The muscles in Gail Passey-Reed's back pulse and pop and ripple like a circuit board as she goes through her warm-up stretching routine, flexing her shoulders and arms and stretching her tortured calves on the barre, preparing for rehearsal of her last major dance role with Ballet Arizona.
This is the first full run-through for The Nutcracker, the traditional Christmas ballet set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Passey-Reed is dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And she looks like a fairy, pale and blond, 95 pounds of sinew stretched over a five-two frame.
The heat is cranked up in the big-mirrored room to help keep the dancers' leg muscles warm and loose, and consequently there's a locker-room musk in the air, the smell of hard physical exertion. The dancers mill about, 11 beautiful women in leotards, their hair pulled uniformly up into tight buns, four or five bulky-muscled men, all awaiting their entrances, then bounding out on cue.
From the safe remove of the auditorium, a ballet audience has only the illusion of effortless and sweatless grace. But in the rehearsal space, the dancers' feet thump surprisingly loudly; their brows and bodies are alarmingly sweaty. And as they go through their moves, their faces are frozen in carnival smiles, until they flow off the dance floor, and then they nearly collapse into gasps like sprinters crossing the tape.
Michael Uthoff, the company's artistic director, sits in suitcoat and sunglasses, back to the mirror, and in his deep Chilean accent he booms, "Glide, glide, glide."
These dancers spend seven- and eight-hour days training and rehearsing, six and sometimes seven days a week, seldom taking more than a 15-minute break to wolf down a bagel or some other fuel they can digest over the next several hours while they rehearse some more. Like trained animals, they work their bodies until they snap.
Passey-Reed stands to one side in a pearl-gray Danskin leotard and a sheer peach-colored skirt, pale and blond. Her partner, Miguel Castro, stands at her side; both are nursing serious leg injuries, and the role of the prince will be Castro's first since he had surgery last summer.
This will be Passey-Reed's last. After a lifetime of hard work and dedication--nearly 30 years of ballet training, 13 of them as a professional--after dancing countless performances in hundreds of roles, she is giving in to her pain and hanging up her toe shoes. Four years ago, at a rehearsal one Tuesday in February, she "went into a lift"; that is, her rehearsal partner lifted her from the floor in midstep, and she felt a curious but not-yet painful fwipp up the back of her leg as her left soleus muscle tore. She was out for four months, and even now, four years later, the leg is more painful than she can bear.
But not when she's dancing. Then, nothing else exists, not pain, not time, not life troubles.
"A circus performer will tell you every step of the way that what he is going to do will be really difficult," says Uthoff. "When you see gymnasts and ice skaters, they are all cute and smiley--until they do the trick, and then . . ." He clenches his fists and grimaces. "Where's the art form in that? We want to show you how effortless it is."
As Passey-Reed and Castro step onto the floor, there's no telling that either is in pain, twirling, leaping and, finally, as Tchaikovsky builds to a whooshing crescendo, Passey-Reed swoops upward, arched with a feline ecstasy, toe pointing at the ceiling, balanced at the small of her back on Castro's outstretched arm, both of them seduced by the fusion of music and motion.
Gail Passey-Reed is a journeyman performer. She is the dancer who never misses a rehearsal, who never throws a tantrum, who never turns prima ballerina into prima donna.
And perhaps consequently she has never been a star, but rather has been the seasoned veteran who always turns in the best and tightest performance she can.
Valley art critics in their reviews have taken her for granted, as if she would always be with the company. They refer to her "considerable stage experience," her "reliability" and "musicality," and her "longevity" in a company that was once wracked with artistic and political tempers. She is the only dancer at Ballet Arizona who has been there since its inception in 1986; in fact, she was there a year before three Valley ballet companies merged to become Ballet Arizona.
And just as the critics have relied on her for her high consistency, so have her fellow performers, and they rely on her as well for her egoless devotion and constant professionalism.
"Ballet is not the kind of job where you can call in sick," she says. "You can't do a pas de deux with one person; you can't have someone missing from the corps."
A fellow dancer, Bonnie Mayer, says that she and the other ballerinas depend on Passey-Reed for her metronome syncopation with the music.
"If you're dancing with Gail, whether it's two dancers or 16 dancers, Gail is always exactly with the music and you know exactly what she's going to do," Mayer says.
She is unflappable during performance. Once, she was performing a pas de deux with a male partner, and after a series of poetic twists and turns, he rolled her up on his shoulder, and as he did so, her leotard rolled to expose one of her breasts. But since her partner was holding both of her hands, she could do nothing about it but smile her impassive smile.
A French ballerina who was dancing with her whispered loudly, "Your teet ees out," and she whispered back, "I KNOW."
"He let go of my hand and I fixed myself as best I could," she remembers. Others say she incorporated the readjustment right into her usual graceful motions.
