by Cathy Corcoran
For four Christmases now, I've been sitting in the audience at the Wang Center watching my daughter dance in Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker.
The theater is beautiful. the production is beautiful, the dancing, the costumes - all beautiful. But every year it’s Colleen up on stage and me down in the audience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful - just once - to wear one of those gorgeous gowns? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to slather on exaggerated stage makeup? Wouldn't it be great to be up there in the lights just once?
You bet it would! Inside this carpool mom is a glamorous ballerina just dying to get out, so there this year when they asked if I wanted to be an extra in The Nutcracker for one night I jumped at the chance.
Figuratively, of course. I haven't done a grand jete since I left Alice Foley’s School of Dance in South Boston back in the sixties.
My daughter thought it was a cool idea. Bless her heart. We could even dance in the same performance. So one night last week I knocked on the stage door at the Wang Center, and this time they let me in.
The PR lady greets me and leads me through a maze of dingy basement corridors. Nothing looks glamorous from this angle. Skinny teenagers roam the dimly lit halls and stray children giggle over homework and card games. I caught a glimpse of a rehearsal studio but I didn't see any real ballerinas.
We make out way upstairs to the back of the stage for rehearsal and I meet the other special guests in the evening show, a TV entertainment reporter, a couple of professional soccer players, and several corporate bigwigs who give money to the ballet. We’re all going to be guests in the party scene in act one.
The stage manager introduces me to Sasha, a slender young man from Russia, who will be my escort on stage. I realize that the teenagers wandering the halls are actually professional dancers, real ballerinas. They look like the kids I see getting on the high school bus every morning. I start to feel old. And fat.
“Ready?” Sasha asks. He takes my arm and glides onto the stage. I attempt to glide with him. Beyond the orchestra pit, the theater is empty, dark. I blink as I always do at its baroque beauty. I remember that the Wang Center seats 3600 people. At least some of those people will be looking at me. I start to get a little nervous.
“Don't look out there,” Sasha says. “Think of the audience as a big black hole. You're having fun at the party up here on stage.”
We glide around, nodding and smiling at the other people in an exaggerated way. When Sasha bows to the party hostess, I feel little silly but I air-kiss her anyway. She is wearing Adidas sweatpants and looks like the daughter of a friend of mine.
Rehearsal over, I report to wardrobe, where I see more than 300 costumes hanging in rainbow rows of satin, velvet, taffeta and net. The wardrobe supervisor helps me step into a heavy petticoat. It feels like a quilted bedspread around my hips. It must weigh 15 pounds. She laces me up while I choose a gown, a rose colored brocade with a full skirt and lace trim at the neckline.
When I put it on I realize it doesn't really have a neckline at all. The top - what there is of it - hangs at a dangerous angle off my shoulders. The wardrobe mistress shows me the little flesh-colored elastic straps that will hopefully hold the thing up. She drapes a necklace of the fake diamonds around my neck, and selects a pair of dangling earrings from a big box. I do my makeup, and when I turn around to look in the big full length mirror, I barely recognized myself.
I must be out of my mind to think I can pull this off!
“You look beautiful,” the wardrobe mistress says. This gives me a shot of confidence.
I pose for pictures with my daughter, who's dressing with the other Nutcracker children backstage. Then I find myself a stool, and try to stay out of the way.
Backstage is bustling like the busy workplace that it is. The production employs a stage crew of 33, all of them doing something important. One wall is lined with ropes that go all the way up to the ceiling, 10 stories above us. The ropes are rigged on pulleys that move to the scenery up and down, back and forth. A technician arranges props on a long table, another sits at a bank of video monitors. “Cue light four,” he says into his headset.
I realize I'm hearing Tchaikovsky’s music through the heavy curtains. The performance has begun. Sasha appears at my elbow. He is drop-dead gorgeous in a blue velvet tailcoat and fake Edwardian sideburns. The music swells dramatically as Drosslemeyer, the mysterious godfather, swoops across the stage. I see my daughter, beautiful in her stage finery. She is calm. I am not.
“How long is the scene?” I ask Sasha.
“About 15 minutes,” he says.
I take a deep breath, and the bones of my bodice dig into my ribs. Fifteen minutes sounds like an eternity.
“Ready to go to the party?” Sasha asks, and we glide out into the light.
There are so many people onstage it really does look like a big fancy party with dozens of adults and children milling around. Sasha kisses the hostess’ hand. I smile and air-kiss her the way I did in rehearsal. She has transformed from the teenager I saw earlier to a glamorous ballerina in full makeup.
Sasha and I glide across the stage to grandma who I know is really a heavy set man, now dressed in a taffeta gown and ruffled cap.
“You’re doing just fine, dear,” she says.
Center stage, Drosslemeyer does something, and the audience laughs. I sneak a little peek. With all the stage lights, I see only the first few rows of people. Sasha was right. It really is like a big black hole out there.
Sasha? Where is Shasha? Before I can find him, grandma asks me to help her into her chair. I take her arm, enjoying the chance do something useful.
She grunts and groans and lands in the chair with a thud.
“Take it easy on the gin, Grandma,” I say, and she slaps me with her hanky. Oh this is fun!
In front of us, Colleen and the other girls do their dance. How lovely they are!
I was afraid I’d distract her on stage, but she never once looked at me. These kids are pros. I start to relax.
Just then, I hear a loud noise behind me. I turn around and look into the eyes of a woman wearing jeans and a headset. She stands backstage next to a bunch of 6 foot-tall mice waiting to go on in the next scene. I freeze, staring at them, my back to the stage. The woman waves her hand. “Turn around,” she hisses, and I turn as gracefully as I can back to the party.
Just then, Grandma rises to her feet, and Sasha appears from out of nowhere to take my arm. “This way,” he says, and we move off stage into the wings. It's over.
It’s over? So soon?
Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker continues its run of 50 performances through January 3 at the Wang Center Boston.
As for me? My 15 minutes of fame are over.