Some things are certain each holiday season: sugar cookies, last-minute shopping, Andy Williams’ Christmas songs, and countless performances of “The Nutcracker” ballet all over the globe.
But, as far as we know, Nimbus Dance in Jersey City puts on the only “Nutcracker” set in New Jersey’s second largest city — complete with dozens of local children and Garden State-centric characters that include the Statue of Liberty, a corrupt politician, and a creature known as Mama Cannoli.
And now, even with the coronavirus pandemic keeping families from seeing many holiday shows in person, the company found a way for you to watch from home.
Nimbus, which has staged “Jersey City Nutcracker” live for the last 11 years, instead made this year’s production a film, which made its debut on December 18.
“Jersey City Nutcracker: The Movie” originally streamed Saturday, December 18 and Sunday, December 19 at 5:00pm. You can download the film in a pay-per-view format through December 31. The cost is pay what you wish, though there’s a suggested $15 donation.
“We’re really just happy to be able to continue in spite of the circumstances,” says Samuel Pott, Nimbus’ artistic director, who has also choreographed and co-wrote the yearly production. “‘Jersey City Nutcracker’ for many people has become kind of an annual tradition.”
And it’s a show that reflects Nimbus’ core mission since Pott founded the company 15 years ago: not just creating interesting art but serving the Jersey City community and engaging with its residents.
A New York City native, Pott is a longtime professional dancer, having been a soloist with the famed Martha Graham Dance Company in New York. He moved across the Hudson to Jersey City in 2004 and started Nimbus the following year.
Nimbus is not just a performance company but a school that teaches dances to children in the area. In September, the company opened a new arts center in downtown Jersey City with a 150-seat theater and four dance studios.
“We don’t intend to be kind of an arts organization that is separate and above the audience we serve,” Pott says. “We try to level with the community where we’re based.”
Pott’s mission carried over to “The Nutcracker.” The 19th century ballet — with its infamous Tchaikovsky score — is a staple of global dance, especially at Christmas. It’s estimated that many American ballet companies generate about half of their annual revenue from “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s the one production in dance that has immediate name recognition,” Pott says.
Plus, he explains, it allows for a sense of community.
“Most of the time, ballet and modern dance companies perform repertory that can only be done by trained experts — the artists you see on stage,” Pott says. “But ‘Nutcracker’ is one of the few productions that kind of breaks down barriers between who is allowed to be on stage and who isn’t. It’s performed by a multigenerational cast and there’s youth and there’s community members.”
Pott set out to tailor Nimbus’ version of the ballet to Jersey City, a diverse, 250,000-resident burgeoning metropolis located just across Manhattan that has experienced major growth in recent years.
Though the show still uses the ballet’s original beloved score, the storyline is completely new, a modern-day tale following two children — one rich, one poor but best friends — on an adventure through the city.
“They discover a nutcracker and meet all kinds of wild and crazy characters along the way and are led to a vision of what their city might one day become,” Potts says. “In a nutshell.”
(It’s unclear whether the pun was intended.)
The first show was put on at a local church and later moved to a middle-school auditorium and at Nimbus’ own venue the last three years. The production — produced in partnership with Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs — changes slightly every year, including cameos from Jersey City celebrities. But it usually features a mix of Nimbus’ professional dancers and local children ages 4-17, both from the company’s school and the surrounding community.
The characters, Pott says, are people you might meet in the city. Like athletes from St. Peter’s and New Jersey City universities. There’s also a corrupt mayor modeled after notorious early 20th century Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague.
And Pott — who co-wrote the script with New Jersey artist Alyssa Souder — refashioned some of the ballet’s sections with a local flair. The “Waltz of the Flowers” becomes the “Waltz of the Hipsters.” “Chocolate (Spanish Dance)” becomes “Gente de la Fiesta.”
There are also animated scenic projections by Jersey City video artists Laia Cabrerra and Isabelle Duverger.
All in all, it’s vastly different from a traditional “Nutcracker” production, which Pott says draws audiences “into a world that harkens back to European aristocracy.”
