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Saturday, December 18, 2021

Finding Light in Dark Times

 

Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch as Dewdrop
in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. photo @ Angela Sterling

When I heard the news about Covid's Omicron variant a couple of weeks back, my body just clenched up. “Oh, what fresh hell is this?” I asked myself.

These are dark times, literally and metaphorically, as we hover near Winter Solstice with so few hours of daylight, and news reports of rising infection rates and ongoing political strife crash ashore endlessly.

I always struggle in December, so it’s become my practice to seek out moments of joy wherever they present themselves; simple pleasures--holiday lights emerging like mushrooms on houses and shops across the city, glowing like beacons in the long stretches of darkness. Or baking for friends, with KING-FM on in the background.

Or annual holiday performances, a pleasure I took for granted until last year, pre-vaccine, when the pandemic forced the cancellation or the migration of live shows to online streams. We’ve learned to love, or at least live with, digital performances, but for me there’s nothing like sitting in an audience with other people.

I’ve written before about the giddiness I experienced upon entering McCaw Hall to see Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. I had a similar sense of glee this month at a performance of A Christmas Carol, at ACT Theatre.

R. Hamilton Wright, Amy Thone and Nathaniel Tenebaum 
in ACT Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. Photo courtesy ACT Theatre


Actor Nathaniel Tenenbaum’s pre-show speech started off with a rousing “we’re back!” followed by a shout backstage to his fellow cast members “they’re here in the seats!” I got goose bumps, and a bit misty eyed, and filled with the familiar anticipation of the play about to unfold.

Julie Briskman, the Ghost of Christmas Present in ACT Theatre's A Christmas Carol
photo @ Hannah Delon, courtesy ACT


As I watched the brilliant Julie Briskman, the Ghost of Christmas Present, rise up from below the stage on a chaise, draped in green velvet with a matching garland of greenery crowning her head, I broke into a huge smile. Of course, it was under my mask, so nobody saw it, but I know the rest of the audience was probably smiling too.

 

PNB company members with Noelani Pantastico as Dewdrop, 2016
photo @ Angela Sterling

What I didn’t realize was that, this year, performers are relishing these moments too. Arts organizations here and around the world have struggled to keep their heads above water through the pandemic, so reopening with a holiday classic has new meaning.

 

 

Lesley Rausch with her Cavalier, Dylan Wald in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

“Sometimes, we get to Nutcracker and it’s like, ‘oh, here we go again.”

Principal dancer Lesley Rausch is in the middle of her 20th season dancing with PNB, so she’s performed her share of Nutcrackers. For Rausch and her fellow company members, the chance to be on stage this December is a return to business as usual, albeit with a twist.

“We’re testing every other day during Nutcracker, with rapid (antigen) tests,” she explains. “There’s a little bit of fear every time that what if this is the time that the virus slips through? It affects the whole company.”

That fear is particularly acute now that Omicron is raging through New York, forcing Broadway theaters to close down shows. As I write these words, Puget Sound arts organizations remain open, but on high alert.

At PNB, everyone backstage is still masked, including the dancers. The masks don’t come off until they twirl out from the wings. Which is only fair, because all of us audience members are also masked. (BTW, that mask should cover your mouth and nose! It doesn’t do anything hanging over your chin except make me want to yell at you!)

 

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in PNB's 2021 production of The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling

 

This year, watching Rausch and Dylan Wald take the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier touched me in a way that the familiar pas de deux normally doesn’t. I like the choreography, and love the music, but I’ve seen Nutcracker so many times that I’m often not completely present. This year, though, Rausch and Wald created a magic that I’ve been missing; she truly was a gossamer fairy in Wald’s arms, her descent to the stage from each leap an evanescent, gravity-defiant shimmer.

Rausch says dancing in this year’s Nutcracker has brought her a renewed energy for a show that can sometimes feel like an annual grind. We may see it only once a year, but for dancers, especially those in the corps de ballet, the four-week Nutcracker run can be grueling. This year, though, Rausch treasures every performance.

“We’ve all just been craving it so much!” she says. “Thursday night’s show wasn’t even full, but the audience was wild. I got applause for just walking out on stage. I never had so much fun out there, it was a blast!”

PNB company members in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
photo @ Angela Sterling


In the darkness of a second pandemic winter, audiences are grateful to be able to sit in theaters again, to savor holiday traditions. Sometimes we need to respond with more than cheers and applause.

“I got a letter in the mail, from a little girl,” says Rausch. “She told me how much she loved watching me as Sugar Plum and how she wants to be just like me when she grows up.”

The girl included a gift for the ballerina--a home-made holiday ornament, fashioned from popsicle sticks and covered with glitter.

Rausch’s big blue eyes fill with tears as she tells me this story.

“I mean, cue the water works! We’re so removed from the audience as performers, you forget the impact you can have on somebody’s life!”

When it comes to moments of joy and grace in the December darkness, it doesn’t get brighter than that.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is onstage at McCaw Hall through December 28. ACT’s A Christmas Carol is onstage through December 26.

 

 

 

3 comments:

  1. Lovely reminder of the value of the arts, and of community, in our lives.

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  2. now I can't wait to see Lesley tonight ;)
    Angelica's dewdrop was stunningly spectacular - worth an extra ticket by itself if you have the chance.

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