It is 1978. I am performing the Chinese dance on tour in Act II of the Hartford Ballet's The Nutcracker. In Michael Uthoff's production, this dance is a duet featuring two men. We are wearing black wigs that seem to me more like a Prince Valiant pageboy hairdo than anything remotely resembling anything Chinese. There are silly bangs in the front while the back of it hangs down to my shoulders. I like the Chinese dance but the wig... not so much. Although I am only seventeen, my hair is already thinning so I use as many bobby pins as I can to make the wig stay on. The rest of the costume consists of a quilted, embroidered jacket, black pants, a paper umbrella and a sublimely ridiculous Fu Manchu mustache that has to be glued on with spirit gum. The mustache is my favorite part of the outfit. We have been promised an all new production for next season which will relegate the outdated Chinese costume to the bin. In the meantime, we are taking this tired production on the road to make some money.
The first stop the tour bus makes on every trip through New Hampshire is at a state liquor store. I am underage to buy liquor but figure that there's no harm in trying. When we make our first stop in New Hampshire I grab a few bottles of scotch and get in the checkout line behind one of the older dancers and make idle chitchat as though we're good friends. We're not but the ruse works and I get my scotch safely back on the bus. Pretty much all hell breaks loose as we share the booze around. Michael Uthoff is sitting up front pretending that he sees nothing. I'm seventeen. I'm drunk. Life is good.
There are lots of stops on the road all over the region of New England before we finally reach Tarrytown, N.Y., the last stop on the tour. This is not a great performance destination but a ballet company has to take any gig it can get during The Nutcracker season because this is the money the company needs to survive for the rest of the year. I feel like my first tour with the company is going well. Naturally this feeling has to come to an end.
All of the second act dances in The Nutcracker are pretty short, one or two minutes at most. Our Chinese dance lasts one minute and fifteen seconds. It's a fairly easy dance that gets a lot less applause than the Russian dance. Near the end of our dance, my partner and I have to successively do a double tour en l'air. Greg Evans, my partner, does his just fine. He always does nice tours. He is a natural, unlike me. I do my preparation and go into my double tour.
Double tour en l'air: you have to imagine doing this horizontally with a wig covering your eyes.
After the first rotation of my head, the bobby pins slip and the wig spins around my head and the back becomes the front. My world turns black and everything begins to move in slow motion. As I go into the second airborne turn, my body goes off at a crazy angle and I begin to realize that this is not going to end well. For a moment I believe that my body is rotating horizontally like the rotor blades of a helicopter even though I'm pretty sure this is physically impossible. Up and down have lost their meaning but not their reality as I discover when I land face first on the stage (complete with an audible 'oof') with my hands hanging over the edge and I can only watch helplessly as my wig flies off to join forces with the French horns down in the orchestra pit. Discovering that I am not badly damaged, I get up and finish the dance. This is not my proudest moment.
After the end of this matinee performance I am afraid I might be in some trouble so I keep a low profile, slinking quietly around the theater, waiting for the evening performance. Later in the afternoon, while Michael Uthoff is giving company notes to correct the mistakes from the matinee, everyone is waiting to see what he is going to say about my spectacular disaster. In turn, Uthoff takes care of issues related to spacing on stage and partnering glitches. The boss saves me for last, keeping us all waiting; he keeps looking at me out of the corner of his eye, trying to look angry but failing. Finally it's my turn. He looks at me and begins to speak but chokes on it. After covering his face briefly to regain his composure, Uthoff tries again to speak but can't keep a straight face. He just manages to say my name and then abandons all pretense. This is apparently the funniest thing that has happened all year and Uthoff laughs until tears roll down his cheeks and the whole company joins in. Looking back, this is when I truly learned to laugh at myself. In the big picture, the company needed a good laugh to relieve the accumulated stress and tension of a hard touring schedule.