Real Life Dance: Tech Effect

On tour or at home, a technical rehearsal is the one chance to see how the lights, music, scenery and costumes will come together before the audience arrives. Ordinarily, there is plenty of work to be done, but imagine having to tech a program at an elevation of 8,000 feet during sporadic storms, on a stage that is not entirely sheltered from the rain and is surrounded by evergreen-clad peaks as far as the eye can see. Welcome to the Vail International Dance Festival.

Jim Leitner, now in his eighth year as technical director and lighting designer at the VIDF, plays a different, but always indispensable role at each show. “In the nine days of performances and rehearsals [at the festival], I worked some 150 hours,” he says, adding that some of those hours are more supervisory, while other times he is designing cues, loading in props, or up on the scaffolding replacing or refocusing lights. For the “Different Dimensions” program, which included Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, nandanse and Smuin Ballet on August 2, Leitner worked with three different companies that had three very different sets of technical needs. 

The tech for San Francisco–based Smuin Ballet was first that day. The company arrived with a lighting designer and stage manager, so to prepare Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon, Leitner turned his booth over to them, lingering in the background in case there were questions about the space or lights. Leitner is well aware that, for crew and performers, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater takes some getting used to. “It’s handsome, but it’s not very flexible: no wings, no flies, nothing to make the tech easier,” he says. 

One of the challenges particular to this space is the erratic weather. “This space gets so hot and so cold quickly,” he says, adding that the rapid temperature changes have a drastic impact on the floor, which expands and contracts with the weather. Pulling the floor taut at the beginning of the day, before the companies arrive to tech, usually prevents it from being an issue during the rehearsals. 

The day’s second technical rehearsal was with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, and it required a little more hands-on attention. Walsh brought only his technical director, so for his ballet, Katharsis, the festival’s stage manager called the cues and both Leitner and the company’s tech director made sure the piece ran without a hitch.

Lauri Stallings’ tech for her work for nandanse, Bacchus’ Vessel, proved the most demanding. In addition to having to finish setting light cues (an electrical storm the night before had derailed the process when it was only two-thirds complete), Stalling’s tech person didn’t show up. Leitner gave Stallings a crash course in calling light cues. “She would say, ‘cue 43,’ but then she didn’t say the magic word,” Leitner recalls. For the cue to be acted on, the crew has to hear the word “go.”

During the hour-and-a-half stage time that each company gets to tech, the dancers are also busy fine-tuning their use of the stage.

“There’s a huge adjustment, in that you’re pushed back by the space,” says Michael Levine, of nandanse, and also a member of The Joffrey Ballet. “You [always] have to find your leg and your center, [but] that’ s amplified in an outdoor space, because you’re competing with the environment around you, which is so much bigger. You feel that size, and you’ve got to create a larger scale. You’ve got to push yourself even more.”

Add to that the challenge of dancing at a high elevation. The festival has employees available to administer oxygen if necessary. Walsh chose to bring in his company early to deal with the thinner air. By the time tech rehearsal came around, the company had already been dancing in Vail for almost a week. “I wanted to make sure they were secure with the altitude,“ says Walsh. “A couple of them were sick the first night, so I’m glad that we got that out of the way.”

Difficulties aside, the sheer beauty of the setting may be another distraction, but it’s a pleasant one. “I love dancing out here,” says Lisa Keskitalo of nandanse and a former member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “You’re onstage and if you get a moment, you can just look and see these majestic mountains. [Being here] gives you some nice perspective on what you’ re doing and why you’ re doing it.”


Cari Cunningham is currently pursuing an MFA in dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is the dance critic for The Daily Camera.

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