DULUTH — Earlier this week, Sean M. Sullivan found himself in the unusual position of being a professional ballet dancer sitting in a chair telling a story with words.

Sullivan, in his second season with the Minnesota Ballet, is Uncle Drosselmeyer in the company’s new “Nutcracker Suite: A Duluth Tale.” He’s the character charged with setting the scene: a visiting uncle with a story about a young woman he met at the train station, Clara, and her favored nutcracker doll. Meanwhile, a handful of children dressed in holiday best gather, eager, in front of the fireplace.

“It was a little out of my comfort zone, but a good experience,” said Sullivan, who has roots in Irish dance.

Sean M. Sullivan rehearses the scene where he tells gathered children the story of how he once met Clara, who owns the beloved Nutcracker, in this year’s Minnesota Ballet production of The Nutcracker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Sean M. Sullivan rehearses the scene where he tells gathered children the story of how he once met Clara, who owns the beloved Nutcracker, in this year’s Minnesota Ballet production of The Nutcracker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The take on the traditional tale was choreographed for screen by artistic director Karl von Rabenau. A full version is available for download from the Minnesota Ballet; a shortened version will play at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21, on CBS3 in Duluth.

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But before the cameras rolled Monday in the Carriage House on the Congdon Estate, Sullivan passed off his Fitbit to executive director Kelli Latuska — saving his scene, set in the late 1800s, from a piece of anachronistic technology.

A new 'Nutcracker'

With von Rabenau’s new “Nutcracker,” the city is the stage — or at least picturesque spots at the Duluth Depot and Glensheen. Social media shows dancers (with scarves as masks) as people passing at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. A makeshift floor was added to the festively decorated Great Hall. And on Dec. 11, the Carriage House at Glensheen became a destination for a world traveling uncle.

“I wanted to make this a collaboration,” von Rabenau said.

This goes beyond extending the stage. Among the options for viewing is a Nutcracker Sweets Box, which includes dinner for four from The Boathouse, with drinks and popcorn from Duluth Candy Co., in addition to a souvenir.

This is von Rabenau’s first time choreographing “The Nutcracker.” He has reimagined all the divertissements — a shift a lot of companies around the country are making to undo the racial stereotypes that have played on stages, specifically with the Tea Dance.

Minnesota Ballet Artistic Director Karl von Rabenau directs a scene for the streaming version of The Nutcracker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Minnesota Ballet Artistic Director Karl von Rabenau directs a scene for the streaming version of The Nutcracker. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

A columnist for the Los Angeles Times described young dancers, mostly white, who told her that the dance nicknamed “Chinese” had helped them learn about other cultures.

“What I saw them learning,” according to Jennifer Fischer, “was how to flatten anyone of Asian descent into a cartoon.”

It’s a conversation that has been going on for 30 years, von Rabenau said.

“Here we have room to make it more local to Duluth,” he said. There will, for instance, be lumberjacks. Some fan favorites remain, including a slew of gingerbread.

An artistic outlet

The Minnesota Ballet’s performance season ended early last year. The company postponed the finale, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was originally scheduled for March. It’s now on the calendar for early 2021, but it isn’t a sure thing.

According to Latuska, the dancers and staff were recently in social bubbles to avoid COVID-19 exposure going into recording the production. The dancers opened their season in mid-November, sometimes synching up with new dance partners for the first time.

“I think it’s a magnificent opportunity for us as artists to have an outlet again, and even better for the community, which has been starved of art and general entertainment opportunities,” Sullivan said.

In a normal year, the dancers would have begun rehearsing on stage this week, then adding costumes and tech.

As is, Duluth videography company Danger Bird Productions wrapped its recording of “Nutcracker Suite” on Dec. 11.

This style of production has offered the dancers the chance to perfect what viewers will see. (Though there is some second-guessing about whether it could have been better, Sullivan said.) Onstage, there is only one shot to get it right.

“Once it’s done, it’s done,” he said.

How to watch

What: Minnesota Ballet's "Nutcracker Suite: A Duluth Tale"

Where: Available for download from minnesotaballet.org; also airing at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21, on CBS3-TV in Duluth

Tickets: Start at $20 for download