Ask not whom the inside joke is on: it’s onstage

By MICHAEL COOPER / New York Times News Service

Published Dec 29, 2013 at 09:14PM

NEW YORK - Even the most devoted ballet fans, who catch “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” every year at the David H. Koch Theater, tend not to realize that Balanchine still makes a cameo appearance in each performance of the dance, which he created in 1954.

The moment comes in the second act, when the Spanish dancers who perform the “Hot Chocolate” divertissement emerge in rich brown ruffled dresses: The bodice of the principal dancer is adorned with a small oval cameo-style portrait of Balanchine. The women in the corps de ballet wear cameos of Lincoln Kirstein, who founded New York City Ballet with Balanchine.

“It’s something that only we know about - the audience doesn’t really see that,” said Marc Happel, director of costumes at City Ballet, as he showed the cameos on the dresses, designed by Karinska, who often worked for Balanchine. “We will never stop doing this. For us, it’s just such a link to the past, and to when they created this company and were really making things happen here. It’s a nice little reminder for everybody that they were the ones.”

City Ballet’s sly nod to its founders - part homage, part inside joke - is not uncommon in the world of the performing arts. Like the medieval stonemasons who immortalized themselves and their friends with the gargoyles they carved on cathedrals, the artists who create ballets, operas and other shows sometimes find ways to leave their marks subtly on costumes, sets and props.

Another small insider homage could be found on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera this month, in its lavish production of “Der Rosenkavalier,” by Richard Strauss. In the third act, after the boorish Baron Ochs’ attempted assignation at a tavern goes disastrously and hilariously wrong, he is besieged with bills from the innkeeper and a host of others.

Invisible to the audience - whether sitting in the back of the Family Circle or the front of the orchestra - is what the long paper bills thrust at him actually say. In flowing cursive writing, the bills list the cast from the current production’s 1969 premiere, starting with the conductor, Karl Böhm, and naming everyone from Leonie Rysanek, who sang the Marschallin, to Christa Ludwig, who sang Octavian, to Charles Anthony, who was the innkeeper that night (and who sang 2,928 mostly small roles at the Met during his long career).

The tradition of these kinds of in jokes goes back centuries. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” has an allusion in the last act to his own “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Bach has delighted generations of musicologists by slipping his name into his works in musical code. More recently, Alfred Hitchcock teased fans with walk-on roles in his movies, and, these days, the makers of films, television shows and video games often hide jokes, sometimes called “Easter eggs,” in their works for true devotees to find. But the jokes get a special immediacy in live performances.

At a close-knit troupe like City Ballet, where a living tradition is still passed on from dancer to dancer, little allusions and nods to the past are woven into many productions.

Balanchine’s love of cats - one of his cats, Mourka, could do dance-like tricks - inspired his frequent set designer, Rouben Ter-Arutunian, to put a cat in a window in the first act of “The Nutcracker” (it’s on the audience’s left), and to put two cats (along with three mice) on the roof of Dr. Coppélius’ workshop in the second act of the comic ballet “Coppélia.”

City Ballet’s production of “Coppélia,” which will be staged again in February, wears its history proudly in the third act, when the stage is bedecked with bells that, upon closer inspection, honor many of the ballet’s creators, both old and new.

The largest bell, in the center of the stage, is inscribed with the name of Léo Delibes, who composed the ballet’s music, along with the date of its premiere. Other bells are inscribed with the initials of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote the story upon which the ballet was based; Arthur St. Léon, its original choreographer; Marius Petipa, who restaged it in Russia; and Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, who choreographed the current production in 1974. Other bells bear the initials of New York City Ballet, Kirstein and Ter-Arutunian himself.

Sometimes people who are less famous, at least outside of the company, are honored.

Perry Silvey - who has been at City Ballet for nearly three decades as a stage manager, director of productions and now as technical director - said that when the company decided more than a decade ago that it was time to replace the painted Old West backdrop in Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” he learned, to his surprise, that a pair of names painted faintly on the wall of the livery stable behind the saloon belonged to the painters who made the original drop.

The studio called and asked if it could replace the names, Silvey recalled: “I said, ‘Well, you can put something there, as long as it’s not risqué or embarrassing, or anything.’”

When the new drop arrived, Silvey said, it had two barely legible new names on the stable: “Peter,” for Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master in chief, and “Perry.”

“So the ‘Western’ drop now has our names on it,” he said with a laugh. “I was a little surprised.”

The other night at the Koch Theater, Savannah Lowery, a soloist who is one of the Hot Chocolate dancers in “The Nutcracker” this year, said that wearing the elaborate ruffled Spanish dress, which is quite heavy, poses special challenges in a role that requires quick movements, jumps and partnering. But she said the small Balanchine cameo she wears served as a reminder of a man who, though he died before she was born, is still spoken of reverently as “Mr. B” at City Ballet and the School of American Ballet, which he founded with Kirstein.

“You feel like, at least if I’m going to wear this difficult costume, at least I have some good juju behind it,” Lowery said of wearing the Balanchine portrait. “He’s kind of always around - you don’t feel like you get too far away.”

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