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Re-visions of Sugar Plums

Observations from behind the Nutcracker curtain

It's 1:30 on a pollution-free, bright, cool Sunday afternoon in November, the kind of day that makes me feel guilty if I'm not outside. But today I'm in the bowels of Wortham Center, backstage where the floors are black and the lights are dim and it is almost reverently quiet as things are beginning to stir for the first matinee performance of The Nutcracker.

Audiences know the Houston Ballet's annual Christmas extravaganza as a parade of period costumes, whirls of shimmering tutus, softly falling snow and that twinkling Christmas tree that grows magically up into the rafters -- a dreamy spectacle that evokes all the spirit the holidays are supposed to have. Visions of sugar plums, etc.

But behind the curtain, the artifice quickly peels away. This is the land of sore muscles, of makeup twice a day, of complicated, unwieldy costumes. Backstage is a universe unto itself. There are six Nutcracker casts; everyone in the company does double and triple duty on roles. There are about 85 dancers per night, plus 60 musicians and about 25 stagehands who answer the production's 89 electric cues and handle over 500 lights.

Sixty-eight kids from the Houston Ballet Academy have also been drafted into Nutcracker duty -- the younger ones as party children and clowns, the self-conscious adolescents as cooks, mice and toy soldiers.

For most of those backstage, Christmas is hard work. Halfway through the 40-performance run, they'll be a little punchy; today, everyone is still cheerful. Injuries haven't yet made a jumble of the program's cast listings.

As I wander into the center backstage area -- as big as the stage itself -- two dancers are playing hoops at a basketball goal fixed to the wall ("the stress-reduction area," they call it). Projected above them is the private backstage light show -- a tapestry of falling leaves and stars in red and yellow, created by gels that the crew will change gradually until all the leaves have become snowflakes by the last performance.

Down a nearby corridor are the private dressing rooms of the company's female principals, where the formality of company hierarchy is most apparent. Names are printed on white paper and tacked onto the doors: Miss Parker, Miss Butler, Miss Beard, Miss Warakomsky, Miss Anderson.

This hallway also serves as the refreshment area; a huge piece of chocolate cake, the last one, sits on a table amid the crumbs of several House of Pies boxes. Clearly, these are not people who worry about their waistlines.

It's 30 minutes to curtain, and dancers are warming up in the wing at stage left. Heavily costumed characters who will mime their way through the first scenes are either straightening their wigs, shawls and props, or trying not to move too much to keep them in place. Stagehands wander about, checking the 96 ropes that shake snow or control scrims and curtains -- ropes that climb nearly 100 feet to the tangle of technical apparatus above the stage.

Principal dancer Lauren Anderson is stretching through her tendus, plies and grande battements. Her face is plastered with brown pancake, and her eyes are set off by black lines and mile-long fake lashes. Atop her tightly sprayed, heavily bobby-pinned hair rests a glittering crown of plastic spikes. She is covered in what look like infant pajamas -- a fluffy warm-up the dancers call a "bunny suit," with a big zipper down the front.

"Show biz," she says, grinning. "It's all an illusion." She gestures toward the stage, where the back side of Desmond Heeley"s opening set

-- the fireplace-lit interior of Herr Stahlbaum's house -- is still lifeless without lights, the backs of things exposed as hulks of crudely painted plywood.

Anderson will be today's Snow Queen; at last night's opening, she danced the Lead Flower. "This is my 21st year to do Nutcracker," she says. "I've been everything except for Clara, Fritz, Mother, Father, Drosselmeyer, Chinese, and, uh, Russian."

Most of those backstage are seasoned veterans. Lee Nast, the woman who herds the children from their downstairs holding area toward the stage just in time for their cues, remembers a lot of the company members from when they were children. Anderson used to call her "the Gestapo lady."

cross the stage, the spacious right wing is washed in deep blue light. The Snow Queen's "enchanted" sleigh and the boat that carries Clara and the Prince across the Lemonade Sea sit off to one side -- contraptions of plywood, plastic, glue and feathers. More dancers are warming up at a freestanding barre or sitting near the resin box, tying on their shoes.

The mice who double as snowflakes are wearing shower caps to protect their buns from their heavy mouse masks. They hang their snowflake costumes on the big black quick-change box and walk gingerly around flexing their pointe shoes, holding their long tails so they won't trip.

Several of the mice will gallop onstage atop molded "horses" for their battle scene with the Nutcracker. I pick up one of the fittings; it is heavy, weighing maybe as much as 15 pounds. I can't imagine moving in it, much less dancing in it. Even so, it's not as tough as fighting in the King Rat's gear -- a huge head and shoulder piece with not one but five bobbing heads.

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