Photos by Jeff Martin
Walking into the backstage of the Kennedy Center is no different than walking through the front door, really. Sure, the ceilings are a little lower (although, not by much), and there’s a noticeable lack of red carpet, but you’re just as awestruck. Vestiges of past shows cover the walls… and a good deal of the floor space. Posters from past productions of Les Miserables, Carmen, and The Nutcracker work as a sort of makeshift wallpaper. Sprawled all over the ground are trunks spray painted with titles like Madam Butterfly on their sides, but the main focus, the crown jewel (at least for this week) is the 28 foot tall (and almost as wide) tree that takes up a majority of the backstage space. It’s bright green from root to limb and covered with baubles, but manages to avoid looking like a Christmas tree, mainly because it seems far more magical.
Of course, I’m not in the bowels of the Kennedy Center for no reason. I’m here because it’s the opening night of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is being co-produced by The Royal Ballet and The National Ballet of Canada. The last time the National Ballet of Canada came to the Kennedy Center, it was in 2013 for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but now they’re here as a part of the first team to translate Shakespeare’s prose into ballet. While their version of the play has been performed already in London and Toronto, it has finally made it’s way stateside, and somewhat fittingly, is here right before what is supposed to be the biggest blizzard to hit D.C. in years
The play centers on the story of King Polixenes of Bohemia, King Leontes of Sicilia, and his wife Queen Hermione. Polixenes and Leontes are childhood friends, but suddenly, out of nowhere, Leontes becomes consumed with the suspicion that his very pregnant wife is having an affair with Polixenes, and that the baby is not his. He throws Hermione in prison, and when she does finally have the baby, he sends one of his men to abandon the child out in the woods. The little girl is found by a shepherd who raises her, and in true Shakespearean fashion, she grows up to fall in love with the Prince of Bohemia who has been disguised as a shepherd boy, which eventually leads to Polixenes and Leontes making amends. Although this may not be one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, it does have his most famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Just as BYT photographer Jeff Martin and I are starting to guess the massive props height, Mickey Berra, vice president of production at the Kennedy Center, wanders over. He’s happy to correct us (I guessed 30 feet, Jeff guessed 25) and even whips out his phone to show us photos of him hanging out in the tree hollow. He tells us that the tree and the rest of the props for The Winter’s Tale took a full week to load in. Eternity when it comes to most productions. I ask if it’s the most impressive prop he’s ever worked with and he pauses to mull it over, “I did drop the chandelier in Phantom,” he says, but does agree it is one of the more remarkable props. He begins to talk about the ballet, “It’s beautiful,” he says. “Like an opera… but that’s what we do here, nothing but fun.”
Dancers, stagehands, and musicians wander around us, and while I shuffle back and forth desperately attempting not to be in anyone’s way, Mickey doesn’t pay any mind. He’s been at the Center for 45 years after all, and you can see it in the way he walks around the place. Always the gracious host, he asks if I’ve ever been under the stage, and decides to take us on a tour.
As we walk through what can only be described as a labyrinthine series of hallways and stairways, Mickey points out photos and memorabilia covering the walls. “This is show business, we take care of the business and the audience takes care of the show,” he says for the first, but not the last time that day.
We make our way to the dressing rooms (“Welcome to the worlds fun house,” Mickey quips), which are incredibly quiet. Not to say the backstage of The Winter’s Tale is boring, but it’s surprisingly, almost shockingly serene. A few dancers wander around. A couple of hair and makeup artists work on wigs and faces respectively (the facial hair in this show is excellent), but it’s eerily calm. Despite the large cast milling about, there’s very little noise.
We pass a few racks of costumes, mostly dresses and tunics, all in sumptuous dark jewel tones. Mickey invites us to come look at his office, and on the way there we run into musicians making their way into the orchestra pit and, finally, things start to seem a little more alive. Stagehands dash around, moving contraptions and conversing with each other, while the members of the Opera House Orchestra make a cacophony of sound as they start to get ready for the last dress rehearsal before opening night. I ask two musicians walking through if they’re ready for tonight, “We’re very excited,” one says, while the other adds, “We really enjoyed Alice in Wonderland when it was here…” adding, “But tonight I have an obstructed view, can I talk to an usher about this?”
We quickly stop by the room that houses all of the extra lights (Mickey guesses there are probably 2,000), and then make our way to his office. Which happens to be less of an office, and more of a toy store. Photographs (of events, people, performances, you name it) paper the walls, while every flat surface is covered in trinkets. A toddler sized Mickey Mouse doll sits in a chair across from Mickey’s desk, while a series of rubber duckies, beads, and other tchokies make up a sort of shrine near the entrance. “We’re in the entertaining business,” Mickey says, “We need to be entertained in order to entertain anyone else.”
The dress rehearsal is about the start, and as we make our way back out from under the stage, everyone is getting into action. A group of young dancers practice pirouettes and grande jetés until one notices Jeff’s camera. He comes running at us, does a big jump, and dramatically says, “For the camera!” as he scurries off. The wings are filled with a series of faux marble statues, making it look almost like a pop-up museum. The separated front half of a ship is being moved around and a stagehand laughs, joking, “It’s like a popcorn scoop.” “Remember the stack of cards?” another asks, referencing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Mickey appears again to tells us one last story about drinking scotch backstage with Princess Margaret, and then we’re ushered to the front of the house. Dress rehearsal is about to start and there’s no use watching from the wings when we essentially have the entire theater to ourselves. It is maybe one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in that space. While this may just be rehearsal, everything looks and sounds absolutely perfect to me. The lighting is particularly astonishing, and while there isn’t a single word uttered, there’s no loss of emotion. Jealousy, confusion, anger, and bright (albeit brief) moments of happiness all shine through.
The first of three intermissions begins and I have a moment to talk with the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain. We talk a little bit about the production values, there are a lot of very complicated props in the first act, and I ask if she’s nervous about that aspect of the show, “Everything is very complex, especially in terms of scene changes,” she says. “And sometimes you can’t control that very well.” More than anything, though, she’s excited. “It’s an extraordinary production and we’re thrilled to be here.” Even though she’s seen the show many times, she admits that it still gives her chills. “Each dancer looks like their part was created for them,” she says, “like it’s their own skin.” I ask her about the next act, which is supposed to include that 28 foot tall tree. She explains that while the first and third are all about plot and drama, the middle act is much more carefree. “It really shows off the dancing skills of the company.”
Backstage, a dozen people convene to move the giant tree. Slowly, and with care, they get it onto the stage. Laughter floats out of the orchestra pit. Someone begins to apologize and is drowned out by the sound of a horn. Two stagehands walk by, one assuring the other, “They’ll settle in.” Another person sighs of relief. There is a sort of nervous energy permeating the space, but above all, they are prepared. The movements are still fresh in their muscles.