The dancers of the Pacific Northwest Ballet who have never seen a film company at work on their stage are somewhat in awe of the commotion caused by transferring their successful production of "The Nutcracker" to the screen. Mostly in their 20s, they wander around in their 18th-Century dress or mouse costumes fascinated by the mechanics of repeating and repeating steps and sequences for director Carroll Ballard.
Unlike the jaded types you might see in New York who can't wait for a coffee break and a cigarette, these dancers will show up even on days when they're not dancing to see how choreographer Kent Stowell is adapting steps for the camera or watch Maurice Sendak, who conceived, designed and costumed this production, make similar alterations for the camera.
With the help of a fake chin, nose and bald pate, Hugh Bigney, 30, created the starring role of Herr Drosselmeyer, the doll maker who sets the story of "The Nutcracker" in motion. His daughter, Shaundra, 8, is a baby mouse in the movie. "I find it difficult," says Bigney, "to go to lunch and come back and be the same way. Carroll is interesting to watch. As the day goes on, I grow tired and get unresponsive. And he's just the opposite!"
"I've lost my chandelier!" exclaims the 58-year-old Sendak with resignation.
What the celebrated children's illustrator and designer for New York City Opera has actually "lost" is the hanging centerpiece in his set design for a new, unorthodox film version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet.
Ballard is huddled behind a camera in the empty orchestra pit of the University of Washington's Meany Auditorium rethinking many elements of the Christmas classic for the camera. He wants the chandelier removed from the camera's shot because "the void works for us," he tells Sendak.
Before proceeding, he asks Sendak to view the camera shot for himself and see why it's "too cluttered" to remain intact. As the chandelier is hoisted, Ballard says, "Up, up and away, bye, bye," and goes back behind his camera.
"He counts on my being reasonable," mutters Sendak appreciatively of their creative partnership, which is gradually altering PNB's 3-year-old production into what promises to be more than simply a recording of a stage production. (The film, distributed by Atlantic Releasing, will open in November with a newly recorded score by the London Symphony.)
This interpretation put the company on the nation's dance map when it premiered in December, 1983. With its fresh dramatic slant and visual richness, the hit version of the ballet won accolades from national dance critics.
But "Nutcracker's" road to the screen really began in 1981 when artistic director Stowell's wife, Francia Russell, the PNB's associate artistic director, saw the Sendak-designed "The Magic Flute' in Houston. She suggested he do it.
"Being asked to design a 'Nutcracker,' " says Sendak, who had never previously designed a ballet, "is like being asked to do the 'Ring.' You know it's going to take two years of your life and you have to love the thing. I didn't love it! So I said no."
When they met again, Sendak says, both realized "how bored and displeased we were with the traditional version. What Kent was asking me to do was to start from scratch, with only Tchaikovsky--who has always been the best part."
Sendak went back to the early 19th-Century short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."
"We spent over a year revising the story," Sendak recalls, "putting as much into it as was German and weird and fascinating--what made it beautiful." If there is any reason why he thinks the Seattle version has been a success, "it's that it's so different.
"It's pre-Freud," he argues. "Hoffmann is in sympathy with the psychology or inner workings of a child's mind. That hadn't been done until then. Freud was very explicit that Hoffmann was one of the authors who drew him into psychology. Hoffmann is modern--in our sense of the word. He has a vision of the inside of a child of great sensitivity; her family loves her but is out of sympathy with her. It's a great insight.
"Why it appeals to me is because there's a favorite subject of mine: children going through an event in life in full view of the parent. The parents, as loving as they are, are oblivious that their child is having this adventure right in front of them!
"She has to go through this all by herself. The moral being: All kids do."
The PNB "Nutcracker" spawned a best-selling hardcover version of the Hoffmann story with Sendak illustrations two years ago. But if the movie looks typically Sendakian, with an 18th-Century living room decorated with nudes, a bust of Mozart (Hoffmann added the A to his complete name in honor of Amadeus), a pasha, a peacock and a tall clock topped by an owl who flaps his wings on the hour, it ultimately will depend on Ballard's eye.
