Daily Breeze, Dec. 24, 2004

NUTCRACKER  SWEAT

Our adventurer joins the ballet

 

BY COREY LEVITAN

PHOTOS BY BRANIMIR KVARTUC AND BRUCE HAZELTON/DAILY BREEZE

 

      A packed house of 2,000 watches as my spotlight moment arrives. In the San Pedro City Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," it's my gig to hoist a female "doll" (14-year-old Brianna Walker) into the air and lug her 20 feet downstage, propping her atop a 5-foot-tall toy box.

      During one of this company's annual "Nutcracker" performances 7 years ago, the curtains brushed against a stage light and burst into flames. I'm hoping not to provide an even better story.

      "You'd better not drop her," the voice of my fellow performer, 44-year-old San Pedro resident Paul Kuljis, echoes through my head. The cast harbors a faint but distinct suspicion that I might let Walker -- the brightest rising star in the troupe's arsenal, who glides on her tippies better than Pee Wee Herman -- take a life-threatening header just to funny this column up.

      What they donít realize is that my lack of coordination presents a much greater risk of this eventuality than my lack of morals.

      "If you do drop her," Kuljis told me, "don't do it in the early show, so when we kill you, at least we won't have to replace you for the late show."

      Composed by Tchaikovsky, "The Nutcracker" is the most popular holiday ballet of all time. It tells the story of Clara, a little girl who attends a Christmas party where male and female dolls come to life. Then flowers and magic snowflakes begin dancing and a wooden nutcracker engages a giant mouse in a swordfight to the death.

      Apparently, the drugs in the 1890s were primo.

      A mad shuffle ensues on the line of girls awaiting me to lift them in the air. That shuffle is at the beginning of the line, where the girls fight NOT to be. I have just lifted 17-year-old Stevie Kuljis, daughter of Paul The Killer, in the air ... by what I INTENDED to be her stomach.

      "You DO understand that what you just saw was an accident," I explain to my fellow students at the San Pedro Ballet School.

      "We'll take a vote on that later," replies Patrick Bradley, the San Pedro resident who in 1994 co-founded both the school and its non-profit ballet company (www.sanpedrocityballet.org) with his wife, Cindy.

      It is 18 months ago and the Bradleys, who co-direct "The Nutcracker," are convinced they can train me for the part of the male doll. I'm attending an intermediate class, where high-school students effortlessly execute moves such as the pliť, the temps liť and the port de bras. By my third lesson, it becomes woefully apparent that my speed is more the croissant au fromage.

      I'm placed in a setting more appropriate to my skill set: basic ballet -- footing, stance and how to hold the bar -- alongside 8-year-old girls. (When we stand at the bar, it resembles the most obvious police lineup ever.) Their moms giggle and point through the studio window.

      I inquire how long it will take me to learn the male doll part. Cindy's guesstimate -- two hours a day, 5 days a week, for about a year -- makes it woefully apparent that commitment is something I lack in equal measure to skill.

      My adventure as a male ballerina (mallerina?) ends before beginning.

      In August, Cindy surprised me by re-extending her invitation to appear in "The Nutcracker." Of course, it would be a smaller role. In the party scene, six pairs of parents greet the hosts before distributing rifles to rows of young boys. (Didn't I see that in "Bowling for Columbine"?) Some dancing is performed, but not the ballet I hoped for. The parents waltz for 2 minutes. Then they stand around and pretend to chat.

      That's too simple for this column, I suspect. I need to be challenged more.

      Then training begins -- four solid months of it, two hours a week, the same tune over and over. At first, I can't hear any rhythm in it. When I finally do, I discover I have a serious problem with my swizzle. (I have since begun a course of herbal medication to correct it.)

      "The Nutcracker," it turns out, is a tough nut to crack.

      "He's not tall enough," my first waltzing partner complains to Patrick.

      My childlike height, 5'6" to her 5'9", is not the only issue I happen to notice. When I lead this woman, it's like a satellite of Jupiter trying to exert its gravity over the mother world.

