The saying goes, “You can’t go home again.” Or at least that’s what Thomas Wolfe titled his novel back in the 1940s.
As I prepare to return to the stage to perform in the first act for the 50th anniversary of American Repertory Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” I find myself reflecting on all sorts of nostalgic memories about my ballet home and all that it means to me.
My first performance as a child in “The Nutcracker” (in the role of a Mouse) was 42 years ago. I am now the director of marketing for McCarter Theater Center, working in the same building where I made my stage debut in 1971.
About a year and a half ago, when ARB’s artistic director Douglas Martin and I were having a casual conversation about the first act and the approaching 50th anniversary, the idea formed for me to take the part of Mrs. Silberhaus (Clara’s mother), and it was the first time I didn’t instinctively run from the thought of it. I wondered, “Am I ready for this?” Of course, at the time it was a far off proposition, but now that it’s looming closer, it feels a little more real — and scary.
I haven’t performed in “The Nutcracker” in a quarter century. I haven’t been on stage performing in anything in 15 years, and for a dancer that’s about as long ago as the Pleistocene age to a geologist. In the ballet world where everything is about perfection, I wonder if my brain will pop back into the world of stagecraft to respond appropriately.
Many people who work at McCarter have heard (or lived) the tales of the old dressing rooms in the tower. As a performer in “The Nutcracker,” you started up on the fifth floor and progressed down each floor as your role in the show improved. When you reached the stage-level dressing room, you were the Sugar Plum Fairy. If you were a Candy Cane in the second act, you had to leave ample time to get down the five (yes, five!) flights of stairs to the stage — then climb back up after you danced. Of course, we can’t forget the legendary (and now defunct) fire escape circular slide, which started at the top floor of the tower and went all the way to the ground. It was filled between shows by adventurous (loudly screaming) performers who didn’t think it was at all problematic being ejected out a door at the bottom onto the back lawn of the theater.
My mother-in-law, Ethel Gribbins, who spent many years working as a wardrobe supervisor for McCarter and for Princeton Ballet, was visiting recently and we went together to see a show. While driving into Princeton she said: “You know, going to McCarter always feels like going home.”
There are places and people that will always feel like home to us — “The Nutcracker” is definitely one of those, and 50 years doesn’t come around very often. I have been so lucky to experience this particular production as a student, a professional dancer, and a teacher seeing my own students perform some of the same roles I did as a child. Returning to this production at this particular time is like a collision of all of my worlds.
McCarter, always my favorite venue as a performer, is a special place. The wardrobe room beneath the stage is exactly the same as when I was a mouse getting her stuffing crinkled and fitted, and later on, getting my tutus hooked up. Though many, many other things have changed in the building over the years, the people who work there remain the best in the business, the most passionate workers putting artists first. Coming back to perform in “The Nutcracker,” I look forward to the familiar voice of the legendary Pete Cook (the one and only Nutcracker stage manager I ever knew) calling the mice and soldiers to the stage. This time around, I will be able to walk down the hallway from my office to get to my dressing room (well, unless they put me back up in the tower). I am proud, excited, daunted, humbled, and definitely a little emotional about returning to “The Nutcracker” stage. So yes, I feel I can go home again. I’ve been home.
Edited from a statement prepared for the American Repertory Ballet.