Sunday, December 13, 2009


"Dance of the Snowflakes from "The Nutcracker," Pacific Northwest Ballet, Photo from Seattle Times

"The Nutcracker" ballet is a perennial holiday event, and if you work in the theatre business, you become very familiar with it.

I think I worked my first "Nutcracker" back in 1977. I got a job with Garden State Ballet in New Jersey, on their state-wide tour. It was a non-union gig, so even though I was hired as the electrician, in addition to putting together the lighting rigs in the shop for a week, I also drove around northern New Jersey with a stage manager named Oscar, picking up racks of costumes from storage rooms, and unloading flats and wagons from warehouses.

We toured high schools, Masonic temples, and decrepit old movie houses. Throughout December, we worked twelve-hour days, loaded and unloaded trucks in slush and cold weather, and hoisted garment racks up three flights of stairs.

Oh, and the celeste. "The Nutcracker" is known for its use of the celeste, a keyboard instrument that produces the ethereal bell-like notes in the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo dance. Try hauling one up a flight of stairs to get you in an ethereal mood.

A few years later, in Seattle, I would work the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker." When I first arrived, the company presented a production where the scenery was designed to look like candy.

A key scenic element of any "Nutcracker" production is the snow that falls on the dancers during the Waltz of the Snowflakes that concludes Act I. This is accomplished by suspending a a long piece of fabric hung like a sling over the stage. A certain area of the sling is pierced with holes or slits. The sling is filled up with confetti, and then rocked up and down so that the confetti sifts out through the holes. You can rock it gently or vigorously, to change the amount and speed of the falling snow. This is called a snow-bag, and the first year I worked for PNB, the flyman assigned to it got drunk one night, having spent the post-matinee meal break at the Moose Hall bar. He miscalculated his own strength and collapsed the bag entirely at the top of the scene, dumping a whole load of confetti onto the dancers' heads. *

In 1983 the company commissioned a brilliant new production with sets designed by children's book author Maurice Sendak. We worked for weeks that year. The set included intricate machinery that took a while to suss out properly. The schedule was heavy, with many weekday matinees. It felt as if we went into the theatre the day after Thanksgiving and didn't come out until after the New Year.

In 1986, it was like Christmas in July, when a feature-length film of that production was made, shot over the summer in a nearby university theatre. We worked for a whole month on that. You can watch that film HERE.

But it wasn't just ballets where I heard Tchaikovsky's music. I worked an on-ice version of "Nutcracker" starring Dorothy Hamell. Holiday concerts, from the Symphony to guest appearances of high school bell chorales, all played music from the ballet. There were touring Rockettes shows, with chorus girls kicking to the Russian dance. There was an Olde-Time Radio Christmas play at the Moore Theatre one year that played a jazz version of the Sugar Plum Fairy dance, with alto sax and clarinet instead of celeste.

The holidays meant that every day, at least once a day, I'd hear That Music. Whether it was the opening bars of the Party Scene, or the crescendo of the growing Christmas tree, the music caused a physical reaction in me, a heightened alertness from adrenalin, as I prepared to perform my cue. One year it might be watching for the curtain to part and shine my spotlight on the party-children crossing left to right in front of the portal. Another year it might be waiting in the wings to push the Stahlbaum house scenery off and open the floor for the fight between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker.

It got so that whenever I went shopping, and the store's Muzak played music from "The Nutcracker," I'd get an uncomfortable feeling that I was supposed to be somewhere, or that I was missing my cue.

There's nothing worse for a stagehand than missing a cue, and throughout the shopping season I always felt a little jumpy. Could it be a lesser version of the stress of combat fatigue or PTSD, when certain sounds trigger fear and adrenalin?

After I left Seattle, I stopped doing that kind of work, and gradually over the years I stopped reacting to That Music. I am now quite capable of sitting quietly when the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy comes on in a GAP commercial on TV, or walking past a bell choir on the Promenade.

But you know what's funny? Sometimes I actually miss it.

*Dumping the snow-bag on the dancers is a traditional joke stagehands pull on the LAST day of the ballet, after the final curtain has dropped. It was totally unexpected the night Gary came back from the Moose Hall with his load on.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

LOL, thanks for the back stage view!

Sue said...

I have never seen it in person...just on television. I'm not really a "ballet person" and yet this really goes beyond ballet...into part of the season.

Great post!


CaShThoMa said... daughter and I have tickets to the Nutcracker this year in Seattle; I certainly won't forget your account of the guy dumping all the "snow" at once in his drunken haze at the PNB show. How funny is that?

Tristan Robin said...

wonderful post - love the drunken "snow man" lol

I played Fritz a couple years as a child - and then Drosselmeyer for ten years a while back. I love appearing in The Nutcracker ... and, unlike W.C.Fields, I adore working with kids - they are always enchanting and delightful (except when they're not - but that's a different story).

shrink on the couch said...

Poor dancers - did they have to keep dancing with a netting full of confetting hanging on their shoulders, i.e., "the show must go on?"

And the answer to your question is yes. A trigger similar to PTSD reaction, your feeling of fear/anxiety when you hear the music. It's a classically conditioned response, if you want to know the clinical jargon.

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Unknown said...

Fascinating stuff. You have had so many life experiences. I feel wiser every time I visit and learn something from you : )