Some people train for decades to perform in “The Nutcracker” with The Washington Ballet. Other people practice for about 15 minutes before the show. Last week, I found myself in the latter category.
It all started in September, when I got an email from the ballet company’s public relations manager, Jessica Fredericks, asking if I’d like a walk-on role for one night of the show. Once she assured me I would not have to dance, I enthusiastically agreed. I’d never seen the company’s American-flavored version of “The Nutcracker,” which premiered in 2004. In my role as the Merry Widow, I’d get to see nearly half of the ballet from the best seat in the house: onstage.
A few weeks later, I met up with wardrobe supervisor Monica Leland to try on the Merry Widow costume, which consists of a Victorian-style corset top, two voluminous skirts and a bustle. Since I am about twice the size of your average ballerina, the top didn’t come close to fitting, so we decided I’d wear my own similar-looking blouse. Happily, the skirts fit — though only when left completely unzipped. As for the bustle, I argued that my well-endowed posterior did not need further padding, but Leland said I had to wear it anyway.
On my way out, Leland gave me a bunch of instructions that would probably be no big deal for most women, but for me they posed some difficulty: “Do you have dangly earrings?” (My ears aren’t even pierced.) “Wear some low, black heels.” (I only own flats.) “You’ll do your own makeup.” (I don’t have any of that either.) “Can you wear some less contemporary-looking glasses?” (No, sorry. But I do have contact lenses.)
I fretted that I just might not be Merry Widow material.
“Don’t worry,” Leland said. “We’ll make it work.”
Last Thursday was my big ballet debut. As instructed, I arrived at the Warner Theatre a mere hour before the show. Ballet master Michele Jimenez quickly walked me through my role, and it was a lot more involved than I’d expected. I had two different entrances, Jimenez explained. Plus, midway through the party scene, I’d take center stage, dab at my eyes as if in mourning, and then flirtatiously drop my handkerchief.
During my remaining time backstage, I mentally rehearsed my role while several people poured me into my costume, pinned a wad of fake hair to the back of my head and strapped me into borrowed heels.
“Have fun,” Fredericks said as the music began.
I glided to my assigned corner and tried to act like a relaxed party guest, but my heart was pounding. It wasn’t because I was onstage in front of hundreds of people. It was the ballerinas who had me terrified. I know they look light and ethereal from a distance, but these are powerful, muscular women. And when they start leaping and whirling around, they transform into dangerous, pointy-toed projectiles.
Suppressing the urge to take cover, I took the arm of dancer Brooklyn Mack, who was in character as a fellow party guest. He tried to chat with me — we’d been encouraged to engage in quiet banter onstage — but I was far too distracted to play along. “Where are you from?” he said. “Yes,” I answered, as a piano-sized toy box rolled past us. “Are you having fun?” he asked, as a half-dozen little girls rocked their baby dolls with drill-team precision. “Florida,” I said.
Suddenly, my big moment arrived. “Go,” Mack said, pushing me forward. I remembered the key elements and dabbed my eyes and dropped my hankie, which prompted the male dancers to fight amongst themselves to return it to me. It’s good they wrote that part in, because no way was I going to be able to pick it up myself in that ridiculous Victorian getup.
After my scene, I walked backstage into a tornado of activity. A herd of rats and soldiers rushed toward the stage and then parted to let a man pushing a huge prop staircase through. The man with the prop picked up momentum as he went down a ramp and nearly flattened a stray ballerina.
“That was almost a disaster,” Fredericks observed.
I found an empty dressing room, peeled off my costume and pulled approximately 2,000 bobby pins out of my hair. Then I took a seat in the audience for the rest of the show.
The second half of “The Nutcracker” turned out to be even more impressive than the first. It all takes place in protagonist Clara’s Christmas Eve dream, so there’s ample opportunity for fun and whimsy: A two-story clown wearing a circus tent like a dress births a half-dozen smaller dancing clowns; children dressed as bees caper around adorably; long-limbed ballerinas whirl like snowflakes; and — for the big finale — Clara lifts off in a hot air balloon while waving goodbye.
The Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” which runs through Dec. 24, is mesmerizing from every angle. Whether I was onstage, backstage or in the audience, I simply couldn’t take my eyes off of the splendid dancing, fanciful costumes and elaborate sets. My friends who bought tickets to see me agreed, though at least one of them wasn’t able to pick me out of the crowd. “Great actors disappear into their roles,” I crowed. “No, it wasn’t that,” she said. “It’s just, I’ve never seen you without your glasses. Or in makeup, or heels …”
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