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A large makeshift tub is being assembled on Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theater stage and more than a dozen stagehands are crawling on their hands and knees arranging rubber tubing inside it.

Stage manager Nicoletta Arlia, a six-year veteran of the Whitman theater, walks by with droplets of sweat on her nose. Who knew making an ice rink could be such heated work?

Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts is doing the seemingly impossible. Despite a jam-packed slate of performances at the Whitman Theater, the performing arts production company, also known as BCBC, has devoted 600 man-hours - in one weekend - to create an awe-inspiring spectacle, "The Nutcracker On Ice," as performed by the St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet.

The 45-year-old stage has seen its share of wear and tear, explains lighting director Steve Bailey, a repository of 21 years of Whitman Theater stories. This stage is used not only for BCBC’s variety of shows - ranging from Jewish Klezmer music to Broadway shows, but also by Brooklyn College for its functions, by 10 dance schools for their recitals and by 35 high schools and junior high schools who hold their graduation ceremonies there.

The 2,400-seat theater is, however, a professional performance space and the sixth largest in New York City, according to Bailey.

Despite being so heavily trafficked, each year for the past five years BCBC has taken two full days out of the theater’s schedule to work around the clock and put the stage to the ultimate test - transforming it into a skating rink in just 29 hours.


Beat the clock

On Saturday, Nov. 24 at 8 am, the theater crew rolls up their sleeves and gets to work to create a 38-foot by 41-foot ice rink for the 34-member Russian ensemble of skaters. The show will be - if all goes smoothly - performed on 5 tons of ice.

There were initial concerns about whether or not the stage would support the weight of the ice, explains Bailey, but their calculations predicted an optimistic outcome.

The stage is being prepped to serve as a gigantic ice cube tray. The theater staff, and ice company contractor IDM Silver, construct a tub for the ice out of sheets of plastic with a low wall around the outside. This is then placed on top of a layer of Styrofoam, which insulates the ice from any heat from the stage.

Green tarps are then spread over the plastic. This triple layer ensures that the storeroom beneath the stage, containing expensive grand pianos, is kept safe from dripping water, according to 17-year Whitman vet Chet Green, who notes that the team has learned from experience - and occasionally the inexperience - of other contractors.

Canvas fire hoses are hooked up to a "chiller" in the parking lot behind Walt Whitman Hall. The 24-foot truck is one large refrigeration unit, cooling a glycol-water solution and pushing it through large fire hoses and into small flexible, plastic tubing.

The process "requires an enormous amount of electricity," explains Bailey. "This is a production on a big scale, using the equivalent of 250 refrigerators, pulling about 700 amps - compared to a refrigerator, which pulls 2 to 3 amps."

The tubing is rolled out onto the tarps on giant, waist-high wooden spools. The workers show strain as they unspool it over the tarps, and push the tubes flat, and snap on spacers to keep the tubes evenly apart.

The laying of this groundwork is a carefully orchestrated - and timed - endeavor, as it must be completed before the finely chopped bags of ice arrive. If the enormous bags of ice arrive too early, they begin to melt and harden into blocks, which require more manual labor to break apart.

The 11,000 pounds of bagged ice arrive late, and the race is on. The more time the crew can make up here, the more time they have to make the ice floor. The more time they have, the thicker and safer the ice will be.

The bags of chopped ice are hauled into the tub, opened and poured around the tubing. This is the foundation for the ice rink, as gravel is the foundation for a driveway, explains Bailey.

Except, instead of tar, the ice is watered down. When it freezes, workers with giant metal rakes - minus the teeth - smooth out the bumps on the ice like human Zamboni machines. And then another layer of water is sprayed over the ice. After it freezes, the new layer is scraped flat. This process happens over and over throughout the afternoon and evening until the company’s warm-ups Sunday morning.


Put to the test

With skaters leaping four and five feet high, making an ice floor is a serious business. Bumpy, brittle ice is not an option. But that doesn’t mean the crew doesn’t have a sense of humor. Green confesses that in past years they’ve placed plastic fish in the ice to surprise the skaters.

When the figure skaters do put their blades to the ice, they are ideally gliding across ice that is at least 4-inches thick, says Bailey. If the ice is too thin, the skaters could slice open a tube of glycol with their skates - sending the anti-freeze spraying out across the ice. It’s happened before, says Bailey.

The ice floor also has to be chilled to the precise temperature. Too cold and it could become brittle, cracking into hundreds of pieces when one of the figure skaters leaps upon it.

The ice becomes a proving ground Sunday morning, and the company skates, leaps and spins on what seems to be perfect ice. They move on and off the ice via carpeted ramps that take them into the wings. The ramps get a lot of use as there are a multitude of costume changes; the company travels with a wardrobe of 150 costumes - including powdered wigs and tutu confections.


On to the show

This lavish production of "The Nutcracker" also includes several scenes with falling snow, made by an actual snow machine, explains Arlia. (Anything else, such as paper or plastic, would get in the way of the ice skates.)

"The kids love it," says Arlia. "Back here, you can hear their reactions."

This production was choreographed by former Kirov Ballet principal dancer Konstantin Rassadin. The show, performed twice on Sunday, Nov. 25 because of the demand for tickets, made the most of every inch of the ice, squeezing up to 18 skaters at a time who performed a unique, athletic combination of classical ballet and figure skating.

Julie Pareles, producing director for BCBC, notes that "The Nutcracker" ticket prices ($22 to $25) were kept affordable despite the cost of mounting the production.

"The technical costs are considerable," admits Pareles. "It costs us $10,000 just to put ice on the stage, and more for the performers." BCBC doesn’t charge more for their tickets to these shows, she said, because "we want to make shows affordable for Brooklynites. That’s our mission and our goal - to attract as many people as possible."

Pareles is planning to bring "The Nutcracker on Ice" back next year, too, "pending funding."


Breaking it down

It may be a delicate operation to construct the ice rink, but taking it apart is another story.

After the shows, the ice temperature is lowered to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, says Bailey, and the crew breaks the ice apart with sledgehammers. The breakdown process takes hours of labor, too, depending on the type of tubing used.

The ice is hauled into the backyard of the theater where it lingers for weeks until it melts away.

"The most amazing thing," said Bailey, "is Sunday night - to see the ice floor gone and to say, ’There was an ice show here five hours ago.’"

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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