Imagine putting on a ballet performance before a packed house at one of Yakima’s biggest indoor venues, the Capitol Theatre. There are 40 Russian dancers, more than 50 child dancers, 200 hand-sewn costumes and half a dozen set and prop changes. Then, add in the fact that the children have never practiced this show with the dancers they’ll be performing with — and the fact that the entire cast, crew, and set arrived in Yakima the day of the show.
Welcome to the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker. It’s the biggest holiday spectacular of them all — and it’s kind of a Christmas miracle that the people behind this show can pull it off. They were in Missoula, Montana November 6, they performed in Yakima November 7, and on November 8 they packed up and headed to a show in Seattle. Show Producer Akiva Talmi says “We consider this a Broadway show, and it’s a Broadway show of one-night stands. That makes it much more difficult.” This is the story of the magic behind the scenes of this enchanting show. I arrive backstage on the afternoon of the performance. Groups of young girls, some in costume, are clustered around in a cavernous room, talking in low voices. Snow Maidens wear glittering blue and white dresses. Others twirl the skirts of their Russian folk costumes, practicing dance moves. A group of tiny girls in white leotards stands in line to be outfitted as mice or snowflakes. Hundreds of costumes await, tightly packed on rolling racks.
The two women orchestrating the effort to get the kids dressed seem remarkably calm considering the show is less than three hours away. Wardrobe Supervisor Ashley McBride speaks into a walkie talkie on her shoulder, answering questions from stagehands and the tour manager as she and Children’s Wardrobe Director Kristin Grieneisen pull costumes off the rack.
Around McBride’s neck is a lanyard holding extra buttons, a tiny pair of scissors to snip errant costume threads, and a “bite light,” which is a small light you clamp in your teeth to leave both hands free to work on costumes. A couple of threaded needles are stuck through the collar of her jacket, so she can make repairs on the fly. “The other day I was literally stitching a costume onstage before they yelled ‘Places!’” she laughs. “You just have to think on your feet. If you need fabric … you can take it from something else to mend a costume all of the sudden, because when we’re on the road it’s not like a Joann’s fabric store is going to be right down the street.”
The crew arrived the morning of the performance, and a separate bus with the rest of the company still en route. “The dancers have not arrived yet so we can’t tell if there’ll be a show!” Akiva jokes. It’s 4 p.m., and the show is at 7:30. “The dancers sleep, have a latte at 12 o’clock, then they travel. They’ll be here any minute. It’s a lot of work but we’ve never missed a show!” He’s been producing The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker for 26 years.
The Russian dancers arrive on a charter bus about half an hour later. They immediately hit the stage and start practicing in street clothes and sweats, going through the paces with the child dancers. The stage in every theater has different dimensions, so they need to know how the choreographed moves fit in each space.
The kids, from kindergartners to teenagers, have been practicing since fall, when a Russian ballerina from the Nutcracker came to a local ballet school to audition and cast for the production. She taught them the choreography, and their instructors here have been practicing with them ever since. They’ll have about an hour to rehearse on stage with the other dancers. That’s it.
The company has 10 traveling stagehands, who work with local union workers at the Capitol Theatre. In addition to unloading the sets and props from a giant semi truck, they must carefully unfurl and attach six enormous backdrops that will be raised and lowered throughout the show. The delicate, hand-painted backdrops were conceived in the U.S. by set designer Carl Sprague, who has worked on numerous stage projects and Hollywood movies, including the backdrops for the musical La La Land. He researched the Nutcracker, then painted small renderings which were sent to Russia and enlarged by one of the oldest theatrical scene shops there, which counts the famous Italian opera house La Scala among its clients. “It really preserves this marvelous 19th century painted scenery tradition,” Carl says. He wanted to emphasize the wonderful “Russian-ness” of this production, so he worked from photos of the original backdrops from when the Nutcracker, composed by Tchaikovsky, premiered in the 1890s.
I walk across the stage to get a closer look at the Christmas tree backdrop, which magically grows during the fight scene. It is gorgeous, made of painted canvas in several shades of green and covered with painted ornaments, gold stars and garlands, in layers of paint so thick they look three-dimensional. It’s attached to a mesh curtain, which they raise to make it ‘grow.’
Four “flymen” are stationed on a deck high above the stage, to supervise the weight and pulley systems used to move the backdrops. When they pull a rope, up goes the tree. There are duplicate shows traveling the country simultaneously, in order to reach as many audiences as they can during the holiday season, so there must be two sets of everything. And somehow, all these moving parts and people come together to create an iconic Christmas show on stage.
Carl remembers when he and his wife first went to the theater in Russia. They saw bread lines in the streets outside, but inside, they found something magical. “The audience all comes dressed to the nines, there’s a marvelous sense of occasion and continuity and if we can bring even a flavor of that into people’s lives here — what’s wrong with that?”
If you missed the show this year, mark your calendar for November of 2019. The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker is expected to perform in Yakima again next year, says Capitol Theatre CEO Charlie Robin.