Photo courtesy of Stephen Manes
Stephen Manes discusses his book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, his inside look at a full season of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet. [24:58]
Stephen Manes: It's fascinating to think that The Nutcracker in this company, and in most companies, essentially is half the ticket revenue for the year. Nobody's had the guts to cut The Nutcracker, and this is all fairly new. This is not something that's been going on for a jillion years. It really goes back only to the fifties, when Nutcracker first appeared on TV, and all of a sudden, companies, as they came up, realized this could be a moneymaker, and it is. But the rest of the season, what do you do? Do you do Swan Lake, or do you do some extremely cutting-edge, modern stuff? And you have issues of what's best for the dancers, what's best for the audience, and ultimately what's best for the bottom line, and it all has to be kind of averaged in and figured within a budget so that you're not losing money, or at least you're not losing a lot of money at the end of the year. It's also true that a significant portion of ballet companies' revenues are from donations. You don't make it up at the box office, ever.
Jo Reed: That was Stephen Manes; talking about Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet. He's the author of the book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Although Stephen Manes has written more than thirty books and hundreds of articles, on the face of it he is not the most likely choice to write a book about the inner workings of a ballet company. He is a techy guy. He's the author of a biography of Bill gates and writes about personal technology for publications like the NY Times, Forbes, and PC World and is known for his biography of Bill Gates. He was even one of the creators and co-hosts of the weekly public television series Digital Duo. But Manes was getting tired of the technology beat. He also loves the ballet and has been a supporter of Seattle's Pacific Northwest ballet (or PNB) for over twenty years. A backstage tour for donors gave him a hint of all the unseen work necessary to make ballet unfold so effortlessly on stage, and Stephen Manes knew what his next project would be. He would bring his love of dance, his outsider's curiosity and his observant eye to document how the art of ballet actually works. Stephen Manes remembers the backstage tour that started it all.
Stephen Manes: The ballet here, which we've been going to for more than 20 years, had a tour for donors -- a backstage tour -- and you got to go in the orchestra pit, and the conductor was very articulate about how different it is conducting for ballet than just for a symphony. They showed us the shoe bins and explained that there's a $200,000 annual budget just for shoes. We got to see the laundry. You don't think about it, but between shows they got to do laundry. We got to see the workings of the sets and the lighting. And I thought, "Jeez, this is really fascinating. We think we have an idea about Ballet, but we don't think about it much, and it turns out there are, as there are with most arts, a million decisions that go into it. With ballet, it's particularly difficult because there's so many moving parts, including people, that have to be accommodated, and you've got so many tradeoffs between money and art, between time and art, between people's personal goals and the best thing for the art and the company, and it was absolutely fascinating to find all this stuff out.
Jo Reed: You were given what seems to be almost unlimited access to PNB -- to rehearsals, to meetings, backstage. How did that happen?
Stephen Manes: I think my access was a tribute to the guts and the confidence of the artistic director Peter Boal, and the executive director D. David Brown. I think they thought they didn't have anything to hide, and there's an upside to showing people what's really in ballet. And I have never seen such enthusiasm and generosity toward me.
Jo Reed: It's interesting, because the mantra of our chairman, Rocco Landesman, is that, "Art Works." And he looks at this in three ways. There are artworks, as in works of art; there's "art works," in the way art works on us psychologically and emotionally and intellectually; but there's also "Art works," as in, "Art is working." <laughs> And I was very struck early on in your book -- one of the things that annoys most dancers is that people don't consider what they do a real job.
Stephen Manes: Yeah. If you ask any professional dancer what they absolutely think people don't get about what they do is that it is a job, and here, and at a lot of companies, it's a union job, which is absolutely unusual, as unions' effect has been diminished over the years in the American workplace. In fact, what's truly bizarre is if you're sitting in the audience, everybody in front of you is a union worker. Not just the dancers, but also the stagehands, the musicians, and the dressers, even, have their own union. The only nonunion person you will see is the conductor, because he's considered management. But yeah, it is absolutely a job. They get paid, they have a union pay scale. They have a union that tells exactly when they're going to get a break, which is every hour for five minutes, and they need that break. They have union rules about the temperature in the studio, because they don't like to be too cold. They have union rules about the floor quality, because they don't want to get hurt. The union hours in Seattle are basically twelve to seven, with a 3 o'clock lunch break, so it's kind of odd. They're almost on a different time zone from the rest of the world. Every day in the morning -- this is before their union hours -- they're in to stretch, probably around 9:00 A.M., and then there's a class that runs from about ten fifteen to quarter to twelve. The class, though it's non-mandatory, everybody does it. It's done in ballet companies throughout the world. In French, it's known as the "Classe de Perfeccion." It's to help perfect your work. They get a 15 minute break after this class. The time they put in, their day, is 12 hours.
