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A Tree Grows in Cary 

At Cary's Alternate Route Studios, finishing touches are being put on the sets for Carolina Ballet's million-dollar production of The Nutcracker--incuding a 24-foot tall pneumatic tree

You have to crack a few nuts to put together a ballet of this scale. A million-dollar corporate grant from Raleigh-based Progress Energy doesn't hurt either. Besides rehearsing the dancers and musicians, you've got advertising strategies, budget balancing, and a demanding pre-production schedule to deal with--for the set alone. And this is no ordinary set: The Nutcracker's story takes place at Christmas time in an ornate mayoral mansion that grows in scale to bring its toy occupants to life, with outdoor scenes in a winter wonderland, and a trip in Act II to The Palace of the Kingdom of Sweets.

There's no scrimping on the set when it's such an integral element to the story. And it's a story that has inspired millions around the world as they've watched some of the more magical moments in stage history unfolding before their eyes. Alternate Route Studios, a production house in Cary, is putting the finishing touches on an extraordinary version of this set, which will be brought to life in December by the dancers of the Carolina Ballet, and narrated by the music of the North Carolina Symphony.

E.T.A. Hoffmann's surrealist 1816 fable, The Nutcracker and the Mouseking, adapted from German into French by Alexander Dumas, was devised as a ballet by Marius Pepita, who produced its first staging on Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, with Tchaikovsky's now world-famous score. At the time, Tchaikovsy's previous successes, The Sleeping Beauty and The Queen of Spades, made him a natural choice for this fairy tale, which, due to the limited success of early versions, took 27 years to reach Moscow. Since its staging in London in 1934, and its proliferation in the years following World War II, The Nutcracker has become one of the most recognizable and beloved pieces of music ever written--requiring its visual elements to have an eye toward classicism and regality.

The Triangle's production of The Nutcracker this year is looking to be a version worthy of its historical predecessors, with pre-production nearly completed for the largest, most elaborate set any Carolina Ballet Company project has commissioned to date. Early this year, designer Jeff Jones created a series of sketches and Photoshop images of the numerous set elements, laying the groundwork for the scenic artists at Alternate Route Studios to do their thing. And do it they have, in a mad rush leading up to this weekend, when everything must be in place for additional weeks of rehearsal that include dancers and accompanists interacting with the props. With only a few more days to go, the Scene Shop at ARS is currently a hustle-and-bustle warehouse of artisans who resemble Santa's elves in a factory filled with giant toys and candy, against massive 60-foot backdrops of hand-painted, snow-covered forests. Walking into this space feels like walking into an industrial version of the North Pole, with boxes of break-time donuts suggesting the aroma of the giant foam goodies that fill the space. The staff even cavorted about the woodworking and paint areas in homemade party hats one afternoon, pulling their ad-libbed materials from scrap piles---foam leftovers from the hundreds of giant cookies, donuts, fruit slices and tarts. A gigantic book leaning back to reveal the pages of its story, beside a life-sized toy cannon that shoots only confetti, served as gentle reminders that all is not lost in the world: Christmas is coming, and with it, The Nutcracker.

Though the colors and textures of the props and drops are bright and fun, the mood is not always equally as light on the shop floor--even while NPR broadcasts the world news throughout the warehouse, there's pressure on this staff to meet a holiday deadline. "We knew the schedule was tight on The Nutcracker, and there would be some long hours," says Scenics Director Roxanne Hickin, "but the compilation of talents here is incredible, so we are still able to pay close attention to every aspect of the project."

And there are many aspects to pay attention to. Describe the sets as "elaborate" and you bring knowing smiles to the faces of everyone involved: Their tired eyes, sawdust-covered shirts, and paint-splattered aprons attest to the word's insufficiency. A partial list of the elements involved in bringing this story to life include: five full-stage (30 feet by 60 feet) backdrops; eight additional side backdrops (30 feet by 12 feet); four sets of two stage-flanking Hollywood-style flats that attach to netting drops, covered with the foam confections; an ornate living-room interior that expands in size onstage; numerous large-scale functioning props like a wedding cake staircase, a giant teacup, gift boxes and jack-in-the-boxes, giant éclairs and muffins serving as sofas and chairs respectively, a cuckoo clock that grows in scale with the room, and a Christmas tree that does the same.

Yes, the Christmas tree grows right on stage, but not in the manner employed by lesser productions in which it rises out of the floor: This one is engineered to slowly expand up and out hydraulically from 8 feet to 24 feet tall asthe audience watches. Director Robert Weiss' request to see this occur onstage presented particular technical challenges for the staff and was therefore turned over immediately to ARS whiz kid Blaine Jeffreys.

"The level of challenge that was most motivating was a tree that grows in volume, not just area," Jeffreys says. "So we employed vertical aluminum pantographs, pneumatic lifts, and CO2 compressors to get the desired effect." The tree has become the centerpiece of the production and a byline to its full-page ads, which boast, "Imagine your child's surprise and delight when they see a stage made entirely of candy and a Christmas tree that grows right before their eyes." Seeing it work in the middle of a chaotic workshop, it's already an impressive piece of work and undoubtedly a scene-stealer. Young dancers, take notice of your true competition--it's not the ingénue spinning gracefully next to you, but a Christmas tree engineered to take over the stage.

Pneumatic pressure aside, a less-tangible pressure falls most directly on the shoulders of Bill Rodgers, the lead scenic artist who is currently both aesthetic liaison to Carolina Ballet organizers and directors, and the chief artist responsible for interpreting Jeff Jones' intricate stage designs. Fortunately for everyone involved, Rodgers has plenty of expertise and experience in this area, having designed and produced dozens of large- and small-scale sets for local productions. With the stress of a project this size, having Rodgers at the helm and a production shop close to the rehearsal space is a an asset. "Because they are local, there's been more opportunity for collaboration, as opposed to out-of-town shops where we don't see the set until it arrives," says Jones about Alternate Route Studios. Jones and Weiss have visited the shop frequently during pre-production, offering suggestions on both technical and creative elements, and say that each visit brings more excitement as opening night approaches.

Though recent world events seem to color with unpredictability the approaching holidays, throughout history the theater has provided relief from the burdens of the real world and its harsh battles of will. Where better to seek refuge than in a fairy tale brought to life by scores of dancers, artists and musicians? "Someone once said that the one thing that separates man from the animals is imagination," Weiss says, "and nothing is more imaginative than fairy tales. Everything about The Nutcracker is ennobling--it is food for the soul and spiritually uplifting, and we really need that more than ever right now." EndBlock

Carolina Ballet's production of The Nutcracker takes place Dec. 15-24 at Raleigh's BTI Center. Because of overwhelming ticket demand, four more performances will be added following Christmas, with dates to be announced.

More by Todd Fjelsted

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