The red-jacketed ushers gather in the theater's crowded wings, trying to avoid the stage hands and managers and the dancers who collapse to the floor as they exit the stage. But when the final notes sound and the audience applauds, they move into position, straighten their shoulders and step into the spotlight.
In the world of classical ballet, the presentation of flowers to the lead ballerinas is a carefully choreographed ritual, one steeped in tradition and rules, and perfected by decades of practice. It's also a study in contrasts, as ushers with no stage experience must walk across the stage to meet the most graceful of performers at center stage.
What could go wrong?
"I'm thinking I don't want to fall. Every time I've done it, I've covered that thought in my mind," said Jason Miller of Temple Hills, Md., an usher for nine years.
"I walk differently. I try to stand tall, shoulders back," said Alexandria resident Peter Ancona, an 11-year veteran. "Then once you deliver the flowers it feels like you're almost running."
"You have to make sure she has a hold of it. If she doesn't and she drops it, it's a disaster," said Louis Simmons, who lives in Washington and has worked as an usher for 9 years.
It's a privilege to be part of the gracious gesture, the men say, but it's also nerve-racking. Don't trip. Don't drop the flowers. Don't walk too fast. Don't walk too slow.
Don't mess up.
"Aww," said Tiler Peck, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet upon hearing of their anxiety. "I'm surprised every time they bring it out to me. I feel grateful to do what I love, be where I am, be able to share the stage with the other dancers."
The tradition of thanking ballerinas with flowers began in Europe some 100 years ago and is part of ballet's "culture of appreciation," said Meg Booth, the Kennedy Center's director of dance programming. The leading female dancers, as well as female soloists and dancers making their debut in the roles, are presented with bouquets as the audience cheers. The flowers are given after the first performance of the run, although dancers appearing for the first time on subsequent nights also receive flowers.
The tradition is cherished by those onstage.
"It was the first time I felt like a ballerina, part of the tradition that's passed along, part of a group of artists, amazing ballerinas, that have come before you," Peck said, recalling the emotion of the first time she received a bouquet. "It was a big deal."
The Kennedy Center works with dance troupes to determine the flowers needed for each performance. The bouquets are usually roses, and often red. The Kennedy Center pays Sefika Kurt at A Little Shop of Flowers to create arrangements that are sturdy enough to be held in one arm as dancers take their bows. Each company has its own rules about which dancers receive flowers, Booth said. The rules of Russian dance are strict, while other companies take a more relaxed approach.
"We've had smaller contemporary companies making their Kennedy Center debut, and only six people were onstage so we'll give flowers to every person," she said.
Kennedy Center house managers recruit presenters from the ranks of ushers charged with helping disabled patrons. There is no audition, just a willingness to participate. These ushers aren't stationed in the theater during performances and thus are free to slip backstage before the end of the dance.
The ushers don't know until they arrive who will be part of the curtain call. And they don't learn how many bouquets they'll present or to which dancers until they get backstage. It can be a bit haphazard. "They'll say 'It's the young lady in the purple,' " Ancona said. "We don't necessarily watch the show, so we really have no idea what costumes we're looking for."
The presentation changes with every performance. An usher may present one bouquet before exiting to the opposite side of the stage, or he might pivot and return to the wings to retrieve another bouquet for another dancer. Sometimes they carry multiple bouquets in one trip.
"The only nervousness is when we get back there," Ancona said. "The dancers are coming and going, and if it's 'The Nutcracker,' you have hundreds, and you're thinking 'When am I going to get the instruction? It's getting late. When am I going to hear?' And then you realize they have it under control. You just have to stay out of the way."
The stage managers' directions aren't always accurate. Dancers might not be where the stage manager says, or the audience reaction might surprise. The ushers adjust.
"There are times when the audience is giving an overwhelming reaction and the dancer is enjoying the applause and you say 'I better slow down because I'm not going to walk in the middle of their curtsy or bow," Ancona said. "So you slow down, usually it's the male partner who will give you a glance, (saying) you can come now."
Some rules always apply. Show the flowers to the audience, and don't turn your back to them when going back for another bouquet. "You want the exchange to happen and be successful," explained Simmons. "Then you move yourself out of there so she is in the spotlight."
Some principals and soloists will pull a stem from the bouquet to give to their male partners. Ushers must present these bouquets in such a way that the ballerina can easily spot the loose flower, which is often tagged with a ribbon.
This is Peck's favorite part of the ritual. "I love being able to give a partner a rose, it's like my favorite moment, and it's something to cherish," Peck said. "When you're dancing it's a partnership. I feel so much love and admiration for the person I'm dancing with."
When she performed at the Kennedy Center in June, Peck was featured in "Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes," a work choreographed by NYCB soloist Justin Peck (no relation). The pair danced the work's duet for the first time, and at the curtain call the ballerina thanked her dance partner and friend.
"To see his face, somebody who has been my friend for a very long, and he said after that he had never been given one of those before. He was so touched," she said. "It was so special to dance his ballet with him. It felt like something I won't forget."
The presentation forces the ushers to step into the spotlight but somehow remain invisible.
"We're not supposed to be noticed. The flowers are more important," Ancona said. "People are focused on the flowers and the dancers, not you."
But many in the audience appreciate their effort. "Sometimes I'll go back and someone will say, "That was you onstage. You did an excellent job," Louis said.
"It's surprising the number of people who will comment, you did a nice job. Regular audience members that you have never interacted with," Ancona added.
Occasionally the flower presentation becomes part of the performance. Ancona was tapped for opening night of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male troupe that performs classical works. "I was told they have planned a certain type of reaction and not to be surprised, to just go with it," Ancona said. "I thought they were going to jump into my arms or give me a hug, but they just feigned surprise. I had to stay a little longer." He shrugged. "You just go with the flow."
Simmons recalled a night when the gratitude extended beyond a single performance. He presented a bouquet to principal ballerina Misty Copeland when she performed with American Ballet Theatre.
"She said thank you, and I think everybody heard her," Simmons said. "That blew me out of the water. It was probably one of the most important situations I've been involved in."
Each of the men estimates he has presented bouquets a few dozen times in the years they've worked as ushers, not often enough for it to become routine.
"I feel honored to be a part of it, honoring those individuals who have pushed the limits. To give them praise for a job well done," Simmons said.
Peck said the dancers are genuinely grateful. "It's a very real moment, sometimes I don't know where to put them, I want to hold my partners' hand, or they're in my face," she said, adding that she keeps them in her dressing room for the run of performances. "You only have two hands. That's where it gets a little awkward."
For Miller, the presentation is an opportunity to represent the Kennedy Center and Washington's dance audiences. "It's a great privilege," he said. "We get the opportunity to play host and say this is what you get when you dance well in our house."
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