Setting the Stage – Behind the Scenes of The Christmas Ballet

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at Smuin Ballet! Following a fantastic opening in Walnut Creek, we were curious about the many details behind the scenes that make The Christmas Ballet magical. We sat down with Production Director and Stage Manager Kathryn T. Graham (KT) to learn more about what goes into this complex production!


The most important part of setting the stage is the dance floor, called “marley.” What is it made of, and what goes into the set-up?
KT: The dance floor is made up of two parts: the sub-floor and the marley top layer. The sub-floor, composed of two layers of wood atop foam blocks, gives a bit of cushion to the floor so the dancers can jump and land more safely than on a hard surface, like plain wood or concrete. It is stored in 5’x5’ sections, and fitted together in an interlocking pattern on the stage. Marley is a very smooth, linoleum-like material that offers a flat, even surface for the dancers to jump, turn and roll safely. Marley is stored in large rolls, and is spread out tightly on the floor and held down with a special tape to minimize bubbles and wrinklesall of which can impede a dancer’s turns.


The Christmas Ballet is separated into two acts: Classical Christmas, which is staged in white, and Cool Christmas, which is performed in red. How many set changes do you make during the intermission?
KT: We change the colored “gels” in many of the 400+ lights hanging over the stage. We also change the curtains surrounding the stage from black to redthe “borders” covering the hanging lights, the “legs” or “wings” curtains on the side of the stage, as well as the backdrop. The crew is working hard to make all those changes during the 15-minute intermission!


How long does it take to load in the floor, lighting, curtains, and sets?
KT: Load-in and focusing the lights takes about 20 to 22 hours over two days with a crew of 15 people! Including hanging electricals, we use more than 30 hanging “pipes” or pieces of scenery. We also have to set up the hundreds of props used by the dancers. Fortunately we rehearse the more complex Act Two first, and then Act One so that we’re all set up for our dress rehearsal the next day! We also prepare for the new works on the program, including staging and lights, which our lighting designer creates on the fly.

The Christmas Ballet is known for its classic wintry snow! How does this magic happen?
KT: In most of our venues, we hang a long tube with small holes in it and fill it with snow–flame-proof confetti! It’s moved by pulleys which shake the snow out. When snow falls over the audience, it is thrown by the spotlight operators from the catwalk to add to the effect. After the show, we refill the tubes with snow first and sweep the stage afterwards–what a mess!


What keeps you coming back to The Christmas Ballet?
KT:  I’ve been with Smuin Ballet since 1997, and I still love the excitement of seeing all of the pieces come together for the first time each year. It’s a new puzzle to solve from scratch each time, because we shift the order of the show. During the production, I love to sit backstage calling cues, and hearing how the audience reacts to the show. It’s a real adrenaline rush!

The Christmas Ballet continues its magic in Carmel, Mountain View and San Francisco December 4–27. Click here for more information about tickets!

Restaging The Christmas Ballet: Q&A with Amy London

How are The Christmas Ballet pieces restaged every year? We sat down with Ballet Master Amy London to learn more about what goes into recreating this complex show each year with a new cast.

Q: How do the new company members learn the whole show in just a few weeks?

Amy London: Learning The Christmas Ballet the first time is often overwhelming for new dancers! Since there are only 16 dancers in the company, the show is much more involved than a production like The Nutcracker. Each dancer will perform around 12 of the pieces at any given show, but they need to learn all of them just in case! The veteran dancers often help the rookies with all of the choreography–there is great community spirit in the rehearsal studio. We love to connect the new dancers to the company tradition. Sometimes a member of the original company will visit the studio, and they pass down stories and magical moments from their history with the company. But by the end of The Christmas Ballet’s run, every dancer is a Smuin veteran with their own stories to tell.

Q: How are the pieces passed on from one year to the next?

Amy London: Ballet choreography is traditionally passed down from older dancers to younger dancers. Before video or complex notation, dancers taught the choreography to one another. For The Christmas Ballet, both [Artistic Director] Celia Fushille and I have danced most of the roles that Michael Smuin originally choreographed. We have a sense of Michael’s priorities and try to pass those along to the dancers. Michael also left some notes in The Christmas Ballet score for the original dances that we will use.

Q: Do you use a lot of video recordings to remember choreographic details?

Amy London: I spend hours and hours every year watching videos from each time the show was performed. Often the choreography has adapted since its creation; sometimes to improve upon itself, and other times to adapt to the skills of the dancer. After I watch all of the videos, I compile the “best of” each performance to use for this year. I also have detailed notes from my last eight years working with Smuin, including elements of musical emphasis, body shapes, and partnering.

Q: How do you recreate pieces designed by other choreographers?

Amy London: Often we will bring in the original choreographer to coach the company dancers on the piece. This year, we’ve brought in Jane Rehm for Here We Come A Wassailing, her 2012 composition, as well as Val Caniparoli for Jingle Bells Mambo, his 2008 high-energy work for three men. Resident Choreographer Amy Seiwert also coaches the dancers–she has six pieces in this year’s Christmas Ballet, including one world premiere.

Q: How do the dancers learn all of the complicated costume and prop changes?