      "Where's Robin?" she asks, referring to adult-sized San Pedro resident Robin Driezler, 44. "I like dancing with Robin!"

      Because I whined about not having enough to do, I'm also tasked with lifting Walker -- and she is not happy about this. During rehearsals, I accidentally apply too much pressure to her waist, thumb-wrestling her liver and spleen.

      "And please don't pick me up by the knee next time, either," the Wilmington resident adds before asking Patrick, "Isn't Juan supposed to do this?"

      Juan Wing, 18, is one of three former San Pedro High School football players who swapped their uniforms for tights. The buff ex-linebacker says they enrolled with the Bradleys because ballet is "a beautiful art form."

      He certainly knows what he's supposed to say. Only, there's no way the real reason isn't girls. At the San Pedro Ballet School, they outnumber the boys 3 to 1. There are so few boys, in fact, that in "The Nutcracker," more than half the boys are really girls in disguise (like Santa Monica Blvd. in reverse).

      The backstage area at El Camino College's Marsee Auditorium is a midtown-Manhattan traffic jam of tiny actors in tutus, mouse heads and soldier costumes. It occurs to me how 4,000 seats are so easily sold to this show each year: There are 2,000 children in it.

      "I've loaded one of the rifles with live ammo," Driezler informs me. We're now on stage in the party scene, the ballet's first. I'm in my period tuxedo and some overly drawn old-man wrinkle makeup that also qualifies me to perform in the hit musical "Cats."

      We've given out the rifles and are pretending to chat as Drosselmeyer the magician (29-year-old San Pedro resident Taso Papadakis) does some tricks for the kids. Since the audience can't hear what we're saying over the blaring classical music, some of the more clever parents take to cracking jokes. I respond to Driezler's by informing him of my "really, really bad" gas problem. (This can't be what movie extras really say to each other in the background, can it?)

      Another performer shoos me away, but not due to olfactory sensitivity.

      "You're blocking the audience's view of me," she beefs, apparently hopeful that the Tonys will launch a "best extra" award and she'll qualify by going "ooh" and "ah" at a Christmas tree.

      It's waltzing time. My new partner is the size-appropriate Olga Jones of Rancho Palos Verdes. (Her 23-year-old son, Ryan, plays the part of the butler, and he drafted his marginally willing mom into service.)

      Olga is terrified. She shakes like jello in an earthquake as I twirl her in our meticulously rehearsed circles. (During dress rehearsal, she twice exited the previous scene on the wrong side of the stage to begin the dance.) I tell her not to worry; she's in the capable hands of "Baryshni-Corey."

      But it is me and only me that screws up when it counts. During both the early and late shows, I nearly collide with Kuljis as I cross stage-left to exchange my second partner in swizzle, San Pedro's Elizabeth McDonald, for Olga. I wasn't supposed to cross at all; I was supposed to wait for Olga to cross stage-right.

      And, although I manage not to drop Walker, I'm fairly certain I step on her left big toe.

      I await consternation from the Bradleys. It never comes. It's a ballet axiom that all dancers think that they and they alone ballet-flopped, rerunning their allegedly show-stopping mistakes in their heads for weeks as they high-kick themselves. But I really DID screw up.

      When we take the stage for bows at the end of the final performance, a deafening roar of cheers greets the party-scene extras. This gives way to a chant of "CO-REY! CO-REY!"

      OK, maybe that didn't happen. Maybe what happened is that no one, not even the Bradleys, noticed me: not my screw-ups, not anything I did. Four months of butt-breaking rehearsals and I was as invisible as albino guitarists Johnny and Edgar Winter in a snow drift. Even when I lugged Brianna the doll off stage, all eyes were on her, not me.

      "Your role was to complement the scene," Cindy explains later, "to blend in."

      Well, then, I probably could have saved myself some disappointment before stalking the theater lobby in full costume and makeup, searching for autograph-seekers.

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