all photos: Kate Warren
Ballet sits at that precarious intersection of fine art, constant pursuit of the very heights of human beauty, intense precision and discipline and yes, pure fantasy and entertainment. More so than any other art form, it is veiled in this permanent gauze made out of glamour, pain and, well, mystery. And no American ballet company embodies it more than American Ballet Theatre. ABT, the place where legends were made and broken, the place where George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov soared to new heights creatively, the place where the likes of Twyla Tarp and Jerome Robbins and Agnes De Mille left their indelible imprint on the dance landscape, the place which, according to Congress IS the National Ballet Company of United States of America, and which is the primary source of inspiration for any and every ballet movie or popular culture interpretation of the art form.
It is also our country’s only major cultural institution doesn’t have a permanent theatre but constantly tours, performing for more than 450,000 people annually across the the United States and the world. Washington, D.C. is lucky to be one of the few places that ABT has made one of the permanent temporary homes, with an annual engagement at the Kennedy Center.
This is where we find them this week performing the D.C. premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty, one of the classics of the genre, in an epic new staging. And in a true ballet fan dream come true … we got invited backstage on the day of the premiere to lift a small bit of that veil. We see them prepare for the final technical and dress rehearsal before the run’s first performance. We are here see what it takes to make the magic happen.
The company had just beaten the Snowmageddon crisis window and the dancers arrived to D.C. on Monday, with just over 48 hours to practice the production on the stage it will be performed. The atmosphere on Wednesday is both relaxed and charged, with not a moment to waste. There are over a hundred performers, over 200 costumes, and seemingly over a 1,000,000 intricate choreography and staging details that will all come together.
The day starts with classes. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. the studio space is filled with the corps, the ballet, the soloists and principals warming up, working out the specific points of their performance, and spending the final parts of the day in their own clothes and dance shoes, before make-up and wigs and full theatrical transformations.
In a flurry of jumps, fish dives and entrechats, all of which seems both so easy (no bleeding toes anywhere as far as we can see?) and preternatural (the muscle control and memory is enough to make one stop and reconsider any and every fitness decision one has ever made) at the same time, we have a chance to chat with Skylar Brandt, one of the company soloists about the process.
BYT: What are some of the challenges of not rehearsing in the space where the performance will be?
SB: A major difference between rehearsing in the studio and performing on the stage is that the size of the studio is almost always smaller. Consequently, many adjustments are required to accommodate this change in scale. Often, a dancer’s stamina is challenged due to the necessity of traveling more in order to utilize the entire stage.
Speaking of “moving in”, after the classes it is time to make way for for the make-up rooms, and wig rooms and dressing rooms. The Kennedy Center backstage is famously easy to get lost and as our guides are pondering whether to go up or down from Studio 4, the elevator is filled with the most beautiful flowers, probably a good-luck wish to tonight’s performers. At a normal workplace the sight of these would provoke ooooohs and aaaah from passersby, but here no one even blinks.
As magical as the flowers seem, they are nothing compared to what awaits at the end of the elevator ride.
The official dressing area is a veritable merry-go-round of feathers, crystals, shimmer and things that are so pretty and intricate we don’t even know the words for them. And the wigs. JUST.SO.MANY.WIGS. Over two hundred of them. Really (we were told the exact number, which we think is 219, but we were too distracted by the wigs themselves to write the number down).
Pretty wigs, ugly wigs, blonde wigs, 3 foot high wigs, all the wigs. As one of the Carabosse performers is being fitted into the evil witch role we ask if it is OK to get the photo of the process. “We promise it will look good,” our photographer assures them. “I mean, you see what I look like,” Carabosse jokes.
In one of the great testament’s of dancer versatility, the premiere evening Carabosse is going to be played by one of ABT’s principal dancers, Marcello Gomes, who come the weekend will also play Prince Desire.
In fact, over the course of the performance run, the audience will get a chance to see almost all of the Ballet’s principals and soloists in roles of all shapes, genders and sizes (Misty Copeland, one of the company’s most buzzed about principal dancer additions of late, for one, will make two appearances this weekend, on Friday evening and Sunday matinee as part of the wedding party). No role too big, no role too small, no role too pretty, no role too ugly.
As Carabosse flits out to get fitted into a crushed velvet full moon gown and a get a very impressive set of fake fingers attached, a very different kind of transformation begins. Devon Teuscher, who plays the Lilac Fairy in the Saturday performances, stops in for the wig fitting. The make-up and wig team switch gears on a seconds notice and it is “goodbye prosthetic noses, and hello platinum blonde delicateness” in no time.
Across the hallway, shoes are being fixed and painted and mended and the costumes lay in perfectly organized rows sorted by name, category, scene.
The organization is essential because one wrong step and next thing you know, a woman wearing the wrong hat for the first scene will be doing spacing rehearsal and the radios will be alight. One one of those things slips, the whole train could go off course.
The production is, in many ways, a true throwback to the classic joys of a grand ballet experience. Richard Hudson, who designed the costumes and sets took inspiration from the original Ballet Russes staging by Leon Bakst, as well as the original fairy tale, and it shows. Everything we see is meant to be transport the audience to a place and time where there is a, at least in 2016, a refreshing lack of jadedness in this pure dedication to beauty.
But we also want to know:
BYT: What makes THIS sleeping beauty production special TO YOU?
We asked Skylar:
So, while the make-up, wig, dress and shoe teams are making sure everything is as well prepped as possible for said feast, the ready performers head to stage level. If these elevators could tell of things they’ve seen over the years.
Over there, a whole new world is moving from behind the scenes into the light. Garlands (which will later be used in the Aurora’s birthday celebration during Tchaikovsky maybe most famous waltz) are resting on shipping crates, over a hundred local supernumeraries are getting dressed, and the line between reality and The Sleeping Beauty world is blurred to the tilt.
There are so many memorable moments about to come together: not just the glittering waltzes and one of the greatest pas pas de deux in all of ballet (performed by Aurora and her prince in the great finale) but also little surprises around every corner: vibrant storybook advertisements from the likes of Cinderella, Bluebird, Puss in Boots and Red Riding Hood, visions and hunts and dancing rats and more.
It is all almost overwhelming, so we ask for some inside-the-company insight:
BYT: Anything that may surprise the audience? Any favorite parts of the production?
The dress rehearsal time is upon us. As the wings clear for the performers to line up, and the stage hands to do their job, and everyone is getting ready to ACTUALLY step on stage, we ask Skylar Brandt one final question:
BYT: Any pre-performance rituals the company shares or you personally have? Any post-performance rituals?