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Chicagoans of the Year in Dance: Joffrey Ballet stage managers

It’s been a year of raising the bar for the Joffrey Ballet. The 68-year-old ballet company at the Lyric Opera House delivered its most ambitious season yet, presenting four massive, full-length narrative works, each with astonishing production elements.

It takes a village to take care of the details that bring each of these shows to life; Two people bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring that every light signal is fired on time, every accessory piece is placed where it should be, and every set change occurs without warning. glitch

“We’ve definitely been doing much bigger seasons lately,” said stage manager Mandy Heuermann, who joined Joffrey in 2007. “I really feel like it’s been steadily improved for a while now, especially with Lyric’s additional talent. We’ve taken on bigger shows than we’ve ever been able to do before.”

“It’s coming,” said stage manager Katherine Selig, who begins her 23rd season at the Joffrey this fall. “We expect this to be our new norm.”

Yuri Possokhov’s 2019 in February “Anna Karenina” is backIt has just been adapted for the Lyric Opera House, the company’s main venue since 2021. In April, “The Little Mermaid” by John Neumeier transformed the scene into a fascinating underwater dreamscape. Premiered in Chicago in October Liam Scarlett’s heartbreaking “Frankenstein.” And seven years after its opening “The Nutcracker” by Christopher Wheeldon Joffrey continued to fine-tune and refine the lighting, costumes, projections, puppets and props, all the elements of a fascinating, magical puzzle that will last 25 days this month.

“It was a beast,” Selig said of 2023. “After finishing ‘The Nutcracker’ at the end of last season, we had three big productions to keep in mind and prepare for.”

The company toured Minneapolis earlier this year with “Anna Karenina” and “The Little Mermaid,” as well as Cathy Marston’s “Of Mice and Men” and George Balanchine’s “Serenade” (a replica of the company’s April 2022 mix bill). A revival of Justin Peck’s novel “The Times are Racing,” which has been on the shelf since before the pandemic.

“We couldn’t focus on just one show,” Selig said. “All three productions had to be in constant conversation. It was definitely a challenge. We had to write which production we were talking about in our descriptions. Their needs were very different from each other.”

Maintaining this tempo and delivering Joffrey’s highest involvement on record evokes a mixture of pride, anxiety, satisfaction and exhaustion for Selig and Heuermann.

“One of the things I love most about Joffrey is that we can do a wide variety of representations and make some things from scratch,” Heuermann said. This requires the most work, but it’s a part of my job that I love, even when we’re really tired. When I get into the nitty gritty of organizing paperwork – I love doing it. “I love that the show is successful.”

As the main stage manager, Selig primarily calls each show and instructs crew members on operating the lighting and soundboards, operating the fly rail, and moving sets on and off stage. Heuermann usually “leads the deck”; ensures dancers, props, and other elements are in place and troubleshoots anything that goes wrong. The pre-show announcement at every Joffrey show? This is also Heuermann.

“I couldn’t do my job without Mandy,” Selig said.

“I am a career assistant,” Heuermann said. “I’m very good at calling shows, but that’s not my favorite part. I love running on the deck. I like to solve these problems on the fly. If something goes wrong, my main goal is to try to fix it without Katherine having to deal with it, ideally without her knowing.”

It’s a formula put into practice more than 17 years ago when Selig called Heuermann for the job. A San Francisco native, Selig came to Joffrey Ballet after working briefly with the San Francisco Ballet while still a student at the University of California at Berkeley. A year later, a position opened up at the Joffrey Ballet and he accepted it.

“I fell in love with dance at that time,” Selig said. “I was really excited about the work. I knew I loved being around dancers and watching them dance. “I jumped at the opportunity and that was 23 years ago.”

Heuermann, a St. Louis native, came to his theater career almost by accident, he said, “probably because I was responsible and good with computers.”

Heuermann applied to the theater design and production department at the University of Michigan after responding to an ad for crew members.

“The first thing I was assigned was to manage the light board for the dance concert,” Heuermann said. “That was the first time I saw dance. I fell in love with it immediately. I couldn’t believe that these people were the same species as me.”

Heuermann worked for several years at Jacob’s Pillow, Goodman Theatre, Washington National Opera and Cincinnati Ballet before landing at Joffrey.

“I got this job when I was 25 and I’m still here,” he said. “I stayed because I love dancing and I love the performance we do.”

Selig and Heuermann admit that their work is not for everyone. It requires a certain temperament and level of confidence that takes time to build. And humility. Both say the Joffrey Ballet is stronger than ever. Neither of them will admit there’s a big reason why.

“When it comes time to run any show, you just need to be able to calm yourself down, sit down, put on the headset and do the show,” Heuermann said. “If you think about it too closely, it’s frustrating. But we’re also doing a lot to prepare.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Selig said, admitting he still gets nervous before every opening night. “I stayed because it remains challenging and interesting. The company I started working for in 2001 is not the same company I work for today. This is exciting. I also love Mandy.”

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

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