Merel comes along. She’s the stage manager this evening, and will soon be sitting at the desk giving all the technicians their instructions for running the show through her headset. Lighting cues, entrances, scene changes and opening and closing the curtain, for example. But not just yet. She’s got a list of all the dancers appearing this evening. Each dancer has to clock in one hour before curtain-up, by signing next to their name on the list by the stage door. Merel has just picked up the list. There are blank spaces next to two names. So she has to find out if these dancers are in the house. She calls their names on the intercom. If they still don’t report to her, it could be that they’ve forgotten they’ve got a performance tonight. Or maybe they’ve got stuck somewhere en route. You never know. At this point, there’s still time to find an alternative. That’s why there’s always a ballet master on ‘duty’ in the house. Just in case.
35 minutes to go.
Erdal from the Technical Maintenance department arrives to take care of the malfunction. It doesn’t appear to be too serious. Meanwhile, one of the dancers who hasn’t signed in reports to Merel. The other one calls from his mobile. He has a reputation for being late and yes, he’s on his way. In the corridor by the dressing rooms, dancers are sitting on the floor putting on their pointe shoes next to the rosin box. This is a time-consuming activity. One dancer is scraping the sole of her pointe shoe with a sort of file to make it less slippery. Merel’s voice comes over the intercom: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is your half hour call'. So everyone backstage knows it’s half an hour till curtain-up.
30 minutes to go.
In the orchestra pit, a solitary violinist sits practicing some difficult passages. Other orchestra members are still en route to the theatre or drinking coffee from cardboard cups in the canteen. You can hear fragments of conversations – 'Gaddafi', 'nice holiday resort', 'Ajax' – none of which would suggest that top-quality music is about to be played in half an hour. But 30 minutes is an eternity in the theatre. It gets a bit busier in the wings. More dancers come to stretch. A follow spotter goes up in the lift to find his place on the bridge above the auditorium. Merel tells him that the Struycken ceiling has been hoisted to its highest position today. This is the lighting art work on the auditorium ceiling, which usually tilts upwards when the house lights go down. But the day before yesterday there was a technical hitch and it got stuck halfway, blocking the follow spotters’ view. So this is a temporary solution.
25 minutes to go.
Frans, who as tonight’s duty manager is responsible for front of house and audience supervision, has also noticed that the ceiling lights are different to usual. Because now there’s less light on the 2nd balcony, which could cause dangerous situations for the audience, who are already starting to trickle into the auditorium. Good that the 2nd balcony’s open, by the way. We’ve got a pretty full house tonight. He goes off to find Merel, who gives instructions through her headset to the lighting box to turn the lights up. In the mean time, Eddy, one of the dressers, is holding a steam machine up to a costume in the soloists’ corridor, steaming the last wrinkles out. Because even though it appears practically wrinkle-free, everything looks different on stage to how it does under the harsh strip lighting backstage. Details are important.
20 minutes to go.
There’s more and more bustle in and around the dressing rooms. The corridor wall is hung with drawings of the prescribed hairstyle for Serenade. Buns. The dancers can do that themselves. There isn’t much call for the wig and make-up department for this performance: no wigs and no fancy make-up. A basket of M&Ms stands on the table, with a hand-written note above it: 'toi toi for the last performance'. The orchestra pit attendant checks the conductor’s stand in the pit. Each conductor has their own preferences, and you never know whether the stand has been used by a different conductor at a morning rehearsal and needs putting right again. A few technicians walk in and out of the wings. This is a relatively simple performance, with no scene changes or props, so they look pretty relaxed. But appearances can be deceiving. After all, they have to perform well tonight, too.
'Ladies and gentlemen, this is your 15 minutes call', Merel announces over the intercom. The conductor reports to her desk. 'Good evening', says Boris Gruzin, the experienced Russian ballet conductor, who speaks excellent English – but only when it suits him. But he is lovingly forgiven for this, as Gruzin is one of the best in his profession. He puts down his reading glasses and two batons on the stage manager’s desk for a moment and sits on one of the row of chairs in the wings. Alan, the ballet master on duty, is already sitting there. They chat for a while. Michelle, who is dancing one of the leading roles in Serenade, comes to say hello to Gruzin. With a reason. She sings a snatch of Tchaikovsky and Gruzin picks it up and joins in. Not for fun, but for the tempo – she wants to hear how fast he’s going to conduct it tonight.
10 minutes to go.
Louise, who works in the office of the artistic staff, comes along. Tonight, she’s here in a different role to her everyday one, as she has a character role in On the Dnieper as one of the two mothers in the piece. The other mother is played by Aina, who like Louise is an ex-dancer and has been on the artistic staff for years. Ex-principals Boris de Leeuw and Altin Kaftira are the fathers. These older character roles are not so credible if they are performed by younger dancers. Even if they were made up to look older, you would see through it to the young girl beneath. Not only do you have to be older and able to act, but you also have to be able to move to the music. So it is always ex-dancers that are asked to do the character roles. Several dancers are already moving around on stage. They are dancing fragments of Serenade; going through those tricky steps one last time. Others are lying down stretching. One of them is drinking from a thermos flask (tea?), and there are bottles of water and sports drinks. They often wear big slippers and layers of practice clothes over their costumes to keep warm. Jan is walking around in a red football shirt with Beckham on the back. The conductor talks in Russian to a few dancers. They laugh.
Still 5 minutes to go.
Merel sounds the gong. She’s already called the orchestra to take their places in the pit. Nearly the whole artistic staff is now on stage looking at the dancers, who are practically all there now. There’s the occasional correction and some chatting. The ballet masters and Ted still haven’t made any move to go to the auditorium, even though nearly all the audience are in their seats by now. No hurry. In the theatre, 5 minutes is still an eternity. All the technicians who don’t have to take up their post up top congregate in the wings. They make jokes and wait till it all starts.
Still 2 minutes to go.
Through her headset, Merel tells the orchestra they can start tuning. The orchestra inspector gives a sign to the concert master, who stands up and asks the oboist to give an A. The ballet masters are still on stage. The gong sounds for the last time in the foyers. The conductor goes down to the entrance to the orchestra pit. 'Everybody to the stage, please', comes the message over the intercom. It’s nearly time now. But the dancers haven’t taken off their slippers yet. In the theatre, 2 minutes is still an eternity. They know exactly how much time they have. When the show begins, first the conductor appears, then there is applause, then the orchestra starts playing, and only then does the curtain open. Plenty of time.
The last minute.
The lights go out in the wings. Any minute now Merel will get a sign from Frans, the duty manager, that she can dim the lights in the auditorium. Although fixed times are agreed for this, if there is still a queue at the box office the duty manager sometimes gives a few minutes extra. Practice clothes are taken off and put aside. Merel gives instructions through her headset. She knows everyone is at their post: eleven stagehands, two sound technicians, one props manager, four follow spotters, eight lighting technicians and four dressers. Almost there now. The ballet masters have gone to the auditorium. They join the 1450 people who have gathered here tonight. The lights fade and the audience settles down. Ready for Serenade: 30 minutes of timeless beauty. And 30 minutes – that’s an eternity in the theatre.