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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Backstage Heroes

Odyssey Dance Theatre's show doesn't go on without those behind the curtain.


1 comment
  • Colette Finney

With more than 25 years and 600 performances under its feet, Odyssey Dance Theatre delivers productions that appear to run almost automatically. However, after witnessing all the preparation it takes for A Midsummer Night's Dream in Vegas, part of the company's Shut Up & Dance series, to open, it becomes clear that the show would not go on without the coordinated efforts of those backstage. From costuming and choreography to sound and lighting design, an incredible amount of work goes on behind that velvet curtain.

With iconic pieces like Superman's cape or Dorothy's ruby slippers, wardrobe staff can enhance a character's personality, set the tone of the story and evoke an actor's mood. Costume designers undertake many responsibilities in helping to craft a cohesive aesthetic for a production, and transport the audience to another place and time.

ODT costume designer and production director Cheryl Yeager has worked seamlessly (no pun intended) with her husband Derryl—the company's founder and artistic director—in telling stories since the company was created. "We think a lot alike and work really well together," Cheryl Yeager says. "Once a direction of costuming has been determined, we work as one to find the right pieces for each character."

However, seeing a costume go from an idea to the final product is a multi-step process. Once the overall concept has been determined and the production's narrative and budget are considered, a mock-up can be created. After the costume has been tested and adjustments completed, a detailed spreadsheet is created for the entire cast to ensure smooth transitions come opening night.

"I work closely with the choreographers to see what they are envisioning in order to realize their expectations," Cheryl says. "Costuming is really about the dancers, and allowing for them to have movement as well as be fast-change ready."

"In a live performance, there are usually many costume changes that the audience never sees," Derryl Yeager adds, "and sometimes things go wrong in a very tight window of opportunity, such as a zipper breaking ... Cheryl is usually there as Johnny-on-the-spot to take care of those issues and get dancers back on stage doing what they do best—dancing!"

To anchor a show of this magnitude, technology such as lighting, sound and video are essential to achieving a completely realized production. Generally, the crew has to have the ability to be everywhere at once and solve problems quickly while managing multiple tasks. In ODT's case, these responsibilities fall on the shoulders of technical director, lighting designer and stage manager Kyle Baumann. Juggling a long list of duties before, during and after a show, Baumann has the knowledge and experience to pull off this demanding skill set. From lighting, sound, video, scenery and special effects to being the "go-to person" for the performers, he oversees all technical aspects of the show.

"After programming cues for lights and the show is ready, I set up my computer to run sound and video elements live, while also wearing a headset so I can communicate with people backstage in calling cues to them," Baumann says. "Luckily, I have my assistant, Matt Jennings, to help make sure everything is being taken care of backstage from setup to closing night so I can focus my attention on my specific duties."

Beyond physical requirements and knowledge of all dance styles, ODT's dancers are typically asked to do more than just "shut up and dance," often collaborating with the artistic director on music selections and choreography. Building the performance from the polished floor, they can take the tiniest movement and have it speak volumes with skill and grace.

The dancers' main mission is to interpret a story within the context of a song with fluid movements and full-on "face." They are also involved in staging, makeup and developing their specific roles. Playing an impish Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, longtime ODT dancer Peiter Mortensen has been actively engaged in choreographing pieces.

"For the most part, Derryl lets us run with our feature roles," Mortensen says. "I'm excited for this character because I am the first one to take a crack at it and make it completely my own."

Derryl Yeager fosters a team effort on most aspects of this production. He believes painted scenery is passé, so he tends to rely on less tangible visual effects. "It's very cost-efficient to do background projections as opposed to painted drops, as we have our own projector," Yeager says. "I'm able to control the timing of the visuals ... very easily, so it is helpful from a production point of view."

Yeager directs all the efforts on stage and behind the scenes and livens up this classic comedy of errors, infusing A Midsummer Night's Dream with originality and, above everything else, humor. "Comedy is something that is very hard to do," he says. "But there is nothing more fun than making people laugh."