A Miracle of Team Work: Back stage at the Royal with Alberta Ballet’s Nutcracker

Monique Salez goes backstage with this holiday season’s favourite dance production.

By Monique Salez

Holly Vivian production manager for Dance Victoria and her lovely smile meet me at the Royal’s stage door and whisks me down to catch the last moments of the Nutcracker’s battle scene. On stage is a carefully choreographed lowering of a drawbridge, soldiers spill out and horses trot on but the real action is backstage where the wings brim over with 5 ft high forks, knives & spoons sharing space with smoke machines, an elegant sled, bookshelves, & settees that tightly fill like a successful Tetris game toward the loading bay where a shoe cupboard houses a colorful army of point shoes.

The yearly production of The Nutcracker is what Tom Heemskerk (local head carpenter) calls a “miracle of team work”, his 30th miracle thus far. The team is comprised of local professionals and Alberta Ballet’s own touring team which arrives with two semi-trucks filled to the brim the contents of which get poured into every nook and cranny of the 103 year old Royal Theatre. Before they arrive, the theatre must be stripped, lights and all, for the countless wardrobe boxes lowered through the hole in the centre of stage and for the dozens of custom backdrops, props & lighting pipes that get rigged and flown in from above. In the house (where the audience sits) we find Mark Eugster, Alberta Ballet’s Technical Director who enjoys “figuring out the puzzle” of mounting the show in different theatres and presenting a final product of staging that cleverly plays with scale. He points to the stage where the battle scene is wrapping up and the candle lit boughs of the Christmas tree frame stage right beneath which gift boxes dwarf the dancers on stage.

Below the stage, the green room has become a city of black wardrobe boxes peopled with wigs, fleshy rat bodies, pale pink and green kids’ gowns, tables of rat heads and soldier hats and the wardrobe women who confess that at the Royal backstage space is the concern. “We will see how it works quick changing a performer from one costume to a horse to another” in a space that houses a long dining table laden with oddities – sling shots, cupcakes, a roast – and prop pieces including the mechanized “growing tree” that extends from a 6 foot wide roll to 20 ft high.

Tour complete I quietly exit as the company moves through its class on stage. Backstage props are reset, coffee is consumed and details are ironed out. I am reminded that the ballet is not just for dancers, it is for builders, painters, riggers, sewers, and creators of all kinds and that as intriguing as is the action on stage, there is an equally fascinating dance behind the curtain where a gathering of inanimate art meets the human puzzle masters who fly in and out, weave, move, and shape shift both the onstage and offstage spaces bringing the story and illusion to life.

Dance Days 2018 is January 19 to 28: 10 days of free classes plus free performances by some of the west coast’s hottest independent companies and choreographers. Dance teachers and studios in the community are invited to submit potential dance classes, workshops and events on Dance Victoria’s new online calendar at DanceVictoria.com before December 31, 2017.

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