Jorge Colombo /// Nutcracker: Rated R (2009)

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My 2009 Ballet Season

I spent much of December 2009 at the East Village's Theater for the New City. I was working on the digital sets for Nutcracker: Rated R, an Off-Broadway ballet. Those were basically drawings created on an iPhone, exported as step-by-step animations, and projected over the dancers onstage while Tchaikovsky played. It was my first experience of this kind. I hope I get to do more.

(Click on the left to see a sampler movie.)

My friends Angela Harriell and David F. Slone, Esq. have been putting this show together for 4 years, and got me onboard with them this time. We go way back, them collaborating on my projects, me on theirs. From a production point of view, this minimal set building -- everything but a couple stage props is projected -- made things easier. From my point of view, given how much I've explored iPhone drawing in the past year, the challenge was tempting: why not?

The whole production is put together on the tiniest of budgets. Nobody makes a fortune here; it’s a labor of love. It was thrilling to witness the good humor and general unflappability of the entire company. Everybody multi-tasked cheerfully. It was one of the best work environments I've experienced.

Want technical details? Everything was drawn on an iPhone using the Brushes app (the old one, without layers) and exported to my Mac as QuickTime movies, using Brushes Viewer. QuickTime Pro was used to add mp3 files of the music, and also to assemble all movies into a single file, projected from a MacBook Pro connected to a projector. Nothing else was used. I have the utmost admiration for sophisticated technical setups and for those who can use them well. But I tend to enjoy working with a barebones set of tools.

Steve Sprang, the creator of the Brushes app, had his own technical cameo. Having last-minute trouble fitting my movies to the length of the tracks, I sent him an SOS, and he customized for me a Brushes Viewer that allowed me to specify the final length of a movie, down to fractions of a second.

Most people are familiar with the original premise of the Nutcracker. This production's plot has Clara dreaming her way from present day New York city to the early 1980s. All sorts of transpositions occur: a vinyl record from the past stands in for the music box, the soldiers are Department of Health Inspectors fighting very fashionable kitchen rats, the Snow Queen becomes the Blow Queen supplying clouds of coke to a crazed posse of fairies, etc. The R rating is nominal: the show is for the most part wholesome, full of hilarious moments, and acted/danced with energy and precision by a cast of young talents: Jennifer Carlson, Hyosun Choi, Sarah Conrad, Amy Daulton, Gregory Dubin, Glenn Giron, Eddie Gutierrez, Denis Hyland, Valton Jackson, Christina Johnson, Rachael Ma., Michael MacLaren, Joseph Schles, Ryan Schmidt, David F. Slone, Esq., Julie Smith, Clare Tobin. Stage manager Paul Birkelo, whom I worked closely with, managed to stay calm through all tribulations.

An ambitious choreographer, Angela Harriell is also an acute observer of human behavior and interactions. That translates greatly in her directions -- it’s a treat to hear her running commentary during rehearsals, full of empathy and nuance -- but also in the gentle way she handles the human logistics of a cast. The stage is often crowded, yet each background character is rich with subtle acting details. My job was to establish settings but then let the audience concentrate on the story and the dancing. So, after a short buildup, the drawings remained still for the length of the scenes, or even disappeared. It’s hard to compete with beautiful dancers doing a Grand Pas.

The Nutcracker: Rated R’s 1980s New York is a very stylized affair: nobody in the company is old enough to remember it as a grown-up. I would, but I only discovered the city in the nineties....Thus, unlike most of the landscapes I've been doing, my images were created from scratch, or from Google Images researches. So here I am, drawing the New York city of thirty years ago as a fairytale setting. Can’t wait to see what kind of fairytale someone will pull one day out of 2010.

Jorge Colombo
January 4, 2010