It was 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon when I had the presence of mind to text my dance partner, Rachel Hatfield, “What time were we supposed to be at the Clay Center?”
I knew I had to be at the dress rehearsal for Charleston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” I just didn’t know when.
The message came back: 5:30.
First, I said a choice word, and then I texted that word back to her.
There was no way I was going to make it. Vacation for me started in a couple of days. I was buried up to my neck in work; I was on assignment at a bar; and I still had to pick up a kid, get him home, make sure he was fed and find the correct pair of pants.
Rachel texted me a picture of the schedule, which was the first time I had seen it. They had probably been handed out during the rehearsal I missed.
It had never occurred to me ask about when I needed to be where.
Rachel then texted that she would let Charleston Ballet director Kim Pauley know I’d be late. If she was mad, she was mad, I thought. There wasn’t anything I could do about it now — and then I just flew through the rest of the next hour of wrapping up, putting away, picking up, dropping off and turning around, nearly running to get to the men’s dressing room deep inside the Clay Center.
But when I got there, everyone was sitting around, calm and relaxed. Nobody was in costume yet. Ted Brightwell, Charleston’s best-known drag performer, who typically plays Mother Ginger/Grandmother in the annual show, wasn’t even going to try.
“We had a show this morning,” he said. “I’m not putting everything on again.”
That could wait until tomorrow, when the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra showed up. Ted was the picture of calm. He wasn’t worried, so I took a breath and relaxed.
Back for more
I hadn’t expected to return to “The Nutcracker,” either as a dancer or as a subject for “One Month at a Time.”
“The Nutcracker” had been year one’s Christmas season adventure. Over the course of a month, I learned to perform two sequences during the first act of the ballet. I was one of several party guests and posted near the back, which probably kept me from making a mess of things.
It had been a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
After it was all over, Kim invited me to come back, which I imagined was her just being polite.
I hadn’t been a fantastic dancer — and, barely able to squeeze into the frilly white shirt and the long black coat of my costume, I’d resembled an ape.
Kim could do better, I was certain.
But a year later, she asked me if I wanted to do the show again.
At the time I declined because I was still very new with the Kanawha Kordsmen. I’d already signed up for a bunch of holiday performances and felt like I needed to be there with them.
I sent my apologies and regrets and thought, “Well, there went that.”
Except, it didn’t.
In October, Kim asked again if I’d rejoin the cast and reprise my role as Male Party Guest No. 7, the married father of two, and I said, “Yes.”
Didn’t we do this already?
Writing about the ballet again took longer to get to. I didn’t see the point. I had other things to do for December — and hadn’t I already covered this?
Yes and no.
With all of the little monthlong adventures I’ve had over the last couple of years, I’ve wondered how much of what I’ve learned has been retained. Could I still come up with five minutes of comedy for a stand-up routine? Do I still know how to hold a pistol? Would I be able to forage for roots and leaves?
Because I struggled with it, returning to ballet seemed like a good way to test my retention. My first couple of rehearsals were rocky.
Learning, unlearning, relearning
At my first night at Charleston Ballet’s studio, from halfway across the room, yelling above the din, Kim asked, “Is it coming back?”
Standing next to the dancer filling in for my partner, I smiled and shrugged. Sure, everything was fine.
Except I’d forgotten there was a second dance.
“Are you OK?” she asked me, as I struggled to keep up.
“I’ve got all this on my phone,” I told her. “My old phone — at the house.”
Two years ago, I recorded a video of two dancers performing the steps. I watched it repeatedly. I practiced the steps in my living room in front of the dogs and at the laundromat in front of the dryers.
I changed phones a couple of months ago, though I still have the old one in a drawer somewhere.
“I can watch the videos again,” I promised. “I’ll get better.”
The dancer smiled sympathetically and said, “Sure.”
At home, I recharged the old phone and then went through the video files. There weren’t any video files, though. There were just a few pictures stored — most of them of my dog, Penny, staring at me unhappily.
