When a ballet company goes on tour overseas, it’s a monumental effort.
Some of us go overseas with just a carry-on. For a ballet company, whose packing includes a Spin-X centrifuge dryer, hundreds of pointe shoes and a very large train, it’s much more complicated.
Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) is traveling to France this month for Les Étés de la Danse Festival, held over two weeks (June 25-July 7) at La Seine Musicale, a performing-arts center in the western suburbs of Paris. The company will be part of a Jerome Robbins centennial tribute during the festival’s first week, sharing the stage with four other companies and performing “Opus 19/The Dreamer.” In the second week, PNB will take over the repertory entirely, presenting eight contemporary ballets: Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little mortal jump,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Tide Harmonic,” Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels,” Crystal Pite’s “Emergence,” Benjamin Millepied’s “Appassionata,” Jessica Lang’s “Her Door to the Sky,” William Forsythe’s “Slingerland Duet” and Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.”
International travel isn’t unheard-of for PNB, but it’s not a frequent occurrence; the company’s last overseas tour was to Spoleto, Italy, in 2012 — and, in that case, only about half the dancers attended. Now, nearly every member of the company is going, and plans have been simmering for nearly two years.
On the front lines of the planning is production stage manager Sandra Barrack, who’s maintaining a vast, color-coded schedule for all the people involved in the tour. (It was 19 pages when Barrack showed it to me in late April; it might be longer now.) She’s having to coordinate rehearsal time, arrange for various items (trusses, rigging, a piano) to be rented or moved into the Paris theater, and figure out, with other PNB department heads, what to pack. So, what does a ballet company need for an international tour? Read on:
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The 79 people going on the trip fill various categories: 45 are company dancers, seven are on the artistic staff, 11 are production staffers and five work in wardrobe; also coming are four musicians, three development staffers, two marketing staff and two executives. They will fill 61 hotel rooms, for a total of 725 room nights. Joining the group as guests will be a handful of lucky spouses, parents and a few very young tourgoers: 11-month-old Amelie Tisserand (daughter of dancers Laura and Jerome Tisserand), two-year-old Koan Cruz (son of Karel Cruz and Lindsi Dec), and five-year-old Lola Orza (daughter of Sarah Ricard Orza and Seth Orza).
Spare some sympathy for PNB’s travel booker: Though the outbound trip is fairly straightforward (nearly everyone’s arriving as part of four large groups), the company’s summer vacation begins immediately after the festival’s end — so much of the group will be staying behind for individual European holidays, necessitating the booking of dozens of different flights homeward.
As it happens, PNB’s set pieces are accustomed to travel: Most of them are constructed at the company’s scene shop in Fremont (or in another city), and need to be broken down to be transported to McCaw Hall. So that’s basically what’s happening for the tour, explained technical director Norbert Herriges — just on a much bigger scale. That enormous train from “Waiting at the Station” is easily taken apart; as is the tunnel for “Emergence” and the cubes for “Little mortal jump.”
Soft pieces, such as the backdrops for “Emergence,” are folded and placed in what look like laundry hampers; soft bins with rigid lids that can be locked. These are loaded, along with the set pieces and numerous other miscellaneous objects — a wood-sprung floor, stacked in rectangular pieces; metal practice barres; some special lighting instruments — into three, 40-foot shipping containers. And off they go, on their own tour: by train to Houston, then by boat to France.
Because this journey takes a while, the shipping containers left town in early May. They have not sent postcards from their trip, but will presumably be waiting in Paris when the company arrives.
Traveling in those same containers will be the costumes for the nine ballets. (There’s also one backup ballet just in case: the pas de deux “After the Rain.” Just a pink leotard and a pair of white pants, it could probably fit in a carry-on.) Larae Theige Hascall, PNB’s longtime costume-shop manager, said the costume total is about 120 separate ensembles, not counting backup duplicates. Many of these are for “Emergence,” which requires 37 malevolently black-clad dancers, and “Waiting at the Station,” which is the most complicated, costume-wise (its 21 dancers wear real-clothes outfits with multiple elements — shirts, pants, dresses, cardigans). Luckily, no big tutu ballets are on the roster.
The costumes are hung or folded in wardrobe boxes, with accessories (such as the “Emergence” masks”) in smaller boxes. Also being packed: special makeup, including a good supply of DIPS, a waterproof makeup product that’s used for the men’s tattoos in “Emergence.” The shop’s Spin-X — a centrifuge clothes dryer that quickly extracts water from garments — is making the journey, though Hascall says the theater will have two washers and a dryer for their use. Sewing machines, irons, ironing boards and steamers have been requested on site, and the costume crew is also bringing its “road box”: sewing supplies, elastic, extra pieces of costume fabric, laundry supplies, “any emergency thing that we can think of.”
Pointe shoes, a major expense for a ballet company (a ballerina can wear out a pair in just a few hours’ dancing), will travel in multiples. Barrack said that about 150 pairs of pointe shoes were sent ahead to Paris by freight, and each female company member will also be packing additional pairs in her luggage and/or theater case.
Principal dancer Sarah Ricard Orza said she is bringing a total of 12 pairs; corps de ballet member Cecilia Iliesiu is packing 13. Corps member Calista Ruat is a bit more minimalist, packing four new pairs and sending an additional three ahead. (A native of Paris, she’s considering the option of dropping by the Repetto boutique there for new shoes; a custom for her since childhood.) Men, dancing in soft slippers or socks, have less need for multiples but still don’t want to run short: Principal Jerome Tisserand said he’s bringing five pairs of flat ballet shoes.
It’s not just a matter of tossing new shoes into a suitcase; all pointe shoes, before they can be worn in performance, need to be individually broken in to the dancer’s preferences, with ribbons and elastic sewn on by hand. And nearly every ballet on the tour requires the traditional pink pointe shoes to be dyed; in most cases to match the dancer’s flesh tone, but for one ballet (“Opus 19: The Dreamer”) off-white. Hascall, who remembers a PNB tour to Edinburgh years ago when the wardrobe staff had to spray shoes in an outside alley in the rain, say she thinks they’ll have enough pre-dyed shoes to handle demand — but they’re prepared to spray shoes there if need be.
And what else?
Dancers are responsible for bringing much of what they need (Iliesiu is bringing a Clif bar for every day, and stocking up on Swedish Fish), but Barrack is leaving nothing to chance: She’s packed an elaborate first-aid kit, is stocking the dancers’ favorite flavors of Emergen-C (not the tropical, which nobody likes), and has purchased freezer gel packs, just in case the requested ice machine doesn’t materialize in France.
Also on their way overseas: “lots of shoe paraphernalia,” including extra rosin, shoe scrapers, “fake fat” (padding for calluses or bunions), elastics and ribbons. Towels (per an agreement to provide them). Altoids. Nail-polish remover (not for nails, but for removing shoe glue from fingers). Raspberry candies, to which the entire company is addicted. Visine.
And in case anything’s been forgotten? A second tour stage manager is arriving a week later, so there’s a safety net.
“Whatever we can do on tour to make our dancers feel the most comfortable,” Barrack said, “that’s 90 percent of our jobs.”