Jo Reed: Rehearsal time, the competing interest -- what you say, "the daily schedule" -- everything is done according to the daily schedule. And the competition for time and space is really quite extraordinary.
Stephen Manes: Yes. The choreographers and stagers, or "repetiteurs," as they're known in French, are always looking to get the maximum time to set their work, because the more time you have, the better it's going to look in the end. The problem is, several works are being set at once. There are at least three studios in operation at any given time. Sometimes for a big work, it'll all be for one piece. Sometimes for other works, it'll be three different things going on at the same time. And the dancers are slaves to a very complicated schedule that's made up by one of the ballet masters every day, and they may be in a studio at noon for an hour on a very modern piece, and then they'll go to the next-door studio and work on a classical piece, and then they may go to a third studio and work on a Balanchine piece that has a completely different style from the other two. And meanwhile, the stagers and the choreographers are desperately trying to maximize their number of hours with the dancers. Sometimes they get them, sometimes they don't. There are priorities and there are issues of just, a dancer can't be in two places at once. So he may be cast in two different dances and not be able to rehearse both of them at the moment the stager's available. It's a dance of its own.
Jo Reed: Stephen, explain how ballet is transmitted from generation to another. Assuming a choreographer is dead, how does that work get done?
Stephen Manes: How does that work get done? Well, it gets done by people known as stagers, and the stagers come in, and they're basically the representative of the choreographer -- maybe a living choreographer, too -- and they have learned the work in some way, usually from being in it, but sometimes they've learned it from tape, and they're charged with setting the work on the dancers. It's fascinating to see how different the stagers are, and to see their levels of knowledge, and to see what they get. Now, what happens sometimes, if you have a living choreographer, is the choreographer will come in at the end and clean things up, so a work that looks maybe C-minus, C-plus on Monday, before the work is going to be performed on, say, Thursday out here, then suddenly becomes, when the choreographer comes in, A-plus, because the choreographer knows all the intention. He knows the missing steps, he knows the stuff the stagers missed in the presentation, he knows the motivations. But a lot of times, the choreographer doesn't come in, and you get whatever the stager's idea was, and interestingly, the stagers have different ideas. For example, I was in the room with a Balanchine piece -- Prodigal Son was being staged -- and Peter Boal, who has danced that many times in the title role, had one view of what the Siren, which is a wonderfully sexy and dark role, should be doing, and Elaine Bauer, who had danced it at Boston Ballet, had a different view, and part of it is because they were taught differently. So you have the case of ballet being handed down not from a score, because there usually isn't one, but either by tape, and mostly by body to body, and people had learned it, and they learned it different ways. So in the case of Boal, you have a person who learned it from Edward Velellah and Jerome Robbins, who learned it from Balanchine. For the next generation, it'll be one generation beyond, and it'll change.
Jo Reed: The other thing that's fairly phenomenal is that dancers often work when they're hurt, and unlike athletes, who can be on the field and spit and grimace, they have to look light and ethereal even if they're on -- dancing on broken bones.
Stephen Manes: It's absolutely true, and the physical therapist for the company said, and he had been a sports physical therapist for years -- "These guys are the toughest people I know," because, "A," they have to smile when they're hurting, and "B," they're hurting all the time. I asked him that. I said, "How often do these guys play hurt?" And the answer was, "All the time." There's always something. There's a foot thing, there's a back thing, there's an ankle thing, there's a knee thing. There's always something going on. It is extremely stressful, and part of the reason, as he points out, is the shoes don't help. The men have basically slippers with no support at all. The women have point shoes, which are basically cardboard, satin, and glue, that don't help much, either. So they're doing this stuff in shoes that are basically two centuries old.
Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about the shoes. As you pointed out, the budget is what, $200,000?
Stephen Manes: About $200,000 a year for point shoes, yeah.
Jo Reed: How many shoes does the company go through, or how many shoes would an average dancer go through?
