Last Dance

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

"With her personality, I think she'll be okay," Passey-Reed whispers. "Some girls cry. When dancers fall, they're up so fast you can blink and miss it."

But seconds later, the girl starts to mist over. Her lower lip begins to quiver, threatening her smile, and tears appear in the corners of her eyes.

"She's crying," Passey-Reed says.
There are several minutes left in the sequence; a moment later as the dancers meet in a circle near the back of the proscenium, one of the principal dancers flashes a big smile to the girl who fell, as if to say "it's no big deal," and the younger dancer melts into a smile of her own. Crisis averted. Composure maintained.

Then tonight's Sugar Plum Fairy, Yen-Li Chen-Zhang, begins her pas de deux with the handsome prince, who in reality is her husband, Qisheng Zhang. At this point, Passey-Reed was supposed to provide color commentary for this story, pointing out the difficulties and hardships of the dance. But instead, Passey-Reed seems to be struck dumb. Her face freezes into her dancing smile, her head starts to float with the music, and in spirit she is soaring and dancing with the woman onstage.

A week later at the closing matinee, Gail Passey-Reed prepares for her last performance in a leading role.

The last show of The Nutcracker is called "mad night," a tradition started by the New York City Ballet, and the dancers get to act out some of their playfulness to celebrate the end of the run. The Mouse King will dance his part on roller blades, for instance, and some of the fairies will wear clumsy clogs over their pointe shoes. The girl who fell has blackened her front teeth and she flashes a toothless smile to let the dancers backstage in on the secret.

Suddenly the cannon used in the battle between the tin soldiers and the mice goes off with a resounding bang, shattering everyone's nerves in the wings. A young boy, the son of a stagehand, ducks away suspiciously, and when his father comes scolding, several of the ballerinas fib and say he was nowhere near the cannon when it fired.

One of them says, "I did the same thing when I was little. I know how he feels."

Gail Passey-Reed is in the wings at the far side of the stage with her eyes closed in meditation, visualizing her upcoming performance, running her hands through the motions, thinking over corrections.

"When you're out there, the thinking is over," she says, "and you just dance."

She makes her entrance midway through the first act. The young girl Clara falls asleep and, moments later, when Drosselmeyer, the magical master of ceremonies, waves his cape, Clara is transformed into the beautiful ballerina.

Every time Passey-Reed makes this entrance, there is a communal gasp in the audience, because in addition to the striking image--the beautiful little sculpture she saw in Romeo and Juliet--there is a palpable presence that radiates out of her, tonight more than ever.

There is no live orchestra performing the score this year; the ballet company lost money last year and then lost a much-needed grant; cutting out the performance fees to the Phoenix Symphony this year was one of many belt-tightening strategies that Ballet Arizona had to employ.

"It feels live," Passey-Reed says of the orchestra performances. "You feel energy coming out of them, and the music is so beautiful that it can help motivate you."

Nonetheless, even with the pre-taped music, she is a beacon of energy.
Her husband Michael paces nervously backstage, looking close to tears. Gail was very emotional when he dropped her off, he says, and he's worried about her.

But he needn't be. She virtually flies through the grand pas de deux, and the solo that follows, which puts even more strain on her damaged leg. When she soars upward in the finale, the audience explodes.

After the last curtain call, at least a dozen of the children in the cast gather around her for hugs and autographs, and some of her co-dancers wait in line for their hugs and kind words as well. Some of them are crying, but Passey-Reed is as poised as ever, smiling brightly.

Then she walks back to her dressing room, and she weeps.
That night she will lie in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking fondly of the past and worrying about the future.

At exactly 10 o'clock the next morning, as if on cue, she arrives for a meeting at the Coffee Plantation on Camelback Road.

She is dressed conservatively but elegantly in a simple black skirt and sweater and black stockings. She wears big dark sunglasses, and her long blond hair is hanging down past her waist in a simple ponytail.

There is absolutely nothing flamboyant in her entrance, but she is still radiating presence from the night before. And she moves so gracefully that she inadvertently draws the gaze of every person sitting on the patio. Heads turn in unison and follow her as she walks.

She is pale and spent-looking; the sustained adrenaline of a two-week run has finally been allowed to ebb away.

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