.

The action follows three months of exhausting preparations. Along the way we watch a cast of passionate teenage dancers as they prepare for their leading roles as soloists at rehearsals, in class, and finally at the theater. But there is more to it than just dance news. Meshel-Dillman gives us a touching depiction of their lives, families, and especially the spirited camaraderie that motivates them. At the center of the film is Marat Daukayev, a former principal dancer with the Kirov for twenty years who is the guiding light and artistic motor behind the production. And while the film maybe be ostensibly about one “Nutcracker” perhaps the most powerful message here is the one Daukayev makes as a deep spirit who feels compelled to pass on the historic Russian artistic legacy to his young dancers. He shines in a sympathetic and intensely human portrait, a man who loves dance and who can communicate its value. At one point in talking about the art of ballet he says, “If people see you are happy when you are dancing, they are happy, too”. It’s not that often that you you hear such open hearted philiosophy from the upper ranks of the ballet world.

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Daukayev’s production is one of those Nutcrackers with a cast of thousands. Along with the huge compliment of dancers of all ages drawn from the school, we also see the busy involvement of volunteers, teachers, “dancing parents”, costumers, set decorators and the families without whom the production would not be possible. The direction does an admirable job of condensing the sprawling content into a fleet 100 minutes which never feels overworked.

Particularly rewarding was the cinematography by Arseni Khachaturian. The scenes shot at the theater are glowing, full of motion, and capture the excitement of a live performance shot from the wings. The editing of the performance shots and the accompanying music fared less well. Frequent cuts of the final performance footage left the film’s conclusion feeling overly fragmented. Getting to the Nutcracker will fit in well with other dance documentaries such as Only When I Dance, First Position and Fame High. They all take uplifting, hopeful looks at dance as seen through the eyes of young performers.

(The film was released in November 2014 by Confiscated Film, Inc. in New York and Los Angeles. The producers were Ray Dillman and Serene Meshel-Dillman in association with the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet in Los Angeles.)

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