Sneak Peek Into The Nutcracker
Christmas is here, but the backstage of the Universal Ballet Theater (UBC) is busier than ever. Chilly and windy it may be outside, yet the backstage resembles a busy street full of traffic and people.
The Christmas season has been the most bustling time of the year for the troupe for over 23 years. Yet it is still a thrill to be staging ``The Nutcracker.''
``The Nutcracker may not have the famous twirls and jumps, but this doesn't mean it's an easy piece. There are so many colorful scenes to watch, and there are many people behind all of it, from dancers, assistants, stage staff and choreographers,'' Julia H. Moon, the general director of the UBC, told The Korea Times last week at a rehearsal for the Nutcracker at Uijeongbu Arts Center, Gyeonggi Province.
The Korea Times took a sneak peek at the dance troupe's famous piece. It was a backstage jammed with action ― dancers running around; assistants following them with costumes, wigs and shoes; and the stage staff looking for both minor and major malfunctions.
The troupe had just arrived from Greece after a successful 20-day run of ``The Nutcracker.'' This was the first time for a local ballet troupe to visit the European country to perform for such a long period.
``The stage staff had to come directly to the performance venue from the airport because we didn't have time. It takes about four days to fully prepare the stage setting,'' said Kim Ye-na from UBC's Planning and Promotion team.
There are a total of 22 screens that have to be properly placed in the backdrop when the lights go out for 30 seconds to a minute.
``It's always tricky to match the screens with the music. Timing is everything,'' Kim said.
One of the highlights of ``The Nutcracker'' is when 20 ballerinas dressed as snow angels take stage and move to Tchaikovsky's elegant music. The highlight is the ``snow,'' or white confetti, floating over the dancers in the moonlight, offering a dreamy moment for the audience, but a grueling time for the staff.
As soon as the dancers move out, the staff team rushes to the stage to sweep all the confetti up for the next scene.
``At first, we tend to save and try to use just enough to make the stage look like it's snowing, but at the last performance, we all get together and sprinkle all of them at once!'' said Kim, pointing to the ceiling.
Due to the confetti, the floors tend to get slippery, so the UBC use small pieces of adhesive tape to prevent accidents. In the case of a slip, a doctor is always nearby.
``We also have to prepare a long plank for the dancers to stretch their legs right before they run out onto the stage,'' Kim explained.
Sure enough, the dancers continuously moved and stretched on the plank, with their eyes and ears constantly fixed on the stage and music.
On the long table where the dancers waited for their turn, there were numerous props placed in the order they will be needed. From dolls, flowers to musical instruments and wigs, the table was stacked with stage props, reminding once again how complicated ``The Nutcracker'' is even without the dance moves.
There are more than 100 people involved in the two-hour show. One of the most interesting features of ``The Nutcracker'' is that it requires more than 40 children dancers, making it perfect as a family event.
``We have four Claras and three Fritzs for the 22 shows. They are all students from the Universal Ballet Academy and started rehearsing from November. The young soldiers who appear in the middle of the first scene to fight the Mouse King and his soldiers are students from Sunhwa Arts School,'' Kim explained, standing in the middle of the young dancers preparing to run on stage.
The aspiring dancers dressed as the young Clara looked nervous, yet excited, as this was their debut.
Most of them aspire to become ballerinas, and eventually dance as the full grown Clara.
``It was my first time to stand on stage in front of everyone. It may be a rehearsal, but I was so nervous and everything was happening so fast,'' 12-year-old Shin Hye-soo, who just returned to the warm backstage after performing her part, told The Korea Times.
Moon, and the troupe's art director Brian Liu from China, constantly instructed the young Clara how to stand, appear on stage and move with fellow dancers, while the other three Claras stood close by writing down the remarks in their notebooks.
``Spacing! Focus on spacing please. And Clara, your legs should be closer together!'' Moon and Liu would shout from the seats in English, Chinese and Korean. UBC is comprised of dancers from not only Korea, but also China, Russia, Rumania, the United States and Kazakhstan.
``When I see (Hwang) dancing on the stage, I feel proud of myself and also try to picture myself on stage like her. It's a shame that we have to work on Christmas, but we get to do something different! Plus, we get to hold a party afterwards,'' Shin said smiling.
Wishing for the Best Christmas and New Year
Starting last year, the UBC prepared a special year-end performance. ``The Nutcracker'' on the last day of December runs from 10 p.m. to 11:50 p.m. Right before the stroke of midnight, the dancers will join the audience to celebrate the New Year.
``I have been on stage for more than 20 years, but last year was the first time I got to welcome the New Year with the audience. I was so happy to celebrate it with the stage, dancers and the audience, and I do hope this year will be as happy and exciting like 2008,'' Moon said.
Hwang Hye-min, the principal dancer of UBC, has been appearing as the grown-up Clara for the past nine years.
``I'm used to it now. My friends don't ask me if I have time at Christmas anymore,'' she said, laughing.
``My favorite parts are the snow angels and the scene where the young soldiers come out to fight the mice and Mouse King. It's actually very difficult to keep a smiling face during the snow scene. We get the confetti in our mouths and clothes!'' Hwang added.
It seemed that ``The Nutcracker'' brought out the young child in everybody, and when asked what her Christmas wish was, Hwang stopped stretching her legs and smiled.
``The best gift I could get on Christmas was to bring a perfect and flawless show. `The Nutcracker' brings out hope and dreams, and I hope everyone enjoys the show as much as we all do!''
UBC's ``The Nutcracker'' continues through Dec. 31 at the Universal Arts Center, northern Seoul. For more information, visit www.ticketlink.co.kr or call 1588-7890. The Korea National Ballet Company is also staging their version of ``The Nutcracker'' at Goyang Aram Nuri Arts Center through Dec. 27 and also at Ulsan Culture & Arts Center (Dec. 29 and 30). Call (02) 587-6181. Seoul Ballet Theater (SBT) will stage their version at Gyeonggi Arts Center (Dec. 25 and 26) and Seoul Foundation Arts and Culture (Dec. 30 to Jan. 3), while the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater will offer their version at Seongnam Arts Center through Dec. 26. Call (02) 3442-2637 for SBT and (031) 783-8000 for the Russian troupe.