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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

No Elephant

As reflected in my passion for old movie musicals, I love the behind the scenes goings-on of putting on a show. Excepting Broadway or Cirque du Soleil, I’d be hard pressed to find another setting where there’s more backstage business and interest than opera.

It’s quite something to be a part of a production as enormous as this staging of “Aida”. True, there is no elephant, but there is a massive twelve-step rotating staircase with a giant golden falcon up which several dancers and singers walk. (Yes, as it rotates.) Super cool, magnificent even. Nothing is more sublime than the closing of Act 1: Scene 2 when the deck rotates as the music swells, the chorus gathers round, arms outstretched, their faces skyward. The principal singers counter the music, entering into and out of it seemingly at will, as perfectly as Verdi deemed.

The dancers and I, at work next door on a flat studio floor, are getting called into the staging studio with increasing frequency to work a scene with the singers. My heart thrills for them as I watch them rotate. The music, (still just a piano), those voices and the subtle movement of the set combine to strike the perfect visual note. The first time we put all the elements together every single dancer’s face was shining.

When it was done we went back into our room for notes. I prefaced by asking, “Wasn’t that exciting?” Beth, one of the two fierce women playing a man, exclaimed, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” I still get teary as I relay the story. Folks like her, with attitudes like that, keep the rest of us from slipping into jadedness. (Beth in particular, who almost left the audition when I started giving a ballet barre. I persuaded her to stay, to audition for a male part, and here she is, having rocked that audition with everything she had.) (Me, auditioning dancers! Talk about an about-face. Well, that’s another blog.)

In the front right of the staging studio sits, of course, a grand piano. The Maestro’s podium is next to it, centered with and facing the set. The Director’s stool is in front of the podium and slightly left. Then come two long tables with, in order, the Assistant Director, the Production Stage Manager, the two Assistant Stage Managers (stage right and stage left), and the Production Assistant. The Assistant Conductor/Chorus Master sort of nestles behind the long tables as space allows. I too kind of crouch on a back bench, dangerously close to Maestro’s baton. The Assistant Stage Managers run up and down the steps, near the edges where the wings will be, giving cues to the singers. (To the dancers too, but usually dancers are on top of when to enter.) It really is fascinating to watch. Opera at this level runs like a well-oiled machine. Folks are here to make the artists’ jobs easier.

Though foremost a performer, I love being on this side of the fourth wall. It is so satisfying for me to help the dancers integrate into the whole, to see them click into a moment and safely negotiate a stair or a spear or their spacing. I love taking notes and giving them later, working out and fine-tuning the rough spots, creating our own well-oiled machine.

Tomorrow is a blessed day off, though I will miss the dancers (and the production in general). Jack and I will venture out: to the coast, a vineyard, a small town…In the evening we’ll see Oregon Ballet Theatre perform. I bartered opera tickets for ballet tickets. I love this business.


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