EL CAJON — When the curtain rises on a performance of the world's most beloved ballet, "The Nutcracker," reality fades gently into the background.
In its place is a fairy tale world where sugar plums, marzipans and lollipops dance sweetly in an enchanted candyland. Where mechanical dolls come alive to entertain revelers at a Christmas party. Where a gallant nutcracker leads a platoon of tiny toy soldiers to do battle against an invasion of marauding mice. Where delicate, snowflake maidens lead a little girl into the magic kingdom of her dreams.
But behind the scenes, it's a very different story. The backstage world is peopled by a bustling team of technicians, artists and administrators working hard to create the illusion of on-stage magic.
Friday evening, when the large cast and crew of the California Ballet Company prepared for its opening-night performance of "The Nutcracker" at the East County Performing Arts Center, the backstage activity was reaching fever pitch.
"There's a million last-minute things to take care of," director Maxine Mahon said as she fluttered from one minor crisis to the next. "The programs were delivered to the studio instead of here . . . so I had to get one of the mothers to run over there and pick them up." The programs made it to the center's lobby just in time to be distributed to the audience.
"I'm depositing (special guest) tickets at the box office, making sure the music tapes get up to the
sound booth, and whatever other little things come up. But I leave the dancers up to my volunteers. My moms run the show," she said, before rushing off to the lobby to greet early arrivals.
The "moms" this year number about 85, and Kathryn Bane, a tower of strength and calm efficiency, is in charge of this valuable company resource.
"There are about 160 parts in 'The Nutcracker,' " Bane said from her post near the stage door. "Some of them are double-cast, but there are at least 100 dancers here for every performance, so it's a big problem of logistics. We have a complicated schedule, and each mother signs up on our work sheet for a certain time (to oversee the children in the cast). We have three floors of dressing rooms, and it gets very hectic and very busy.
"We need a lot of people to help the children get in and out of their costumes. The flowers and the Chinese dancers are back and forth (in their costumes) four different times. But the biggest thing we have to worry about is the safety of the children. And we have to keep the little ones busy and quiet when they're not on stage."
Just before curtain time, the third-floor dressing room that housed Mother Ginger's bonbons and the tiny army of toy soldiers looked like a nursery school, with the little tykes busy coloring and the older ones playing cards or games. The noise level was high, but the mothers seemed to have everything under control.
"Most of the bonbons are under 7 years old," said Mary Bixby, mother hen to the bonbons that evening. "I'm amazed how good they are. Last night, they were here till 11 p.m. (rehearsing), and they didn't mind having to do it over and over."
Jessica Kolins, who performed the role of the unruly bonbon in Friday night's performance, was giggling with the other girls during the long wait for her cue. But she was ready to forgo the game at the drop of a hat for her performance.
"I have a lot of fun coloring, but I'd still rather be on stage," she said. The others were quick to agree.
"They've been practicing all week, and they're almost semiprofessionals," Bixby said. "It's nice that they can progress from bonbons to soldiers and lollipops" in subsequent "Nutcracker" productions.
Tara Smith, 9, waited anxiously while a volunteer pasted on her rosy-cheeked smile--a circle of red contact paper--to complete her look as a toy soldier. The props (toy rifles) would not be dispensed until the children were ready to go on stage, to prevent accidents.
"This is my fifth year," Tara said. "I started out as a bonbon, and this is my second time as a soldier."
Marla Navarette, 15, has made her way up the "Nutcracker" ladder from bonbon to lollipop and reindeer. Friday, she danced the coveted role of Clara, the little girl who makes the wondrous journey into the Kingdom of the Sweets with the dashing Nutcracker Prince.
Just before curtain time, Marla rushed into the wardrobe room with an emergency.
"My elastic broke," she said, pointing to the torn strap on her pink ballet slipper.
The wardrobe crew made short work of the problem with a few well-placed stitches, although there were still more last-minute adjustments to be made. Children in alternating roles use the same costumes. But since they're not all the same size, the outfits must be taken in and let out every day.
As wardrobe mistress, Flora Jennings (director Mahon's mother) has to be ready for anything.