Longform

Last Dance

Page 5 of 7

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.

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Michael Kiefer