Sunday, January 16:

Rehearsals start in two days, but Lisa Kipp is not sure what’s going to happen. For Lisa, OBT rehearsal director since 2004, this kind of uncertainty is extremely unusual. To compensate, she’s doubled down on what she can control by making not just a Plan B, but C and D, too.

“Right now, I’m guessing at everything,” she said. “Nutcracker was rough. I had eight corps members go out at the same time— in the middle of a show, after we discovered a positive Covid case in their dressing room. Now, with Dracula, there’s no way to avoid that possibility again, so I’m casting three or four deep for everybody: corps, soloists, principals.” This strategy ensures that even if multiple dancers have to stay home due to exposure or illness, others can learn their roles during the critical first weeks of the rehearsal process, when repetiteur Dominic Walsh is staging Dracula. “So long as Dominic has a full cast to teach the choreography, I can catch up the other dancers later. And we’ll hope to have a full complement of people by showtime.”

Dracula has approximately 43 roles, from brides to peasants, innkeepers, a priest and Dracula himself. The very demanding principal roles are those dancers’ sole focus, but the rest of OBT’s 26 dancers and 17 OBT 2 members are responsible for at least two roles each, sometimes three. One dancer has four. To make sure the corps is especially well covered, OBT School students are called in as well. “I looked at how to do this with Nutcracker fresh on my mind and the potential for multiple people out at once,” Lisa said.

Meanwhile, back in the production office, Bill Anderson, OBT’s production director, works on the massive logistics behind bringing a full length production to the Keller Auditorium. “Well, there’s the way it normally works and the way it worked this time…” he reflects.

Dracula’s sets and costumes belong to Houston Ballet but were made in Santiago, Chile, coming to Portland by way of Salt Lake City, where Ballet West just finished up their own run of the ballet. “We were fortunate that we didn’t have to ship it all the way from Houston,” Bill points out. Additionally, “Since it originated in South America, the scenery was not put together as we’d normally do it here. Luckily, Ballet West significantly reworked it, adding screws where there’d only been bolts, new wheels, and color-coded pieces to make it easier to assemble— because many parts were unlabeled, and those that WERE labeled were in Spanish.”

The production (meaning sets and costumes) arrived in November and went straight to OBT’s warehouse in NW Portland (except the costumes, which went directly to OBT’s studios so Eileen Ehlert, costume shop supervisor, could get to work on fittings and alterations). Load-in day (typically the Monday before opening night) is always long and has no small measure of stress. Dracula, with its numerous special effects, upped the stakes. “We get possession of the theater at 4 am but the crew rest period means we can’t start work until noon. So I’ll start with the Foy Flying Company at 9 am, hanging the tracks that’ll be used to fly our performers.” Four semi trailers bring the sets across town. Throughout load-in day, Bill oversees unloading the trucks, assembling sets, laying the dance floor, and setting light cues. He’ll dash back to the warehouse as needed (“If we realize we need a left-handed monkey wrench or something”). Monday ends about 10:00 pm, and Tuesday is another 12-16 hour crew work day. The dancers arrive Wednesday to start tech rehearsals on stage, (including extra “flying” rehearsals to ensure dancers and crew feel comfortable and safe).

Lisa’s Covid-casting strategy extends to the stage crew. “I usually have one ‘floater’ who knows all the different jobs and can cover for any crew member who gets sick,” Bill explains. “But for Dracula we have two ‘crew understudies’ who rehearse their parts just like the dancers do, during tech and dress run-throughs.” Additional Covid precautions: lots of masks, lots of tests, bigger quick change booths backstage, and a curtained-off “hallway” connecting stage right and left so dancers with quick crossovers can make their entrances on time without masking up.

Friday, January 28:

Two weeks into rehearsals, about 65% of Dracula has been taught. Luckily, Lisa’s fears of mass absences have not materialized, with only two dancers out. The corps de ballet is working every hour of every day to learn their parts, which are extensive. Fatigue, both mental and physical, is deep. “I’m trying to teach the OBT 2 dancers how to have an overview of the entire piece, so they can get thrown into any spot,” Lisa says. “It’s a great moment for their professional development. I’m tossing them in all over the place!” Everyone is tested twice weekly and despite strict adherence to mask-wearing, the prospect of a surge in cases still looms. “This would be a huge production regardless of all these challenges,” Lisa says. “My job is to aim for perfection, symmetry and uniformity in the corps work and fully developed performances by principals and soloists. So we’re dealing with the obstacles and just keep plugging away. I’m still aiming for that ideal.”

~Gavin Larsen
Former OBT principal dancer Gavin Larsen is the author of Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life (University Press of Florida)

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