The Big Moment 

Opening night of "The Nutcracker" (and one dance critic's debut.)

Walking into the Landmark Theater one evening a few days before opening night of "The Nutcracker," I find the stage set with the "party scene" drop curtains, and rows of "flowers" (Richmond Ballet trainees and apprentices) standing onstage for a costume check. Children sit quietly in some prime orchestra seats, under the supervision of artistic associate Judy Jacob. Company members have gathered to one side of the stage and stretch, sew shoes or talk quietly.

The blacks and whites of the dancers' rehearsal clothes look odd against the candy colors of the scenery, just as the huge theater, dim and empty, contrasts with the crowded, brightly-lit stage. What a gorgeously strange, expectant place an empty theater is, with whispers running through the corners, and glimmers of light catching the curtain, the gilt trim of the walls, or here at what we once called The Mosque, a camel's solemn eye above the stage.

Having moved sets, props and costumes from their Canal Street building to the Landmark, the Ballet is now comfortably ensconced for the duration of the show's run. Performers have been assigned dressing rooms on either side of the stage: men to stage right, women to stage left. The children are herded into one large room at stage level, where they change in and out of costumes and are diligently supervised by chaperones.

I, with my 30-seconds-of-fame role, have not been assigned a dressing room, but I am a squatter, of sorts, in the room shared by my teacher, Susan Israel Massey (who plays the Grandmother), Katherine Smothers (who plays the Mother, Mrs. Silverhaus, although I never see her because she performs on different nights than I), and Katherine Gansman (who dances the Sugar Plum Fairy with Igor Antonov as her Cavalier on the nights I'm there).

Racks of tutus stand on the landing outside the dressing rooms.

Massey has taken me under her wing. When I showed up for dress rehearsal with what I thought was a lot of makeup on, she asked if I was planning to do makeup; when I looked at her in dismay, she decided to help me out. "More blush" was her primary injunction. And there, in the hot, bright little dressing room on opening night I got painted up brighter than I ever had before for a performance.

Opening night reveals many a "Nutcracker" ritual among the cast veterans. Gansman has made cookies and passes them around in little bags. Massey gives me a pair of earrings made by apprentice Angela Hutto, and I am truly touched. Dancers keep creeping around the backstage staircases with bags of gifts, like lithe elves in dressing gowns and legwarmers. "Merde," everyone says to each other in passing, which, in the tradition of New York City Ballet, is what dancers say instead of "break a leg."

The crew is mopping the stage; the orchestra is warming up in a lovely cacophony which echoes through the dressing rooms on the speakers that keep performers aware of the progress of the show. In the costume shop, Massey and I have donned our costumes: my bonnet, bustle and cloak, and her spectacular purple dress, pearls, and wig with ostrich feathers floating above. We make a charming pair loitering in the hallway. Massey keeps watch for a friend who is bringing her 3-year old daughter to the stage door to say hello before the show. When they arrive, breathless and just in time, Massey leans out the door to greet a very little girl, standing in her party dress, who gazes up at her with open mouth and wide, almost-startled eyes, absolutely awe-struck. When was the last time you felt like that?

At last we are called to the stage. For the opening stroll across stage, Michael Forrest-Johnson joins me as my swain in an overcoat and muffler, and I take his arm. The audience hushes and the orchestra begins the overture. Gazing down the long, dim tunnel between two scenery drops, I see that it has begun to "snow" just a bit — I can hear the tiny pats of paper snow falling onto the floor. I'm reminded of Angela Hutto describing her delight when one year, just as she was preparing to go on as a snowflake, real snow began to fall outside the theater.

As the overture ends, the title curtain swoops up and out of sight; the music for the opening street scene begins; Michael tightens his grip on my arm, and all in a moment we step from the quiet darkness of the wing into the brilliant stage light. As we stroll slowly along, I can feel the rush of open space and the presence of hundreds of people gazing through the charged air of the theater into our little street, alive with holiday-minded passersby. There is no other sensation quite like being onstage: at once vulnerable and commanding, seen by everyone, and yet invisible. Despite this rush of feeling, this intoxication with the big time, I am pleased to report that I did not trip. S

The Richmond Ballet's last performance of "The Nutcracker" is Dec. 21 at the Landmark Theater. Tickets cost $8 to $100 through Ticketmaster.

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