Theatre stories always take on mythic proportions. As the National Ballet of Canada's The Nutcracker is performed in its new Toronto home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, let's look back at some of the legendary Hummingbird Centre mishaps, a fun part of the National Ballet's rich history.
The No. 1 spectacular catastrophe, everyone agrees, occurred during a performance of The Merry Widow and involved the passionate love duet between Caroline Richardson's Valencienne and Peter Ottmann's Camille.
A bit of lace had come loose from Richardson's under-dress, and just before the pas de deux, Ottmann tried to pull it off. He only made it longer. During the course of the dance, the couple's entwined partnering kept tugging on the lace, making it unravel even more until they were encased in metres and metres of material, and Richardson's under-dress was barely a loincloth. The two dancers executed every step, however.
So singular was this event that stage manager Ernie Abugov made a backstage announcement, which is how the entire company ended up in the wings watching the bizarre scene unfold. At the end of the dance, Valencienne and Camille disappear into the pavilion at the back of the stage for their assignation, and the last sight of Ottmann was the dancer furiously pulling the piles of wayward lace through the door.
The audience gave the couple a standing ovation.
The first pairing of Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn happened by accident in 1971 in Romeo and Juliet, and their debut as partners was less than successful.
Kain's regular Romeo, Hazaros Surmeyan, sprained his ankle, and Augustyn was pulled from the corps to perform opposite Kain's Juliet. They rehearsed eight hours a day for a week and barely had a run-through before the performance. In the bedroom pas de deux, there is a point when Romeo and Juliet, in their angst at parting, run in dramatic, parallel diagonals.
Unfortunately, Kain and Augustyn, propelled by passion, collided into each other and ended up on a heap on the floor, arms and feet flaying wildly. The Globe's reviewer wrote that Kain was too much of a woman for newcomer Augustyn. Kain still remembers that comment and says, in something of an understatement, "It was the beginning of a rather good partnership, I think."
The next year, the couple won a gold medal at the Moscow International Ballet Competition for best pas de deux.
Rebekah Rimsay has become known as an improviser with good reason. There was the time that she was a member of the lead couple in the Czardas divertissement in Erik Bruhn's Swan Lake. When her partner failed to show up, she made up steps for her impromptu solo while the rest of the Czardas dancers desperately tried to compensate in their placement. Her courageous solo turn earned another Abugov announcement that rallied the company to the wings.
Rimsay's debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy in James Kudelka's The Nutcracker is another case in point. When Sonia Rodriguez fell ill just before she had to go on, Rimsay got tapped to do the role. "I had created a Sugar Plum [Fairy]solo based on Celia Franca's old Nutcracker that I used to perform in Newfoundland as a guest artist," she says. "They cut the pas de deux, and I did this different, patchwork choreography. Then William Marrié and I rehearsed backstage so we could dance the coda together. It was one of those adrenalin-pumping moments."
A great technical disaster occurred during a performance of Coppélia. The set had a false proscenium that recreated the whimsical, rococo architecture of Germany's Black Forest. To everyone's horror, as the O'Keefe curtain rose, it got caught on the metal of the proscenium arch and literally ripped in two. The act was ended with a blackout so the dancers could get off the stage.
During the intermission, former National dancer Natalia Butko, now part of the O'Keefe backstage staff, managed to patch the curtain together with her sewing machine. But the theatre had to buy a new and very expensive curtain.
And then there were the problems with the orchestra pit. The orchestra finally rebelled against the abuse they had to put up with and refused to play if they were not protected from the dancers and props.
That is why there is a lip or netting that covers the orchestra pit. For example, during performances of La fille mal gardée, errant haystacks were known to cascade into the pit. And there was the time that former principal dancer Martine Lamy, then a corps member, fell into the orchestra in her Gingerbread costume, fork and spoon included, during Celia Franca's Nutcracker. The spongy foam of the costume saved her and the musicians she landed on from serious harm.
My all-time favourite anecdote comes from Victoria Bertram. Over the years, Bertram moved through the ranks in Romeo and Juliet, performing a citizen on the bridge, then a peasant, then a noble lady, and finally, in 1980, she was given the plum role of Juliet's Nurse.
In the original Jurgen Rose design of Romeo and Juliet, there was a flat representing a table at the back of the stage behind which Lord and Lady Capulet and the Nurse sat during the ball scene. Bertram's colleagues at her first performance as the Nurse were National Ballet founder Celia Franca as Lady Capulet and Charles Kirby as her husband. Much to Bertram's surprise, Franca reached under her chair and pulled out a flask of scotch, which she and Kirby companionably sipped while the audience was transfixed with Romeo and Juliet.
Bertram was offered a nip and pretended to drink. This became standard procedure whenever Franca performed the role. How the flask got there, Bertram never discovered.
The Nutcracker continues at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre through Dec. 30.