A night at the ballet

George and I were wandering around with his cousin when i suggested we walk past the national theatre to see if anything was playing that night. Sure enough, there was a long line for the ballet that evening! I don’t think Honduras actually has a national ballet company, but this was probably the closest thing to it, which was a dance school, and this seemed to be some sort of year-end showcase for them.

First, the theatre itself – built in 1915 and modeled after some venue in Paris, it’s one of those awful horse-shoe opera houses that Merce (and anyone in their right mind) abhors, since they were designed for those in the boxes to see and be seen, sightlines be damned. The ultimate perversion of aristocratic society, corrupting the entire reason for going to the theatre in the first place by turning it into a narcissistic royal court. Ahem. This theatre has a rich history – it’s been used twice as temporary headquarters for the congress, their national anthem was performed for the first time on that stage, and a coup was even orchestrated within that proscenium.

The show started out as a story ballet, with the emphasis on story.. there was very little dancing in the first half. What dancing there was was pretty bad. I mean, I could lift my leg higher than some of those girls! Honestly, I haven’t seen such a bad production since college. The kids can be forgiven to a certain extent – they were giving it their all, and having fun with it. It’s the teachers that should be condemned.

Although ballet was not their strong suit, there was a variety of other styles in the second half, some of which was not bad. They did everything under the sun – a huge belly dancing number, a laughingly bad jazz duet that later included a jester (!), a classic Nutcracker number, a gaggle of tap dancers, an ethnic folkloric number. As you would expect, this one was pretty good… traditional clothes, dancing with baskets on their heads, the whole nine. Hansel and Gretl made an appearance, as did about 40 five-year old bunny rabbits. It was truly the kitchen sink.

Now, let’s talk about the production values, or lack thereof. The rest of this post is more suited to my esteemed colleagues in the biz, so the rest of you dear readers may want to skip to the next entry.
This is the National Theatre, right? OK, so there’s not a full fly loft, the performing area is only about 40 x 30, but still, it looks like they’ve got decent equipment and all the makings for good art. Unfortunately, they are seriously lacking in the skills and training department. Which would be a fun project for me to take on in one of these cities.. getting one of these places ship-shape and training the technicians. Who are professionals, right? But one wonders..

Let’s just start with this: Green Footlights. The mere mention of such a thing sends shockwaves through you, doesn’t it? First of all, foots in general are very tricky. God knows I love them, but they should be used judiciously, when going for a certain effect – vaudeville, scary, or some wacky post-modern thing. But NOT in a classical ballet number, and certainly not gelled GREEN! Think of these poor bun-head’s skin tones! OK, you think, let’s give the LD the benefit of the doubt – he doesn’t know. He doesn’t have the benefit of university training (neither did I) nor real-world experience with other professionals in the field. But c’mon, you watch and learn! Early in my career, I tried green downlights to simulate a grassy field for a baseball scene. Thank god we were still in tech and I could change my mind after seeing it on the actor’s faces.

Moving on.. still on lighting. They had booms – excellent – but no idea how to focus them. There were sharp lanes cut across the stage, rather haphazardly at that. It’s like they had just hung them and turned them on without focusing them. And there were big gaps between these lanes, such that as a dancer moved up to downstage, they would flash repeatedly – now they’re dark, now they’re screaming hot. Or rather, their legs would flash, since all the booms were focused on the floor, rather than on the bodies. Huh? It’s a cool look if you’re Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, but she choreographs entire dances for the floor, not on pointe!

The screamingly distracting booms were often “balanced” with super saturated FOH washes. In random, rock n’ roll colors – hot pink, lime green, combinations of the two for absolutely no reason.
Speaking of washes, they could have used a lesson in how to make one. The dinner scenes, for example – the tablecloth was screaming hot while everyone around the table, who should have been the focus of the scene, were in the dark. But boy, that table looked great. Couldn’t hear a thing they were saying since I couldn’t see their faces (rule #1!), but I sure remember the place settings.

Then there were the specials. What’s lighting design 101? MOTIVATION. The girl protagonist is tiptoeing through the woods at dusk, and sharp bright specials keep popping up on her at different points. HUH? Why is there a circular down spot in the middle of the woods at dusk? Is this a not-so-subtle way of emphasizing a soliloquy she’s about to do? No, she’s just walking. Through random specials for absolutely no reason other than to distract us from the stiff acting.
Fortunately, the LD ran out of ideas about halfway through the show and simply left us in a bright general (spotty) look for the rest of the night. Thank god there were no follow spots in the show, they would have been a hot mess for sure.

OK, on to other departments. The scenography was provided by a carousel slide projector (remember those?) shot from the house right box boom position. Of course, the lights in the box boom illuminated the parent operating said projector, replete with a manilla folder for a dowser. Bless. The images (generic ones probably downloaded from the net or shot from a book) were projected (with heavy keystoning, as you would expect from such an oblique angle) onto an upstage cyc, which I think was a real cyc, only it looked like a goddamned bed sheet because no one bothered to pull it taut. Come on people, have some standards! It didn’t matter much anyway, because as soon as the lights came up on a scene, the slides would get washed out anyway.

The sound was not bad. All the music was canned, and sounded alright. For vocal reinforcement, they had a number of mics hanging about 5′ over their heads, which wasn’t distracting in the least. And didn’t cause any shadows, yeah right. OK, so you don’t have the budget for body mics, at least get some PCC’s, or even some crappy old PZM’s up in there.

The costumes were the highlight, and I’m not being snide. They had clearly spent all year building these, and there were a zillion of them. Every scene had I’d say an average of 15-20 performers, and there were maybe 20 scenes. So you do the math, that makes my brain hurt. I was sitting pretty far back, so it was hard to judge craftsmanship (who am I kidding? I wouldn’t be able to tell at 2′), but they sure looked good. Rich fabrics, lots of details, period costumes.

Now, maybe, just maybe, this was a rental. I’ve certainly worked in theatres that had high production values, and along comes a rental that brings in all their own people, they do a shitty production, and we get blamed. But I don’t think that was the case here.

It certainly was a fun night on the town, though – some of the most fun I’ve had in a while!

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  • xtine says:

    Wow this is amazing. And yes, I think that would be an awesome project to take on if you wanted to spend some serious time and energy. Did the rest of the audience seem like they cared about the production values? If I were there I would have been giddy with giggles the entire time. Hilarious.

  • Anna says:

    wow, like Christine I was wondering if the audience would care if the production value went up or not.
    and I’m also wondering if you’ve learned how to sew on a button yet.

    • Josh says:

      Hmm, funny you should ask! With head hung low, sheepishly responding – no, I haven’t. Actually, the button on one of my two pairs of pants fell off two weeks into the trip. It was two months before I could find someone to sew it back on.
      You know me too well, Anna!

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