Stephen Manes: I think dancers go through literally a hundred or more in a year. And it depends on the production. Some productions -- the year I was there, for example -- a few of the dances were done barefoot or in slippers -- more modern stuff -- so you luck out there. But then, for something like Swan Lake, apparently if you're getting a shoe to last one performance, you're in luck. That just beats up the shoe. In some cases, you don't even make it all the way through a performance. Plus, you've got all the rehearsals, you've got company class, which is done in shoes--usually broken-in ones or ones that aren't quite in as good a shape as what you'd use for a performance. But yeah, it's absolutely a huge budget thing.
Jo Reed: I'm fascinated about the little cottage industry of shoemakers. That seems to be a society unto themselves, and quite a secret one.
Stephen Manes: The Seattle company uses primarily Freed's, and Freed is just its own little Byzantine world, and I'd love to go and see what it's all about, but each maker has a maker's mark -- a star, there's a maker crown, there's maker's squiggle -- and apparently each maker makes a very different shoe. So you will order maker such-and-such, and then you will get it customized with a high vamp, a low vamp, a rise in the back. You get them customized, but the same specification from two different makers will come out with a very different shoe. There're others. There are more modern shoes. Nobody in our company happens to use them, but it's a fascinating world of its own that I didn't get a chance to get into as deeply as I'd've liked.
Jo Reed: It's fascinating to learn how many people are involved behind the scenes for any ballet. So you're looking at the stage, and even if it's a little "pas de deux," how much goes into that, between the shoes and the costumes and the lighting and the sets.
Stephen Manes: It's absolutely amazing how many people are involved in any given moment. If you've got the orchestra there, you've got the conductor there, you've got the dressers, the stagehands -- and a lot of them. And people don't even think about this, but you've got the in-house people. You've got the ushers, you've got the people who sell tickets. You've got people who don't get their work on that night, but actually are essential. For example, the music librarians. Somebody has to get the rights to the music. You can't just play it. You have to negotiate for that. The person who negotiates with the choreographer -- you've got choreographic rights. You've got lighting rights, believe it or not, and costuming rights. If the costumes exist earlier, you've got to go get the rights to use them. Then you may have to make them. For example, some companies do rent costumes and sets, and others don't. New York City Ballet does not. So if you're going to do a performance of something that was first done at New York City Ballet, and somebody hasn't done it in between, you're probably going to have to make the costumes and sets, which PNB does. They have a huge costume shop, they have a huge set shop, and you have people fitting the costumes to the dancers, which is another skill that's just amazing. So there's a huge phalanx of people behind the scenes that nobody sees and nobody even knows exist, and yet they're essential to the work.
Jo Reed: It strikes me that here you have a company that they're together every day for long periods of time, so obviously friendships form, but they're also competing for the same roles, and I think that would make for very complicated relationships.
Stephen Manes: It is a very complicated world in that regard. You have people coming up, and you also have ranks, so you have the principals, you have the soloist, you have the core, you have the apprentices, and everybody wants to move up to be a principal. Not everybody's going to get to do that, so you have competition, but you also have this sense of a team. I liken it to baseball. It's very similar in a lot of ways that people don't think about. You have a team that works together every single day. I mean, there's not -- there's a season, and it's longer than the baseball season, and they're there. In an opera, you don't have that. In opera, you have people flying in, and then they fly out again, but the cast may not see each other for another five years. In ballet, they're there every day. In ballet, also, the career path is similar. You have people starting out when they're 18 or even younger, and then they're done when they hit their 40s. It's very rare to see a baseball player or a dancer who's over, say, 45 years old, and even that's kind of cutting it. And because you're working in a team, you have to work out ways of dealing with this. There are going to be moments of competition. The guy who's sitting on the bench wants to get into the game, and the guy who's out on the field wants to play every day, and so you really have these delicate issues of how to treat each other and how to behave on your own, and I think because of that team quality, there is this generosity that I mentioned. There's a generosity in just transmitting what you know to somebody else. I saw it again and again, where dancers would help out other dancers. They'd be -- a principal would have been in the work before, some other principal hadn't, and they'd do a lot of the helping on teaching what needed to be done. And then transmitting it to younger dancers; the principals would show core dancers what needed to be done. We had dancers who had come in from New York City Ballet, which does a very different Nutcracker from the one we do, and the dancers here were eager to help them learn the role that they needed to learn. So I think the team aspect means you can't be a diva as easily. You just -- you really have to be there every day and cooperate.
Jo Reed: And there's also a lot of work with the younger generation. There's a dance school associated with PNB.
