Christie Taylor - Boston Herald dance critic dances the Nutcracker

Role reversal

The Herald's dance critic joins the Boston Ballet onstage for a performance of `The Nutcracker'

20th December 1999




When the curtain went up at the Wang Theatre one night last week I found myself in a most unusual place. Instead of sitting in my seat, critic's notebook at hand, I was standing in the wings with dancers from the Boston Ballet, waiting for my big walk-on role in "The Nutcracker."

And while the dancers around me discussed how many "Nutcracker" performances were left this season (28 was the consensus), I counted the number of years since I'd set foot onstage in any "Nutcracker" (more than eight). Once the prologue was finished and my big moment arrived, I knew I needed to soak up every moment.

I'd been cast as a parent in the party scene, and had been given a rough sketch of my duties during dress rehearsal that afternoon, directed by Devon Carney, a former dancer now on the ballet's staff. He told me to act as if I were at a party, and when the other parents danced, to stay on the edge of the stage - and out of the way.

OK, no problem, I could do that.

That afternoon, Heather McLernon from the Ballet's wardrobe department and Linda Gravallese fitted me into a fluffy blue gown with black lace that hadn't been worn in six years. Whoever had worn it before me obviously monitored the number of cookies she ate, which was more than I could say, for when they pinned me into the dress and I exhaled, the safety pin went flying off. But they do work miracles in wardrobe. By the performance that night, my costume fit perfectly.

At 6:30, Jason Allen did my hair and makeup, and no one is more perfect for a job of putting bobby pins, wigs and lipstick onto frantic dancers. He talked to me as if we were friends, letting me in on a secret: He had been nervous when they told him a reporter was coming and he would need to do her hair and makeup. Apparently, he wasn't sure how much work would be facing him. Jason was a favorite with many members of the cast, including the junior-high school-age girls who were having "bad wig days" and were seated next to me, trying to pin on the headpieces that would transform them into boys, necessary because there were so few boys in the cast.

By 7:15, costumed and ready for my entrance, I found Piotr Ostaltsov, my escort for the evening. I felt like a nervous outsider at a formal affair, but the wonderfully funny Karla Kovatch, Tekla Kostek and Tatiana Jouravel earlier had introduced themselves to me in the dressing room, making easier my stepping onto a stage full of strangers.

Once we got out there, it turned out they weren't the only funny ones on the stage. From the audience's perspective, it looks as if the dancers' lips are moving silently in the party scene, but there are actually some hilarious conversations going on.

"Do you have two wives or are you just cheating on the first one?" someone asked Piotr as he escorted me and Yukari Yasui onto the stage, as Tchaikovsky's music rose from the orchestra pit. "This one is my wife, this one is my cousin," he said.

Clearly the cousin in the trio, I pretended to chastise the children and flirted with Drosselmeyer when the parents took the stage to dance. Brooke Kiser, the maid, passed me a wine glass and insisted I drink up. Soon the dancing bear entered, and in one of the best quips of the evening, someone cried, "Shoot him." A few minutes later, Piotr whisked me offstage so Clara could dance with her Nutcracker.

We made our last party entrance, and I joined the children I had met earlier at dress rehearsal. Not used to seeing an extra grownup at the party, they wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there. Smart kids.

Not sure whether they would begin charging at me with one of their toy guns, I wandered to a chair stage left, and stayed out of the way, just like Devon had instructed. In the loveliest of surprises near the end of the party scene, the grandfather sat beside me, then tried to pull me to my feet to dance.

"They said I'm supposed to dance with you," he said, and my first thought was that someone wanted me to have a good time at the party. I agreed, soon realizing the center of the stage was emptying and he was leading me toward it. My look of panic must have registered, because he sat me back down.

Only later did I find out that Gianni DiMarco was the grandfather, and he mistakenly thought I was a new company dancer. He apologized over and over, but I tried to thank him. Not only had he paid me a compliment by suggesting I actually blended in, but dancing with him (well, almost), when he was the stiff-legged, loopy grandfather, was also the most fun I had the whole night.

Back in the dressing room, after reluctantly returning my costume to Heather, the other members of the corps wanted to know how it went. Fun, I said, still reeling from the experience.

"How would you like to do it 58 more times?" they asked.

Sure, I said, it couldn't be that repetitious; my response elicited a mirror full of smiles and rolling eyes.

While they resumed gluing eyelashes, reading from a stack of magazines and exchanging secret Santa gifts to pass the time, I went back to the cold hallway and the stage door, and back to watching "The Nutcracker" from my seat, just like everyone else.

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