Staging a ballet, especially Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty" requires more than pirouettes and pique turns.
A behind-the-scenes tour of the Carolina Ballet's roughly 17,000-square-foot warehouse reveals where the scenery is built, where many of the costumes are stored, and where props like swords and a giant Christmas tree live until their moment on stage.
There's a dedicated shop area, paint space, welding area and multi-layered costume space, with room left still for building new scenery.
“It really takes a village to put these shows up, that’s for sure," said production manager Matthew Strampe, who has been working with Carolina Ballet for five years.
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For 20 years, since the Carolina Ballet was founded, a crew of expert builders, seamstresses and lighting specialists with decades of combined experience have come together, each relying on their artistry to bring productions to life. Everything needs to be seamless to allow the dancers to focus on what they need to do.
“For me, it’s sort of the world-building," said resident set designer Jeff A.R. Jones.
As the Carolina Ballet is set to present its final ballet of the season, the classic story of "Sleeping Beauty," we pulled back the curtain to see how this world evolves from idea to a reality that transports dancers and audiences alike over five performances. We learned that it's all in the details.
Jones, interviewed at the Carolina Ballet's North Raleigh studios, said every show starts with a conversation with Artistic Director Robert Weiss — and the music that will accompany the choreography.
“We start talking about ideas," Jones said. "I listen to the music. We talk about what his vision is for it, what the budget is for it.”
Scenic work usually begins with a rough sketch, turned into a finished drawing, which is often taken to O’Kelly Design Studios in Winston-Salem to be converted into a painted backdrop, perhaps 60 feet wide and 30 feet tall.
Most shows are held at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, either in Memorial Auditorium or the Fletcher Opera Theater. Some "Nutcracker" productions are at Durham Performing Arts Center or UNC's Memorial Hall.
The budget typically dictates how grand the set can be, and a limited amount of funds can also spur invention.
“That sort of creative problem-solving is one aspect that I really like," Jones said.
With “Sleeping Beauty,” a well-known ballet, he said, a certain level of grandeur and opulence is expected. Initial plans, though, were pared back due to expense.
So, instead of a backdrop that scrolled across the stage showing different scenic places, he created a map with lighting effects that gives the audience the feeling of traveling.
Jones, with a graduate degree from Florida State University in costume design, early on found himself drawn to set design. He has worked with Carolina Ballet from its beginnings.
“I’ve always liked drawing and painting since I was a kid," he said. "I’ve always liked playing on computers. I like to tell people I’m 12 for a living because I get to color and draw and play on a computer and make models."
Setting the mood
The company landed its largest warehouse to date three years ago off New Bern Avenue, but Jones said it still feels crowded. But it's an improvement for the people involved in the production.
“Before we moved in, we were really overcrowded in our old space," said Strampe, the production manager. "There was just scenery lying on top of other scenery. You never could find anything.”
The space is organized with scenery in one place, lighting in another, and everything able to be moved in and out easily.
The warehouse is filled with people. To build scenery, Strampe said, he needs a crew of eight to 10 people for up to three months. He may bring in extra prop artisans. Plus, there's a prop mistress and extra people needed to set up everything later in the theater.
Strampe previously worked with "The Lost Colony" in Manteo and has a degree from the University of South Dakota in lighting and scenic design.
For "Sleeping Beauty," in addition to typical staff, Strampe estimates he has hired about a dozen people for set-up and another 10 for lighting, which include resident lighting manager Ross Kolman and the company's master electrician.
Lighting is the last layer of a show. For each production, some 350 lights are hung in the theater, making it essential to plan ahead.
“You have to know what you’re doing when you walk in the door,” Kolman said.
The choreographer's desires might be artistic, Kolman said, based on things like angst over a mother, or a sunset seen in Spain in 1978, or something more technical, like spotlighting a dancer appearing down left on a certain beat.
“What I try to do is just find the specific atmosphere or the visual language for each piece, which can vary tremendously, from 'Sleeping Beauty' being a storybook ballet to a severe, abstract contemporary piece," Kolman said.
