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Backstage: The other ballet

Published December 23, 2006 1:14 am

Action behind scenes makes it all happen
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The audience barely noticed when Herr Drosselmeyer paused during his majestic turns near stage right in Act I of Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" on Wednesday night.

They didn't know Jeff F. Herbig, who plays Drosselmeyer, was desperately trying to get the Nutcracker doll untangled from his flowing cape so he could hand it to prop master Cory Thorell, who was waiting for it backstage at Capitol Theatre. No matter how well Herbig performs the choreography, the cape has a mind of its own, sometimes engulfing the doll for what seems like an eternity before he can make the handoff and dance away.

It's the kind of small heart attack that happens regularly during any kind of live performance, especially one like "The Nutcracker," which has a huge cast and a complex set.

And it's the kind of event stagehands live for.

"There's chaos built into this machinery, because things do go wrong, and you have to be ready for that," Thorell says.

On stage, the audience sees graceful dancers in ruffles and sequins, surrounded by a brightly lit, sparkling world. Behind the scenes, black-clad crew members move no less gracefully, raising curtains, moving scenery and manipulating lights - all in pitch dark.

They gleefully tell stories of their favorite mishaps, which are mercifully rare. Sometimes, there's not much anyone can do. After Herbig left the stage that night, he shook his head and grimaced. "I'm sorry, Cory," he said. "It got all around the cape. I just couldn't . . . "

This isn't the first time that's happened, and Herbig isn't the first dancer to have trouble with that particular move (the production uses four rotating casts). "All the Drosselmeyers hate that movement, because it's so unpredictable," Thorell said.

The doll handoff is one thing the cast will work on over the next year. Another is the new Mother Buffoon, which employs two male dancers, one standing on a rolling platform above the other, to create a giant figure with children nestling in its skirts.

One dancer, clad head-to-toe in bloomers, plays Mother Buffoon's legs, while the other makes up the head and torso. The part has to be played by men in drag rather than female dancers because the rig is so heavy. This year, kids have run in and out without incident, but that hasn't always been the case: During previous "Nutcrackers," Mother Buffoon sometimes injured the baby buffoons.

The biggest emergency in recent memory was when the dry-ice machine used to make fog broke, sending 25 gallons of water onto the stage. That year, the audience was treated to the sight of a giant stuffed bear mopping the floor.

A few dancers are known for their ability to flick a fallen prop or decoration off the stage while still sticking to the choreography. "We used to have one dancer who was an absolute champ at kicking things offstage," said M. Kay Barrell, Ballet West's production designer. "We're always back here rooting for them."

Even when the production rolls along smoothly, which is most of the time, there's plenty to do. The dry-ice machine uses 100 pounds of ice per show. The Capitol Theatre uses as much electricity in one night as a typical house does in a year.

Human beings pull the curtains, push scenery and work the cables that make the giant grandfather clock move. It's old technology, Thorell says. But it works.

Props and costumes are carefully arranged around the backstage area. Everyone has to know where everything is, because once the show starts, there's no stopping.

In the "Mouse Manor," costumes for the male dancers who turn from soldiers into mice are laid out in a row. The dancers rush offstage, rip off their soldier garb and jump into big, fuzzy mouse suits with removable heads.

Stage manager Michael McCulloch orchestrates the 300 people, including dancers, who have some part in the ballet. His voice carries through headsets to crew members, telling them when to change the lights or move scenery. His voice is calm, unhurried and reassuring. For these two hours, he's the one in charge. If anything changes, he'll let them know. If the show had to be stopped because of a major problem, he would make the call.

McCulloch has a score and his own notes on what happens when. It helps that he reads music: Everything follows the music.

Before they go on, dancers warm up, drink hot beverages and chat. When they exit after a tough variation, they're breathing hard and coughing.

Children, who make up a large part of the show, are (nearly) as professional as the full-time dancers.

Cati Dallas, the Nutcracker children's ballet mistress, herds them backstage and praises them for a job well done.

By the end of every one of the 60 shows each year, everything is back where it should be for the next go-round. Exhausted from the night and in spite of the caffeine that's kept them going, everyone heads home and straight to bed - no doubt with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

ckarras@sltrib.com

'The Nutcracker'

* Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 30 (no performance on Christmas Day) at Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $17-$65, available at all ArtTix outlets, at the venue box office, at 801-355-ARTS or at http://www.arttix.org.

* For more photos backstage at "The Nutcracker," visit http://www.sltrib.com.