Last Dance

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"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.

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Michael Kiefer