"What is that?" the TSA agent asked last year when I placed the giant circular bag onto the conveyer belt.
"It's a tutu—for ballet. You know…like The Nutcracker?" I was quick to explain.
"Oh, I see. How do you plan on fitting it in the overhead compartment?" he asked skeptically.
"Like a taco." I then proceeded to demonstrate its flexibility and explain how it folded, with a handle strap conveniently placed on either side for easy transport.
Many professional ballet dancers have been there—barely making the midnight flight, still wearing remnants of eyeliner from the evening performance and looking ahead at back-to-back performances of the Nutcracker grand pas de deux. As if Nutcracker season wasn't busy enough—especially here at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where I am a company member—countless pro dancers spend weekends in November and December hopping on and off of planes or in and out of cars, squeezing in guesting gigs with school and community productions all over the country.
Not this year, thanks to COVID-19. While we're still trying to process kitchen barres, shortened contracts and so much uncertainty about the future, the added loss of these guesting opportunities only adds salt to the wound. Recently I spoke with some of my fellow PNB dancers about why losing our Nut guestings is such a blow.
PNB principals Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths performing as guest artists in Idaho Regional Ballet's Nutcracker
Megan Holsinger, Courtesy Biasucci
For some of us, these gigs are a chance to come full circle by returning to the studios where we grew up. Last year my husband (PNB soloist Price Suddarth) and I returned to his home company, Central Indiana Dance Ensemble in Westfield, Indiana. It was his teacher's 20th anniversary, so it was a special opportunity to return for the celebration.
My colleague, PNB soloist Joshua Grant, enjoys building relationships with schools. "[I] go repeatedly to the same places over and over again," he says. For the last few years, he has performed for Studio West Dance Academy in Olympia, Washington, a studio he frequently teaches and choreographs for. "You see the students watching you and mimicking you. They say we are inspiring them, but they inspire me to work hard and do my best. I bring that fresh energy back to Seattle with me every time."
Guestings can also be quite financially lucrative, and many of us have come to depend on that extra boost at an expensive time of year. Now, with salaries being frozen and work weeks being cut in companies all around the country, losing that paycheck feels like a sucker punch to the gut. Without Nutcracker, it's a completely different holiday season from all angles.
The author and her husband, Price Suddarth, went back to Suddarth's hometown to perform in Central Indiana Dance Ensemble's Nutcracker in 2019.
Paul Retzlaff, Courtesy Love Suddarth
That said, guestings can be a bit of a double-edged sword. PNB principal Leta Biasucci explains that while she really loves the gigs she's been able to do, "I'm a creature of habit and the slippery floors, condensed performances, travel and unfamiliar venues can be sources of stress for me."
They can also be rough on the body. During PNB's Nutcracker run, each dancer is bouncing anywhere between three and 10 roles during a performance weekend, from Party Parent to Sugarplum Fairy. There are easy shows, and there are hard ones. But when you're guesting, you're usually doing back-to-back performances of the grand pas—and possibly a little more. That's after doing a full performance load at home, and sometimes taking a cross-country overnight flight (resulting in epically swollen ankles and feet). And, of course, there's always the dreaded freezing theater and slippery, cement-like stage. Trying to recover between the matinee and evening show on day three feels impossible.
PNB soloist Joshua Grant rehearses a dancer for a guest performance.
Yet my friends and I all agree that the positives greatly outnumber the negatives. For one, it's one more opportunity to perform. Principal Dylan Wald has guested with Lafayette Ballet Theatre for the past couple years alongside different PNB ballerinas. He laments the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has robbed dancers of that onstage rush: "The time we have as professionals is so limited, any time away feels like a loss." And dancing multiple shows in a row of one role allows for onstage experimentation, something you might not do when you share your part with 10 other casts. "I feel like I am visiting an old friend," Biasucci says of her Sugarplum gigs. "It allows me to take risks, try new ideas and see others do the same."
Gigs are also a chance for "the performance that would never happen" at our home companies. Price and I are virtually the same height, meaning we'd almost never be paired together in a classical pas de deux. Not only did our Nutcracker gig last year give us the opportunity to do the grand pas together, but I was 20 weeks pregnant at the time—not exactly a routine Frau Stahlbaum/Arabian performance for me!
PNB principals Dylan Wald and Laura Tisserand take a photo backstage at Lafayette Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker.
Above all, the thing we all agree we'll miss most about our guestings this year are the young eyes brightly lit in the wings. "Cheering on friends and fellow dancers (and the cutest little Polichinelles) backstage sparks holiday joy for me," says Biasucci. As a 6-year-old girl in Kansas, I remember watching Wendy Whelan and Lauren Anderson from the wings, they in their glistening tutus and me in my ginger cookie #10 costume. We all had those dancers who inspired us—it's such a special gift to return the favor to the next generation.
While it might be nice to finally take part in the family holiday traditions we've always missed, it's hard to imagine our year without Nutcracker. Even if hearing "Waltz of the Flowers" blaring over the speakers at Target makes us cringe every year, Grant sums up what most of us are feeling: "Being without it for a year will make us appreciate Nutcracker and those gigs in 2021." It's a friend we'll see again.