"Maybe if I were more well-endowed, I might have been upset," she says. "But half the audience, I'm sure, never noticed. It was funny."
And it became a company joke that whenever anyone goofed up during rehearsal, the other dancers would call, "Your teet ees out."
Her choreographers describe her as not so much the natural, the dancer who can immediately translate the notions in the director's imagination into movement on the dance floor, but rather the dancer who will try over and over until she gets it right.
"It never comes easily," she says. "You're always struggling with something and it's never as good as you want it to be. I like to think that what I lack in technique, I make up for in dancing from the heart. When I watch ballet, I can appreciate technique--but if I see someone who does a few less turns and their feet aren't quite as nice, but I really feel like they're dancing from the soul and giving, that to me is more beautiful."
Passey-Reed has surprised her colleagues in dancing modern works--Paul Taylor's Esplanade comes to mind, and a playful trio she danced to Patsy Cline's song "Walking in the Moonlight"--but she is best appreciated for the storybook roles in classical ballets: Coppelia, Cinderella and The Nutcracker.
Donald Dadey, a retired company dancer who now serves as assistant artistic director, says that if there were a children's pop-up book of Coppelia (in which he danced as Gail's partner), "Gail would be the first pop-up on the first page," because she can transform herself into a vision from a fairy tale.
Indeed, in tutu and tiara, she looks like the proverbial tiny turning ballerina on top of a child's music box.
When he arrived as director four years ago, Uthoff claims, he rescued Passey-Reed from the corps. Until then she would earn lead roles by default when another performer became ill or injured, and then dance the role as if it had been conceived for her and only her.
"I saw qualities in her," Uthoff remembers, "an elegance and a beauty that I certainly could use. But in fact she was already hurt.
"Here was a dancer who had all of the human qualities you would like in a dancer," he continues. "She is always there. She is extremely professional. She's totally committed and never misses. She works with pain, always has a kind word for somebody, always is watching others with awe."
Uthoff's only complaint with Passey-Reed is that he felt she should be more assertive.
"She's a consummate professional, but maybe sometimes she should have argued with me," he continues. "I would have liked to get a rise out of her to see whether there was more there or not. But what she was giving was good enough, so I had no need to pursue it."
To which Passey-Reed counters, "It's just not in my makeup and never will be."
Gail Passey-Reed was born in 1962, the oldest of three children, in Antioch, a small city near Oakland, California. Her mother is an artist; her father is a schoolteacher.
And though the daughter doesn't recall studying ballet until she was 13 years old, her mother, Pamela Passey, claims that when Gail was 5, she came home from seeing The Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet with her grandmother and announced that she wanted to be a ballerina.
Her parents dismissed the announcement as a typical little-girl's fantasy, and to indulge her, they enrolled her in a ballet class given by the local park district. A few years later, when the family moved to Danville, the lessons stopped because there were now other children and the parents needed to cut corners.
"That lasted about a month," Pamela Passey says, "but then we couldn't stand the pain on her little face," and they signed her up for more ballet lessons. By the time she was in sixth grade, she was taking class twice a week.
Gail Passey-Reed's first recollection of wanting to be a ballerina burns like an omen in her mind. She was 13 and attended a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the San Francisco Ballet.
"Linda Meyers and Vane Vest were dancing the leads," she says, "and there was one moment--the famous balcony scene--when Juliet's alone in her nightgown, and looking vulnerable. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, like this little sculpture, and I thought I would like to capture a moment like that."
After that revelation, Passey-Reed's ballet study started in earnest at the Contra Costa Ballet in Walnut Creek, California, studying under Donald Eryck, who has since died of AIDS.
"As soon as I got there, I knew I was in the right place," she says, and although she was older than most beginning serious students, Eryck assured her that she could learn as much dance as she wanted.
That was the beginning of a ballet dancer's austere and disciplined life.
Passey-Reed was never the victim of a ballet mom, a genre of stage parents who want their daughters to act out their own aspirations. She was self-inspired, and in fact, her parents worried about her obsessions with dance.
"Any sacrifices I made were my choices," she says now of missed proms and football games.
But the sacrifices may have been harder on her parents.
"She loved it so much that at times we worried she had blinders on," says Pamela Passey. "We wanted her to reach out and see other things."
Her parents worried also that she was a 13-year-old in the company of 18-year-old dancers. But by the time she was 15, they threw up their hands. And when they saw her dance her first lead role, they "were somewhat amazed at how good she was."
Young Gail attended class every day, and to help pay for her lessons, she worked in the school office and even cleaned dance studios. And she honed her work ethic.
"I worked hard for what I had to do," she remembers. "Sometimes I had friends who were taller and had better feet and longer legs, and I would think, 'She makes it look so easy and it comes so easily for her.' And maybe it didn't really, but in my eyes I felt like I had to work a little harder."
