Wolf Trap: Performance, Up Close and Personal

St. Petersburg’s Kirov ballet performs Swan Lake

For the uninitiated, the term “Wolf Trap” likely inspires visions of fur trappers, wintery wilderness and small, cozy cabins. For anyone familiar with the Wolf Trap of Fairfax County, Virginia, however, the name evokes something quite different. The only national park for the performing arts in the United States, Wolf Trap is a “unique marriage of arts and nature” (https://www.wolftrap.org/about.aspx) that has played host to performers from Elvis Costello to the classic improv troupe Second City (https://www.wolftrap.org/calendar.aspx). A 117-acre campus, only 30 minutes from the University of Maryland College Park, Wolf Trap, like every other venue, has had to close due to covid, canceling all live performances until 2021. Luckily, Special Collections is home to recordings of “On Stage at Wolf Trap”, a behind-the-scenes show that features some of the park’s most famous musical and cabaret performances. Rather than underscoring the loss of live performances, these recordings, full of archival images and interviews with performers, offer a depth of access typically only available to ticket holders with the best seats. Combine that with the technical and contextual information provided and you’ve got yourself a real-deal cultural experience, pandemic-style. 

One of the best parts of seeing live performance is the sense of immediacy and intimacy – the feeling that anything can happen. Watching the National Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich on my screen at home takes that sensation of proximity to a new level – in On Stage at Wolf Trap: Rostropovich Conducts Shostakovich (episode 102), we see close-ups of the conductors face, zero in on the musician’s hands, see the wiggling eyebrows of the woodwinds section, and admire the lace edge on the sleeve of the harp player. After so many months without live music or the feeling of camaraderie that performances bring, this footage is balm for my music-starved self. The same goes for Great Performances at Wolf Trap, episode 139, which features a Dizzy Gillespie performance from 1987. We see Gillespie, dapper in a salmon jacket, sing and start a call and response with the audience during setup; it’s like being present for a studio recording session. 

Image shows four men playing horn instruments. Gillespie is on the left, wearing a salmon blazer and playing his bent trumpet. The other men play a trumpet, a saxophone and a trombone.
Gillespie in pink, with his signature bent trumpet.

Beyond feeding our appetite for live performance, On Stage at Wolf Trap gives viewers a peek behind the scenes, rounding out the music with insider’s info on how the shows get made. In the Shostakovich episode, for example, we watch the assembly of the stage, a process that takes six people a full two hours. The ceiling, made from three massive pieces of douglas fir that each weigh 1,200lbs, sits on top of 24 sections of wall, each 30 feet tall and weighing 3,000lbs. The construction of the stage is a feat of engineering, and one that remains unseen to most attendants at a Wolf Trap performance. Another backstage look, this one of the legendary Soviet Kirov ballet company, is offered by Weeknight Alive!, a Maryland Public Television series focusing on the arts. Hosts Brian Whitley and Michael Joyce take viewers behind the scenes to show how the live performance, shown simultaneously on 273 public television stations, was successfully made. Seven camera operators choreograph their work alongside 100 dancers, and the episode offers some serious technological throwbacks, made all the more impressive when we realize that this 1987 performance was done decades before the era of the drone. The final product, the first time the Kirov ballet had performed in the United States in 25 years, is available in our digitized archival collections here

A female dancer in costume makes a series of small, short jumps backstage. She wears pink toe shoes and a dress with a white, romantic tutu skirt and a blue bodice.
A dancer warms up backstage

So while you’re transporting yourself to this beautiful Virginia site, imagining the fresh air and buzzing energy that accompanies live performance, be sure to check out a few more gems from the collection:

Next up, join us for a little virtual nature break with an episode of Nature’s Trail, another treat from MPT.


Emily Moore is a second-year MLIS student with a background in art and theory. In addition to her role as a student assistant at Special Collections and University Archives, she works as the Archival Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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