Some projects are harder to imagine than others. Transposing the Warner Bros. movie classic, Casablanca, into a full-length ballet is daunting enough, but the thought of premiering it in the 10,000-seat Great Hall of the People in Beijing is almost overwhelming. Director/choreographer John Clifford and designers Marc Rosenthal (lighting, projection, sound), John Iacovelli (sets), and A. Christina Giannini (costumes) did just that, and in the process overcame enormous cultural and technical difficulties.
More than just a movie classic, Casablanca is Warner Bros.' crown jewel and a perennial favorite since it won three Academy Awards in 1943 (Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay). Its unforgettable cast features Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), star-crossed lovers who meet again at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, where they relive the memories of a romantic fling in Paris. During WWII, Ilsa and her husband, Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), are running from the Nazis. The haunting song, “As Time Goes By,” is played again by Sam (of course) when Ilsa walks into the one gin joint in the world run by her former lover.
Warner Bros. has closely protected this story of political and romantic espionage. When Clifford suggested the project, his timing was impeccable. The movie giant now has a theatrical division and the idea of telling the story of Casablanca through dance must have appealed to Gregg Maday, executive vice-president of Warner Bros. Theater Ventures (Maday served as executive producer for the ballet). Permission was given, and the decision was made to debut the new ballet in China, where the players included Warner Bros/Time Warner Inc., the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), Clifford's Los Angeles Dance Theater, Condon Entertainment Ltd., and Personal Creations, Inc. (designer Marc Rosenthal's company).
“Two years ago there was a workshop of the first 25 minutes of the ballet,” explains Rosenthal, who wore two hats, that of general manager and that of designer. “At that point Warner Bros. agreed to move forward. They wanted an out of town tryout and sensed that China might be interested in something like this, followed by a tour to the Pacific Rim, Europe, and eventually the United States.”
The plan called for Casablanca to play in both Shanghai and Beijing last spring. “It became a very fast-track project. We didn't get the final go-ahead until December 2004 and opening night was set for April 18, 2005,” notes Rosenthal. “We agreed to the short deadline in order to perform at the Beijing Festival of the Arts and open the new Shanghai Oriental Arts Center in mid-April for six weeks.”
When Rosenthal made his first fact-finding trip to China, the theatre in Shanghai was still under construction but was assured that it would be ready in time. “I saw this as an incredible opportunity,” he says, undeterred by the challenges inherent in the project. “We were ambassadors of culture. I think this was the first time a Western production was built and premiered in China.”
In Beijing, Casablanca was to be performed in the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese center of government (with the top balcony closed off, leaving only 5,600 seats). “There is no loading dock, only doors that open stage right and stage left,” Rosenthal explains. “We had to build scenery that was both intended to tour and could get in through regular doors.” To complicate things even further, everything (even lunch) that came into the Great Hall had to go through an airport-style X-ray machine, which meant that every lighting fixture, for example, had to come out of its case. Even coils of feeder cable were uncoiled and passed through the machine, onto the stage and recoiled.
In spite of such logistical obstacles, Rosenthal was still psyched about this historical opportunity. “We felt we had time during the run in Shanghai to work out the kinks before moving to Beijing,” he says. But contract negotiations took longer than expected and the theatre in Shanghai was unable to furnish technical drawings and in the long run was never completed in time. “When we went back to China in February we discovered that the dates in Shanghai had fallen through and on top of it all, it was the Chinese New Year and everybody was taking time off,” Rosenthal notes. By this time, the producers had realized that the Chinese had their own expectations in terms of their involvement with Warner Bros., and the intricacies of bamboo diplomacy were getting more and more complicated. The Ministry of Culture finally refused to approve the project in Shanghai as the local partner did not have a license to present a Western company.
By this time, Rosenthal and the technical team had been seeking out a scenic shop that could handle the building of the sets in Beijing, while the costumes were being built in a series of shops all over the world. Rosenthal was also working on finding a Chinese company that could provide the lighting and sound equipment that was required. “We researched and identified vendors in China, as we needed lighting, audio, and rigging in both cities. We brought the projection equipment from the US,” reports Rosenthal.
In looking for lighting equipment, Rosenthal found lots of Chinese knockoffs as well as the real thing (at one shop some road cases looked promising. But he was told, “Ah, Clay Paky on outside, not Clay Paky on inside”). “I had found a company in Shanghai that could handle the lighting and sound, but the people in Beijing wanted me to use someone there who didn't really have the equipment I needed,” he says. To make a long part of the story a little shorter, Rosenthal ended up with a mixture of companies providing the gear, including lighting from Beijing Wenjing Xuan Culture Art Center and Beijing Color Lighting Creative Art Co. Ltd, and the audio and rigging provided by Engineering Impact Shanghai Ltd. The digital projection, show control, and special effects lighting equipment (UV) provided by Personal Creations. In addition, digital audio playback equipment was provided by Sound Productions, Inc. and Personal Creations.
