Family jewels

Virginia Brooks illuminates the magic behind The Nutcracker

THE HAPPY COUPLE Kayali and DeVivo as the Prince and Marie in The Nutcracker.

Photo: Paul Kolnik

One of the most compelling offerings in the new installment of the Dance on Camera festival is an enchantingly quiet, oddly gripping documentary about the children who are chosen to appear in George Balanchine's 1954 The Nutcracker. Virginia Brooks, director of The Nutcracker Family: Behind the Magic, has been the videographer at the School of American Ballet since 1973, but she first became intrigued about the behind-the-scenes process when her three children danced in productions of the classic in the early '70s. As luck would have it, she was concurrently a film student.

"My kid was in it, and in those days the unions didn't keep parents from shooting," Brooks recalls. One of the many highlights in Behind the Magic is Super-8 archival footage from a 1970 dress rehearsal, featuring Balanchine. "I'm curious to see what those sections will look like on the big screen," Brooks says. "So far, I've only seen them on a monitor. But you can certainly tell it's Balanchine—and you can suffer through a little low-grade footage for that. He was just wonderful with the children and interested in every little part. Just the amount of time he spent with the little girl who was Marie that year! He went on and on to explain how to use the Nutcracker to crack the nut and then how she should be really appreciative of how it tasted by rubbing her stomach. He pretended to be the Mouse King fighting the Prince. He was really into it."

Several gems from that rehearsal period appear during the end credits, which also feature a photograph of now-principal Jennie Somogyi in costume as Marie, followed by her leaping through the air as the Sugarplum Fairy. (Only one other dancer, Judith Fugate, has danced both parts). And Balanchine, after showing the Mouse King how to battle the Prince in a sword fight, raises his weapon in victory; it's quite amazing. "I have 43 minutes of it," Brooks says of the Balanchine footage. If the valuable film is commercially released on DVD, she plans on including more of the Balanchine material, an interview with David Richardson—who was the children's ballet master in the '70s—and documentation focusing on 2003's second cast.

At the centerpiece of Behind the Magic is Garielle Whittle, who, as the children's ballet mistress, is responsible for casting Nutcracker as well as teaching the surprisingly sophisticated choreography (the movement for the Candy Canes—otherwise known as hoops—and the Polichinelles is quite advanced). "You have to constantly check the board," Whittle instructs a group of children. "You have to be responsible for your own rehearsals." The film begins at the 2003 audition as the calm, methodical Whittle arranges dozens of leotard-clad School of American Ballet students in groups and plucks six lucky dancers to portray Marie, Fritz and the Nutcracker/Prince. Much of the action is confined to the rehearsal studio, where Whittle and the dancers, unadorned by fussy costumes, take the choreography apart, including Balanchine's script for the Prince's pantomime, and put it back together. The film comes full circle when Isabella DeVivo, who plays the adorable bunny in 2003, is chosen as Marie for the 2004 production; Ghaleb Kayali, a charismatic Fritz in 2003, also gets his wish: He is selected to be the Nutcracker/Prince the following year.

Along with several former dancers, Leslie Urdang recalls her last performance in The Nutcracker. "I remember tears streaming down my face in the finale and trying desperately to remember exactly how I felt because it would probably be the last time I ever did it," she says. "Very, very sad, but it's something that you never find again, really." Brooks, who is a professor of film at Brooklyn College, has unsentimentally documented a triumphant place where labor and determination come together to create a world of beauty. "I had a teacher in film school who said that the thing about documentary filmmaking is finding the elephant in the haystack," she says. "That's a great metaphor. Forget about the pin or the needle—some big thing is there, but you have to extract it. I was helped when Ghaleb and Isabella came through to become the next generation. There is something there. It's not a big, dramatic story—it's a small story—but it's really about how hard they work."

The Nutcracker Family: Behind the Magic is at Walter Reade Theater Saturday 7.