One of the things I most look forward to at Christmastime is the ballet The Nutcracker. Like a good production of full human hair lace wigs A Christmas Carol, “The Nut” is an onstage tradition.
While many might whisper, “oh, that old thing again?” I say, “Bring it.” Which might be a surprising thing to say given how many performances I am quality lace front wigs forced — ahem, paid — to see each holiday season as a dance and theater critic.
Never again, though, will I watch or write about The Nutcracker without remembering the one thing that changed custom lace wigs my perspective forever: fake eyelashes.That’s because 2015 is the year that I, Mark Lowry, a longtime theater and dance reviewer became part of the art, lashes and all. At a Dec. 13 performance of Texas Ballet Theater’sThe Nutcracker, I played Mother Ginger on stage at Bass Hall.
You know, the head mistress in the Second Act’s Kingdom of the Sweets who has a flock of children, dressed as bakers, emerge from her voluminous dress? That was me — for one night only, and I have to say it was revelatory. Not my performance (I’ve seen the video — yikes!), but the experience of watching this mammoth production come together from backstage was invaluable.
As was very durable eyelash glue.
Not my first rodeo
Before we go further, let me state that it wasn’t my first time backstage or onstage. It wasn’t even my first time to dress as a female character. I won’t go into my Halloween costume choices in my 20s and early 30s, but let’s just say there was a Kira from Xanadu, complete with roller skates, and a Joan Crawford from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, complete with wheelchair and dead rat under a cloche.
But it has been a long time.
I fell in love with being onstage as a teenager in several church plays, and in high school where I bonded with the weirdo drama kids. (Because that was me, too.) I followed that passion into college, and I even won a statewide acting award.
But, life happened, I changed my major to communications and set off on my path as a journalist. In my work as an arts writer and critic, I grew to love dance, too — especially the work of the local professional groups, including Texas Ballet Theater. Never did I dream I’d be onstage with them.
I mean, dancers have enviable talent, with poetic body control and grace. I am a bit of a klutz, as the frequent bruises on my shins will attest.
But considering my assignment would be to play a cartoonish old woman, and I wouldn’t have to use my legs or remember steps but rather be rolled out on stage in a big dome-like contraption that serves as the dress for Madame Bonbonaire (which is what the Mother Ginger character is called in the TBT production), I figured I could handle it.
After more than a week of hemming and hawing through visions of sugar plums, I said yes to a persistent editor’s nutty idea.
If nothing else, I thought, I’d get a fun Facebook profile pic of myself looking somewhere between Endora from Bewitched and a Texas diner waitress named Flo, minus the long-ashed cigarette dangling from my lips.
The day I checked “make professional ballet debut” off my bucket list began by arriving at Bass Hall in time to watch the Mother Ginger scene at the matinee performance before mine.
I had been pretty nervous about this day since we solidified the assignment; after all, I’m a middle-aged, out-of-shape arts writer who will surely be mocked by the artists I’ve written about over the years. Backstage, the dancers and staff immediately made me feel comfortable, and even gave me Dressing Room No. 1 — “the star dressing room,” someone said — which is a few steps away from the stage door..
Principal dancer Alexander “Sasha” Kotelenets — one of the real stars of the show — assured me it was going to be OK.
It was time to start learning the part.
I perched with TBT associate artistic director Tim O’Keefe on the second-story staircase landing (part of the set for the Stahlbaums’ home) in the stage-left wings. I watched the Arabian, Mirliton and Gopak variations perform, and then studied how outrageously tall dancer Paul Adams climbed a ladder and jumped into the hole of Madame Bonbonaire’s dress. He then got wheeled out onto the stage by two dancers from the Spanish variation.
His long arms were fluid and graceful as the character moved about the stage, urging her children to come out and play, greeting Clara and having a ball.
After the final curtain fell and the audience cleared out, they took me on a test run in the contraption and principal ballet master Anna Donovan took me through the sequence and those fluid, graceful arm movements.
“Just follow the eight-counts. 1, 2, 3, 4 … 5, 6, 7, 8.”
Easy enough? Yeah, right.
I grabbed some lunch in Sundance Square and was mindful not to eat anything that would make my insides rumble — there would be humans under my dress, after all.
I was back to the dressing room at 5:30 to begin the make-up transformation, led by make-up artist Doug White and wig mistress Ann McGuire. They had already consulted with me, and I had begun the work by shaving off my goatee and mustache days before.
The costume crew, led by wardrobe manager Masako Parshall, went over the layers of costume I would wear — which was, admittedly, one of the aspects of this whole endeavor that I worried about the most. I probably should have worn Spanx, but I failed to raid a female friend’s closet in time.
The costume began with a body suit with large breasts, which was attached to what is basically a Speedo to hold it on, like a lumpy girdle. Over that was a billowy blouse and sheer, gold scarf, with long white gloves. To finish the look: a rhinestone necklace and clip-on earrings.
Because we were recording video for my story, I had a GoPro camera strapped over the body suit, around my torso, positioned like a hidden camera for Girls Gone Wild.
I can’t give White enough credit for making me as beautifully garish as I expected, a look that didn’t fully come together until those eyelashes were glued in place.
This Bonbonaire would be a little different from Adams and those young, pretty ballet dancers who take turns in the role. Up-snaps to McGuire for tacking and bobby-pinning my big red wig within an inch of its life, and strapping it around my head because Bonbonaire does whirl around and tilt at one point. And no one wants to have their wig fall off onstage.
The sights and sounds backstage were dizzying and impressive — stage managers getting everyone in places, dancers practicing turns and stretching out (I put my leg up on a yellow rail and attempted to stretch with them), the women dredging their toe shoes in a box of rosin.
When it came time for the performance, I climbed the 8-foot ladder and jumped in the dress. I muttered reminders to myself of everything I was supposed to do, when director of production George Cripps approached me and whispered, “remember this is the ballet; we don’t talk.” Note taken.
I remembered the adrenaline rush I always got before going onstage, and the knowledge that I must do my best for an audience that had paid to be entertained and heart-warmed.
Time to roll out Bonbonaire. And awaaaaaay we go!