You may have seen the ballet “The Nutcracker” countless times. Watching it every year might be a holiday tradition. But have you ever been inside it?
This weekend, I stood in front of a house I had never visited before, but familiar music made it seem like a place I had long known. Then the door opened and I walked right into the ballet.
This dreamlike experience — and how it is sustained — is the great achievement of “The Nutcracker at Wethersfield,” which BalletCollective is presenting through Dec. 23 at the Wethersfield Estate in Amenia, N.Y. (The production will be also streamed for free on its website Dec. 23-26.)
Wethersfield is a find. A red brick, Georgian-style house with antique-stuffed parlors, surrounded by formal gardens and augmented for the occasion with a circus tent, it makes for a near-perfect “Nutcracker” set. Or more than a set: the place you’ve always imagined, a fantasy you can enter.
This special achievement is connected to a more basic one. Most if not all live “Nutcrackers” in the area have been canceled, including the one that matters most to the cast of this production. Its artistic director and choreographer, Troy Schumacher, and almost all of its 23 dancers are members of New York City Ballet, whose benchmark Balanchine production they won’t be performing this year. (A 2019 recording is streaming through Jan. 3 on Marquee TV.)
But an immersive “Nutcracker” at a secluded estate is possible during the pandemic. In this carefully designed operation, masked guests cluster in seven to eight socially distanced pods, self-selected groups of two to six people. I say “guests” because you can’t buy tickets, exactly. Pandemic restrictions don’t allow that. Instead, underwriters contributing a minimum of $5,000 are invited to bring a group. Forty percent of the slots are offered for free to local nonprofits and essential workers — and to a few critics like me so that we may tell the tale.
A more intimate “Nutcracker,” this is in some senses a reduced one. For the opening party scene, it’s just the nuclear family — Mom and Dad, Fritz and Marie (played by adults) — plus an avuncular Drosselmeyer with a gift for magic and three pods of audience-guests huddling in the corners. It’s remarkable, though, how much is retained: the cozy atmosphere, two dancing toys, four giant mice.
The Tchaikovsky music is piped in, but some guests experience an interlude in an ornate room during which the violinist Lauren Cauley plays a virtuosic fantasia on themes from the score. It’s a nice addition to the party, and also part of the not-quite-flawless pacing and spacing — occupying the first guests while later arrivals watch a repeat of the opening section. At points when the process stalls, you can observe and admire the nevertheless impressive mechanism.
Peeking through windows from the outside is how you witness bedtime and the arrival of the mice. Each audience-group sees a different view. In mine, all the performers — Drosselmeyer, the father, a mouse — couldn’t resist messing with a chess board, as if they had all been watching “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Most of the fresh particularities are like that: small, on the cute side. The human-size Nutcracker crosses swords with the Mouse King in a courtyard, scaring him off rather than killing him, and with no help from Marie. But then we follow the Nutcracker into wonder.
At the edge of an oval pool, we watch a gorgeously framed “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in the distance, the dancers doing their best on a grassy slope. We follow topiary paths strewn with fairy lights into the tent, where a table has been set for each pod, topped with fake and untouchable treats.
In the center is a stage, which means there can be real dancing. most of the usual divertissement from Act II — minus “Coffee” and “Tea,” and their ethnic-stereotype pitfalls. Mr. Schumacher’s choreography is adequate, skillfully meeting the challenge of in-the-round staging with an occasional felicity but no real magic.
The dancing was also fine, up to City Ballet standards but not City Ballet heights. As can happen in the Balanchine production, the Sugarplum Fairy (Ashley Laracey, who alternates with Sara Mearns) was outshone by the Dewdrop, Mira Nadon, who glowed with amplitude and ballerina authority amid eight waltzing flowers.
But while part of the point of this production is to get members of a great company dancing again, it’s not really about great choreography or great dancing. Nor is it really about the full Nutcracker story, which is partially left behind in favor of the journey. After we leave the house, we never see Marie and her family again. It’s as if we have become them.
That transformation is the true magic of this solution to a pandemic problem. What I found most moving was the mime by which the dancers and a few ushers guided us through the ballet. This was danced courtesy, a warm welcome, and as much as the setting, it invited me right into the heart of a ballet I felt lucky not to have missed.
The Nutcracker at Wethersfield
Through Dec. 23 at Wethersfield Estate, Amenia, N.Y.; and streaming Dec. 23-26, nutcrackeratwethersfield.com.