“Oh,” I said.
So much for doing homework.
At my second rehearsal, I wasn’t much better, but I did get another video recorded, which I eventually shared with Rachel.
As the weeks rolled by, I didn’t really relearn so much as just remember and adapt what I did know. There were more party guests on stage, more everything it seemed like, and getting into position was harder.
Even trying to get that first dance step in the waltz was throwing off our timing. We lagged behind everyone else. Eventually, we edited a movement out so we could synchronize with the rest of the group.
We got progressively better.
Minor sprain, minor problem
By the third week of rehearsals, I injured my knee dropping down to pet my dog. I walked with a limp until I started icing the knee at night and began wearing a compression sleeve during the day.
I stopped going to the gym or even walking up steps out of fear of aggravating the injury and ending up on crutches.
Slowly, the knee improved. My limp faded, though I kept wearing the sleeve.
A week before the show, we received our costumes. I drew the same black coat and white shirt I’d been given last time.
I recognized it because of the embarrassing elastic strip the company seamstress had attached to the front of the coat. Two years ago, I hadn’t been able to close the coat. I was too fat.
The strip didn’t close the coat either, but it at least kept the two halves from flapping.
I pulled the shirt over my T-shirt and tried on the coat.
“How’s that feel?” Kim asked.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Look. It closes.”
She smiled and said, “You look like you’re down a size from last time.”
I grinned. Maybe more than a size.
Jokingly, I asked about a hat. One of the other party guests got a hat last time. If he got one, I ought to have one, I said.
Eyes rolling, Kim said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
The first dress rehearsal at the Clay Center was really about getting used to the space, getting comfortable. The Clay Center stage was larger than Charleston’s Ballet’s studio. We ran through our scene and worked on our dance with the recorded music and everything was fine — or as fine as it had been up until then.
I didn’t quite have all the steps down for the first dance and wasn’t quite ending up where I needed to be at the end of the second dance.
Everything changed during the dress rehearsal with the symphony.
I can’t say what happened. It might have been the live music. The symphony played faster than the canned music, which meant we all had to get in position quicker.
Rachel and I began to hit our marks better. Somehow, I started to remember my left foot from my right. I stopped screwing up.
After that rehearsal, while talking to Frank Mace, one of the new dancers in the party scene, I told him that the extra speed seemed to help me.
“I don’t have time to think too much, and that works for me,” I said.
My head often gets in the way.
Of course, it might have just been the hat. Kim dug up two and gave one to me.
How it went
Both shows sold out and went off without a hitch — at least, as far as I could tell.
Backstage, it was again fascinating to watch the young ballet performers do their work and to see how Kim shepherded the show from start to finish. It was all a whir of little girls running from place to place, shucking costumes, slipping into others and lining up for another scene.
By the end of it, as we were posing together for photos with our phones, I felt closer to my castmates this time around. Probably because I didn’t start out writing about them — wasn’t deliberately studying them — I got to know them better. I wasn’t as much of an outsider.
Conversations were casual and more free. Offstage, we talked about superhero TV shows, the decline of pop music, our beverage preferences (a couple of beer drinkers, a few whiskey fans and at least two teetotalers) and the trouble with growing facial hair.
Most of us only spoke in passing about our jobs.
Onstage, during our scene, we said silly things to each other in passing, trying to get a smile or a little laugh.
We were all glad to be there.
Finally, our time in the spotlight was over. Rachel and I collected our pretend children one last time and walked them across and off the stage, where they trotted off to change into bunny costumes.
Rachel and I went our separate ways. Her husband was waiting for her somewhere. I needed to go buy groceries, and we both needed to turn in our costumes.
I tried to say thanks, but I don’t know if she heard me. Rachel went her way, while I hung around backstage to watch the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers. Then I went upstairs to change back into my street clothes and say goodbye.
On my way out, somebody said, “See you in about a year.”
“See you in about a year,” I agreed.