"My main concern was a 'pure' ballet film wouldn't interest a general audience," says Ballard, 48. So he set out to find a way to counter that.
A stocky, graying figure with a goatee in a sweat shirt and jeans, Ballard's reputation as the total film maker, who shoots, directs and edits his films, has caused certain problems. Although he has been involved in movies for 20 years, this will be only his third feature film as director ("The Black Stallion" and "Never Cry Wolf").
"I took this (movie) for the opportunity to work with Maurice and do a different kind of film," he explains. "I feel I've been typecast as an animal guy. I've a whole barn full of scripts about boys and their puppy or girls with their friend the whale. That never has been my interest in making films. It's very difficult for a guy like me getting deals off the ground. The movies I'm interested in making, nobody's interested in."
Ballard's interest in "Nutcracker" was piqued by seeing the PNB production, "a fascination with the artificiality of the theater" and, also, by reading the original Hoffmann story. "I'm amazed someone hadn't tried to make this kind of a film before. The story is much darker and heavier than the ballet."
"Nutcracker" has been slightly redesigned for the camera. A kitchen scene was added for the overture, the Christmas tree is now three-dimensional, a "fourth wall" was built for the living room and the Mouse King will be seen with multiple heads, beginning with two and ending with seven.
The coat sleeve through which young Clara (the leading character) walks, only to emerge as an adult in a fantastic dreamland, is 40 feet long. There will also be elaborate movie special effects, a Busby Berkeley-style "Flowers" dance sequence shot from above and an oversized toy cabinet filled with live soldiers. During the tight, two-week shooting period during summer and currently in post production, it's Ballard's camera-eye view that will be seen on screen. He's a fervent believer in the director-as-cameraman, explaining, "I don't see how anybody can direct without looking through the camera. What the camera sees is very different. To make a movie without shooting is like telling someone else where to put the glint on someone's nose in a painting."
Ballard concedes this isn't an attitude that's made him popular in Hollywood. "It's one of the reasons I've never (before) made a film in the United States--it's a no-no."
Tom Wilhite was pacing the back of University of Washington's Meany Auditorium remembering how he became involved as producer. He had worked with director Ballard on "Never Cry Wolf" when he was head of film production at Disney, and also saw the "Nutcracker" premiere. As an independent producer he, too, was interested in a movie version. Wilhite, citing his past association and the need "for a real movie maker," says "Carroll was our first choice when we saw it three years ago. . . . We wanted someone who could take the raw elements and turn them into something magical."
"We didn't want a proscenium picture," adds Willard Carroll, another of the four producers (Donald Kushner and Peter Locke are the other two). "We rethought it for film the way Kent and Maurice rethought it for the stage. Basically, it's a silent movie done with visual comedy and emotion."
"We see this as a cross between an MGM musical and a Korda picture," says Wilhite, referring to the tastefully opulent producer whose classics include "Thief of Bagdad" and "The Jungle Book."
As Sendak sits in the auditorium, a youngster who's a mouse approaches him with a "Nutcracker" book. "Could you draw a mouse king for me?"
"Sure," says Sendak, going to work. Film making, he thinks, "is another rhythm. In opera, I'm checking costumes, screaming at Frank (Corsaro, the director with whom he's worked the most), talking to the lighting man." He gets up and goes onstage, grabbing paint and a brush to touch up a set.
On the stage, Ballard is coaching 12-year-old Vanessa Sharp to properly mime Clara's fear of mice.
For Ballard, filming dance presents a dilemma. In Fred Astaire's time, dancers could be shot head to toe in the classic square frame. But today's wide-screen proportions often deemphasize dancers' technique, as in Herb Ross' "Nijinsky," by filming mostly from the knee up.
How vital is it to see the feet? "I think it's important to see the whole dancer," says the director. "We've tried to do all different 'flavors'--the whole gamut. Where we have a great performance, you'll see it all. I want to avoid movie trickery," he says, adding, "It's a helluva lot tougher to shoot than I thought it would be."