The Backstage Choreography of a Ballet
Choreography is integral to every ballet, both onstage and off. In the wings of the War Memorial Opera House are crew members moving backdrops, curtains, and platforms to transform the stage from Juliet’s bedroom to a public square to Friar Lawrence’s Chapel in Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet. Up in the catwalks above the stage are spotters monitoring these scenery changes and the snow as it falls in Nutcracker. And at the back of the audience are lighting operators awaiting the moment to catch a pas de deux couple with a spotlight as they enter the stage.
Guiding the crew members through this intricate choreography is the Stage Manager (SM). As a lighting, scenery, projection, or follow spot change approaches, the SM gives a standby cue to the operators over an internal radio system to alert them to the coming change. Then, the SM gives a “Go,” telling operators to press a button or move a piece of scenery to make the change happen. This is known as “calling a show.”
As we look forward to returning to the War Memorial Opera House for our 2021 Repertory Season, we chatted with Production Stage Manager Jane Green to get insight into this unseen choreography.
When you call a show, are you following the music or the dancer, or both?
For most ballets, I follow a musical score—a piano reduction or a full orchestral score. I treat the music as a road map—I watch the stage, but look down at the score to know what’s coming up next. When a ballet doesn’t have a score, I have a general way of typing out cues. Calling a show is not one size fits all. Individual stage managers will call shows in a way that works best for them and their crew. It is most important that the cues happen at the right time, in the right way, and that someone else can make sense of your cues in an emergency.
Do you have to have a certain level of ballet experience to SM a ballet?
Understanding ballet and music is important. I may not know all of the right terminology, even after all of these years, but I understand how dance works on stage, and how to hear and follow music.
Do you think about what you do as a form of choreography?
Definitely! One of the things I enjoy about the creation of new ballets is being part of the artistry. There is an art to making everything happen at the right time without it being noticeable. Part of the choreography is figuring out how to say everything at the right time to make it happen at the right time. You have to give standbys for each cue about 30 seconds or so before the “GO.” If there are rail cues, we also give a two-minute warning and turn the cue light on (some deck crew don’t wear headsets, so they need a visual cue).
Can you guess whether a ballet will have a lot of cues or not?
There are some ballets, like Agon, where there might only be a light cue change between movements. But then we had a gala piece several years ago that was less than five minutes long but had cues every few seconds! It can become much more complicated when you have multiple kinds of cues at once. At the end of Act I of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella©, there are light, projection, rail, and follow spot cues that have to be timed together. I have to time it so that the delay from my saying “Go” to the operator hitting the button to the change happening onstage makes the cues land just right.
Are operators always pushing a button, or are they physically moving pieces of scenery?
The majority of things—lighting, projections, and most of the rail system [to which curtains and scenery are attached to allow them to fly in and out]—are automated. Being computerized makes things more consistent, but you also lose the live, human element. One thing that is still completely manual is the follow spot. We have some incredible follow spot operators here. They have to stay with a moving target and keep their light consistent throughout. One of the great things about working with the same crew is that they know the dancers, and they learn the quirks of particular roles, ballets, and people.
Like the dancers and designers, do you feel part of creating the aesthetic of a ballet?
In a way, yes. It’s the stage manager’s job to bring life to the designer’s creation. Every designer is different in how they cue a show. I’ve worked with designers who time musical phrases with a stopwatch so that a light cue or scenic move changes in time with the music. Some designers want a cue to end or begin on a specific note. Every designer has different aesthetics. It is part of the stage managers’ artistry to bring those aesthetics to life onstage.
Header Image: Behind the scenes of a performance of the San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson