Full-length ballets, such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Le Corsaire, La Bayadère, and The Nutcracker, are evocative productions involving large casts of dancers, with elaborate costumes, scenery, and lighting. Because of their scope, these works require additional stage personnel: supernumeraries, extras that appear in the background. Supers, as they are called, contribute to the stage picture, providing rich dimension and enlivened presence, key to ballet’s unique form of storytelling.
Iggy Berlin, one of the most experienced of American Ballet Theatre’s supers, brings special insight to ballets in which he has appeared, from Giselle to Whipped Cream. Born in Germany, Berlin says, “I feel as if I have always done it. I am from Osnabrück, near Hanover, in Lower Saxony, and I started acting as a child. Because there was a theater, I soon gained experience as a super in operas and musicals. Ballet came later when I studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne.”
After first auditioning for a part in ABT’s Giselle but not getting cast, Berlin was selected for Swan Lake. Since then, he has appeared in more than 20 ABT productions. He has also performed with The Royal Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet, and The Bolshoi Ballet during appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, including Rudolf Nureyev’s production of La Bayadère.
There is some truth in the notion that whoever fits the costume, gets the gig. Still, ABT’s Production Stage Manager Danielle Ventimiglia and her staff look for a range of height and ages when casting supers. A recent call for Don Quixote specified: males, age 16–mature, height 5'10" to 6'1"; females, age 16–mature, height 5'5" to 5'9" — “dance experience not required, but movement/acting experience is helpful.” At auditions, individuals are asked to step forward on the right foot, walk in a circle, kneel. They need to take direction quickly and move naturally. Children who appear in ballets – mice and toy soldiers in The Nutcracker, or the young swains who show off the pair of Russian wolf hounds in Giselle – are all considered supernumeraries.
Leslie Burgin, an accomplished super who came from the business world, was struck by the Company’s consummate professionalism. “No one yells or screams,” notes Burgin, “which might come as a surprise given the artistic stakes. Everyone is collegial, supportive.” During a Romeo and Juliet rehearsal in 1998, the late Georgina Parkinson, renowned ballet coach, approached a group of supers and offered suggestions on how best to wear a hat so that it remained both comfortable and secure. Burgin says, “We were humbled, but I felt sure Parkinson considered it part of her responsibility as an artist.”
What are the opportunities for stepping onto the boards? It depends on the ballet. Ventimiglia says, “When I joined the Company in 1995, Romeo and Juliet was, along with La Bayadère and Manon, one of the largest productions,” says Ventimiglia. “It required 65 supers. With The Sleeping Beauty, staged by Alexei Ratmansky in 2015, the number required grew to 120. That is, 120 supers,” Ventimiglia stresses.
Touring is part of ABT’s ethos. Supers are needed as much in Singapore as at the Met. In cities and destinations where the Company appears often, ABT has established a reserve of extras. Ventimiglia points out further, “On the road, we aim to reflect the communities in which we perform. We want supernumeraries to come from all backgrounds, represent all ethnicities. They are a means to build audiences. We send notices to acting schools, church choirs, as well as local dance companies.”
David Lyman, dance and entertainment critic of the Cincinnati Enquirer, was a dance student in Cincinnati when he appeared in Swan Lake during ABT’s 1968 Spring tour. In the first act festivities for Prince Siegfried’s birthday, Lyman turned a spit with a large pig. He says, “On stage, [former Principal Dancer] Ted Kivitt, who portrayed Benno, was irrepressible and chatty, remarking how delicious the pig looked. He encouraged me in my task, and even mimed taking a chunk from the artificial beast. That episode balanced the overwhelming impression of male dancing that he represented, and a standard that was rare in those days outside of cities such as New York.”
Because there was only one rehearsal, Lyman did not watch the show until the performance. He says, “During the second act, I was in the wings when I caught sight of something mesmerizing which remains vivid in my mind’s eye. The swans, in their tutus, a sea of white tulle, were bathed in blue light as they entered the stage. Such experiences recalibrate your sense of theater.”
Years later, artist Mark Ryden’s whimsical creations for Whipped Cream posed challenges for the supers. They also allowed for certain artistic license. Iggy Berlin, who appeared as the Pink Yak, an audience favorite, was as animated as a furry pink costume with a large head allowed. His hands controlled the blinking of the endearing, widely spaced eyes. During the parade of animals, he looked down through slits in the Yak’s cheeks to follow the colorful worm that slithered along the stage. “That worm was portrayed by a teenage student from the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School,” says Ventimiglia. “The character’s costume required upper arm strength and abs to push along on a skateboard-like contraption (invisible to the audience). His legs flicked the tail.”
For Berlin and others, ballet and opera offer comparable rewards. The work feeds a love of music. (Berlin has appeared in more than 70 different operas at the Met.) “They represent the core repertory, vital to us culturally,” says Berlin. “I am the tiniest piece, but even so, one becomes part of cultural history. I have been privileged to observe dancers who exude Giselle, her otherworldliness, spellbinding, mysterious.”
Berlin observes, “It might seem surprising, given the size of the Met, but if you are close to one of the Principal Dancers, what is striking is the intimacy. You are aware of every eyelash, every muscle, a ballerina’s grace and concentration in the ‘Rose Adagio,’ or the perspiration flying from a male dancer during a double tour en l’air. There is music from the pit, but the stage is eerily quiet. There is no huffing and puffing. You sense the rhythm of the dancers breathing, elemental and linked to the music’s pulse—and something bigger than all of us.”
Mario R. Mercado writes on dance, music, theater, and art.