Four-legged footwork: Former Chicago dancers rotate as reindeer Sven in 'Frozen'
Most actors don't anticipate adding the role of a reindeer to their resume.
But that's what happened to two performers in the national tour of Disney's "Frozen," now at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre through Jan. 22.
Broadway veteran Collin Baja and former ballet dancer Evan Strand trade off in the role of Sven, the stalwart reindeer sidekick to the ice merchant Kristoff. It's a cartoon-to-stage role that is expressed through costuming and movement, so it's no surprise that Strand and Baja both have dance backgrounds -- including stints in Chicago dance companies.
Before he switched to acting, Strand's professional dance career included a season with Giordano Dance Chicago in the 2000s. And Baja said he joined Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2008, but left after less than a month when he was cast as a horse in a Broadway revival of "Equus" starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.
"I joke with my family that half my resume is animals," said Baja, before adding "there's nothing similar to Sven."
Unlike the hit play "War Horse," which requires three performers to bring the equine puppet of Joey to life, Sven is an all-in-one reindeer outfit co-created by puppet master Michael Curry and costume designer Christopher Oram.
As Sven, Strand and Baja have to assume a diagonal plank-like position with specially designed hoofed stilts on each limb; they operate the front legs with their arms and the back with their legs. They perform with the majority of their weight pitched to their upper bodies, and they manipulate a wire pulley system from their hand grips to control Sven's blinking eyes and attentive ears.
Both Strand and Baja credit physical movement coordinator Lorenzo Pisoni for helping them through rehearsals to embody Sven.
"(Pisoni) was our gateway," Strand said. "We learned how to properly lay down, or to scratch your back hind leg or to pull back your ears when you hear something -- particularly in that moment when (snowman) Olaf is introduced -- we hear it first because of our animal instincts."
Because the role is so rigorous (and since the costume weighs about 50 pounds), Baja and Strand rotate playing Sven for four performances out of each eight-show week. They typically do two shows in a row, but never twice on the same day.
"They're very diligent and responsible," Baja said. "We have enough recovery time to go to our brilliant physical therapist, as well as have time off for our bodies to recover while we do our own routines at the gym."
And during the show, some accommodations are made for the Svens while they're offstage in costumes. Stools for Sven are at each side of the stage, and there is a special carriage with a hook that helps to relieve some of the weight of the puppet head off the performers.
"I think relaxation is a strong word to use," laughed Baja. "We have moments where we can have partial relief -- take a drink of water, wipe your brow -- that's about it."
Despite the difficulties of being Sven, it is worth it for both Baja and Strand.
"Being hidden behind this giant beast of a costume, we still have so much expression available and so much interaction with the audience," Strand said. "It's something to marvel at."
"It's really exciting to be part of what is 'The Disney Magic,'" Baja said. "People walk away saying, 'How in the heck was that done?'"
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday (also Jan. 15); through Jan. 22
Tickets: $59.50-$130.50; $166.50 VIP package seating; $25 digital daily lottery