Amy London: The most difficult part of restaging The Christmas Ballet each year is fitting the pieces together into a complete whole. It’s important to give the audience a cohesive performance experience while keeping the dancers’ workload balanced from show to show. The logistics take a lot of thought! We create a complex matrix with all of the details–but of course, it changes all the time. A week before the show opens, we transition from rehearsing individual pieces to running the whole show. We try to practice with the props in the studio as much as possible, but it’s always bedlam during the first run in the theatre! Each dancer makes a list for each show so they can set up their props and costume changes beforehand. Can’t miss that next entrance!

The Christmas Ballet continues its magic in venues throughout the Bay Area beginning November 20 – December 27. Click here for more information about tickets!

Choreographer Helen Pickett works in the Smuin Ballet studio. Photo: Chris Hardy

An Interview with Choreographer Helen Pickett

“I’m making a premiere for California━I’m from California━and the drought is killing me.” Choreographer Helen Pickett joined Smuin Ballet in the San Francisco studio last week to create a world premiere on the dancers titled Oasis. A nearly 30-minute work in four parts, Oasis explores the concept of water in its many incarnations and implications.

Choreographer Helen Pickett works in the Smuin Ballet studio. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett works in the Smuin Ballet studio. Photo: Chris Hardy

Helen Pickett is a force to be reckoned with. A self-described rebel, Pickett moved from San Diego to train at the San Francisco Ballet School before joining dance pioneer William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. Pickett credits Forsythe as a major shift in her artistic career. “Forsythe [did not only tell the dancers what to do,] he asked for opinions. I wanted to be in on that conversation. I didn’t want to be told what to do.”

In 2005, she received her first choreographic commission from Boston Ballet, sparking an illustrious career creating over 30 ballet works for the likes of Vienna State Opera, Scottish Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet, where she is a Resident Choreographer. Pickett’s contemporary ballet choreographic style is inspired by her extensive ballet training and 12 years dancing with Forsythe, as well as film, music, nature and more. She notes that “the scope of beauty and human possibility is far more vast than [we can perceive.] I feel incredibly privileged that this is the art [form] I chose, because [the body] is a living palette.”

Choreographer Helen Pickett coaches Smuin Ballet dancer Erin Yarbrough-Powell. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett coaches Smuin Ballet dancer Erin Yarbrough-Powell. Photo: Chris Hardy

In 2013, Helen Pickett set her 2008 work Petal on Smuin Ballet. She comments that working with the company dancers is different this time around: “They finish my movement ‘sentences,’ and I finish theirs.” Pickett values collaboration and communication with her dancers as she creates new work, rather than simply teaching previously created choreography. “When the dancers have a say in the piece, the piece becomes more theirs… [and the results] will be more tangible to the audience.”

Composer Jeff Beal, who recently won an Emmy for his work on Netflix’s House of Cards, created an original score for Oasis. Beal recommended Pickett watch Last Call at the Oasis, a documentary featuring a soundtrack by Beal and released by Participant Media (Waiting for Superman, An Inconvenient Truth). Pickett is quick to note that Oasis is not based on the film, but rather inspired by the idea of water. “I started thinking of water in terms of a celebration, and I decided to focus on the offerings that water gives us, as well as the dearth. I want people to lean in━to be engaged by what we’re creating onstage about the facets and joy and sensuality of water.”

Composer Jeff Beal, choreographer Helen Pickett, Artistic Director Celia Fushille, and Ballet Master Amy London.

Composer Jeff Beal, choreographer Helen Pickett, Artistic Director Celia Fushille, and Ballet Master Amy London. Photo: Chris Hardy

Pickett’s choreographic process begins long before she ever sets foot in the studio with the dancers. “I’ve been listening to the music for four months. I’ve been letting the ideas build into a tipping point━a critical state of creativity.” Now, working with the dancers and Beal in the studio, Pickett is exploring the practical relationship of the movement with the music. “I speak in terms of architecture when I hear music. I see the form where [Beal] hears the form. We come at it from each of our traditions and navigate towards the center where we understand it together.”

Choreographer Helen Pickett and composer Jeff Beal with the Smuin Ballet dancers and staff. Photo: Chris Hardy

Choreographer Helen Pickett and composer Jeff Beal with the Smuin Ballet dancers and staff. Photo: Chris Hardy

Pickett is inspired to create by the culture and vibrancy around her. As a traveling choreographer, she stays in many parts of the country, but keeps coming back to California. “I have such a love for San Francisco. When I come here, I feel like I’m back where possibility is king. This is where you’re supposed to grab for all the edges. It’s a city full of tipping points.”

Helen Pickett’s Oasis premieres in Dance Series Two on May 6, 2016 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, with shows throughout the Bay Area May 6 – June 11, 2016. Tickets available here.

Highlights from Smuin Ballet’s 20th XXTRAVAGANZA!

Photo: Drew Altizer Photography

Photo: Drew Altizer Photography

Browse through the recap of the fantastic photos from our 20th Anniversary Gala, which was held at the San Francisco Design Center’s Galleria!


Featuring Smuinee Jane Rehm

Cold Virtues

Cold Virtues (Photo: Vincent Avery©)

Hailing from Perrysburg, Ohio, Jane Rehm is beginning her fourth season with Smuin Ballet. You may have enjoyed seeing her dance a few of her favorite soloist roles, including: Helen Pickett’s innovative and showstopping ballet Petal, Adam Hougland’s hauntingly beautiful Cold Virtues, the reprise of Trey McIntyre‘s Oh Inverted World (which was created on her in 2010), Dear Miss Cline choreographed by Amy Seiwert, and Choo San Goh‘s Momentum.