From one major ballet company to another, programming can vary greatly—from the choreographers and dance styles featured, to the number of performances presented during a given season. But most large companies have one programmatic feature in common: a combination of mixed-bill and full-length productions.
Full-length works are usually story ballets like Swan Lake that last a few hours with two or three acts, follow a classic or well-known narrative, and offer big production value
--with rich set and costume designs. A mixed-bill program is typically comprised of three short works and offers audiences a range of different choreographic styles and themes, in one performance.
SF Ballet’s Production Director Christopher Dennis explains the differences between mixed-bill programs and full-length productions, from a production standpoint.
You oversee the Production department, which includes the backstage crew, lighting supervisor, and the stage managers (among other staff). In general, from your behind-the-scenes perspective, what’s the difference between getting a mixed-bill program on stage versus a full-length ballet?
Christopher Dennis: A full-length production is essentially a stand-alone ballet, so we only work with one choreographer and one design team to bring it to fruition. And typically, because it’s longer, has a bigger budget, and more set and costume design elements, we have more time to work on it.
With a mixed-bill program, we’re usually working with three different teams and choreographers whose works are featured together on one program. Often, these choreographers have very different needs and visions for their ballets. But, because they all share a program, they are somewhat related—they all have to abide by the same parameters that we give them, like limited set design and lighting features. Also, with a mixed-bill work, we always have to keep in mind that in the future, each ballet will likely be on a different mixed-bill program, presented together with other ballets. It’s important that they all follow the same guidelines so that they can be interchangeable.
When you hear about an idea for a mixed-bill ballet from a choreographer, what’s the first thing you do?
CD: First, I listen to the full concept of the ballet with an open mind. Once I know what the choreographer is basically trying to achieve, I ask for more detail. For example, what design concepts do they have in mind and how do they want the lighting to look? Next, I work with my team on the feasibility of these concepts, based on our budget and the amount of time we have to build everything. I always try to be optimistic—instead of wondering if we can execute someone’s vision, I think about how we can do it.
Why do you think it’s important to offer both mixed-bill and full-length ballets during a particular season?
CD: I think it rounds out the audience experience. For someone new to the art form, they can try out a number of different choreographers over one night of a mixed-bill performance or attend a full-length because they happen to know the story. For regular attendees, full-lengths allow them to see different casts in really meaty principal roles and with a mixed-bill, they’re able to see the range and diversity of the Company as a whole. You really can’t go wrong either way.
Do you lose anything by having more guidelines around mixed-bill ballets?
CD: I don’t think so. In fact, in some ways you have to be more thoughtful with a mixed-bill work because you have less to work with. For example, Arthur Pita’s upcoming world premiere Salome is a retelling of the biblical parable (and famous opera), but his vision is very stylistic and theatrical. His version takes place nowhere but he uses a real limousine on stage to set a particular mood. Between that, confetti cannons, and very contemporary costumes, he creates an atmosphere that’s more Mulholland Drive than biblical and it’s very effective. So on the one hand, the staging is very spare and simple. On the other, it was a bit of a curve-ball for us because we had to figure out how to move a real limo, which is like a large-scale prop, on and offstage. But we’re always up for the challenge, and it keeps us on our toes!