Behind the scenes at the Carolina Ballet

Dec. 08, 2013 @ 07:17 PM

It was less than 24 hours before opening night. Ballerinas grabbed their water bottles and stretched their weary legs on UNC Memorial Hall’s stage, sliding off their broken-in ballet shoes to replace the tape and padding around their toes with new strips, protecting their feet from brutal pointe work.

The 15-minute breather for the production crew allowed the Carolina Ballet dancers a break. They’d already been going at it for a few hours, starting and stopping, receiving sharp criticism and adjusting, for this year’s run of “The Nutcracker.”
The production opened Saturday at UNC and will continue at the Durham Performing Arts Center Dec. 14 and through Christmastime in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.
The stage manager, Kristin Orlando, cued the start of recorded Tchaikovsky music. They were at the start of the second act, and when the curtains lifted, it revealed about a dozen children dressed as truffles smiling shyly in the Land of Sweets. They shuffled around, weaving beside each other, and children’s ballet master Debra Austin hollered at them with a microphone.
“See your marks! See your marks!” Austin said, voice tense as she concentrated on each movement. “Good girls.”
Choreographer Robert Weiss ordered the crew to stop the music. He’s been with the Carolina Ballet as artistic director since its start. He’s meticulous and demanding, pushing the company toward perfection - Weiss started dancing at 17 years old and rose to the rank of principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and has choreographed ballet productions across the country.
Weiss said the pull of the Carolina Ballet’s rendition of the fairy tale classic, which originally premiered in Western countries in the 1940s, is the illusions. Weiss worked with Las Vegas illusionist Rick Thomas to make it seem like his dancers were levitating, disappearing or being crushed.
“’The Nutcracker’ is just a wonderful Christmas fantasy and I think it captures childhood imagination,” Weiss said, before rushing to sit by the stage manager, out in the imaginary audience. 
As the little truffle girls lifted their brown skirts to see if their toes were touching the placement tape on stage, Weiss ordered them to stand still, exasperated.
Zalman Raffael, who’s been with the Carolina Ballet for six years and trained at the School of American Ballet, played the Nutcracker prince, a boy’s role, when he was younger with the New York City Ballet. He now plays multiple parts in Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker, to include the grandfather and a tea dancer in the second act, and also helps the children with their choreography.
He said when he performed ballet as a child, they worked to create perfect lines. It was a job, and one they wanted to do well. Now, he said, children don’t have the attention span anymore, so it takes constant guidance to prepare for a show on this scale, with about 64 roles offered to children. They bring an innocence to the stage, Raffael said, because they’re “full of life where adults are no longer.”
“There was something so majestic about the ballerinas and their hard work,” said Raffael of his beginning days in ballet. “So much can be said through a person’s dancing. I grew up with women, they were ethereal.”
The adult performers have spent only two weeks working on “The Nutcracker,” having just finished Messiah, a ballet set to composer George Frideric Handel’s score, on Dec. 1.
Ballerinas dressed down in leg warmers and T-shirts, a few holes showing in their tights, as they danced around the Sugar Plum Fairy, their skirts or tutus a blur around their midsections as they spun.
Lilyan Vigo Ellis, who plays the lead female role, worked with one of the instructors during the break. Ellis curled her fingers slightly, dipping her body as the instructor watched, making slight altercations to the way she moved.
While running through parts of act two over and over, a thin sheen of sweat formed on her face and back. When her partner, Richard Krusch, held her steady, her arms tremored with fatigue.
Ellis is a founding member of the Carolina Ballet company, having joined at only 18 years old. She’s 35 now, had a child, and has participated in dozens of Nutcracker performances during her career, ever since she was a kid.
Backstage, she said she still gets nervous before each show, especially when she plays the Sugar Plum Fairy lead. Her stomach ends up in knots.
“There’s all those people out there,” she said. “There’s beautiful music. There’s so much expectations.
“I don’t want to let anyone down, including myself.”
The Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker comes to the Durham Performing Arts Center Dec. 14-15. For more information and tickets, visit