Last Dance

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.