Tacoma City Ballet's 'Haunted Theatre' proves to be ballet that draws crowds

Tacoma City Ballet’s ‘Haunted Theatre’ has proven itself exactly what both the company and its audience needs – ballet that draws crowds

rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.comOctober 18, 2013 

Are you thinking about how to decorate your house for Halloween yet? So is Erin Ceragioli – only she has about 12,000 square feet of ballroom, dressing room, wardrobe and ballet studio to glam up with pumpkins, tombstones and chiffon in just 24 hours. Today.

Because Saturday afternoon, the first of more than 1,000 eager children are going to stream through the doors of Tacoma City Ballet, where director Ceragioli discovered five years ago that combining eerie ballet and a not-too-scary haunted theater tour was the secret to pulling in audiences.

“I wanted to do a ballet that was accessible to the whole community,” says Ceragioli of the decision in 2009 to switch from a more traditional repertory ballet in Theater on the Square to an informal, in-house production. “(Ballet) that people could afford to come to and bring their whole family, and that was revolving around a holiday. Because in Tacoma, it seems that people will come out for holiday ballets, like ‘Nutcracker,’ and other ballets are very difficult to sell, to get an audience for. So I thought I’d do something around Halloween.”

Ceragioli’s not the only arts director capitalizing on Halloween enthusiasm. The spookiness of the holiday, plus the license for anyone to dress in costume, has sparked other artsy events such as the Tacoma Youth Symphony’s costume concert, Lakewood Playhouse’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” and radio version of “War of the Worlds,” and Dia de los Muertos celebrations at Tacoma Art Museum and Sixth Avenue. Last year, the Washington State History Museum turned its entire building into a haunted house. If you’re looking for a spooky experience that goes a bit deeper than zombies and gore, you have plenty of choices in Tacoma.

But if you have children who love ballet, and you don’t want too scary of an experience for them, you might be among the Tacomans who will want to see TCB’s “Haunted Theatre.” At just $5 a ticket, the event isn’t as much of a moneymaker for the company as “The Nutcracker,” says Ceragioli, but because it’s all in-house – no theater rentals or expensive sets or lighting crews, just the 6,500-square-foot historic Merlino ballroom the TCB calls home – the company keeps more of what it makes.

“Every year for five years audiences have steadily increased,” says Ceragioli. “On a small scale it earned $10,000 for the company last year, which I thought was very good.”

But TCB’s space is still quite a challenge to dress up. The entrance, with its high ceiling, gets atmospheric orange light covers and a tall, pillared gateway (and a “headless hat-checker”). Guided by an Egyptian cat, visitors are led into the dancers’ dressing room and welcomed by a ghoulish “undertaker” and green lighting.

The backstage tour then goes into one of the rehearsal studios, now a blue-lit cemetery complete with enormous foam tombstones of classical music greats. The tour proceeds through the red-lit wardrobe room (itself worth a tour outside of Halloween, with its endlessly high rows of rainbow tutus and “Nutcracker” costumes) and finally into the ballroom theater.

Then comes the main attraction – an hour’s worth of actual ballet, broken down into fun, supernatural-themed pieces. A trio of tangerine- and lime-skirted witches frolic around a giant cauldron to Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” and blue-suited puppets duel to Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette.”

Most of the choreography is by Ceragioli, with two dances by Melissa Lovejoy Goldman and Travis Goldman, and it gives dancing opportunities to many of the ballet school’s students.

“I like the dances because they’re fun,” says Sophie Schmidt, dancing in the show for the third time. “I watch them as well.”

“And I like the costumes,” adds Abigail Thompson, who’s carting a puffy pumpkin costume almost as big as she is back to the rack.

Over the years, Ceragioli has added more and more props to the production (some repurposed from other ballets, like Dracula’s life-size coffin), but one big addition has been professional theater lighting and a computer board thanks to a grant from Tacoma’s Dimmer Family Foundation. Ceragioli is also hoping to get seating risers – important now that she’s pulling crowds of 300 per show. (Little kids still get to sit on the floor, right where they can be frightened by roving skeleton dancers.)

“Audiences get to come with their family, come in costume if they want,” says Ceragioli of why the show has become so popular. “It’s a good alternative for Halloween fun for the family because there’s nothing gruesome, scary or violent about it. ...

“It’s affordable, and it only lasts an hour ... so it’s short and easy to attend. And fun for the little kids – they love it.”

TCB Haunted Theatre

What: Tacoma City Ballet presents “The Haunted Theatre: Backstage Tour and Eerie Dances”

When: 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, plus 7 p.m. Oct. 25, 3 and 5 p.m. Oct. 26, and 1 and 3 p.m. Oct. 27

Tickets: $5

Also: Costumes encouraged

Information: 253-272-4219, tacomacityballet.com

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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