Re-visions of Sugar Plums

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.

he mood is amazingly calm, although not as jovial as it was three nights ago during a dress rehearsal.

"Warning: five minutes to curtain," Barry Suttin, the stage manager, calls softly from his stage-right console. Suttin, in his 13th Nutcracker year, wears a headset that projects to speakers throughout the building. He also watches a digital clock, controls dozens of dials, follows a copy of the score and keeps tabs with three video monitors -- one of the stage, one of the orchestra pit and one with a computerized list of light cues.

Suttin feels responsible for keeping the show's momentum up. "You get into a real routine," he admits. "But it's still a new show for the audience."

I can't see the audience, or even hear them. If the dancers didn't have to walk out onto the stage, they could almost imagine that there was no one out there. Then, as Suttin counts down to the opening, the conductor walks into the middle monitor, and there is applause. Tchaikovsky's familiar music begins, and suddenly the tension is a little more palpable.

Mark Arvin, this afternoon's Nutcracker Prince, is pacing. Anderson pats him reasurringly. All of the Act One dancers are in full costume now, most of them quietly walking through their combinations, or practicing hand gestures or subtle head movements.

As the first scene ends, the party characters stream offstage and flood stage right; dressers grab shawls; props are thrown into a laundry cart; performers scurry toward their downstairs dressing rooms.

The performance now has its own momentum. As the show continues, I get the odd impression that the stage has become a kind of magnet, sucking dancers into the glare for a few seconds, then spitting them back again, sweaty, panting and chattering about their technical trouble spots.

From my perspective, the stage is sliced up into scrims and sets. Lights glare from the other side, where dancers are preparing to step out from behind the narrow black-velvet "legs" that line the stage.

As the mice, the Rat King, the toy soldiers and the Nutcracker leap through their fight scene, Arvin crouches behind the set. The battle ends, the lights change, and he steps into the light to applause -- the Nutcracker magically transformed into the Prince, fresh as the snow and beaming -- while Paul LeGros, the fighting Nutcracker, removes his huge mask and struggles to catch his breath in the darkness.

Suttin, meanwhile, is busier than an air-traffic controller at Thanksgiving, but he's steady. "Warning, spots to fade, and exit, stage right... Spots, here they come... Warning on flies, cue Foy... Heavy snow, watch her, cue 40, go... Warning, spots to fade as lights come in..." Huge pieces of torn crepe paper drift down onto the stage -- the audience-thrilling snow.

Anderson has made her entrance. Backstage, nearly everyone is focused on the performing principals -- although a snowflake and a toy soldier are absorbed in a tender kiss. As their first combination ends, Arvin and Anderson come gliding in, just out of a lift. The second that Anderson's feet hit the floor, she goes flatfooted and holds her hip as she moves quickly to the next cue spot.

They're on again, then off again one at a time, then on again, and suddenly the snow scene is over -- and before the applause has barely finished, Anderson is gasping and patting Arvin: "God, I don't know how you held me! It's a finger turn, you know? And I didn't have any fingers!" She looks my way. "Normally I grab his thumb, but I was excited and I missed it, so as I was going around. He was like, okay, try this finger... no? How about this one? And he just spun me around!" The energy is still rushing out of her. "I was too open on that lift, like this..."

Of course, most of the audience doesn't know the difference. Dancing at this level is about perfect details that almost never come totally together.

With the curtains closed for intermission, stagehands sweep up the crepe-paper snow. It will be sifted for hairpins and sequins and recycled for another performance. The crew runs a safety rehearsal with the flying cooks, the two Academy girls who will smile cheerfully as they're flown through the air in Act Two by painful harnesses that cut into their crotches.

Downstairs, I peek into the costume shop, which is fitted with several rows of hanging racks, most of them empty. Several seamstresses look as if they are waiting for an onslaught. Spools of ribbons, threads, elastic and other necessities are hung neatly along one wall, and pieces of costumes in for repair or touch-up are scattered about the high work tables.

In the physical-therapy room, several dancers are nursing sore ankles in ice.

I venture into a dressing room shared by the women soloists. Unlike the corps de ballet members down the hall, they have space to spread. In one area, about 30 pairs of toe shoes are neatly piled into three stacks, and others are balanced on the lights above, still drying after being shellacked. Makeup, pins, hair spray and other necessities are neatly placed on a towel; two huge cut-out eyebrows and red cheek circles, part of the Columbine doll's costume, are stuck onto the mirror. A dozen pairs of pink tights hang nearby.

ll of this belongs to Tiekka Schofield. I remark at how perfectly placed everything seems.

"Oh, yeah," she says. "Actually, we have fun with Laurie Volny's stuff. She's so exacting about it, sometimes we'll come along and do this." Schofield leads me to Volny's cubicle and turns a pair of tweezers upside-down. "When she comes back in here, she won't say anything. She'll just kind of glance down and know that something's not right, and turn these tweezers back the way they were."

It's almost time for the Act Two curtain, so I head back up the elevator. Corps dancers in their yellow and green "Waltz of the Flowers" costumes have taken over the warmup area. Standing near the black curtains in richer light, their faces deep in thought, they look like figures in a Goya painting.

Dancers have been commenting all afternoon on Janie Parker's incredible opening-night Sugar Plum Fairy performance, her feet so flawlessly silent that even the stagehands were spellbound. Now an introspective Rachel Beard, today's Fairy, stands by, anxious for her show to be under way.

Suttin calls, "Places for Act Two," and the backstage routine is about to begin all over again. I linger for my favorite Nutcracker musical moment -- the delicate Sugar Plum solo. Beard's Fairy is technically masterful, and she and Arvin also dance their Grand Pas de Deux beautifully. "Mark is an incredible partner," someone comments. I glimpse Anderson, already in street clothes, watching from the other side, before I head out to the rude surprise of lingering daylight, the music still with me.

Several of the mice/snowflake girls beat me to the door. Their turn finished, they now look every bit like normal teenagers in their grunge attire -- baggy jeans and flannel shirts -- waiting for their moms to take them home.


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