At the start of December I performed in my second Christmas show with the Brighton Ballet Company.
Last year’s show was a fairly small-scale, in-studio affair in front of an audience of kids, their parents, and our assorted significant others. This year we were part of a larger show organized by the Brighton Institute for Contemporary Theatre Training. We got to perform three pieces from the Nutcracker—the Spanish dance, the Waltz of the Flowers, and a modern take on the Sugar Plum Fairy, complete with LED lights in our tutus—all on a big, nicely lit stage in front of audience of (mostly) strangers, with all of the excitement and stress that entails.
“Nutcracker season” is a pretty big deal for ballet companies everywhere (search for “Nutcracker season” online and you’ll be inundated with videos and articles on how to “survive” Nutcracker season as a professional dancer). As I trundled to the theater that Saturday morning—a bag of tutus over one shoulder, a bag of ballet slippers, spare tights, makeup, bobby pins, and the aforementioned LEDs over the other—I thought of dancers trundling to studios and theaters all over the world to rehearse and perform in the Nutcracker, and it put a bounce in my step to fancy myself a tiny, amateur part of this bigger Christmas tradition.
We rehearsed really hard for the show. We only had a few weeks to get the choreography together—and by weeks, I really mean hours, because most of us can only get to class once or twice a week, and there’s only one weekly “company class” where we can spend the whole time learning choreography. Rehearsing for a show is exhausting and sometimes frustrating, but I generally enjoy the process. It’s a workout for both body and mind, and when we finally stop bumping into each other and shrieking and start to get the hang of whatever steps we’re doing, when we all start turning and leaping and moving in unison, it’s incredibly satisfying.
Four of us had a little practice run of this year’s Nutcracker choreography when we danced at an afternoon tea for some senior citizens, which was organized by a colleague of Jeremy’s together with the charity Contact the Elderly. Our dancing was a bit “improvisational” (we hadn’t had much time to figure out how to pare down the choreography originally designed for 14 dancers), but it was fun and heartfelt, and we seemed to bring a lot of joy to the audience.
The Christmas show had a very different vibe. Whereas the afternoon tea was warm and intimate, the theater for the show was literally freezing cold (we were wrapping ourselves in the curtains at the side of the stage to keep warm before going on), and we were just a small cog in a bigger production that would have chugged on even without us. Most of still weren’t 100% confident with the choreography, and the hours of waiting around before the performance didn’t help our nerves.
I was certainly both tired and keyed up by the time we took to the stage, not really having any idea how the whole thing would pan out, whether I was going to drop my fan during the Spanish dance, whether I’d remember where I supposed to go during Waltz of the Flowers, whether the LEDs would fall out of my tutu during Sugar Plum, whether my face would freeze into a twitching grimace in the bright stage lights. When we lined up on stage in the dark for our first dance (Spanish), my heart was pounding, but I put on my best ballerina smile, and when the music started and the lights came up, I trotted out along with everyone else, fan at the ready, and just hoped it would all go okay.
It went better than okay. It was great. Even more surprising, it was great fun. I couldn’t see everyone else on stage, but I could kind of feel that we were all hitting our marks, and as the music rushed to an end and we rushed to keep up with it (“both arms up, one arm up, both arms up, both arms out”), I suspected that we had actually gotten it all right. When it ended and we ran off stage (to merry applause and cheers), one of the other dancers said, “Someone said ‘wow’! Did you hear that? I heard someone say ‘wow’!”
I hadn’t heard anyone say “wow”, but I carried the thought of that potential “wow” through our next two dances, which we performed as well as we ever had. We had all been so worried about Waltz of the Flowers, but we were a bundle of hugs and giggles when we finished it because we knew we had nailed it. And Sugar Plum was just fun and funky and over so fast that it was almost as if it had never happened in the first place. It was delightful.
Jeremy came along to the show and managed to get some great video of the Spanish dance and Waltz of the Flowers. We were all so excited to see the videos afterwards and confirm that the performance looked as good as it felt. And the best thing of all about the video: after the energetic end of the Spanish dance, in the silent pause before the applause starts, you can hear a woman quietly but distinctly say: “Wow.”
That “wow” means the world to me. We worked so hard for that “wow.” We showed up on time, we stayed in the studio late, we ran the choreography until our legs felt like lead. We had visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads for weeks. We all have day jobs and normal lives outside of ballet, we’re all different ages from all different backgrounds, but we all share this drive to do this thing and to do it as well as we possibly can. We all put our heart and soul into it, and we do it for ourselves, but it’s remarkably rewarding to realize that our dancing can delight other people, too.
When I started taking beginner’s ballet classes two years ago, I never imagined I would wind up where I did on December 2nd, on a stage, twirling in a tutu, dancing in front of strangers—and one of those strangers would say “wow.”