It sounds odd, but directing hundreds of basketball and football games, and dozens of WEBN Riverfest firework telecasts, was great training for David Ashbrock when WLWT-TV asked him to direct The Nutcracker at Home airing 8 p.m. tonight.
As with broadcasting sports and pyrotechnic explosions, you only get one chance to shoot the Cincinnati Ballet dancers in action.
"This is exhausting to perform. The dancers are Olympic athletes, to be sure, but this takes a lot out of them, and they didn't want to do it again. We did no more than two takes, and most with one take," says Ashbrock, the Emmy-winning director.
So Ashbrock prepared for the taping last week by studying rehearsal video, as football coaches scrutinize game films. At least a dozen times Ashbrock watched clips of the final choreography provided by the ballet company to formulate his script – detailed notes on how camera operators could capture every move.
Nine cameras were positioned throughout Music Hall for the taping last Wednesday. Unlike football games or concerts, he seldom used cameras in the wings, to the right or left of the stage.
"Ballet choreography is to be seen by the Music Hall audience, not from the side," he explained. He had cameras in the audience; another attached to the balcony; a camera on a "jib," or a long pole for overhead shots; and a handheld gyro-stabilized roving camera.
Scott Altman, Cincinnati Ballet president and CEO, has said that "everyone has a front row seat" for the first time for the annual holiday performance.
Ashbrock stitched together the best camera angles to make the one-hour show. He finished it at 4:20 a.m. Monday, and then spent most of Monday working on the weekly Bearcats Insider and Bengals Weekly shows before directing Paul Brown Stadium video board content for the Bengals' Monday Night Football game.
"Being an editor too, I understood what the possibilities were as we were shooting, for the pacing, tempo and energy. I had no plans to do this live. I knew I'd have to cut it together in post-production," Ashbrock says.
Artistically, the Cincinnati Ballet had to adapt the holiday classic for television, and to meet crowd restrictions for dancers on stage because of the pandemic, said Cincinnati Ballet soloist David Morse on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition last week.
"We had to make a few changes and a few cuts. And, of course, there won't be nearly as large of a cast. Normally we have upwards of 100 folks on stage, all the way from very little children to the top principal dancers in the company. It's mostly the main company members flushing out all the roles," Morse said.
"It's sort of a shortened version. But all the familiar characters – the Nutcracker, the Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy -- are going to be there … It still has all the classic Nutcracker stuff. You've got the battle scene, you've got the snow. I think everyone's been really creative to keep all these quintessential Nutcracker moments still there."
Morse and Ashbrock praised the ballet company and WLWT-TV for televising The Nutcracker when COVID-19 prevented people from attending the Music Hall performances.
"It will be great because we can bring it to probably a larger audience than we're typically able to serve on two weekends that we usually do in Music Hall. We're really excited about that," Morse said.
Ashbrock, who spends most of his year doing sports telecasts, noted that arts institutions "have been hit harder than sports," which have been allowed to let some people attend games. "I applaud them for doing this. I'm thrilled to be part of it."
The ballet isn't the only Cincinnati arts institution turning to broadcasting during the pandemic. Playhouse in the Park is collaborating with WVXU-FM on Bruce Cromer's one-man A Christmas Carol: A Radio Play airing on WVXU-FM (91.7) and WMUB-FM (88.5) at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 23, and 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
"My wife and daughter are planning on listening to A Christmas Carol gathered around a radio in our living room, with the lights down low, like it was the 1940s," Ashbrock says.
The Nutcracker at Home presented by Frisch’s premieres 8 p.m. today on WLWT-TV (Channel 5). It repeats Christmas Eve at 7 p.m. on (Channel 5), and 8 p.m. Christmas Eve on MeTV Channel 5.2). On Christmas Day, the ballet replays at 5 a.m. and noon on WLWT, and at 10 p.m. on MeTV.