When you see the New York City Ballet perform at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, it’s the stunning onstage choreography that captures your attention.
Yet, behind the scenes, ballerinas and stagehands are performing a dance that’s just as intricate.
“The backstage choreography is almost as intense as the onstage choreography,” said the NYCB’s Director of Production Marquerite Mehler.
She’s been with the NYCB for 23 years and has been directing the set-up at SPAC for just as long.
This year the ballet is bringing more than 90 dancers, along with over 1,000 toe shoes, 3 miles of lighting cable, 500 gel sheets and a tractor-trailer or two of costumes. That’s not to mention the backdrop of the set. It’s a lot to work around.
“We all like to watch and support each other,” said principal dancer Ashley Bouder, “But because there is limited space, you have to be aware. And if you are in the way, someone will gently move you.”
The backstage area at SPAC is smaller than their usual backstage space so they have to be even more aware of who is about to come on or off stage, who needs to have their costume changed, etc.
And the backstage is abuzz well before the curtain goes up.
Ballerinas and stagehands start getting ready several hours before the show. Dancers warm up in the rehearsal studio, sometimes running through the choreography both mentally and physically. In nearby studios, they’ve got to style their hair and apply stage makeup, sometimes aided by the company’s hair and makeup professionals. They’ve also got to sew their toe shoes to their leotards.
“I usually plan no more than two hours [to get ready] because I don’t like having too much time to wait around,” said principal dancer Sara Mearns, “I almost want to be late sometimes so I don’t have time to think about it.”
While the ballerinas are all busy in the dressing rooms, there’s plenty of laughter and light chatter, even as dancers get ready to take their places.
“Compared to where I’ve been before, we are very laid back. We are laughing, making jokes and not taking ourselves too seriously before we go on,” Mearns said.
Bouder admitted that when she was just starting out, being backstage before a performance was stressful. But after being in the NYCB for 18 years, the nerves aren’t as bad.
“You feel a little bit of anticipation and [you] go through all the things that could go wrong,” Bouder said, “You try to prepare your mind.”
Yet, they’ve come to expect surprises here and there.
“It’s really hot [backstage]. Sometimes there’s bats and then there’s bugs,” said Teresa Reichlen, a principal dancer. One year, there was a chipmunk that stayed backstage with the company for a week. It became a bit of a celebrity among the ballerinas.
“There’s lots of elements to deal with. That’s what makes it fun,” Mearns said.
For opening night at SPAC, they anticipated a rather streamlined evening backstage, with their all-Balanchine performance, a tried and true classic for the company.
“We’ve been here so long, we know where the standard repertory things go. That’s one of the nice things about returning is that you learn what’s best [in the space],” Mehler said.
However, this year, the backstage choreography is going to get a bit more intricate with their piece “Something To Dance About,” by Warren Carlyle, slated for Saturday. There will be well over 100 costume changes.
“Some of the ladies have 15 seconds to change shoes and costumes. And it’s not just one person changing it’s six or seven [at once],” Bouder said.
The lightning-fast costume changes combined with the tighter space will make it an even more impressive performance to pull off. One that will take some help from the stagehands as well as the principal dancers.
“We don’t know exactly how it’s going to work here yet. Sara and I anticipate helping a lot,” Bouder said.
“We try not to be frantic that just doesn’t help. It’s just everybody working really hard. It’s a lot of planning and detail and changing when [things] needs to change,” Mehler said.