Ernest (Ernie) Abugov will
retire at the end of this coming June, having served as Stage Manager of The
National Ballet of Canada since 1973. He has worked with every Artistic
Director in the company’s history from Celia Franca to Karen Kain and has
traveled with the company around the world touring to Israel, Asia, Europe,
Mexico and throughout North America. Mr. Abugov has also worked with many of
the world’s most renowned choreographers who have created original works for
the National Ballet including John Neumeier, William Forsythe and Glen Tetley.
Mr. Abugov was born in
Montréal, Québec. Before beginning his long association with the National
Ballet, he worked with Les Feux Follets, The Charlottetown Festival, La
Poudriere Theatre and The Studio Lab Theatre. He worked at Expo ’67 in
Montréal, stage managing over 4000 puppet shows. Mr. Abugov also toured briefly
with Harry Belafonte. In what little spare time that he has, Mr. Abugov
guest-lectures to theatre students.
Meet Ernie Abugov
What does a Stage Manager do?
Once the show is in the theatre, there are two people that make it happen – the conductor makes the music happen by directing/supervising the musicians in the pit, and the Stage Manager makes the show happen by directing/supervising the technicians and production staff backstage. Sometimes, the Stage Manager may have to even guide the performers, giving them cues if they need to make a blind entrance or if they need to get to a certain point on the stage for a specific time in the ballet.
Overwhelmingly what I’m doing is telling the stage hands not how to do their jobs but when they need to do the things that make the show happen.
In one sentence, the Stage Manager runs the show.
What part of your job do you like most/least?
The part I like the most is running and calling shows. The part I like the least is the long rehearsal process.
Ballet is a live art form, anything can happen on stage. Tell us some stories of when something did not go according to plan.
Let’s start with dancers falling into the orchestra pit. The worst one of all was when we had to stop a show at Art Park because Clinton Rothwell, partnering Veronica Tennant in La Fille mal gardée, picked her up on his shoulder and essentially walked her into a very deep (4 meter) Orchestra pit – and that marked the end of that show.
We performed The Sleeping Beauty at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan, New York many years ago, with Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Florimund. In the second act, there is a beautiful scene in which the Prince is on a boat with The Lilac Fairy and they move around the stage surrounded by dry ice, making it look very magical. The boat they’re on consists essentially of the guts of an electric golf cart and a technician dressed in black hunched down driving it across the stage. In the early days of The Sleeping Beauty the electronics were a little cruder, so on comes the boat and I’m calling the show when all of a sudden I hear click, click, click – have you ever tried to start a car and knew it wasn’t coming on? So I heard the noise and waited for the engine to start but nothing happened. Rudolf Nureyev was standing on the back and he gave me a look and pointed at the boat, confirming that it was broken. I had no choice but to ask two guys backstage to get on the stage and push the boat off – so out they went with the dry ice dissipating, people beginning to laugh, and as soon as they reached the boat, it took off.
You’ve been with the company since 1973, travelling the world on tour to Israel, Asia, Europe, Mexico, New York and throughout North America. How does the job change on tour?
My raison d’être and what I have to do doesn’t really change on tour. In places where language will be an issue I will try to learn critical words like: left, right, go, stop, etc. Good, professional veteran stage hands are quite amazing at their ability to perceive when they should be ready to do something, when they need to do it, etc.
Something to consider while on tour in a foreign country is the weather if we’re performing outside, and to adapt easily to different traditions. For example, we performed in Israel one year and it was so hot outside that the linoleum floor that we used could literally melt an object, so we had to remove it. Another example is when we were in Japan. We arrived to the theatre with the Wardrobe and were ready to unload it when we found their wardrobe staff waiting to do the job themselves – turns out in Japan the wardrobe staff unload costumes, not the stage crew. Also in Japan, after our first performance, the stage crew had learned all the cues meticulously, and were surprised that we even came to work the next day! They did not need us there after that first show.
Do you have a favourite National Ballet production?
I would have to say our Nutcracker because it’s enchanting, wondrous and timeless.