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!


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