What is the backstage ballet experience?

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Answered by: Amy S, An Expert in the Behind the Scenes Category
What is the backstage ballet experience? You can’t help but feel like a V.I.P. when you walk through the Stage Door to the theater. It‘s a private world that has always been denied to you, but step through that door and suddenly you’re included in the exclusive. However, life backstage is not all glamor, champagne and autograph signing. Take, for example, the ballet: there are so many intricacies that are a part of staging a performance that the audience never, ever sees. Although the foyer and auditorium exudes elegance with its red carpets, gold filigree decor and white marble; the backstage is dark and sometimes dingy, constantly bustling with a beehive-like swarm of stage hands, dancers and directors.

So let’s take it from the beginning when you walk through the Stage Door. The security guard sits just inside and barely glances up when you enter, looking for the tell-tale ballerina bun hairdo of the dancers, or the all-black garb of the stage hands. You realize quickly that the only thing interesting in this smallish, shabby anteroom is the hint of luxury you see through porthole of the door to the front of the theater. However, you must disregard this and go through the nondescript door that looks like it might lead to the dumpsters in the back. This is where the stage is.

The stage is in a vast room with a ceiling fifty feet above your head. The walls and floor are black in order to be invisible to the audience. Florescent white warehouse lights replace the bright stage lights used during the performance and a musty scent of dirt and old wood meets your nostrils. A slew of stage hands work tirelessly around the stage - some construct sets or review the music cues, others climb the catwalks that are thirty feet above the stage floor and test the lights and rigging. These people are the backbone of every performance. Everything depends on their ability to properly execute their jobs in perfect coordination.

The stage manager is the head-honcho of the stage crew. He directs every job: from the props manager, to the lighting crew, to the guy who mops the floor between each act -- he’s got his hands full at all times. He sits at a small podium close to the curtain with a complete musical score for the production and a small TV which projects the real-time performance as viewed from a camera in the auditorium. Every stage hand checks with the Manager before the performance, making sure their job is complete and everything is set up. The actual stage crew handles not only the backdrops and curtain, but also the hundreds of props, complex lighting and lighting pattern changes, performance timing, scene changes, special effects (such as dry ice or wires for dancers who have to fly) set up, break down, clean up and the resetting of everything for the next show. Clearly there’s more to these quiet men and women in black.

While the stage crew sets up for the show, the dancers start arriving to change and put on their stage makeup. You have to weave your way around the stage and stage hands to the opposite side to find your way to the dressing rooms and costume department. A maze of hallways leads you to a narrow staircase that leads up to the corps de ballet’s dressing rooms. The lower rank you are in the company, the higher up you have to climb to get to your dressing room. Believe me, you don’t want climb three flights of stairs right after you’ve just danced for thirty minutes straight and have only five minutes to change your costume and hair. Yet for the newcomers and lowest rank company members, that is an inconvenient reality.

After the dancers have changed,they go check out their costumes in the costume department, which is just another small maze of hallways away. Racks upon racks of bright and ornate costumes line the walls, ranging from pancake tutus iced with Swarovski crystals to heavy Victorian-Era ball gowns complete with hoop-skirts, corsets, gloves, earrings, and fake hair curls. A handful of costume seamstresses bustle around like a bunch of hens, steaming rumpled tutus, sewing buttons and clasps onto tunics, organizing wigs and hairpieces, and repairing the inevitable rips and tears in various costumes that happen during the performance. These ladies must have an organized system to keep the costumes straight as many of the dancers perform multiple roles. Too much work goes into each costume to lose anything. They run a ship as tight as the Navy would.

After checking with the costume mistresses, the dancers take class on stage before the performance, avoiding the sets and backdrop that are too heavy to move from the stage floor. A pianist plays robust music for the dancers while the director of the class shouts out choreography and corrections, both of them competing against the excellent acoustics of the theater which sends their sound out to the empty seats. The curtain is up to allow the dancers to acclimate to the dizzying view of the audience. Several balconies of red velvet seats tower to the ceiling -- the top tier nose-bleed section is only visible if you crane your neck.

The dancers are all wearing “warm-ups” -- sweater leggings and jackets to keep their muscles warm and loose in the typically chilly backstage area. Warming up properly with a technique class can influence a performance as well. It is so important to make sure the dancers are prepared for the onslaught of tricky turns, jumps and intricate footwork. Not only will a dancer have a better performance with a warm up class, but it helps prevent injury which occurs all too often when the adrenaline starts going on stage.

This is when the backstage ballet experience becomes the ultimate performance experience. Nothing is more exhilarating than performing for a live audience with a live orchestra. Adrenaline, nerves and excitement all become one as you perform the well-rehearsed steps, bringing to full fruition the last eight weeks of practice. It’s easy to forget who you are while you’re on stage because the world seems to stop. The construction of the sets, the coordinated execution of the scene changes, the diligence of the stage hands, the hours of creating, sewing and fitting costumes, and the weeks of rehearsals for the dancers all culminate to bring a beautiful evening at the ballet to her patrons.

The audience, dressed in their best, sitting in their red-velvet seats, viewing the very finest performance are peacefully oblivious to the exertions of everyone involved in the two or three hour performance. But that’s the way it should be.

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