Setting the Scenes with ABT Director of Production James Whitehill

This year, American Ballet Theatre premiered a new, historic (intentional oxymoron there) The Sleeping Beauty. The company’s Artist in Residence, Alexei Ratmansky, poured himself into research of Marius Petipa’s 1890 Beauty, created for the Maryinsky. As detailed in this New Yorker article, Ratmansky discovered the original choreography was more complicated than most contemporary versions, with “more subtlety, more gradation, more in-between things, more of what visual-arts people call modelling.” For costumes and set design to complement his revival’s lush aesthetic, Ratmansky selected Richard Hudson, of Lion King fame, to capture the ballet’s sense of opulence. “Scenic extravagance has always been a part of the allure of Sleeping Beauty,” writes Marina Hass in this New York Times article. “Layered drop curtains denote fanciful Neoclassical interiors, airy rotundas, a formal garden, and an autumnal mountain vista. The drops were made in workshops in Milan, Turin, and outside of Venice, where the canvases were laid on the floor to be painted with giant brushes.” What does it take to bring something like that to life on stage? The World Dances spoke with ABT Director of Production James Whitehill about the behind-the-scenes magic (and intense work!) that goes into mounting a ballet. 

Is it challenging to learn to work with a new set like Beauty’s?

There’s nothing really hard that goes into learning how to deal with the materials. The materials from which the scenery is made are usually very similar to what we use all the time. It’s the design and the complexity of the scene changes that dictate how easy or difficult the production is. We have to work very closely with the designers from Day One to help them understand what limitations our company has.

What are these limitations?

The limitations are set by things like how many trucks we have to be able to pack the set into, or what size its parts have to be able to break up into to fit in containers to be shipped internationally. We have to be able to put any ballet we’ve created into any of the variously sized opera houses around the world so that we’re able to offer the ballet to different presenters in different cities. We have other restrictions based on schedule. Generally, we’re given access to a theater Monday morning at 8 a.m. We usually open a full-length ballet no later than Wednesday that same week. That means we get Monday and Tuesday, starting with a blank slate in the theater. In that time we have to be able to move in: to lay the Harlequin Liberty panels and Harlequin Cascade on top of that, to install all the electrics, the booms, the lights, the dimmer racks, and the lighting console; and to hang all the parts of the show and build all of the scenery that lives on the stage deck. By Wednesday afternoon we need to be able to do a full dress rehearsal, which should—if we’re lucky—run just like the show. Then we open Wednesday night.

How many people does it take to pull that off?

The number of our crew doesn’t change, but the size of the local crew changes with every venue and, more specifically, with every ballet. It requires a certain number of people to load the show in and to run the show. Those numbers change depending on whether we’re running internationally or in the United States. Our staff in the production department comprises myself, the technical director, the lighting director, and three stage managers. In addition we have three carpenters, three electricians, two props people, four wardrobe people, and two wig people. These twenty people are with us all the time whenever we’re in rehearsal or performance. Occasionally we supplement that with extra people depending on the size of the show or the intensity of our schedule. For example, if we’re doing multiple cities or venues in a single week, then we have to be able to split the crew up and send people in different directions to work in different places at the same time.

What’s been the most challenging set design you’ve encountered?

Our Othello, created by Lar Lubovitch and designed by George Tsypin, was made of mostly plexiglass & lexan. It looks stunning and it’s very different from anything else we have. The original design called for a stacking of multiple pieces of plexiglass, but when we did the math we realized it would be too heavy. So we went back to the designer and the shop that was building it and came up with a new system that looks like plexiglass from the audience, but is actually made from an aluminum frame with pieces of heavy-duty plastics etched on it.

What’s your favorite set?

 I think my favorite set is for our Swan Lake. It’s very rich, and I think it’s well thought out and clever. We worked closely with the designer, Zak Brown, who was as much aware of the running of the show from behind the scenes he was of how it looks from the audience.

How does your job differ when the company’s on tour versus when you’re home at the Met?

The Met is a fascinating place to work. I’m always in awe of this building and the fact that I work here. It’s very infrequent that I walk across the stage and don’t think to myself, “I can’t believe I’m working here.” It is intense, though. Touring is pretty compartmentalized and falls into a similar rhythm wherever we go. The Met season is different. In an eight-week period we put on stage, rehearse, and perform seven or eight full-length ballets plus a repertory evening. The latter might include a single evening of repertory or, like this year, it can include six individual repertory pieces that are mixed and matched differently throughout the week. Because of the schedule at the Met—we’re only dark on Sundays—we frequently end up working seven days a week to prepare for whatever’s coming up next. For instance, right now all of our biggest ballets are scheduled at the end of the season, one right after another. So we got through Sleeping Beauty and we worked through Sunday to change over to Romeo and Juliet. Then we worked all through the next Sunday to change to Swan Lake. After that we push to get into Cinderella, and on the final Saturday we work until 3 or 4 in the morning to get everything loaded and back to the warehouse.

What’s the most stressful part of your job?

I’d say the most stressful part on a regular basis is our very own schedule. We push the limits of what’s possible more frequently than any company I’ve ever experienced. It’s stressful, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. When we face a schedule that seems impossible and we pull it off, nobody in the audience knows what it took to get to that point when the curtain goes up.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Oh, when the curtain goes up—every single time. I love it when the audience applauds just for the simple fact that the curtain’s gone up and they’re looking at whatever it is that we just worked so hard to get up on stage. It never gets old. And at the end of the night, when the curtain goes down and everyone’s applauding the entire experience, that’s really special.