Backstage artistry makes ‘Nutcracker’ magic happen onstage

Onstage, snow maidens whirl and flowers waltz.

Backstage, stagehands also are on the move, making sure the snowflakes are ready to sparkle and a magical Christmas tree is planted — so it can grow taller before our very eyes.

They’re all moving in time to a timeless Tchaikovsky score — being played live by musicians parked in the orchestra pit.

Ideally, audiences for the Nevada Ballet Theatre’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” — opening an eight-performance run Saturday at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall — will be so captivated by the holiday fantasy unfolding onstage that they won’t notice anything else.

Which is exactly how it should be, according to those responsible for making the magic happen.

During “The Nutcracker’s” first-act climax (the lilting “Waltz of the Snowflakes”), audiences will be concentrating on the whirling dancers — and not the hours of rehearsal it’s taken to get them to that point(e).

Flash back a week and you’d find them at NBT’s Summerlin studio, decked out in leotards and leg warmers, working to perfect each step and position.

“Can we look at the audience?” ballet mistress Peggy Dolkas asks during one rehearsal. “Just to have a bit of life to it?”

Choreographer — and NBT artistic director — James Canfield joins Dolkas, observing as the dancers repeat the sequence.

“Change your quality so it looks like you can run the marathon in a second,” he instructs.

Later, Canfield demonstrates the proper stage posture for the start of one sequence. “You can stand up, but you can also stand out,” he advises, “and command their attention.”

This is NBT’s third “Nutcracker” at The Smith Center, but the 2014 edition features some major changes — which have been in the works since the 2013 production, according to Canfield.

“We put our heads together last year, from the middle of the run,” watching the performances to determine “how we can make things run more efficiently, more effectively,” he explains during a pre-rehearsal interview.

The overall goal: making everything, especially the transitions from one scene to the next, “more magical.”

Some changes involve this “Nutcracker’s” signature set: a giant Victorian dollhouse that opens to provide the backdrop for much of Act I, when the ballet’s coming-of-age heroine, Clara (to be danced by Betsy Lucas this weekend), dreams that the nutcracker she’s received as a Christmas gift becomes a handsome prince (danced this weekend by Braeden Barnes).

“Visually, it’s not going to look any different,” Canfield says of the set, but it’s “close to 30,000 to 40,000 pounds” lighter.

That, in turn, makes it much easier to position on the Reynolds Hall stage, according to technical director Tim Sage.

By removing “the back half of the set,” stage crews “no longer have to muscle this set” into place, Sage says. Instead, “it splits.”

And in Act II, when Clara and her Nutcracker Prince explore a realm of delights — welcomed by, among others, the Winter Fairy (Alissa Dale), the Snow Prince (Steve Goforth) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Krista Baker) — that realm will extend to the back of the stage, allowing more room for what Canfield describes as “magic before your very eyes.”

Among the entrancing transformations: birdcages that become teapots, which change into nesting matryoshka dolls, reflecting the progression from the ballet’s Arabian to Chinese to Russian dances.

Helping those magical changes happen: three stagehands raising and lowering tree branches, snowflake backdrops and other atmospheric scenery — including 14-foot clock towers that symbolize the passage of time. (To say nothing of Clara’s transition from girlhood.)

“It has to be strategically coordinated,” Sage explains, likening the process to “traffic control” among the stagehands moving everything while the dancers “run in and run off” stage. “We need to do it in a way that’s almost sleight-of-hand.”

And always in time to the score.

“There’s a rhythm to how it all flows in conjunction with the music,” Sage says. “The dancers are counting. We’re counting.”

And so, down in the orchestra pit, is musical director and conductor Jack Gaughan, as he leads 39 Las Vegas Philharmonic musicians through each “Nutcracker” performance.

Gaughan estimates he’s conducted “The Nutcracker” between 40 and 50 times during his career, which ranges from Broadway to opera to “Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular.”

Fortunately, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” remains “one of the scores you never get tired of,” he says. “You don’t ever get bored.”

The live orchestral accompaniment at every performance gives the ballet additional emotional energy, because live music — unlike a one-dimensional recording — “has multiple dimensions,” Gaughan explains.

“As three-dimensional as the dancers are, as three-dimensional as the scenery is, as three-dimensional as the building is,” with live music “you feel it as much as you hear it,” he notes. “It’s almost a primal reaction.”

Musicians as well as audiences share that reaction, underlining the “total collaboration between the music, the dancers, the technical elements,” Gaughan points out. “That’s why we start in January,” planning a production that won’t hit the stage for 11 months.

And when it finally does hit the stage, it’s Gaughan who sets the tempo at each performance.

“It’s absolutely my job to coordinate all that,” he says, “so you don’t end with a train wreck.”

To conduct “The Nutcracker’s” score — and cue everything on- and backstage — “your brain is doing a million calculations,” Gaughan acknowledges. “The joy of it is, yes, I am able to sit back and watch it and enjoy it and be carried away, but there’s always a little calculator in the back of your brain.”

That’s not enough to keep Gaughan from enjoying what he describes as “a magical production,” citing its grand scale and scenic elements that “are extraordinarily beautiful and big enough to fill up the hall.”

Overall, “it supports what the dancers are doing.”

What the dancers are doing may be Canfield’s choreography, but as soon as the curtain goes up on “The Nutcracker” Saturday night, “it’s not mine anymore,” he says.

“For me, that’s what’s the most difficult part. It’s opening night … and it’s like letting a child go off into the world.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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