The design concept echoed the black and white style of 1940s cinema, evoking the look of Casablanca, while not reproducing it exactly scene by scene. “Warner Bros. Gave us a CD with all the original movie stills, which were a great resource. We also read books about how the film was made,” says Marcy Rosenthal, who served as assistant general manager and worked on design elements as well.
In lighting the ballet, Marc Rosenthal looked at how the film was lit to help inform his choices. “It was very shadowy, with a lot of backlight and keylight from strong sources,” he says. “In the end, I designed more traditional dance lighting, partly as we were in a foreign country on a very limited time frame.”
One of Rosenthal's main concerns was the color temperature of the lighting: he wanted it to look cold, like film lighting, in the 5000-6000°K range for the entire show. “You watch film through a xenon lamp, which is a very cold, intuitive eye,” he explains. The choice of automated luminaires, including VARI*LITE VL1000s™ and VL3000s™ as well as Martin Professional MAC 2kW Wash lights and MAC Performance units, provided the crisp black and white look that Rosenthal wanted, rather than the warmer, almost sepia tones of tungsten lamps. The moving lights were rarely seen moving, but also were the best choice on a stage with a 35-37' trim height and severe time limits in terms of focusing fixtures. The show was programmed on a High End System's WholeHog® 2 console with 220V power. The programmer was Colin Dwyer, an Australian who lives in Shanghai.
ETC Source Fours®, gelled with Rosco 3404, were used as sidelight, as well as front light, with fixtures hung on goal posts set up in the top balcony (there was no balcony rail). “Up full, they mixed nicely with the moving lights,” Rosenthal notes. “The front of house throw was 170' so the fixtures were doubled to get enough brightness in the front light and fill in the shadows.”
Rosenthal also used mini-strip lights with high color temperature, or 3000°K, MR-16 lamps. By adding dichroric filters he boosted the temperature to 6000°K. “This way I could change an incandescent source to look cold enough,” he adds. Many of the practicals used on the set, for car and airplane headlights, and for a star curtain, used white, high-temperature LEDs that could be dimmed. Four 2kW followspots with arc sources blended with the overall color temperature.
The practicals include table lamps in Rick's Cafe. “John Clifford wanted the freedom to move the tables so that translated to wireless dimmer packs from Jim Smith's Soundsculpture,” adds Rosenthal. For these, he used 3200°K, 12V automotive headlight lamps coated with blue for a higher color temperature rather than LEDs. Palm trees were lit with MR-16s with dirchoic filters with wide beams to cover big palm fronds and cast shadows. “This was a better look than using gobos,” Rosenthal notes.
The costumes were primarily black and white as well, and to keep the dancers looking as if they were in a black and white film, their make up was in various shades of gray with very dark lipstick to give them a bit of color and not look like vampires. “We wanted them to look natural,” says Rosenthal.
The black and white look changes at the end of Act I, as Rick's cafe moves offstage for the flashback scene in Paris, and Rick and Ilsa reminisce about the past. “Street musicians come on in a single pool of light, still in black and white,” says Rosenthal. “As they start to sing, the light changes to a pool of surprise pink, blues, amber, and deep magenta to evoke a sunlit morning in Paris with bright, vibrant colors.” The costumes are now brightly colored as well, and as Rick and Ilsa dance a grand pas de deux, to the strains of “As Time Goes By,” the ambiance changes to a romantic summer night.
At this point, Rosenthal used UV fixtures to change the look of a day-to-night sky drop with clouds, and LED stars start to twinkle as the City of Light plunges into evening. “With the UV lights on, the moon and the stars glow,” he says.
Projections included the first few minutes of the film (WB's new high-def version), setting the scene for the ballet. “We chose a perforated Gerriets projection screen that works as a scrim,” Rosenthal says. “We slowed the film down as the camera tilts down into a Moroccan marketplace, we wanted the light to bleed through the film.” He also used projected “curtains,” as the main drape, with three 10kW Sanyo LCD projectors turned on their sides to create a seamless image 30'×60' across. The projectors were mounted on one scaffold (to avoid long cable runs) behind the tech table at the back of the house. “Real estate was very tight,” notes Rosenthal.
The “curtains” were designed by Marcy Rosenthal, based on a photo of a stage drape, treated in Adobe® Photoshop® and controlled for projection via Dataton's Watchout. “The curtains open as if they were real to reveal the WB logo and the film plays,” notes Rosenthal. “I made a Photoshop version of the title of the film 50' wide, and also in Chinese.” The original images as well as the digital files for the film were played back via Watchout and a high-def Mpeg2 player. “Watchout does the soft-edge feathering,” Rosenthal points out.
