Years ago, when the moon was a peppermint and the National Ballet of Canada was still my friend, I was one of the special non-dancing media types invited to partake in the annual sugar-plum fest known as The Nutcracker. I only got to do it once, and likely because I failed the audition even as I was out there, at centre stage. I swear I was set up, doomed to fail. I have been persona non grata ever since. The critic with butter fingers. Ah well. I’ve been called worse. Pass the marzipan:
T’WAS THE NIGHT before, and Bruce Dowbiggin, the sportscaster from CBLT’s Newshour, had fit into the jacket perfectly – which perhaps explains why the blue cuff was hanging well over the tips of my quivering fingers.
It was 15 minutes to curtain and nobody had yet told me how to hoist a wounded gingerbread cookie onto a candy-colored steel stretcher. Wardrobe master Howard Meadows, grabbing hold of my sleeve and rolling it in such a way as to make the excess fabric magically disappear, said that in the 23-year history of the National Ballet of Canada’s version of The Nutcracker, the gingerbread cookie had been dropped only once.
“One picked up the stretcher before the other and – swooosh! – off she slid.”
The National Ballet has been inviting guests to perform with the company as stretcher-bearers ever since the debut of Celia Franca’s Nutcracker on Dec. 26, 1964.
Looking for ways to promote the new production, the company decided to get media personalities and politicians involved.
The publicity gimmick was so successful that the following year the National Ballet was overloaded with requests by people wanting to be in the Nutcracker.
“It was never considered to be an annual tradition,” said compnay spokesman Gregory Patterson. “But over the years it has grown so popular that it’s as much a tradition as the ballet itself.”
Among the famous who have cared for a bleeding gingerbread in the past are author Pierre Berton and politicians Robert Stanfield and George Hees. Toronto Mayor Arthur Eggleton will do the honor tonight.
I thought of my niece, Meaghan, a 4-year-old aspiring ballerina who would be in the audience, as ballet mistress Lorna Geddes guided me though a hasty, last-minute rehearsal. My partner was Kym Demchuk, production co- ordinator at the Global Television Network.
“It’s real easy,” Geddes told us as she peered at us through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and about an inch of heavy blue eye makeup.
She played the Grandmother in Thursday night’s production.
“First you pick up the stretcher like, this see? And when I say go, you run out to the middle of the stage and run down stage.”
She toddled like a pint-sized Charlie Chaplin.
“The gingerbread cookie will be lying there, fork to one side. You pick her up, put her on the stretcher and then comes the fun stuff,” she said wrinkling her nose. “You both face each other and try to run in opposite directions. You (Kym) get mad. You put down the stretcher and look to the audience and let them know she’s cuckoo. You point in the opposite direction as if to say, ‘We’re going this way!'”
All I had to do was respond (easy), turn around (easy), pick up the stretcher and toddle back into the wings (easy, again).
My confidence shattered when the gingerbread cookie (Taryn Ash) joined us for a quick run-through. She was small, lithe and lean. Solid muscle.
She may have been only 90 pounds, but I thought she weighed a ton. “Make sure you plie,” shouted Geddes as I strained to lift her shoulders. “We don’t want any injuries!”
Two minutes later, we were in the wings watching the curtain rise and waiting for our turn. The music of Tchaikovsky swirled through the air. Clara (Kristen Dennis), the girl who falls in love with her Nutcracker doll, was already on stage, silently padding about in little pink slippers.
In the wings, some of the other (and older) dancers mocked her by imitating the stunned expression that crosses her face when the old clock strikes an ominous 12 times.
On stage, the members of the party scene were elegant-looking, divine. Once in the wings, however, they popped bubble gum hiding inside their mouths. One dancer twanged the guitar solo from Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. Another beat his toy drumsticks on the bald pate of an aging “butler.”
We were on next.
Kym seemed suddenly to panic.
“Is there only one dead cookie out there? What if I don’t see her?” Geddes just looked at her and said, “Go!”
Off we went, scurrying like two ants across a stretch of sand. We saw the gingerbread cookie, exactly where Geddes had told us she’d be. We put the stretcher down.
At this point, I dared myself to look into the audience. I saw rows and rows of people. The light from the stage made their faces glow. For a split-second, I was mesmerized. I tore my eyes away and quickly decided not to do that again.
I reached for the cookie. As we lifted her, my grip slipped (somehow I got stuck with lifting the head of the cookie; Kym just had to grab her ankles). I had to reach deep under the cookie’s shoulders to get a hold on her upper body.
But instead of lifting clean off the floor, she bent in the middle, her hips seemingly affixed to the floor. My grip slipped. Wham! She went down with a thump.
“Hold it, I can’t lift her,” I said between clenched teeth.
“Sorry,” I whispered to the cookie.
I tried one more time.
After what seemed like an eternity, I pulled her up by the scruff of her costume, dumped her unceremoniously on the stretcher, and we were off.
Besides almost forgetting to put the fork on the stretcher and carrying on our Laurel and Hardy shtick a tad too long (one dancer kicked my partner in the backside twice to cue our exit), the National Ballet publicity department said we did a great job. Yeah, right.
As for Meaghan, she said she missed my stage debut. “I liked Clara,” she said around the thumb in her mouth. “I watched only her.”