Stephen Manes: PNB has a very well-regarded dance school. The older students, known as professional-division students, often dance with the company because the company sometimes isn't big enough to provide the cast that you need, particularly Nutcracker, but also in some of the other big ballets. It's a completely different kind of schooling than you see elsewhere, and I was struck by the complete lack of condescension from the teachers to the students. You're just there to do your thing, and we're there to help you and teach you. And -- but you're little professionals, and the teachers have so much sort of reserve authority because they've all been dancers; they've all been there. They've been in the room, doing the exact same things, but they also have had professional careers, usually, and the amount of respect they get from that is pretty amazing. I have never seen a room where eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds, are totally silent for an hour. It's just how it is. You don't talk in the ballet class, and if you do, you're out on your ear and you won't come back. And the authority the teachers have is phenomenal, and the generosity. I saw again and again--I saw principal dancers from the company teach young students presentation pieces. They took their lunch hours to go out and teach. Didn't have to. They weren't getting paid for it. They just did. I saw a dancer who had come in from New York help teach the professional-level students a work that he'd been in in New York that they'd never seen -- a very difficult Balanchine piece that they were doing for their final performance. So it happens again and again, and there's a lot of interaction between the company and the students. It's interesting. It -- that particular building -- and the building PNB has, there are open studios. The hallway -- the main hallway, where parents sit, where kids sit, waiting to go into the next studio is visible to the studios, and vice versa, so you can watch. If you're in the building, you can basically watch almost any rehearsal just by sitting in the hallway. So the kids see these role models day after day. They'd come in at four, and the dancers are still working till seven, so they have a tremendous role-model just behind a sheet of glass.
Jo Reed: Tell us about Dance Chance.
Stephen Manes: Dance Chance is a program in Seattle. There are similar programs elsewhere, but essentially the idea is to find underprivileged kids, mostly, who might have a shot at being pretty good dancers. And it's done with a pretty -- a subtly strict audition. Basically, teachers from the school go into an elementary school or a junior high. I think they're -- I take it back. I'll start again. Teachers from the school go into an elementary school and look at kids in the third or fourth grade -- I've forgotten which -- and put them through a basic audition, though they don't know it, and what they're looking for is body type and flexibility and coordination. And so the body-type stuff you can usually see pretty quickly. The flexibility you see because they give special exercises for the kids to see how much they can stretch, and the coordination comes when they ask the kids to skip across the room to music. And you watch, and in a given room, probably half the kids are already gone for body type, another few will be gone for lack of flexibility, and then they'll go to coordination, and they'll be hoping that a particular kid is terrific, and all of a sudden she basically has two left feet, and she's out, too. So in a class of, say, 20, 25, if they're lucky they'll find one or two to come to Dance Chance. Then the kids will be given regular dance classes -- Ballet 101 -- and see how they do, and if they're any good, they'll be invited back. A couple of the kids, including one who was brought into the company the year I was there, have made it into major dance companies, including PNB. It's not the goal, really. The goal is to teach kids some dance, and one of the things the parents find out is that dance education is really good for focus. The dance students and dancers have extraordinary focus, and typically the younger dancers are extremely good at managing time, because they've got to be if they're going to get their homework done and spend what can be three hours in the dance studio every day. They've got to figure out a way to do it, and they do. They're usually at the top of their classes.
Jo Reed: Do you see ballet and dancers differently now?
Stephen Manes: Oh, totally. I had no idea what this took. I've never seen a group of people who have so much ability to focus. I have sat there and been behind, say, a flat-panel TV in a studio while the dancers were watching to see what their part was going to entail, and it's like looking at a group of people looking at a car accident, in terms of just the sheer intensity of gaze. They absolutely want to catch this. And what's amazing is they can catch it, despite the fact the person they're going to be playing is maybe two inches tall on the screen. They can understand and translate it into their bodies, and once they do it, they remember it. It's absolutely amazing that they can remember it for months. You can have a dance sort of partially staged, and because the stager's not available, she'll have to come back. And she'll come back, and the dancers remember everything they got before. It's absolutely extraordinary, the amount of work they put in, the amount of time they put in. I mean, their day is easily 12 hours, and the amount of intensity they manage to keep up is really pretty extraordinary.
Jo Reed: Stephen Manes, thank you very much.
Stephen Manes: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Stephen Manes, he was talking about his book Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "March" and "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy", from TCHAIKOVSKY âs Nutcracker Suite, performed by the NY Philharmonic, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, used courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
Excerpts from the Overture and Russian Dance from TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra,â¨Leopold Stokowski, conductor. Courtesy of Creative Commons
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Next week, it's a conversation with jazz pianist, Aaron Diehl. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.