Richmond Ballet, All Rights Reserved.
It’s Nutcracker season again, only at our house it has been since September. This will be the second year my 8-year-old Ella will dance in the Richmond Ballet production. She was a mouse in Act One, and this year she’s a lamb in Act Two. For me, it’s huge—possibly even more so than for my daughter and definitely for the extended family. “Let’s see, what was she last year … a rock?” asks my dad. “No dad, she was a mouse, not a rock.” But they are both grey.
On opening night this year, just like last, I’ll be watching her on a TV monitor in the dressing room. “Why on earth are you backstage?” a friend asked. But, having seen the mouse corps file into the dressing room last year with the entire student cast congratulating them and the proud looks on all those faces underneath that crazy mouse headgear, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
The mouse costumes alone are worth a trip backstage. The outfit comprises a pink ankle-to-wrist unitard supporting a huge midsection that looks like it was stuffed full of something, but in fact the puffiness is ingeniously achieved through yards and yards of ruched tulle with a zipper buried in its bulk. I was told that Tamara Cobus was hired to make them as a freelance project for the Ballet and that her son helped her gather the acres of tulle they required. Now she is Costume Director at Richmond Ballet.
The mouse heads were made in London, and backstage they are guarded like the crown jewels because the Ballet hopes to get at least another decade out of them. The whole thing—huge pink ears, beady eyes and all—sits on top of the dancer’s head. Inside, a hidden baseball cap that the dancers pull their ponytails through is what holds it on their heads. A fabric hood hanging from the mouse head is tucked into the neckline of the costume, and the dancers’ faces pop out at about where the mouse’s neck would be. Standing upright, the mice look pretty strange, but onstage they are crouched over, so all they see is the floor. This goes a long way toward offsetting any chance of stage fright as they can’t even began to see the audience, which is probably a good thing as usually the mice are the youngest dancers in the production. This year, the mice got together and figured out they are only on stage for 58 seconds. That probably helps get the tiniest ones through it too.
Backstage, these costumes are most volunteers’ Waterloo. At a certain point in the first act (I think it is when Clara and Drosselmeyer are cracking nuts for the party children), everyone goes to work dressing the dozen mice. Getting those costumes on is positively an aerobic exercise—it takes two moms per mouse to wrestle them in, and you are literally sweating by the end of it. Frankly, everybody breathes a sigh of relief when they are done with and returned to their hangers for the next night’s cast. Then the mice head back to “Mouseland”—a circle of 12 folding chairs where they hang out, giggle and play cards. Then the volunteers turn their efforts toward dressing the angels, cooks, Mother Ginger’s children and the scores of other characters in the second act.
Last year, I received my allotted comp tickets for a performance and thought I would be happy with just that. In the end, I watched all of Ella’s except for one, including a Saturday night performance for which I bought my tickets so late from the box office window on Laurel Street that I ended up miles high in the Landmark Theater, watching from overhead. I could clearly make out Ella’s tape mark on the floor, and it was there throughout the performance even though she was only on stage for less than a minute.
I grew to love the First Act. The pas de deux by the Harlequin and Columbine dolls is possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever seen on stage. Seeing the male dancer do those leaps in shorts and leg warmers at rehearsal gives a better appreciation for the muscle and control they demand. And the closing waltz in the party scene, with every dancer on stage, perfectly in character—they nailed it at every performance.
As for the mice, my daughter was the one that turned around on the 7 o’clock chime. That was how we told people to look for her, but I knew her from her distinctive leaps. This year as a lamb, she’ll actually see the audience and they’ll see her.
She’ll also be out later this year because she is on stage all the way through the bows. It helps that she is a year older and more responsible, which also means she has an outside chance of arriving home with more than one ballet shoe in the bag. Last year, I retrieved shoes from every corner of the Landmark Theater, and once, the mouse corps coach, Kathie Reinhoel, found one in the gutter in the rain at night on busy Main Street. One pink legwarmer is still haunting the Landmark.
This year we move to the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage which is restored and looking gorgeous. I’ll be backstage and working the boutique, and occasionally in the audience watching my lamb on stage, and I can’t wait. The only downside? The probable introduction of a new trail of pink slippers and leg warmers into the Carpenter Theatre.