Last Dance

At 34, Arizona Ballet's Gail Passey-Reed is hanging up her toe shoes

His wife jokes that she soon may have to turn in their futon for a real bed because of the difficulty her 32-year-old husband has getting up from the mat each morning, snapping and cracking, and straightening up for the next few minutes as if he were acting out a chart on the evolution of man.

The two never danced together as partners because she is five-two to his six-four. But once, when she played Cinderella, he played one of her ugly stepsisters.

In a Ballet Arizona brochure, there is a striking, albeit nonhistorical, photo of the two together, posing as Romeo and Juliet, he bare-chested and noble, holding the inert body of his dead lover, she wrapped in a crimson cloak, toes pointed oh so perfectly, her long blond hair falling almost to the floor.

It's a fitting image; Romeo and Juliet, after all, is the ballet that made Gail Passey-Reed want so badly to be a ballerina.

Ballerina nightmares: Where most of us dream that we are walking around downtown in our underwear, a ballerina dreams that the curtain is going up, and the white lights are hitting her face and she's wearing the wrong shoes, that her hair is falling out of the bun that took so long to wrap, that she's got a four-count and an impending cue and her mind's gone blank.

Or that her body breaks down and refuses to carry her through the run of the performance. And for a trouper like Gail Passey-Reed, that might be the most chilling nightmare of all. As this year's Nutcracker opening loomed large, it was with her every day.

The show was set to open in Tucson before it ran in Phoenix.
"After the dress rehearsal in Tucson, I went back to the dressing room thinking I wasn't going to be able to do opening night, and maybe I'd be lucky to do the Phoenix show," Passey-Reed says.

Michael Uthoff's system as artistic director is to rotate several sets of dancers through each role over the course of a long run for ballets such as The Nutcracker, partly to give them a rest and partly to further the development of younger dancers. Passey-Reed was to dance the lead for the opening and closing in Phoenix and several performances in between. On nights she was not dancing as Sugar Plum Fairy, she would dance lesser roles.

But when Uthoff saw her hobbling in Tucson, he decided to relieve her of her corps duty and use her only for those shows in which she was to be lead.

"You don't want to end your career like that," he told her.
Later, Uthoff told New Times, "She doesn't even show [the pain] as much as I think it is. It's not worth it. It's not like she's getting $30 million like some athlete."

Passey-Reed rallied. Her opening in Phoenix garnered her the most gushing review she'd had; the Arizona Republic described her as "exquisitely musical . . . , shaping phrases with intelligence and grace, producing sparkle in the Sugar Plum solo."

But now, days later, on a night when she's not dancing, Passey-Reed moves graciously backstage among the child dancers--there are 80 or so among the various casts. They sidle up to her for hugs. Maybe they like her, she says, self-effacingly, because she is not so much bigger than they are.

As dancers fidget, Michael Uthoff holds forth on the low technology of live theater.

He pulls on a piece of scenery set on wheels, pulls at the flats hung on ropes and pulleys and says, "If you are computer literate, you have more magic than we have."

Then he picks up a costume lying on a table, a green velvet and pink taffeta bodice attached to a puffy tutu skirt. He grabs the costume by the waist as if there were a ballerina inside and points out how hard it is to hold onto.

"No handles," he quips.
When the male dancer is gripping the tutu and the ballerina in this fashion, he goes on to explain, he can't ever see her feet because of the puffy skirt. Then Uthoff lifts the costume up on one shoulder, comically giving himself a face full of tutu.

"It's hard to look princely with this on your head," he announces with mock seriousness.

As the overture starts, some dancers stand nervously in the wings, others hip-hop to the opening bars or make bawdy faces at each other. Those dancers who have late entrances slip around wearing flannel shirts and leggings and bedroom slippers over the delicate costumes. The women waddle into the wings with the flat-footed walk forced on them by their pointe shoes--then they go up en pointe and float gracefully out into the white light.

Early into the second act, Passey-Reed sits behind a curtain in the wings, just a foot away from being visible to the audience. Onstage a corps of dancers wearing tutus like the ones that Uthoff was playing with earlier prances through a Nutcracker scene. Suddenly the woman dancing closest to Passey-Reed slips and lands on her face with a loud slap. And then in an instant she is back on her feet as if nothing happened.

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