Friday, December 24, 2004

Memoirs of a Cannon Doll

In honour of this festive time, here is my article about appearing in the Nutcracker, from last week's National Post.

When I was asked to be a Cannon Doll in the National Ballet
of Canada's production of The Nutcracker, I was tickled pink. I
figured it was a distinct honour to follow in the footsteps of
Pierre Berton, former mayor Barbara Hall and the National Post's
founding editor-in-chief, Ken Whyte, to name just a few of the
grandees who have appeared in the two-minute cameo.

But then, glancing at this year's guests, it became apparent to me
that -- other than Rick Mercer and Doug Gilmour -- the list was
composed entirely of Toronto arts and entertainment reporters.
Hacks! All of them!

"It's clear that it wasn't my dancing ability they picked me for --
it was because I work in the media," I wrote in a crestfallen e-mail
to Post news reporter Siri Agrell, whom I had asked to accompany me
onstage. "Shock! I feel used!"

But Siri's enthusiasm was undampened. "I want to be a Sugar Plum
Fairy," she wrote back.

Backstage at the Hummingbird Centre last Sunday afternoon, any
qualms I have about making a fool of myself in front of a sold-out
matinee have been replaced by a yearning for that place all
performers (and journalists who have put aside theatrical ambitions
for the lucrative arts-reporting industry) lust for: The Spotlight.
"We're going to be stars," I tell Siri as we wait to be briefed by
Peter Ottmann, the ballet master.

Ottmann, who looks a lot like the guy who played Q on Star Trek:
The Next Generation, shows us a short instructional video: Siri and
I are to walk onstage with dancer Nathaniel Kozlow, who will wheel a
cannon in front of him. Siri will act frightened and try to stop
Nathaniel from firing streamers into the audience, while I will
gleefully urge him on in his pre-emptive strike against the
bourgeoisie. Then we'll turn the cannon on the Evil Rat Czar,
assassinate him and redistribute all the farmland in Nutcrackonia.

Or something like that. I'm a little shaky on the plot.

Back in the dressing room, I have many questions for wardrobe
assistant Grant Heaps as he shows Siri and me our costumes: Did
hockey star Gilmour wear the same pair of clown pants I am now
slipping into? And were they cleaned afterward? Really, thoroughly
dry-cleaned or, preferably, soaked in bleach?

Being backstage with half-dressed ballerinas isn't quite the
titillating thrill I had expected. First of all, there are about 60
children involved in James Kudelka's production. And since it's
sometimes hard to tell them apart from petite, flat-chested
ballerinas, it's best to play it safe and avert your eyes at all

Besides, dancers have a reputation for being bad girlfriend
material. I'm about to ask Nathaniel if he's dated any crazy
ballerinas, when it occurs to me I'm being incredibly presumptuous.
Better to just phrase the question in a sexuality-neutral way in
case he's gay.

"So," I say casually, "I hear that women dancers are ca-raaaazy!"

"My wife used to be a dancer," Kozlow says. Oops.

Luckily, we're about to go onstage. "You know, they don't wash
those costumes, eh?" a stagehand cracks, breaking my concentration.
Thanks. Now all I can think of are Dougie Gilmour's privates.

But these sweaty thoughts evaporate upon contact with The
Spotlight. It's every bit as blissful as I remember from my McGill
Savoy Society days. That moment when you lose yourself in in the
music. The moment: you own it. You better never let it go. You only
get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity
comes once in a lifetime, yo.

It occurs to me that I am audibly rapping that Eminem song from 8
Mile. Thankfully, the orchestra is loud.

After Nathaniel, Siri and I send the Rat Czar scurrying with mime
and karate chops, we reluctantly leave the stage and return to the
dressing room. High-fives all around.

There's only one person whose approval I really need, though. And
there he is.

Ernie Abugov, the company's much-loved stage manager, who has
abided through nearly 30 years of pseudo-celebrity cameos, pops his
head in the door and gives Siri and me the thumbs-up.

"You were great," he says in his favourite-uncle sort of way.

Mission: accomplished. Nuts: cracked!