Pink ribbons and sweat, ballet isn't for sissies. By Jon W. Sparks, The Commercial Appeal

No tutu for this ballet newcomer (be glad)  By Jon W. Sparks Posted December 2, 2012 

Imagine great quantities of pink ribbons and sweat. Whatever your perception of ballet, be assured that industrial-strength effort is required to bring you the most graceful and delicate moves you can imagine. Over the years, my experience in covering ballet has ranged from Judith Jamison's searing dance in New York to the inspiring local works of Ballet Memphis and the New Ballet Ensemble. But I got a crash course these past few weeks when I found myself in the middle of Ballet Memphis' production of "Nutcracker," the annual dance extravaganza known for pageantry, beauty and hatching the dance ambitions of a fresh crop of youngsters every year. Cast as the grandfather (not to be confused with the grandfather clock), my role is to help populate the party scene near the beginning and get fussed over as an honored guest. Yes, I do dance. A little. And no, I wear neither tights nor tutu, which would frighten small children and, probably, several others. Instead, I'm dressed in a bespoke 19th century-era tux fashioned by the very patient Bruce Bui, wardrobe manager at Ballet Memphis who, usually dealing with the svelte and limber, doesn't often get to outfit someone with my particular avoirdupois. He manages an extraordinary array of 300 costumes, from angels and snowflakes to mice and men's uniforms. He seems calm, and one has to marvel at that. My saving grace throughout the production is Becky Jones, my stage spouse, who played the role last year and knows the program. She keeps me from misadventure in both my character and as a performer unaccustomed to having bodies flying so close by. Were it not for her, I'd have cut a swath of awkwardness through terrified young dancers and probably knocked over a few set pieces (acquired from the English National Ballet).

Since I have some experience in film and stage work, I pretty quickly figured out when to hit my mark, and I only stepped on the feet of three or four dancers in rehearsals. (Note to Rafael Ferreras: I apologize!) I told Ballet Memphis' artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh that I was gracious, not graceful. But the cast is encouraging to the non-dancer.

The extraordinary Crystal Brothers has been performing "Nutcracker" for more than 20 years. "Every year, I try to work on something new," she says. "This year for my Sugar Plum Fairy, I want to be free and inviting, just full of joy and light. Sounds good, right?" Yes it does, and she is not only amazing on stage, she gives the novice plenty of reassurance. "You're doing great," she tells me serenely. "And everything will make more sense once we get on stage."

It's a big transition going from the wide-open practice space to the Orpheum stage with set pieces and props and lighting and costumes. "And then," she reminds me, "you get to hear the live music and it'll be beautiful." For some years, Ballet Memphis did "Nutcracker" with recorded music, but last year the Memphis Symphony Orchestra came on board, and they're in the pit again this year. During rehearsals at Ballet Memphis practice rooms, MSO's maestros came by to watch and listen. Music director Mei-Ann Chen and assistant conductor Conner Gray Covington brought scores, made notes and shadow conducted. Each will lead the orchestra in two of the four public performances.

"The live music keeps you on your toes," Brothers says. "You have to pay attention, but it keeps it fresh and alive. And you get out of your head." The kids are adorable, the music delightful, the set delicious, and there's a dream sequence worthy of Jungian analysis. As for the dancers, well, it's easy to see what Degas kept trying to capture. He'd have loved watching Kendall Britt, Hideko Karasawa, Virginia Pilgrim, Julie Marie Niekrasz, Rachel Shumake, Brandon Ramey, Stephanie Mei Hom, Evan Hewer, Travis Bradley and the other professionals. I'm not quite in that league, although I had an opportunity. Daniel Russell Cooke offered to switch roles with me. "Can I do the grandfather," he pleaded? "Sure," I said. "I've been watching you and I can do that." But don't ask me to trade this moment. I get to perform on the Orpheum stage and hear what ballerinas mutter under their breath. I'm watching great talent at work and seeing children swept up in the world of performance. Great music, great dancing and a lot of the unexpected. As Brothers said: "It's live theater, baby!"

Jon W. Sparks, a longtime reporter for The Commercial Appeal, is now a freelance writer and actor. He remains no threat to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Posted by Ballet Memphis at 11:41 AM
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