Chicagoans of the Year for Dance: Joffrey Ballet stage managers make the magic happen
Lauren Warnecke, Chicago Tribune
December 20, 2023
It’s been a banner year for the Joffrey Ballet. The 68-year-old ballet company, in residence at the Lyric Opera House, tackled its most ambitious season yet, presenting four huge, full-length narrative works — each with staggering production elements.
It takes a village to tend to the details that brought each of these shows to life, with two people bearing the ultimate responsibility for every light cue firing on time, every prop piece placed where it needs to be and every set change going off without a hitch.
“We definitely have been doing much bigger seasons of late,” said stage manager Mandy Heuermann, who joined the Joffrey in 2007. “Really, I feel like it’s been a constant build for a while, especially with the additional capabilities of the Lyric. We’ve taken on bigger shows than we’d previously been able to.”
“This has been coming,” said principal stage manager Katherine Selig, who began her 23rd season at Joffrey this fall. “We expect this to be our new norm.”
In February, Yuri Possokhov’s 2019 “Anna Karenina” returned, newly adapted for the Lyric Opera House, the company’s home venue since 2021. In April, John Neumeier’s “Little Mermaid” transformed the stage into an enchanting, underwater dreamscape. October brought the Chicago premiere of Liam Scarlett’s harrowing “Frankenstein.” And seven years after unveiling Christopher Wheeldon’s “Nutcracker,” Joffrey has continued tweaking and refining the lighting, costumes, projections, puppets and set pieces — all elements in a stunning, magical puzzle which runs for 25 days this month.
“It has been a beast,” Selig said of 2023. “After we finished ‘Nutcracker’ at the end of last season, we had three major productions we had to keep in our brains and prepare for.”
In addition to “Anna Karenina” and “Little Mermaid,” the company toured to Minneapolis early this year with Cathy Marston’s “Of Mice and Men” and George Balanchine’s “Serenade” (a replica of the company’s April 2022 mixed bill), plus a revival of Justin Peck’s “The Times are Racing,” which had been on the shelf since before the pandemic.
“We couldn’t only focus on one show,” Selig said. “We had to have all three productions in constant conversation. It was definitely a challenge. We had to preface our statements with what production we were talking about. Their needs were all very different.”
Keeping this pace — and garnering some of Joffrey’s highest attendance on record — evokes a mixture of pride, anxiety, gratification and exhaustion for Selig and Heuermann.
“One of the things I like the best about Joffrey is we get to do a lot of varied rep,” Heuermann said, “and we get to make some things from scratch. That takes the most work, but it’s a part of my job that I like, even when we’re really tired. Once I get into the nerdy nitty-gritty of editing the paperwork — I like doing that. I like making the show work.”
As principal stage manager, Selig primarily calls each show, instructing crew members operating the light and sound boards, working the fly rail and moving sets on and off stage. Heuermann typically “runs the deck,” ensuring dancers, props and other elements are in place, and troubleshooting anything that goes awry. The preshow announcement at every Joffrey performance? That’s also Heuermann.
“I can’t do my job without Mandy,” Selig said.
“I am a career assistant,” Heuermann said. “I’m very good at calling shows, but it’s not my favorite part. I like running the deck. I like solving those problems in the moment. If something goes wrong, my main goal is to try to fix it without Katherine having to deal with it or ideally even knowing about it.”
It’s a formula that fell into place more than 17 years ago when Selig scouted Heuermann for the job. A San Francisco native, Selig came to the Joffrey Ballet after a brief stint with San Francisco Ballet while still a student at the University of California, Berkeley. A year later, a position opened up with the Joffrey Ballet, and she took it.
“By that time, I had fallen in love with dance,” Selig said. “I felt really excited about the work. I knew I liked being around dancers and watching dance. I jumped at the opportunity — and that was 23 years ago.”
St. Louis native Heuermann arrived at a career in theatre almost by accident, “probably because I was responsible and good with computers,” she said.
After responding to an ad for crew members at the University of Michigan, Heuermann applied to major in theater design and production.
“The first thing I was assigned to do was run a light board for the dance concert,” Heuermann said. “That was the first time I ever saw dance. I immediately fell in love with it. I couldn’t believe those people were the same species as me.”
Heuermann bounced around for a few years — working at Jacob’s Pillow, the Goodman Theatre, Washington National Opera and Cincinnati Ballet — before landing at Joffrey.
“I took this job when I was 25, and I’m still here,” she said. “I stayed because I love dance and I love the rep we do.”
Selig and Heuermann admit their jobs aren’t for everyone. It takes a certain temperament and level of confidence that took time to build. And humility. Both say the Joffrey Ballet is stronger than ever. Neither will admit they’re a big reason why.
“When it comes time to run any show, you just have to be able to calm yourself, sit down, put on the headset and do the show,” Heuermann said. “If you think about it too closely, that would be nerve-wracking. But we also do a lot to prepare.”
“It’s not for everybody,” Selig said, admitting she still gets nervous before every opening night. “I’ve stayed because it continues to be challenging and interesting. The company I started working for in 2001 is not the same company I work for today. It’s exciting. And also, I love Mandy.”