By ANGIE JABINE
Once upon a December, back when my daughter was still a baby, I offered to take my daycare provider’s seven-year-old daughter to see the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. She had never been to the Keller (then Civic) Auditorium. I’m not sure she had ever been downtown. She wore a summer party dress over her acrylic knee socks and scuffed sneakers, and she was more nervous than excited, like this excursion might be some sort of punishment. Her agitation came to a head as the Waltz of the Snowflakes began. All that fake snow trickling down on all those twirling ballerinas had a predictable effect on her bladder, and the peak of the pirouetting found the two of us jostling past a long row of annoyed balletomanes.
The point of this little anecdote is not that no good deed goes unpunished, but simply to illustrate one of the things Eugene author Lauren Kessler learned on her Nutcracker odyssey: everyone has a Nutcracker story. Somewhere along the way, the Nutcracker has become the most-performed ballet in the world. It helps fill the coffers of ballet companies every year. For instance, it accounts for 44% of the Eugene Ballet Company’s annual earned income, and that’s a pretty typical number. And for most people, The Nutcracker is the only ballet they will ever see.
For Kessler, it’s most likely the only ballet in which she will ever perform. Her new book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker (Da Capo Press), is a record of her audacious and frequently hilarious mission, which culminates in her dancing the part of Clara’s Maiden Aunt Rose. Sure, it’s not the Sugar Plum Fairy. The part doesn’t even call for dancing sur les pointes. But still—it’s The Nutcracker!
Wanting to dance in a ballet at an age when most dancers themselves are long retired may sound crazy, but Kessler isn’t your typical sedentary middle-aged writer. Although her best-known book is Stubborn Twig, a history of Japanese-Americans in Oregon, she has become more of a participant-journalist in recent years. Her book Counter-Clockwise, which came out in 2014, chronicled her campaign to reverse the effects of time on her own aging body by using diet, exercise, and mental training to push herself to peak vitality.
But to what further end? Other aging fitness buffs run marathons, or swim to Cuba, or climb Annapurna. For Kessler, there was unfinished business to resolve. As a young girl she had been serious about ballet, begging her family to let her take advanced ballet classes with former Balanchine dancer André Eglesvsky, whose students often went on to apprentice with professional ballet companies. On a fateful day when she was 11, she overheard Eglevsky tell her mother that it was no good: She would never be a dancer with that shape; she had the wrong body. And with that, her ballet aspirations were dashed.
It was the long-festering memory of that humiliating remark that drove Kessler to cold-call Toni Pimble, the co-founder and artistic director of the Eugene Ballet Company, and talk her way into the chance of a Nutcracker role.
Kessler, being Kessler, was not just looking for a celebrity cameo as a party guest, which is a Nutcracker tradition in many cities. She wanted to dance. She had already made a special cross-country trip to binge-watch six separate Nutcracker productions, including the definitive version—the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, the one choreographed by George Balanchine, the Nutcracker against which all other Nutcrackers are judged. (This was also the trip that convinced Kessler that everyone has a Nutcracker story, including taxi drivers and professional rodeo clowns.) Kessler promised Pimble she would train as hard as any athlete—harder even.
And she did. Like Rocky Balboa in a leotard, she trained. All her previous weight lifting and track running and bicycle spinning had given her strength and endurance but had also shortened her hamstrings and bulked up her muscles. Now she would need to stretch out those hamstrings, develop her leg extension, and totally redefine her carriage. In early spring of 2014, she plunged into yoga, Pilates, water-jogging, and a machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics—along with ballet classes, of course.
All this, she notes, was just “prep for the prep for the real work.” The prep for the real work would be EBC’s community Adult Ballet classes that summer. Only then would she join EBC’s company classes in September, taking her daily place at the barre between EBC dancers Suzanne Haag and Mark Tucker, who would keep an eye on her until roles were assigned and actual rehearsals began.
This is no spoiler: Pimble put her in the show. As Clara’s Aunt Rose, Kessler toured with EBC’s Nutcracker production, riding the company bus all over the Pacific Northwest, from Coos Bay, Oregon, to Sandpoint, Idaho. Resplendent in a hoop-skirted ball-dress and wearing stage makeup that would have made Tammy Faye Bakker cry tears of envy, she negotiated her Party Scene steps in basketball arenas and frigid auditoriums, secure in the knowledge that her alternating partners, principal dancer Mark Tucker and aspirant Jesse Griffin, would help her get through the Grandfather Dance and the Gallop without tumbling off her two-and-a-half-inch-heeled shoes.
As a reporter and storyteller, Kessler does on paper what ballet dancers do on stage—she makes her work look easy. Apart from the book’s self-help pep talks, some of which I could have done without, Raising the Barre is not unlike The Nutcracker itself: a delicious confection, a fast-paced romp. Anyone who has ever wondered what a ballet dancer’s life is like will learn something from the book, even if it’s the only ballet book they ever read.
For instance, Kessler learned that it is entirely possible to use the bathroom while wearing a leotard and tights without removing the whole ensemble. Writes Kessler, “As I do this—with great success, I might add—I have but one thought: I bet Dame Margot Fonteyn did this too.”
She learned that when ballet companies tell their ballerinas they need to “elongate,” it’s often a euphemism for “We’d like you to lose five more pounds, please.” She learned what “swoop and scoop” means. (It’s a guy thing. You’ll have to read the book.) She learned why a ballet company would fall apart without its wardrobe mistress, stage director, technical director, and stage crew. She learned that there is no perfectionist like a dancer; that however perfectly they have mastered 99 percent of the movement, it’s that last 1 percent that chases them into the studio at 5:30 am, morning after morning after morning.
Kessler is clearly also that kind of a perfectionist. But whatever still haunts her about her performance in The Nutcracker, she can’t have been too terrible—she’s dancing Maiden Aunt Rose again this year. Even if the hateful André Eglevsky is no longer around to see her do it.
Lauren Kessler performs in the Eugene Ballet Company’s Nutcracker on December 16 and 17 at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, and on December 18, 19, and 20 at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene. There will be autographed copies of Raising the Barre in the lobby at both venues. She will read from the book and conduct a workshop on January 17 at the Newport Public Library.