Interview: Oliver Bokelberg on a Ballet of Behind-the-Scenes Beauty in “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker”

One of the most beautiful scenes in “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” doesn’t happen on stage during the show that the Debbie Allen Dance Academy puts on annually during the holiday season, but in the rehearsal studio where Allen, the famed multitalented artist and choreographer, can be seen admonishing one of DADA’s students for showing up late. It may not sound pretty when Allen stands at the head of the class, firmly telling the young women in front of her, “This is a rehearsal for the rest of your life,” but even as one can clearly sense the tough love from her taking a stand, director Oliver Bokelberg lets the scene play out, so that by the end of it, you see the respect she has for the students and that they have for her as she pays a compliment to each one as they leave class.

“Those moments are precious and the full access is what makes it special to me, to see that respect the kids had towards Miss Allen, but then to see how much she cares about every single one of them and and her really having a very personal message to each one of them,” says Bokelberg. “That’s just the truth of it. Any edit would’ve lessened the experience and it was a very honest moment in the dance studio.”

Bokelberg couldn’t have predicted what he’d end up with when he started filming “Dance Dreams,” simply being a doting dad with a burgeoning ballerina at the Academy who just happened to be an accomplished cinematographer behind such films as “The Station Agent” and shows such as “Scandal” and “Big Sky.” However, what were initially conceived as photos for the family album became a portrait of the magnificent dance academy that Allen has created in Los Angeles, opening the doors to dancers of all body types and cultural backgrounds after her own daughter’s dreams of pursuing the art were dashed with the insinuation she didn’t fit the mold. Not only is the Academy itself a celebration of diversity, but naturally its year-end fundraiser that keeps it accessible to all is as well, reimagining the Balanchine ballet with a variety of different styles of dance and dancers who come up within the Academy from the time they’ve just learned to walk through their teens graduating to different roles in the production through the years.

While “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is apt to cut between rehearsals and the end result in an instant, Bokelberg shows all the work that’s been put in by both the students and the staff to create such a special event year in and year out for audiences as well as being a formative experience for all involved when the moves that Allen is teaching are intended less for the stage than to navigate the world. And as much as you sense that Allen didn’t want the focus to be on her own remarkable life, the film draws a parallel between her own personal evolution and that of her students, breaking one boundary after another to make it easier for everyone to follow in her footsteps. During the unique holiday season of 2020, “Dance Dreams” arrives as a particularly inspiring gift and with the film now streaming on Netflix, Bokelberg spoke of happening into his first time behind the camera as a documentarian in addition to being a cinematographer, what surprised him about what he captured and keeping the spirit of the event alive in a year when it couldn’t be staged.

 

How did this come about? I understand it all started with your daughter.

It’s funny because when you have a child, she started dancing with the Debbie Allen Dance Academy when she was six years old, so you drop off these kids [off] behind a door and I was intrigued with what was happening behind closed doors [because] she had a definite sense of accomplishment when she came out of these rehearsals. So I was a dance dad that started taking my camera – my still camera, really, into the studio — and I took pictures and offered them up for the Academy. I started getting more and more access into the building and I was shooting “Scandal” at the time as a director of photography and Debbie came into “Scandal” as a director. My daughter had already been dancing there, and we became friends over work, so I asked Debbie if I could go to the dance studio and if I can take my [film] camera, being especially interested in this Nutcracker that they put together. It’s quite an astonishing accomplishment, how they manage to put 200 kids into this organized fashion, so Debbie allowed me to take my camera into the room and I just became a fly on the wall.

It’s noted in the film how tight those spaces are – did you actually have to become a fly on the wall?

Filming and putting a camera on my shoulder is second nature to me because I’ve been a cinematographer for all this time, so really, the hardest thing was to have to ask people, “Can I put a microphone on you?” Because I’m there in the morning at eight o’clock and Ms. Allen walks in and I said, “Debbie, do you mind?” And put a microphone on her, just so I can get witness all the moments, but Debbie was very generous and everybody there was very generous and welcoming to me, so once [we were] past that, I stayed on the sidelines and just listened in and pointed the camera at what was interesting me.

How did you figure out the structure of this?

It definitely was an evolution. I took my camera in there for the first time in 2016 and filmed all the rehearsals and the performances. I put together a 60-minute cut, and there still is a lot of that film in the version today, but there were no interviews. It was a completely fly-on-the-wall experience [with] a lot of intercutting/match-cutting between rehearsal space and performances, so you actually saw more performances. But it had the same structure taking us from the initial auditions to the final curtain. That’s the movie I originally showed Debbie and it was a lovely film and very intriguing and we took it to Shonda [Rhimes] and Shonda got excited about it and we decided to make it more universally desirable. For that, we saw the need to add interviews, tell at the same time as the Nutcracker develops, tell the story of how Debbie came to be who she is and at the same time, tell the story of some of the younger students going through the same experience and showing the effect that Debbie and all the teachers at the Academy are having on them. So we took these stories and intertwined them and for the next two years, we gathered interviews and shot a little bit more with an eye to complete the story.

Was there anything that happened over the course of shooting that changed your ideas of what this could be?

I didn’t know what it was going to be at all. Because I spent all my weekends in the rehearsal studio, one thing that very soon struck me, just looking through the tunnel vision of my camera was this incredible positivity [of this experience]. You look at the kids and you have this unstoppable hope and power and you have the teachers, all of [whom] bring so much passion and invest so much of their knowledge and love for these kids, to the point where I don’t know how many times as I’m filming, I’m tearing up so much just because of the sheer beauty that I’m seeing. I wasn’t expected to be so confronted with love and positivity and inspiration. That’s really what it is. It’s about motivation and inspiration and you see it now in the incredible social media responses of people and how much good it’s doing for people and how inspired they are, signing up for dance classes and not only dance classes, but anything. [I’ve had] small anecdotal things of people approaching me saying, “Hey, my daughter’s 13 and after the film, she immediately made me sign her up again for basketball and for dance class.” Even young kids watch this film and it motivates them that we all have to work a little bit harder. Nothing is given to us. We have to work for it, but we can achieve it. That sort of positivity just became clearer and clearer the more I was filming it.

It seems like both the best and worst time it seems to be coming out, when people are in need of inspiration, but no one can leave the house. What’s it been like for you?

Yeah, it’s a strange time to put it out. This entire week would be their Nutcracker performance, and for the 200 kids there, they are missing their experience, so it’s nice to get the film out there, but beyond that, it’s quite incredible to see how we can share that with so many people now. The response has been heartwarming and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’m so happy we share Ms. Allen’s vision for this world with a larger audience, and it’s really great to see it come together because there were moments where I’m standing in the dance studio with my camera — and I was working on “Scandal” at the time, doing five day weeks and every Saturday and Sunday, I was going to the dance studio and there were definitely times I was tired and you wonder, are we ever going to be able to share this with anybody beyond the parents? It would’ve probably still been worthwhile, but I couldn’t be more thrilled that now, very much thanks to Shonda Rhimes and Netflix, we’re really sharing happiness and inspiration with so many more people than we could’ve ever imagined. That has just been wonderful.

“Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is now streaming on Netflix.

More Stories
Interview: Josh Boone on Getting Professionally Unstuck with “Stuck in Love”