Written for McCarter Theatre’s website as a story in the Backstage/Onstage horror stories portion of the resource guide for the production of The Understudy

When I was a young teenage dancer in The Nutcracker, Princeton Ballet Company used dry ice for the opening of the second act, “Land of the Sweets”. During intermission, they would start up the dry ice machine and fill the stage with fog so that the “sleeping” divertissements on each side would be shrouded in mist as the curtain opened. They were then revealed by the Sugar Plum Fairy as Clara and the Prince made their entrance. A nice effect, but it ended up being a bit of a hazard to those of us that had to dance as the “Crystal Candy Violets” in the opening scene.

The dry ice machine (I’m guessing it was probably not top-of-the-line) would leak occasionally—well, more than occasionally—leaving large puddles in certain areas of the stage, or a stream of water spewing behind it as the crew wheeled it off the stage into the wings. The problem was, you couldn’t actually SEE where the puddles were, because, well, they were covered in dry ice.

Dew Drop fairy

Dew Drop Fairy, 1986

After the first few times this happened, we became smarter and would arm ourselves with paper towels, and as the music for the overture started and the stage crew was leaving, we would mop up what we could see in the wake of their exit trail in the 5-10 seconds we had before the curtain came up. If we could actually see where the puddles were, we would wave to each other across the stage with hand signals like those guys on the airport runway to let each other know which panels to avoid so we wouldn’t slip and fall in our beautiful lavender tutus.

Party Child

That’s me as a Party Child in the McCarter Theater wardrobe room, circa 1980

Polichinelles ARB

Polichinelles in American Repertory Ballet’s current version of The Nutcracker

Once the fog cleared, occasionally there would be small lakes of water left upstage near the scrim, and if it didn’t appear that it would dry before the Dew Drop Fairy or the Sugar Plum Fairy were going to dance at the end of the act, the ballet master or mistress would arm the Polichinelles, the younger dancers who came out from underneath Mother Ginger’s large skirt, with paper towels. Their dance was kind of raucous and fun, so the mission was to mop up as much of the water as they could (without detracting from their own choreography of course) – then the Principal dancers would not have to worry about slipping on the water. The funny thing about that, of course, is that there was no receptacle on stage for the wet paper towels once they had been used, (and I don’t think they wanted to hand them to Clara or the Prince as a present)—so kids would stick them back into their tights or costume, causing some odd looking lumps in interesting places.

Just a day in the life of The Nutcracker! (And thankfully they have long since given up on the dry ice).

Read more “Backstage/Onstage Horror Stories” (or submit your own!) here:

For more information about McCarter Theatre’s upcoming production of The Understudy:

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