Marlena Raines

The neighborhood is silent, for now. The parking lot across the street from the theater is empty, except for a few cars from which the dancers scurry like mice into the back door. The theater sits lonely on the corner of Beale Street and South Main Street, mere blocks away from the muddy Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. In the winter it gets dark early, around five, right when warmup class for the student dancers begins. There’s nothing particularly majestic about the theater from the outside, with its beige brick walls and modestly large, box-like structure. Two hours before opening night of the “Nutcracker,” only a massive neon-red sign glows in the dark: “ORPHEUM.”

 

Once inside the back door, a mosaic of colorful tiles with handprints and signatures greets us. We young dancers take a right, and go up the stairs all the way to the floor with dressing rooms to drop off our bulging tote bags full of makeup and bobby pins and ballet shoes. Both the student and professional dancers have just finished tech week together, when we ran through the entire ballet for the first time in full costume, adjusting our spacing on the enormous Orpheum stage. Now, it’s performance week.

We keep our sweaters and puffy vests and leg warmers on. The rest of the dancers are downstairs in a room backstage, assembling the barres in formation for warmup class, which we have before every show. We dance cautiously; the goal is to preserve the hair pulled in tight buns or wrapped in 30 curlers, which our mothers worked on for at least an hour earlier in the afternoon, and also to get our muscles warm enough to prevent serious injuries during the show. It’s a bit disorienting dancing without a mirror. We’re a bunch of perfectionists, trained in the ballet studio where we always face the mirrors and spend hours analyzing our body posture, the fluidity or sharpness of movement, our facial expressions (often we unconsciously tighten our lips and furrow our brows when we concentrate) and our relative position to the rest of the dancers in the group. Lacking a ceiling-to-floor mirror in the theater, we rely on muscle memory and trust that all the practice in the studio will pay off in the real performance. In the corner of the room lies a box full of rosin, a gold-colored tree sap whose texture provides extra friction for our ballet shoes against slippery floors. Every 10 minutes, when we feel we are about to lose grip, we press the soles of our shoes into the box, crushing the golden rosin nuggets into a yellow-white powder, and sliding from side to side. With every step, we leave behind a faint white streak on the floor.

Warmup class ends, and we return to the dressing rooms upstairs to prepare for our opening show. Friendships blossom in the dressing room, where we share makeup, spray hairspray on each other’s hair to catch all the wispies we couldn’t see by ourselves, and help each other get into the stiff, beautiful costumes, remembering to tighten all the clasps so nothing falls off on stage. The room is split in half by black boxes, filled with our costumes: the party girl dresses and winter coats, the massive mice heads and swords, soldier uniforms and hats, angel wings and halos. I grew up watching the “Nutcracker” in the Orpheum Theater every winter, and now I’m 12, about to perform with Ballet Memphis for the first time. Only now do I learn how conspicuous our makeup must be in order to accentuate our features from afar, using lipstick instead of blush on our cheeks or dark-purple eyeshadow on our eyelids. Upon closer examination, some of these elegant costumes I distinctly remembered seeing when I was a child, such as the iconic party girl dresses, look visibly weathered. One of our favorite pastimes while we wait in the dressing room is to look at the tags in every costume to see if any of the professional ballerinas danced our same roles and wore the same costumes when they trained with Ballet Memphis School years ago. We swoon when we see the names of our role models, Crystal or Ginny or Julie, scrawled on our costumes — these are a few of the prima ballerinas who inspire us with their flawless pirouettes and fouettes.

 

It’s almost call time. Some of us begin to realize we spent too long working on our makeup or stressing over our hair wispies. A few of us are ready early, dressed in our soldier and party girl costumes, since we are some of the dancers to go on in the first act of the ballet. We escape the growing chaos in the dressing room by going downstairs to the backstage area. The stagehands are busy gathering critical props for each scene of the “Nutcracker”: gathering the party invitation letters that the maids send out to the families in the opening scene, the champagne glasses Velcroed to a platter to be served to the parents attending the evening Christmas party, all the dolls which are gifts to the party girls, and the wooden guns and black cannons used in the battle scene when the soldiers come alive to fight the evil mice and defend Clara. I usually stay a safe distance from these seemingly realistic cannons, which create the loudest boom and real sparks and puffs of sulfuric odor. I nearly yelped aloud the first time I heard that sound close up during tech week, but I quickly got used to it. Every part of the performance in the Orpheum requires props to be carefully set up beforehand — not one doll missing, not one extra champagne glass.

We sneak into the wings, where the stage crew has already pulled the ropes to close the thick, velvet-maroon curtains before the audience begins to fill in the seats. They are resetting the ropes that attach to the sled, which carries Clara and the Nutcracker, and gently glides up into the air, away to the Land of Sweets. When I used to watch the “Nutcracker” here as a child, I would wonder how in the world the sled flew. I no longer stare in awe at the Christmas tree that expands until the tip disappears from view before the Nutcracker comes alive, nor do I jump at the sound of the cannons firing during the battle scene. Instead, I watch closely for the flicker of relief when the Sugar Plum Fairy finishes her consecutive turns without falling, and I envision what each step and prop looks like to the audience from afar.

On stage behind the curtains, the professional dancers are warming up again, rehearsing their turns and jumping one more time before the performance. As student dancers, performing in the “Nutcracker” is one of the rare instances in which we get to see our role models practice and dance alongside us — to see what it takes for them to make ballet appear so elegant and effortless. The nervous excitement emanates from all corners of the stage. I peek out of the side curtains to get a good view of the 2,800-seat auditorium, as the audience trickles in. With its red-velvet seats, sparkling crystal chandeliers and golden paint, the theater is simply breathtaking.

The show is about to begin. The orchestra in the pit plays the soothing, classical music by Tchaikovsky, and the maroon curtains open on cue. The scenery instantly transports the mesmerized audience to another realm, where the maids frolic gracefully in the winter snow with party invitations in hand. From the side curtains, one of the professional dancers walks past me, and I whisper, “Merde!” — a dancer’s way of wishing good luck before she steps on stage. In the spotlight, tiny beads of sweat glisten on her forehead as she orients herself to face the front. She hesitates for a moment, then swiftly leaps into the air, her pointe shoes leaving behind a faint white streak of rosin on the black stage.

Anna Sun | anna.sun@yale.edu