The Wear and Tear of Ballet – Sets and Scenery

We are now two weeks into our 45 in 45 fundraiser, and while we’ve had lots of interest and people creating fundraiser pages, there’s always room for more growth! The current tally is at $1,395. Let’s not stall-out now, there’s still plenty of time left for us to build a larger, stronger Team 45! And remember, when you become a part of the team by creating your own fundraising page, you also get a chance to win a tablet computer. The person who gets the most people to donate on their own fundraising page will win!

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and win that tablet!

Now, we know you may be wondering what California Ballet will be using these newly raised funds for. Sure, we’ve mentioned that we’ll be repairing wear and tear on old sets and costumes, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a look at our Nutcracker set and what it goes through in just one season. Ballet isn’t just tough on the body, it’s tough on everything!

               Battlescene73DSC 1068

The image on the top is from 1974, the image on the bottom is from 2005. Note that the backdrop is the same one!


Now, our sets have been in use for a long, long, long, long, long . . . . well, you get the point. They’re old. Some pieces have been with us since the first Nutcracker way back in 1971! Sets are expensive to build, and repairs can be incredibly pricey, too. You see, each piece of scenery and every backdrop has a lot of people who work on them when they’re being created.

Here’s the (abbreviated) process of building a set, all the people involved are highlighted in green:

  1. SketchA set designer sits down with the director, producer, and often times the choreographer of a ballet to find out what exactly is wanted and needed. They then go about designing the sets. They will begin by creating little thumbnail sketches of all the set pieces. Then they will have to look at the schematics for the stage where the set will be used to make sure everything will fit. Next, they will create color renderings, or drawings of each set piece with measurements and instructions for construction.
  2. The above process will likely be revisited as the designer has to submit their work to the director for approval. Tweaks will be made, heads will butt, and eventually a finished set design will appear.
  3. Once the renderings are approved, the set designer goes on to build a three-dimensional model of the set. This will aid the production crew in further understanding the design.
  4. The next person to step in is a Technical Director. He or she will look the specs given to him by the set designer, and begin to turn them into the real thing. They will order lumber, schedule labor, and oversee construction. 
  5. Next, the production crew gets to turn the renderings into real set pieces and backdrops. These people are carpenters, painters, electricians, and welders, but more importantly they are engineers and artists. 
    1. OSEach set piece has to be modular – easy to put together and easy to take apart. They must also be strong enough to be rolled onto stage, flown into the rafters, crammed onto trucks, walked and danced all over . . . the list goes on. 
    2. Not only must they be durable and practical, but they must be beautiful! The next time you go to the ballet, take a look at the backdrop. REALLY take a look. You’ll see gorgeous renderings of scenery, forced perspective to rival the renaissance masters, chiaroscuro that plays miracles with good stage lighting, and more! It takes a true artist to do all of this on a 40 foot by 80 foot canvas!

With so many people involved, is it really so surprising that building and repairing sets can be so expensive. If California Ballet were to rebuild the Nutcracker set from the ground up, it could run the company a cool $1million to do it properly!

So what happens to the set once it’s built? What about the wear and tear?

To begin, any set that is reused by a company spends months, perhaps even years in storage. Even the best maintained warehouse has to contend with these problems:

    • Dust
    • Leaks
    • Weather
    • Mice, rats, insects
    • Earthquakes
    • Sunlight – it can fade sets

And that’s while just being stored! When a set is used, it has to be drudged out of the warehouse, loaded onto trucks, transported on the freeway with all those crazy drivers (none of our readers, of course!), and then loaded into the theater to be set up for the production.


What happens when a set it put together in the theater?

          1. Each piece of hard set (that is, everything that is not made of soft fabric like backdrops) needs to be reassembled. Screws are driven into holes, hinges applied to doors, lighting and wiring attached to frames. These are things that may have been done and undone, as in the case of The Nutcracker over 40 times! Have you ever had to move and needed to pull apart and then reassemble a desk or cabinet? Remember cussing as you stripped a screw or its hole and the darn thing just spun about uselessly? Yeah, 40 years of that for our Nutcracker set.
          2. Every backdrop, leg, and border must be hung from a batten (a piece of pipe that can be flown to the rafters) and a weight of some sort, usually a steel pipe or steel chain must be inserted into the drop’s base so that it doesn’t flop about flaccidly while in the air. The base of the drop is a stitched pocket. Ever put too much change in your purse and the seam ripped out? The same thing happens to backdrops.
          3. Paint touchups must be made as necessary, sometimes set pieces need to be taped back together with duck tape. You’d be surprised how much duck tape is onstage for any given show, and you don’t even know it!


Then the show goes on!

          • Back drops are raised and lowered from the rafters over and over again. Think about how much a 40′ x 80′ backdrop weighs! Now try raising it 60 feet in the air!
          • Set pieces are rolled on and offstage over and over. Hey, we have to replace the tires on our cars every few years – same thing for 40 year old sets.
          • Platforms that provide different levels of height on the stage get danced on for several performances. Next time you watch The Nutcracker, listen to how hard those Russian dancers hit the floor. Did you know that the floor they are dancing on is raised? It has to be built on top of the stage every year for The Nutcracker!
          • Props are used and handled by dancers. Props are things like cups, flags, books, candles – anything that a dancer or actor can pick up and/or use. Have you seen Beauty and the Beast the musical? Remember the mug dance? How many times do you think they’ve had to replace those mugs? Dancers are hard on their props!

And when the show is over, everything that happened to the set while it was being built happens again – in reverse! Screws are taken out, hinges removed, wiring detached, backdrops folded up. Then everything goes back onto trucks, raced down the freeway, and stuffed (with care) into the warehouse where it has to endure dust, weather, and possible pests for at least another year!

So, the life of a set is a hard one. We’ve put pictures throughout this blog of our set pieces in various states of disarray. No matter how careful you are, or how hard you try to take care of them, they get beaten and broken as time goes by. That’s one of the many reasons we’re hosting our 45 in 45 fundraiser. The funds we raise will go towards repairing or replacing our beloved sets so that we can keep bringing you The Nutcracker that we’ve all come to know and love!





CLICK HERE to donate $45 or, better yet, start your own fundraiser page and get others to fork over the cash!


We’ll see you at the ballet!




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