Kolman was the fourth person to be hired by Carolina Ballet 20 years ago. Before that, he worked with Durham's American Dance Festival; he still does occasional lighting for the summer event. He started working with theatrical lighting while a student at Chapel Hill High School and went on to study at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
Once scenery is built and everything readied, Strampe said, all will be transported to the theater in a semi-trailer truck or two, along with several box trucks.
The crew arrives on Monday morning at 8 a.m. to an empty theater. By the time they leave at 11 p.m., the costumes are backstage and the main space has been transformed — a multi-layer dance floor installed and swept clean — for the first technical dance rehearsal the next day.
Pointe shoes and tutus
The costume department is the busiest of all, Strampe said. Carolina Ballet’s costume shop is housed in its headquarters on Atlantic Avenue and is filled with spools of thread in rainbow colors, spools of black and white elastic and bolts of pastel fabric, along with finished tutus for the show.
“We spend a lot of time replacing elastic,” said costume director Kerri Martinsen, who has been with the ballet for eight years. “If they wear it, it’s my responsibility, from their full tutus to their shoes."
Her shop does everything from create patterns to order fabric, make new costumes, repair old ones and dye shoes.
While Martinsen occasionally designs costumes, the Carolina Ballet has a principal guest costume designer, David Heuvel. Each costume must work for the dancer, Martinsen said. She'll make accommodations, which the audience can’t detect, but that let the ballerina fully lift her arms.
“The cut of the clothing is incredibly important," Martinsen said.
Tutus require some $200 in material and are hand-sewn, which makes each worth $2,000 when finished. A single tutu can include netting, a hoop, a pant layer and a few topper layers, plus bodice fabric, and that’s before adding sequins or other embellishments.
On a recent day, Ella Brooks, the wardrobe manager, fixed a tutu, using a pair of pliers. The two laughed about the unconventional tools often required: pliers and a razor blade.
The tutus must be constructed to last years, Martinsen said, with hooks installed so one tutu can accommodate different dancers in different casts for a single show. Over time, costumes can start to fall apart through wear and tear. A tutu, she said, is worn as much in a month as the average piece of clothing in a year.
Martinsen's mother taught her how to sew in junior high school. She received her bachelor’s in costume design from the University of South Dakota. Her graduate work was at UNC.
And with every costume and tutu comes the all-important shoes, which carry the dancers across the stage.
A visit to the shoe room reveals hundreds of pink ballet shoes stored in plastic bins, along with men’s ballet shoes, plus stacks of ballroom dance shoes. Supplying the pointe shoes is Freed of London, and a representative comes every couple of years to measure each ballerina.
“Each dancer has a particular shoe she likes, and a particular shoemaker," said marketing director Sara E. Reichle.
Currently, the costume shop is busy painting men's shoes — lots of them. There will be 55 pairs of ballet slippers for a five-show run, which is even more than the amount needed for "The Nutcracker," Martinsen said.
At the theater, dressers help dancers make quick changes. Principal dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen, who has been the company for 20 years, will be Princess Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty." She will make four costume changes.
Her partner, principal dancer Richard Krusch, is playing the role of the Prince. He has been with the company for 17 years. The costumes, he said, are very detailed yet comfortable.
“Of course, the design of the sets and the lights, they help a lot to make those costumes pop," he said.
Severin-Hansen and Krusch said they notice lighting more than scenery. With computers now used to manage music, sound effects and projections, sometimes glitches can happen, causing them to pause for a beat.
Krusch is less relaxed during some ballets because of the costume changes, he said, or makeup changes, or working with props.
“It’s not even about the dancing," he said. “That’s why classical ballet is so difficult and extremely hard.”
“Sleeping Beauty” is a massive production with great demands. Everyone has high expectations.
"The idea is in our line of work, you can make small mistakes," Kolman said. "None of us claims to be perfect and things do happen, but you can make a small mistake, but you can't make a big mistake."
What: "Sleeping Beauty"
When: 8 p.m. May 17-19; 2 p.m. May 19-20.
Where: Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Tickets: $55 and up
Info: 919-719-0900 or carolinaballet.com