For most ballet companies — and ticket buyers — a new story ballet is an expensive endeavor. You create completely new sets and costumes, you do new choreography, and then you only have a few days to figure it all out in a high-rent theater.
But for Tacoma City Ballet’s new “Pinocchio,” opening this weekend, the set-up has no strings attached. The venue is the company’s own ballroom studio, recently converted to fully-rigged theater. Add in some remade sets and vintage costumes, and you’ve got a family ballet that gives the audience affordable seats with a puppet’s-eye view of the story.
“It’s my off-Broadway,” jokes Erin Ceragioli, director of Tacoma City Ballet as she gestures around the ballroom during the first “Pinocchio” run-through. The back of the room still has the big mirrors and piano used for regular class. But the stage area now sports a cozy set for Geppetto’s puppet workshop, complete with fish bowl, and on the dance floor is a black drape rigged into the towering ceilings of the 1924 ballroom. The exact width of the Pantages stage, the drape is currently half-pulled to hide the set-pieces for Pinocchio’s village: an elaborate house with coppery fabric roof “tiles” and a church with paper stained glass and an alcove of St. Francis.
Two more black wing drapes on each side hide more props: Stromboli’s puppet theater, the birdcage that Gideon the Fox will lock up Pinocchio in, the boat (on wheels) that will carry him back from Pleasure Island. There’s lighting, there’s room for all the young dancers to wait until their entry, there’s a cross-over behind the stage and there’s even a run-around from “backstage” through a green room to the audience, who’ll be seated on portable risers.
Tacoma City Ballet now has its own 300-seat in-house theater, and for productions like “Pinocchio” it’s a dream come true.
“We can build things right here, we can set it all up and see if it works,” says Ceragioli.
She also can test-run a production at no extra cost before taking it to a big theater (Ceragioli’s planning for the Federal Way Performing Arts Center next spring, and maybe more regional venues).
But for the audience, the big attraction in “Pinocchio” is the characters, here outfitted in costumes from vintage to just-made. Chloe Blair dances the adventurous puppet who becomes a real boy in an new outfit patterned after an actual porcelain marionette Ceragioli just bought from Italy for the first scene. Burly ballet carpenter Sal Lucente has grown an Italian-style moustache for the puppet-maker, and his fish and cat are both real dancers.
The village is peopled with schoolgirls, merchants, a priest in real robe and biretta given to Ceragioli long ago by a monsignor at her Nevada high school. There’s assistant director Joel Myers as the Fox, lanky and louche, and in a charming juxtaposition is his 8-year-old son Benson as a worried Jiminy Cricket. Stromboli’s puppets wear costumes made decades earlier by ballet seamstresses — a Dutch girl dress, red tarantella skirts — and new Tarot card outfits. The French can-can dancers wear silver-green flouncy skirts that came from the Reno ballet company where Ceragioli originally danced. They’re now some 70 years old, she says, and still in perfect shape for swishing and kicking.
Other fun visuals include a red whale’s mouth painted on the back of Geppetto’s workshop –— custom-built by Lucente, each panel swivels around — and a 60-by-60-feet swathe of sea-green silk, repurposed from a whale ballet and now foamy billows that swallow up Pinocchio.
The ballet is just 75 minutes long, and plays out to an intriguing Shostakovich score compiled by Ceragioli of intense, cinematic ballet music that you probably didn’t realize the Russian composer ever wrote.
After a few interesting events — Geppetto’s workshop nearly overturning during the swivel, the drapes not quite covering the sets — the run-through finishes. To triumphant piccolo strains, Ceragioli directs the final curtain — “Keep going! All the way past the houses! Stop, good job!” — and sighs with relief.
“All righty,” she calls to the dancers, who are clapping. “OK, everybody, let’s have a little bit of a break.”
When: 7 p.m. Friday (April 28) and May 5; 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and May 6-7.
Where: Tacoma City Ballet, 508 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.