Getting to the Nutcracker Shows the Sugarplum-Sweet Side of Putting Up a Ballet

Serene Meshel-Dillman’s new documentary follows local dance students from the studio to the stage

There is no bulimia or anorexia exposed. No catfights or boyfriend battles. Instead Serene Meshel-Dillman’s film Getting to the Nutcracker comes off as sugarplum-sweet. The documentary’s Los Angeles premiere is this afternoon at Laemmle’s Pasadena Playhouse 7 and runs through November 20. The Santa Monica-based director has been collecting a host of film festival prizes across the country for portraying how Marat Daukayev Ballet Theatre prepares its students for the holiday classic each year. Daukayev trained for 20 years with the Kirov Ballet before founding his school in Mid Wilshire in 2001; today he plays the role of Drosselmeyer in his annual Nutcracker production, which is a restaging of the 1934 St. Petersburg version and features more than 130 dancers ages 3 to 21. Meshel-Dillman, who took ballet growing up in New York, says she “always enjoyed the behind-the-curtain experience more than the actual performances.” Here she does just that, showing what goes on during auditions, rehearsals, and the final performance; interviewing teachers, students, and their families; and revealing intimate details along the way. We spoke with Meshel-Dillman about her filmmaking process.

Why did you decide to make this film?
I was inspired by a book that was published by Jill Krementz called A Very Young Dancer, which followed a young girl who was cast as Clara in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker from auditions to final performance. I was a student at the School of American Ballet at that time. I wrote a treatment for a reality-TV show and was signed by NBC for six months to get it off the ground. When we presented to cable channels under the NBC umbrella, there was no interest, as there was nothing salacious about the show. No sex, cursing, bulimia, anorexia, etc. During this time, I had been approaching ballet companies to participate and ended up going with the Marat Daukayev Ballet Theatre. When I went back to tell them the show wasn’t happening, they asked me to do it as a documentary. In offering me complete creative control, how could I say no?

When did you begin filming and when did it end?
Preproduction began in February 2012. We began shooting September 6, 2012, and our final day of shooting was the last Nutcracker performance, on December 16, 2012.

What were some of the challenges? What were some of your favorite moments? What surprised you?
As you can imagine, there is no “wait a sec, I want to shoot that again” option in documentary filmmaking. I had six cameras rolling during all of the Nutcracker performances and at least two cameras going during classes, rehearsals, and other insert shots. My son Zach established a server somewhere in the cloud for us to download the camera cards when they were full during performance shooting so the cameramen could go right back out to continue to shoot without missing much. With different lenses on each camera and more than 300 hours of footage, that is what ended up being pivotal for the editing process and the biggest challenge. 

My favorite moments ended up being the more intimate ones, when I interviewed the kids and their families outside of the studio environment. I went to their homes, their schools, and spent time alone with them commuting to/from classes. That’s when they opened up and I learned some things I probably wouldn’t have heard about in a classroom setting.

The surprise came when I had all the soloist kids in Adam’s basement during a dinner party. They wouldn’t stop talking, they didn’t want the discussion to end. When it got late and their parents came in to say they had to leave, Adam said “no,” locked the door, and told them we’d be done when he said they were done! We didn’t leave that room for more than three hours. I learned more about their disappointments, hopes, and dreams in those three hours than at any other time during our months of shooting.

How did Marat Daukayev feel about your making the film? How did the students respond to the filmmaking process?
Marat Daukayev’s school was named the best for children’s ballet in Los Angeles by your magazine. I had a few friends at my daughter’s school whose kids attended the school, so I was aware of the high level of their Nutcracker production. The idea to make the doc was ultimately Marat and Pamela Daukayev’s. They gave me complete access and total freedom to the point of making every student and their families sign film releases before being allowed to audition for the Nutcracker that year.At first the students were a little cautious (maybe the first two weeks). By the third week of shooting, they greeted me with hugs and kisses. The remaining four months of shooting I was completely ignored. Even when I had the camera a foot away from them, they went about their rehearsals as if I weren’t there. 

There are stories within stories in the film—quiet, unexplained moments that tell a story that’s not fully fleshed out. Why did you include these? What were you hoping to convey?
Ha, yes, you noticed. The good part about this is that you can see the movie ten times and it’ll be different for you each time. You’ll notice these small nuances only after a few viewings.

The boys at one point did pushups the moment they entered the studio. Was it for being late to class? There’s a quick shot before the camera moves on.
Adam and Mikhael were late for class because their bus was late, which happened more often than not. Marat makes the boys do pushups when they arrive late, but he also makes them count in about eight different languages at the same time. That day they were counting in Hebrew. 

Some boys were playing around on the piano in the studio—more proof of their talents?
Both Adam and Julian are extremely talented pianists. Interestingly most of the students play the piano or some other instrument. There’s no story here other than the fact that they are very smart. I don’t think there was one student at this school that wasn’t getting straight A’s.

The girls were using their iPhones to record the professional dancers practicing Giselle—to study the technique and artistry later?
Maria Kotchetkova is now perhaps the most famous and exquisite prima ballerina of our time. She was trained at the Kirov, where Marat danced as a principal dancer for 20 years. She and Joaquin De Luz (New York City Ballet) danced together in two of last year’s Marat Daukayev Nutcracker performances. Maria will be dancing again in this year’s Nutcracker with a different professional partner. Maria is a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. Whenever she has a chance, she flies down to Los Angeles to train with Marat. He is her mentor and teacher, and she is constantly looking to him for guidance and to hone her ballet skills. The girls (and boys) at the Marat Daukayev Ballet School study Maria when she takes company class with them as well as stay late into the evenings when she rehearses with Marat. As with any artistic endeavor, to have someone you can look up to and emulate is an opportunity not to be missed. The girls pore over the video they shoot of Maria in the hopes of gleaning some of her secrets and making them their own.