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Reporter makes it through 'Nutcracker' in one piece

by jmaloni

Grows new appreciation for ballet, kneepads

Thu, Dec 17th 2009 09:00 am
Grethe Gruarin helps Joshua Maloni through the GNBC's performance of `The Nutcracker.` (photo by Larry Austin)
Grethe Gruarin helps Joshua Maloni through the GNBC's performance of "The Nutcracker." (photo by Larry Austin)
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by Joshua Maloni

I've never been a big numbers guy. I've always preferred words to digits.

But, in preparing for the Greater Niagara Ballet Company's production of "The Nutcracker," I couldn't help but think of the numbers "12" and "11."

In my senior year of high school, 12 years ago, I began reporting on entertainment - everything from local theater to national television programs to touring musicians. To this day, I write about performers and their art.

The second number, 11, is the number of times I've watched the ballet-centric film "Center Stage." I'm not entirely sure how that happened, though it's probably due to my sister, Elyse, herself once a dancer. As is usually the case when we get together, if she flips on a movie, I tend to get hooked - unless I see Penelope Cruz or ancient Europe.

I'm not quite sure what it is about the film - or ballet, itself - that makes me lose control both of reality and remote control. Perhaps it's the beauty and athleticism? Or maybe it's the power and poise? (With "Center Stage," it's also my belief Peter Gallagher's eyebrows will eventually consume his head.)

I think it has something to do with the fact that, at the end of the day, I know I can catch a football, hit a slapshot or drain a 3-pointer. What I can't do is stand on my tippy toes in some little pink slippers, on what I'm told is some sort of shoebox, and run, jump and twirl around a stage.

That said, on the 11th day of the 12th month, I would make my onstage debut in a ballet. There would be no point shoes or frolicking, mind you, but rather an 18th century, multi-multi-button tuxedo, some sort of half-tie, and many, many knee dives into a hardwood floor.

Having run out of ways to preview "The Nutcracker" for this newspaper, I decided six weeks ago to try my hand at participating in the show as a father in the Act 1 party scene.

Little did I know there would be dancing involved. I mean, logically there would be dancing involved in a ballet, right? But why would anyone put me in that position? Surely the producers knew better than that.

As it turns out, they did know better ... than me.

After many rehearsals, pep talks and prayers - and thanks largely to the skill and patience of my coach and pretend wife, Grethe Gruarin - I can say that I successfully participated in my first theatrical dance performance.

It was great fun.

And I'm now a principal dancer in Cooper Nielson's company!

OK, that last part might be a stretch. I did master my steps, however, and that's good enough for me.

On Friday morning, Dec. 11, we had our first show: an on-school-time performance for elementary students. For this first presentation, I was without Grethe, who had work obligations. I danced with Hayley Metro, a member of the Corps de Ballet. Much to my surprise, when the music started and it was our time to dance, I hit all my marks, albeit with little personality.

That was all well and good. But the real test was Friday night. Not only were my parents and sister there to watch me, but Grethe's parents and friends were also on hand to watch her perform. It had been two years since she participated in "The Nutcracker," and I simply couldn't ruin her return to the Niagara Falls High School stage.

Of course, Grethe never mentioned a word about this to me. Selflessly, she spent the evening instructing the younger children, helping her super-talented sister, Grace, with costuming, and convincing this reporter-turned-dancer that he didn't look foolish.

Sure enough, with the lights shining on us Friday night, and our fans in the stands, the time came to show the adults what we could do. With Tchaikovsky playing in the background, and fake wine in our stomachs, we hit our steps the way they were choreographed. As I completed the final spin with Grethe on my arm, she said, "Good job, Josh!"

That was all I wanted/needed to hear - and it propelled me through our remaining performances on Saturday.

In sports, uniquely talented offensive players are often dubbed "instant offense." To me, Grethe is instant confidence. Between drilling the steps into me Thursday night in the NFHS hallway, and her comment on Saturday, she is the reason I got through "The Nutcracker" unscathed.

Good job, Grethe.

Now, when I wasn't fixated on my own steps, I noticed a multitude of backstage happenings that enable "The Nutcracker" each year to look so smooth onstage. Artistic Director Bev Feder and assistant Julie Traver are constantly monitoring and fine-tuning each step in each set. The result is a crowd-pleasing holiday show featuring top-notch ballet and just enough humor to pacify the non-dance enthusiasts. 

As much as my columns have focused on me, these dancers - and their teachers - are the reason why "The Nutcracker" has both survived and remained artistically relevant for 30-plus years.

The real stars of "The Nutcracker" are the child performers who give it their all each show, and the members of the Corps de Ballet who excel under pressure. These dancers go through a whirlwind between each number. On top of the physically demanding work seen onstage, they are constantly running between and behind curtains, changing into elaborate costumes, and tweaking their steps.

The corps girls I worked with - Alexa Luczak, Bailey Akin, Michelle Montana and Metro, all teens - are world-class performers. More than that, they're smart, dedicated, hard-working professionals.

On the Saturday I began my "Nutcracker" adventure, I felt great trepidation. On the Sunday after my final performance, I experienced a different and somewhat unexpected emotion. The dancers call it " ‘Nutcracker' withdrawal."

Six weeks ago, I was counting the number of rehearsals and wondering if I could master the dance steps. Now, I'm counting the days until next year's production, humming along to the Tchaikovsky soundtrack now permanently etched in my head, and grateful to the GNBC for allowing me to become part of "The Nutcracker."

It was an amazing, unforgettable adventure.

P.S. Kudos to my fellow party scene fathers (Peter Nagy, Joe Priest, Mike Perry, Jim Ieraci, Steve Passmore), who shared in this experience with me. Priest, Perry and Ieraci also made their stage debut this year in "The Nutcracker."

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