“In the first scene, you see this kind of ideal aristocratic household with noble parents who dance around together and opulent sets that make you feel like you’re in some kind of mansion in Europe somewhere,” he explains of the original 1892 ballet. “Our story really celebrates the grittiness and the idiosyncrasies of Jersey City — all the eccentric characters, the artistic flair, the sense of uniqueness that exists in Jersey City.”
“There’s a zillion ‘Nutcracker’ productions out there,” Pott adds. “So given who we are and where we are, for us to put together a traditional ‘Nutcracker’ wouldn’t have made sense at all.”
Of course, the biggest difference this year is COVID-19. Initially, Pott expected the pandemic would have improved enough to begin having in-person performances again this year. But as a second wave started hitting New Jersey in the fall, there was even a question whether “Jersey City Nutcracker” just wouldn’t have a 12th straight season.
To avoid that, Pott turned to local filmmaker Stephanie Daniels and her husband, Mark Smith, who runs o7 Films to adapt the show into a movie.
A member of Nimbus’ board, Daniels has seen the show numerous times in the past. Last year, she even played a guest role as Mama Cannoli, a Jersey-fied replacement for Mama Ginger in the original ballet that is often played by someone new each production.
“It’s a basic cameo on a ladder — this 10-foot tall creature who comes out onstage kvelling about her little baby cookies,” Daniels says. “It’s just adorable.”
This year, she had a bigger role, trying to reshape a large stage production into a movie despite precautions against the pandemic. Usually, the show has more than 100 children. But this year, it was cut down to 31 youth and 13 adult professional dancers.
“The idea was to turn it into a video for social distancing,” Daniels says “So their parents could feel comfortable about their children participating in this. There wouldn’t be huge crowds of people watching, there wouldn’t be huge crowds of people on stage. It would all be very safe and buttoned-up.”
And daunting. Daniels says much of the movie was planned during Zoom meetings. One issue was how to tell the lead characters’ story without having kids being on stage with the whole cast.
“My husband was like, ‘Oh, why don’t we put them on a separate screen and do a shadow story?’” she explains. “It works really well, actually.”
Nimbus isn’t the only New Jersey company moving their “Nutcracker” productions online because of the pandemic. Roxey Ballet in Lambertville, the New Jersey Ballet Company in Florham Park, and the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble in Summit all have some form of streaming “Nutcracker” content. There’s also an online version of another alternative take on the ballet, “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” filmed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
Pott is proud that Nimbus has still been able to offer limited, socially distanced classes in person this year.
“I’m a father of a 10-year-old girl, and she takes classes at Nimbus,” he says. “So I really see directly how important it is for kids to have social engagement, to have the chance to move their bodies, get out of the house. And for us to be able to provide the normalcy of scheduled activities that provide this kind of social engagement and time away from the screen has been really important.”
As for next year? Pott says Nimbus is hoping in-person performances will return. Until then, the company is planning an event in March focused on female solo dancers, headlined by Sarah Lane, a Jersey City resident who dances for the American Ballet Theatre in New York.
And in April, the company is planning a project called “People Place Disruption” in which Nimbus' dancers will collaborate with Jersey City visual artists on work that “reflects back on the experience of the pandemic from a social and political perspective,” Pott says.
The plan now, he adds, is for both events to be virtual, but they may be live if the pandemic improves.
Nimbus is also considering doing a touring version of “Jersey City Nutcracker” in future years — “Jersey Nutcracker,” Pott says.
At least for now, there’s the film version. And, as the director, Daniels is honored to have been part of it — and to work with an arts company focused not just on arts but its hometown.
“For me, that makes for a nonprofit that’s worth it,” Daniels explains. “‘The Nutcracker’ really speaks to that part of Nimbus. It’s not just a recital. … It’s another thing. Kids are dancing side by side with professional dancers. And that’s valuable.”
“Jersey City Nutcracker: The Movie” premiered online on December 19th and 20th at 5pm E.D.T. through a hosted online viewing party. Tickets are pay what you wish, with a suggested minimum of $15 per viewer. Attendees can expect wholesome (albeit, a little wacky!) holiday fun with some interactive moments throughout the evening. For more, visit www.nimbusdance.org/events/jersey-city-nutcracker-the-movie.