PORT TOWNSEND — Once there was a ballet dancer who thought performing was canceled.
It was 2020, after all.
Then, on a September evening, 16-year-old Isabella Knott learned of a different ending. So did her fellow top-level dancers at the Ballet Workshop of Port Angeles.
Not only would a movie be made of their production of “The Nutcracker,” but it would be shown at one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the region.
This weekend, following the most challenging leaps of her career, Ballet Workshop Director Kate Robbins and her cast of 65 local dancers will see “Nutcracker: The Movie” on the giant outdoor screen.
The Wheel-In Motor Movie, 210 Theater Road just off state Highway 19, is the venue.
Normally Port Townsend’s drive-in closes around Halloween. But owner Rick Wiley worked with Robbins and Ballet Workshop administrator Lindsey Casad to have just four screenings of “Nutcracker”: 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Saturday’s 5:30 showing was nearly sold out by Thursday afternoon.
Safety protocols are in place as they have been since the Wheel-In’s opening last May, with just 75 cars, half of normal capacity, allowed in. The concession stand will be open for all showings.
The Juan de Fuca Foundation for the Arts stepped in as a sponsor and the ticket outlet.
Reservations, via JFFA.org, are $45 per car or $85 per large vehicle with 10 or more passengers; drive-up patrons without reservations pay $5 more at the gate.
Information and a 32-second trailer can be found on the Juan de Fuca Foundation’s Facebook page.
“Nutcracker: The Movie” was shot in 4K high-definition video for a giant screen, Robbins said. Her dream — and she did have a vivid dream about a drive-in “Nutcracker” — was to give the audience a night out to remember.
“It’s all just really magical,” said Knott, who shares the supreme role of the Sugar Plum Fairy with her friend Kim Braun.
The Ballet Workshop’s Ava Johnson portrays the Snow Queen.
In past years Robbins has brought professional dancers from out of town for such roles. This fall, many hours of extra coaching prepared the Port Angeles teenagers for the performance of their lives.
“You would think that when you’re filming everything, it would be easier, because then you could pick your perfect take” of each scene, Knott said.
In fact, “you have to do everything like seven more times than you would on a [live] stage.
“But it was a really great experience,” added the dancer, a high school junior who hopes to join a professional company one day.
Braun, a year older than Knott, has danced at the Ballet Workshop since she was 4. Sylvia Wanner, the now-retired founder of the studio, was her first mentor.
“She put a lot of imagination and creativity into her classes,” said Braun, who played a baby mouse in her first “Nutcracker.”
The pair of Sugar Plum Fairies “are gorgeous in this film,” Robbins said.
“Their performances are exceptional,” alongside the Ballet Workshop’s Noah Long as the Nutcracker Prince and Richard Stephens, Port Angeles’ multidisciplinary theater artist, as the narrator.
He is brilliant, Robbins said.
Before embarking on this project, she asked herself: How can I stage this both safely and artistically for all of us?
She began answering that question last August by rewriting the production she has done in previous years, turning it into a one-hour ballet with social distancing, small rehearsal groups and two rotating casts.
With filmmaker Jeffrey Giles’ multiple cameras, Robbins and the company spread out filming across five days in November.
This was after the seven Saturdays of rehearsals, frequent conversations with county health officials and investment in UV sanitizing equipment, Robbins said.
She rented Port Angeles High School’s auditorium, along with the elaborate backdrops, to provide the dancers with abundant space.
“By far, it’s the most labor intensive project I’ve ever directed. The logistics were astronomical,” she said, “and demanded the very best of all of us.”
In the end, for Robbins, the cinematic capture of her devoted performers made it all worthwhile. To watch the film is to see cast and crew persevering, creating a holiday event defiant of this time in history.
And that, she said, “is deeply moving.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected].