PBT's 'Nutcracker' to cast its magical spell once again

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Six trailers of scenery, hundreds of pairs of shoes, 200-plus costumes and two casts totaling about 300 dancers. No, this is not a new jazzed-up version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." It's some of what goes into producing the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's annual performance of "The Nutcracker."

'The Nutcracker'

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Friday through Dec. 26; times and shows vary.

Tickets: $20.75 to $90.75; 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

Information: For times of pre- and post-show talks with PBT artists: http://www.pbt.org/community_en

The holiday classic opens its 17-show run Friday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Little has changed with the story and structure, said artistic director Terrence Orr. His adaptation of German writer E. T. A. Hoffman's tale boasts a bit of local flare, with scenery modeled after area landmarks such as the Kaufmann's (now Macy's) department store clock in Downtown, the F.W. McKee residence in Shadyside and the view of the city's skyline from Mount Washington. PBT's "Nutcracker" also includes a love story twist.

"I try to do a little bit more than most productions when telling the whole story," Mr. Orr said.

Since catching a performance of "The Nutcracker" is a traditional December treat for many, Mr. Orr searches for ways to tweak the show from year to year.

"I freshen up different parts of the ballet to make it new and interesting for dancers and public alike," he said. "I have great fun working productions with new people and finding new ways of getting it done."

This year, Mr. Orr has added a magic trick in the first act involving a pirate and the young Marie's Uncle Drosselmeyer.

"Wielding that magical power over the scene is a fun approach to the role," said corps de ballet member Nicholas Coppula, who plays Drosselmeyer, among other characters.

Though "The Nutcracker" is a fixture of the Christmas season, that doesn't mean pulling off the show is an easy feat. As soon as it ends, preparations for next year begin, said costumier Janet Groom-Campbell.

"After the run, I make notes in my calendar on what I want to replace for the next season."

Throughout the year, any down time is spent refurbishing costumes, she said. She also starts months in advance ordering enough pointe shoes for company members. They wear custom-made shoes that can take up to six months to arrive. Some dancers wear out a pair of pointe shoes after one performance, Ms. Groom-Campbell said.

Getting the set ready also is a year-round chore.

"If we're adding any updates, we work on that throughout the year to have that ready," said production manager Courtney Adler. "It's always in the back of my mind. Even in the summer, I think about 'The Nutcracker.' "

Come fall, preparations kick into high gear. Casting begins as early as September, Mr. Orr said. Rehearsals begin soon after, mainly for the 100-plus students with the PBT School who dance alongside the company in the show.

In October, costume fittings start for the children.

"We go in and fit the little kids for about five or six hours," Ms. Groom-Campbell said. "... It is really fun to do that fitting because they get so excited."

Company members begin devoting most of their rehearsal time to "The Nutcracker" in November. On some Saturdays and weekday evenings, dancers from the company and the school rehearse together.

"The kids work so hard. It's actually kind of cool to see them working and trying things out and getting to know ballet," said soloist Eva Trapp. "It's something that almost inspires you to work harder, seeing them trying so hard. They bring something fresh back to what we're doing."

Dancers try to squeeze in at least one dress rehearsal in early December at PBT's headquarters in the Strip District before holding one at the Benedum.

"That's a good working rehearsal for me to check the hemlines and the sleeve lengths on all of the performers," Ms. Groom-Campbell said.

On Monday, a crew of about 40 people will begin loading trailers with set pieces to haul to the theater. "We're busier than Santa's elves," Ms. Adler said. Crews will probably work 10-hour days to get everything in shape for Friday's opening, she said.

To keep costumes orderly, dancers have cubby holes in dressing rooms. Smaller items such as jewelry and gloves are kept on tables with masking tape grids for categorizing each character's accessories.

Once the show opens, things don't slow down. Backstage is a frenzy of costume changes and production workers calling out cues and making sure dancers stay clear of moving set pieces.

What audiences are watching "on stage is very choreographed, but backstage is choreographed, too," Ms. Adler said.

The second act is much calmer, allowing dancers to watch and cheer from the wings.

"It's one of those shows where everyone feels like a family," Ms. Trapp said. "We all really do support each other from back there."

Through Dec. 26, the Benedum becomes dancers' second home, Ms. Trapp said. "I even decorate my mirror in the dressing room with little snowflakes."

Company members are at the theater hours before showtime to warm up and take part in a dance class on the Benedum's stage. Crews spend time between shows touching up sets, polishing tiaras and sewing pompoms and buttons back on costumes.

"I consider it my job to keep [costumes] looking new for each performance because, whether you bought a ticket for opening night or the last performance, you probably paid about the same price so we always want it to look nice," Ms. Groom-Campbell said.

Doing so many shows each holiday season doesn't get old, especially for company members who swap roles in each performance.

"It doesn't matter how many times you've rehearsed it or watched videos, getting props, kids, costumes in place -- it's a whole new game then," Mr. Coppula said.

Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com . First Published December 5, 2010 5:00 AM


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