By Natasha Ashenhurst
If you think that staging a ballet is a simple feat, that the choreography, costumes and set are out of a box, so to say, you would be mistaken. Rather, the process is custom tailored to the strengths of the dancers in the company, the venue, the set designer’s imagination, and the costume designer’s vision.
When Josie and Ken Johnson became co-directors of Ballet Northwest and the Johansen Olympia Dance Center six years ago, they started working on adding Swan Lake to the Company’s repertory from day one.
It took a full year to get the ballet from concept to stage.
Now, they are beginning a new project for the Company — Don Quixote.
Based on the famous novel Don Quixote de la Manchua by Miguel de Cervantes, the most famous and enduring version of the ballet was developed by Marius Petipa for the Moscow Ballet in 1869. The Johnsons are planning to premier this ballet in Olympia in May 2015.
“In the initial planning stage we like to think about projects that are fun to choreograph and interesting to watch. There are many famous ballets that are, frankly, boring. We like to consider what the Olympia audience will enjoy,’’ said Ken.
They estimate that this project, just like Swan Lake, will take a year to produce, and once again, it will take the community working together to make it happen.
“We chose Don Quixote because we like the Spanish energy and flair, the capes and castanets and the fact that it is very different from the other ballets that we have in our repertory. In addition, the music is fun and there are a lot of laughs,” explained Josie.
After choosing the ballet, Ken and Josie make adjustments to make it exciting for Olympia dancers and the audience. “Every ballet we produce is changed slightly to utilize the talent of the company. We rotate the ballet that we perform over Mother’s Day weekend, so usually each ballet will be staged once every four years,” added Ken.
Most of the dancers are from the Ballet Northwest Company, but often they’ll have guest dancers join a production. “We anticipate doing that for this show. We’ll have one or two male guest artists, as well as some non-dancing roles,” said Josie.
Once they have done their research and have a good grasp of the story line, they meet with set designers. They will share their vision for the ballet, and then the designers will come back a few weeks later with sketches and ideas.
The next step in the process is finding a space large enough to build the set. “We were lucky for the last few sets because Kaufman Construction & Development donated warehouse space,” said Josie. “We also utilize a lot of volunteers as well as theater professionals for the more complex parts of set creation.”
“Next, we think about costumes. For every ballet, we’ll go out to the warehouse and see what we can use from our existing costume inventory, but for Don Quixote we’ll need a lot of new designs, so we’ll turn to our costume and headpiece design team. Once the costume designs are approved, we’ll have work parties where volunteers bring their sewing machines and we’ll knock them out,” said Ken.
Typically, a ballet will cost $50,000 to produce, on average, and Don Quixote is no exception. “When we did Swan Lake four years ago, there was an outpouring of generosity from the community. For example, to create the costumes we had a ‘Tutu campaign’, and a lot of people donated $1,000 or more. In order to produce Don Quixote, we’ll have to do a lot of fundraising as well,” said Ken.
Ballet Northwest is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, governed by a volunteer board of directors who seek grants and donations and sponsorships to help make these ballets possible.
Ken and Josie have created a fundraising website to raise money to pay for production costs, in particular, the new costumes.
“Thurston County supports the arts, the kids and education. It is incredible that a community this size can bring productions like Don Quixote with great sets, incredible costumes and talented dancers to the Washington Center,” added Josie. “We are so lucky to have this venue. A lot of our dancers move on to college-level dance and only then realize what a gift they received while dancing in Olympia. We’ve had guest artists from all over the world perform here and they are continually blown away by the quality of our productions.”