It is a strange feeling, riding the elevator up to the dressing rooms at the Opera House. The lobby is warm, dimly lit by the soft, silvery glow of the evening sky outside the windows, snow falling to mute the sound of the city and turn everything soft. I stop there for a few moments, to watch the sky fall and catch my breath and my heart before I enter the elevator, ride to the top of the world. The emptiness of the lobby and the brimming of the dressing rooms is a stark contrast, and it takes me a few breaths to ready myself for it. I step out at the top, into the fast-flicking wash of too few fluorescent lights and the wave of voices, laughter, nervous energy running, a glorious, shivering tide that I must force my way into. I remember this.
For a moment, I am not sure that any time has passed at all – I am caught up again in the sheer wonderful grace of the fact that I am here, in this place, with these people, welcomed into a home that is not mine as though it has belonged to me since the beginning. It has been ten years since I last danced here, ten years since I have ridden this elevator, stood in this hallway, thrown myself upon the mercy and into the embrace of these people I have come to be with. Yet in this moment, it doesn’t seem as though those years have come and gone, and I stand, dizzy, the elevator closing with an ageing ding behind me, and I feel the same flood of giddy apprehension I did when I was thirteen and rooted to this same spot on the cold cement floor.
I danced my first Nutcracker with Moving Light. It was almost accidental. I fell into Christine’s studio because it happened to be the closest one we could find to my home, in a season when time and money to spend on the road were hard to come by. The first morning I walked into the waiting room at the Plainfield Town Hall, my knees were shaking. I will never forget the way her students gathered me into their presence and made me feel at home, safe, interesting, within moments of my hesitant arrival. Their deep, embracing acceptance was something I had never experienced before at a dance studio, and it threw me, completely, to find a group of dancers with whom I actually wanted to be friends. I can’t think about the Nutcracker, can’t think about Moving Light and Christine, without remembering that. The wonder of Christine’s welcome, and the surprising graceful love of her students, have not changed with the years.
Stepping onto the stage feels like the first deep breath after a long sleep. The Opera House is small, but it sits a surprising six hundred and fifty people, and every single one of those seats will be filled for our performances. I look out at the empty house while we warm up on the marley, and I wonder if they will wonder – if this audience will give themselves over to the magic we are about to create, if they will laugh, and if, like me, they will cry. I wonder what it is like, to watch a ballet without knowing how it feels to be in it. That is an experience I have never had – never can have. I am thankful for that.
The young ladies of the company run through their choreography together, and I watch from the wings. Christine has filled her studio with so much talent – so many of these dancers are of a quality that I, ten years their senior in both age and training, may never reach. This makes me glad. I have watched these young women work with all they are worth to gain this – and I have watched Christine pour out her own skill and knowledge and passion into them. Christine uses the word “gratitude” often and with feeling, and as I watch her students dance, I understand why. What she accomplishes here is, I think, a beautiful rarity.
When the last performance ends, we work together for nearly three hours to empty the Opera House of our set, clean the dressing rooms, return everything to a state of relative cleanliness. Whenever I am thanked for staying, for helping, for carrying and lifting and moving in the frigidity of mid-December, I laugh. I would not miss this for anything. I would not miss these last moments of working together, of seeing these tired, triumphant faces, of placing myself in the midst of this community, frost-bitten hands or no. We finish together what we started together, and I will be among the last to leave. I do not want this evening to end. I walk out, not alone, under the darkened sky, and I think for a moment that maybe it won’t. The cold seeping through the soles of my shoes is like the cold of the dressing room floor – encompassing, crystalline. The smell of pine boughs that lingered in the stage lights lingers in the shadows here, too. My breath falls in clouds like the snow, outside the windows, covering the city in silence.