I am not going to be a stage mother, I am not going to be a stage mother, I repeat as I accompany my 11-year-old daughter to her second professional audition. No ranting Mama Rose, calling, "Sing out, Louise," from the audience. Not me.
It was hard to miss the pink tights and the smell of hairspray on a recent Thursday when nearly 100 budding ballerinas gathered in the Kennedy Center Hall of Nations with their doting mothers -- and a few dads -- to try out for a coveted role in the children's corps de ballet of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," danced by the New York City Ballet beginning Wednesday. Another installment in the six-month Shakespeare in Washington festival, the ballet, featuring music by Felix Mendelssohn and the romantic interminglings of mortal and fairy lovers, has been a fixture in the company's repertory since George Balanchine created it in 1962.
Look at that guy over there. He brought a video camera! And he's narrating while his daughter tries to look away as if she never saw the guy before. That is so not me.
When ballet companies bring out their big guns (the Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" and American Ballet Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet" are two recent examples), they don't travel with a children's cast. Instead, a ballet mistress comes to town to select children. In less than three weeks, Garielle Whittle, New York City Ballet's children's ballet mistress, would need to audition, rehearse and make stage-ready a cast of 30 local 7- to 14-year-olds. The girl candidates (there are no boys' parts in "Dream") represent ballet schools from across the region.
Yikes. At least 50 people are already ahead of us. No matter how early I arrive, there's always a ballet mom who's earlier. But I didn't ask for this; my daughter did. I'm here with my reporter's pad and pen to do a story. I hand my daughter the completed form. "Go stand in line here to get your number," I instruct and leave her alone in the crowd of parents and children.
At no time during the audition process will Whittle know who my daughter is. In fact I will not even be present for her audition.
With laminated cards numbered 1 to 24 pinned to the fronts of their leotards, the first group of girls tramps up three flights backstage at the Opera House. In a nondescript cinder-block room, a battered piano stands silent in one corner. Whittle waits, posture perfect, a Diet Pepsi and yellow legal pad her only tools.
"Girls," she says, "I'm going to show you a few steps and then you'll practice them." Each auditioner performs the combination to the musical cadence of Whittle's voice calling out the steps. A few haven't mastered the footwork. The redhead bites her lip. A blonde has trouble figuring out her right from her left, but Whittle remains patient. Even the tiniest 6-year-old gets an opportunity to dance her little solo.
What secret code is Whittle jotting on her yellow pad? That one in the blue has flabby feet. Green skirt is uncertain of the step. The black camisole leotard has it: real grace, agility and a smile. Numbers 1, 5, 6, 15 -- I check off yeses in my mind.
"Girls, if I've called your number that means you can't go home," Whittle instructs numbers 1, 5, 6, 15, 21 and a half-dozen more. "I want to see you dance again." Then ever so gently she breaks the bad news to the rest: "I'm not going to be able to use you this year. You're not quite strong enough for this ballet. Go back to your studios, work really hard and come back next year." A few eyes moisten, but many, even the youngest dancers, return bravely to their parents.
Downstairs in the cold foyer the parents wait. Drink coffee. Compare ballet teachers and tendinitis symptoms. They collectively tense as each group returns. Some girls fall inconsolably into their mothers' arms. Others are jubilant.
Look at these parents on pins and needles. But wait, my daughter's not down here? She must be auditioning right now. A butterfly flits in my stomach. How will she do?
Diane Rogers from Vienna waits with her 10-year-old, Grace, a laminated number 76 pinned to her leotard. "It's a thrilling opportunity for her to be able to be around dancers of the New York City Ballet," says Rogers, who left work early at the Congressional Budget Office so her daughter, a student at the Reston Conservatory Ballet, could audition. "It's a big-time commitment," she acknowledges, referring to the 70 hours of rehearsal over just three weeks. "I think Grace is talented, and I hope someday she'll do this actively," her mom concludes.
The odds of a career in professional ballet? About the same as the odds of a career in the NBA.
Out of all the candidates, Whittle selects 30. She's looking for smaller girls because most play bugs in the forest. They need to dance very well: "It's hard, fast and a lot of dancing," she notes. "The girls are not supers," referring to the proverbial spear-carrier roles that typically involve standing onstage in costume. "They are a real corps de ballet."
Uh-oh. There's my girl putting on her jacket. I guess she didn't make it. It will be a tough ride home.
Walter Stahr, a lawyer and author from Vienna, accompanies 11-year-old Lydia. "She's very passionate about this," he says of his daughter. Last year Lydia won a role, and she's back for more. Her dad noticed her growing maturity after that experience, and this year he's willing to cancel a business trip to get her to rehearsals. "It's a chance not everyone gets to experience at a young age."
Seventh-grader Samara Green of Potomac is practically a pro. Her hair sleekly held in a bun, her lanky frame suggestive of the coveted ballerina physique, she reports that she has already danced with the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and choreographer Debbie Allen. She's 12. "I love it," she says about performing with professionals. Her friend Joanna Grimes, also 12 and from Potomac, recalls the two seasons she danced with the Joffrey: "I feel like I'm floating on a cloud; it's a beautiful experience, and I feel so important dancing on a big stage." But auditioning gives her butterflies, at least until she starts. Then, "someone takes over my body and dances."
"Go to your daughter. Be a mom," Joanna's mother, Cindy, says, when she sees me watching my daughter put on her jacket. "Ready to go?" I force my cheer. "No," my daughter says. "I'm in. She wants me back." I give my girl a hug. Suddenly I am a ballet mom.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Wednesday through March 4