In mounting the show, the crew worked for 30 days straight, 16 hours a day. “Everybody was pushed to their limits but they rose to the occasion and made it happen, and I'd like to thank them all for their hard work,” says Rosenthal. “The project was highly stressful but exhilarating. And it was great to see Communist party leaders watching Casablanca and clapping their hands to the Marseillaise.”
Casablanca fit set designer John Iacovelli like a glove. He had designed the Casablanca room for the WB restaurant in Las Vegas and had started to work on a sci-fi version of The Nutcracker with Clifford (never happened) and had worked with Rosenthal at the Mark Taper Forum (all three are based in LA). “I met with them in a very noisy restaurant to talk about the project, then they called a year later and sent a synopsis,” says Iacovelli. In addition, Maday at WB was a big fan of Babylon 5, which Iacovelli also designed. “It all clicked,” he adds.
Iacovelli's first's take on the sets were watercolors, then metric drawings and metric models as the sets were to be built in China. “Performing a ballet in the Great Hall is like performing Spamalot in the White House,” he says laughingly. But that sums up the scope of the project. Fortunately, Iacovelli has a colleague in California by the name of Haibo Yu who studied scenic design in London but was born in Beijing. “He was the perfect associate designer for Casablanca,” says Iacovelli. His team also included Jared Peter in San Diego who did the metric AutoCAD drawings, and Eric Beauzay in San Francisco who built the metric models.
In China, Haibo Yu knew a scene shop called New View. “We liked their offices on the 22nd floor of a modern building, but their shop was in an abandoned iron factory with very dim light and dirt floors. The working conditions were terrible, and their welding was bad,” says Iacovelli. “This was a big show with six sets and 30 hanging pieces on a stage the size of the New York State Theatre.” To prove they could do the job, New View built and painted one large piece of the set overnight. “It was perfect,” Iacovelli adds. “We called it the Chinese miracle.”
With only three weeks to actually build the sets (including scrims flown in from Rose Brand) they rented another theatre, the Tianxiao, to set it all up and take photos, but the first complete run through with all the sets was opening night (there were only three performances in all). The Great Hall was built in 1959 and is not state-of-the-art in terms of technology, but with determination it all came together.
“The scene of the Moroccan marketplace looked exactly like the freeze frame from the film,” he adds, explaining that Casablanca was his first full-length ballet. “My ability to design this came from studying with Oliver Smith at NYU. He had done so much dance design, I knew what was needed. The fluidity of the scenes came from John Clifford. In designing for dance, you are only as good as your choreographer, and he understands scenery.”
The complicated set pieces were a huge staircase that breaks away in Rick's Cafe, the legs of the Eiffel Tower, and eight giant hedges used in front of an impressionistic backdrop with urns and cypress trees. “We had to cut the hanging pieces in half for Beijing,” says Iacovelli, who designed a large, Moroccan style portal in black and white to frame the entire show.
“For access to Rick's room above the cafe, the idea was to have the staircase turn around and sink down. In the US that would be an easy hydraulic sink but they couldn't really do it in China,” notes Iacovelli. Instead, the same staircase is used for up and down. When Rick's Cafe segues to the colorful Parisian flashback, the stairs break away as dancers dressed as waiters put the tables and chairs on wagons that roll out. The back wall flies out to reveal the day/night drop that had been painted by Richard Green's UV/FX company in Los Angeles. “The drop has a beautiful hilltop view of Sacre Cœur and the Moulin Rouge, and changes to a beautiful starry night,” says Iacovelli.
Act II returns to black and white with Rick's Cafe and the famous airplane hangar scene, set in fog as thick as pea soup. Iacovelli designed an airplane with an 18' long tail and a door for Ilsa. “There is a wonderful transition as the hangar door opens and you see the fog and the plane,” he says.
Casablanca was a huge hit in China, and there are plans to bring the production to the US (word is perhaps Denver in January 2006). “It looked terrific in the end,” says Iacovelli. “It was a wild ride and fun to do. I almost cried, the show was so good.” With the technical capabilities available to the production in the US, it should be even better the next time Rick and Ilse dance to the strains of “As Time Goes By.”
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR: Mark Cummings
MASTER CARPENTER: Rob Durham
HEAD AUDIO: Kevin Carey
ASSISTANT AUDIO: Joe Kassel
PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER/ASST. TD: Robert “Hondo” Bingham
STAGE MANAGER: Ben “Bender” Tuskes
MASTER ELECTRICIAN: Maura “Dragon Lady” McGuinness
ASSOCIATE MASTER ELECTRICIAN: Lily Bradford
PROJECTIONIST: Mark “Quin” Cabalquinto
STAGE TECHNICIAN: Ken “FOO” Meryman
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Emily Bowen
COMPANY MANAGER: Alan Hills