She worked hard enough that when she graduated from high school, while her schoolmates were packing off to college, she was auditioning for the school of the San Francisco Ballet.
As in a Nintendo video game, each higher level in the dance world has a crueler and more impossible set of challenges to be overcome; and if you make it through that level, the only reward is to be launched into a harder and even crueler level.
It is not enough to dance well. A ballerina who aspires to professionalism has to have a lot of luck, has to be willing to pack up and travel to where the jobs are. And on top of all that, she has to meet a physical aesthetic that demands an impossible shape and litheness.
In her first year in the San Francisco Ballet school, Passey-Reed realized two things. The first was that she was performing even less than when she was in high school, because the school students only participated in the annual Nutcracker and in a school recital. The second was that she was too short to be accepted into the main company and was consequently wasting her time by trying, regardless of her dance abilities.
"It's not something you can improve. That was a big frustration," she says.
And so Gail Passey transferred to the school of the Marin Ballet. She got a summer scholarship with the Boston Ballet. She auditioned in Atlanta and was again told that she was too short. Then, finally, in 1983, at age 21, she landed a job with the Baltimore Ballet.
That first gig was like being in the army. Because it was a fledgling company, the ballet corps did a lot of promotional lecture demonstrations at local schools, hoping to drum up an audience. They'd meet the bus at 5:30 in the morning and travel from school to school. And after each show, her small size notwithstanding, she'd help tear down the portable floor and load it onto the bus.
But the Baltimore Ballet folded after two years, and in 1985, Gail Passey moved to Arizona to dance with Ballet Arizona West. A year after that, Ballet Arizona West fused with two other local ballet companies and became Ballet Arizona.
Passey met her future husband Michael Reed in the company. He had danced for the Boston Ballet, for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal and for the Ballet de Monte Carlo in Monaco (where ballet dancers are well taken care of and where male dancers are not assumed to be gay. Gail enjoys recalling a school question-and-answer session when Michael Reed was asked why he wanted to be a ballet dancer. He answered, "Which would you rather do, spend your day lifting up scantily clad women or out on the football field with a bunch of guys, patting each other's butts?").
They dated for two years and then married in 1994. While they were both dancing and earning $18,000 salaries, they managed to sock away enough money for a down payment on a house and a honeymoon in Europe. Reed retired two years ago with his own significant injuries and unable to dance.
"When you're a dancer, you have to give it all to the profession, financially and in lifestyle," says Reed. "It's not a glorious job. I've had five operations: my ankles, my knees. I've had two hernias."
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.
"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.
When she sits down, she says that the fact of her retirement has not yet reached her.
"I don't think it will kick in until I'm watching it and I'm not part of it," she says, but she's fighting back tears nonetheless.
Passey-Reed can speak optimistically about the excitement of starting a new chapter in her life, but there is a sense of stage fright in her telling.
She witnessed her husband Michael's retirement and saw him go through a depressing withdrawal from the tight confines of the ballet-company community. The physicality of the art forces a closeness upon the dancers. They have touched each other everywhere, and so the boundaries from person to person tend to be less abrupt than between people working in an office. And you have to trust explicitly someone who is balancing you above the stage on one hand or catching you when you leap purposefully into space. Michael had missed the rush of performance, too.
In fact, Passey-Reed will probably dance minor roles in the spring to fulfill her year's contract, but she will not dance in lead roles.
And she expects that her transition will be less traumatic than her husband's because even if she will not dance next year, Ballet Arizona has asked her to stay on and work her way into an administrative role with the company. She will work full-time at jobs she's done on a part-time basis in past years. She orders shoes for the dancers, for example--each of the women goes through 60 or 70 pairs of custom-fitted pointe shoes per year, which eats up $65,000 of the company's budget. She works as the ballet school's secretary, overhauling the books, wiping runny noses, soothing bloody toes, and quieting disgruntled ballet moms in crisis. She sews and designs many of the company's headpieces and other costumes--in off-seasons she has worked in the wardrobe department of the Ice Capades.
But mostly she intends to be a mom. Her doctor has asked her to gain weight, and she realizes that it may take time to bring her body to a less physically strained point.
"Dancers tend to be thin, it's part of the look," she says. Light expands, and the harsh stage light adds pounds.
"I know that it'll be hard mentally, because for so long you strive for what you feel is perfection. Sometimes, unfortunately, it's a little distorted. At this age, at least, I'm able to admit to that, but when you're younger you don't see it that way."
Before she came for her morning meeting, Passey-Reed had sent off a package to her mother, and in it she had placed the shoes she wore for the last dance. She included a note thanking her parents for their patience and for the rides to class, and for helping her dream her dream.
In the last line she wrote, "You have my first pointe shoes in the hope chest. Here are my last Sugar Plum Fairy shoes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.