‘Nutcracker’ Performance Sweetens Brooklyn Students’ Pandemic-Wracked Year

‘Nutcracker’ Performance Sweetens Brooklyn Students’ Pandemic-Wracked Year
Anna Campanelli

By Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY. This article was originally published

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It was looking like the annual student performance of “The Nutcracker” at the PS9 The Sarah Smith Garnet School in Brooklyn would meet the same fate as the canceled spring recital.

But dance teacher Iris Wilson was determined to see the show go on.

Wilson came up with an idea: make the recital virtual, with kids filming their routines from home if they were doing fully remote learning, or outdoors on the Prospect Heights school’s grounds if they attended in-person classes part-time.

The result will be streamed Thursday night, Christmas Eve.

This year, the Tchaikovsky ballet is not just a sweet holiday diversion but a chance for students to perform as part of their community at a time when COVID has halted activities from science fairs to spelling bees.

“Seeing them makes my heart smile. I can see them smile behind their masks,” said Wilson, a former Broadway performer. “Children are resilient no matter what the circumstances are — I think the adults are most stressed out.”

Fourth-grader Miles, who is playing Godfather Drosselmeyer in this year’s production and recorded most of his scenes at home, recognizes that the opportunity isn’t to be taken for granted.

“I’m really excited to be able to do it this year and that I’m able to do it in this pandemic,” he said.

Healing After Heartbreak

The virtual production marks a moment of healing for the school in a heartbreaking year, in which their own Sandra Santos-Vizcaíno, 54, was reportedly the first New York City school teacher to die of the virus. The performance is dedicated to her memory.

This year, only 86 students from the second through fifth grades are participating, down from about 300 typically — a downsizing Wilson concedes is “more manageable,” given the circumstances.

The first act — set in a living room parlor on Christmas Eve — stars the students who opted to go full-remote, featuring their routines from home.

The second act, set in the Land of Sweets, features the children who opted for hybrid in-person learning. It was filmed on the school’s playground by a team of volunteer professional videographers — current and former PS9 parents.

That includes Geoffrey Amend, a parent of PS9 alums, who heeded Wilson’s call for volunteers. “Ms. Wilson is awesome,” he said. “I look at it as just an opportunity to try and help out.”

The new format has proven to be popular with the kids, too.

“They were having so much fun because they have never been on a set before,” Wilson said. “I had to explain that’s the beauty of film — I loved giving them a different experience from a live experience.”

Second-Grade Stars

This year’s event marks a milestone for Miles, who’s participated in previous Nutcracker productions at PS9: It’s the first time he gets to do more than one dance.

“I’m excited that I can perform, which is one of my favorite things to do, without having to go on stage because I have a little bit of stage fright and I’m just excited for the role that I have this year,” the 9-year-old said.

Third-grader Nia, who plays one of the candy canes, said she looked forward to “dancing with my best friends.”

Nia, who starred in last year’s production, said her favorite part of the ballet is in the first act, when Clara and the Nutcracker face off against the soldiers and the mouse army — “because last year, when I played Clara, I got to fight the Mouse King.”

This year, Anujin, a second-grader, is starring as Clara. “I’m so psyched to do it,” the 7-year-old said, gushing about her gold-and-white costume: “It’s so beautiful.”

While most production took place during mild-weather days, some of the final in-person sessions were filmed as outdoor temperatures began to drop.

One of the final sessions had the children leaping and spinning in the cold. “That was the worst day ever,” joked Anujin.

But it was worth it for the payoff: “I can’t wait to be on TV and watch myself dance.”

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