Watching from the sidelines, Emily DeAngelis looks like a helicopter parent on a play date.
Dancers are in rehearsal for “The Nutcracker,” and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier are dancing with a third party: the new tutu.
Or as DeAngelis refers to each of the three new tutus, “she.” Swarovski crystals stud the hand-sewn bodice, and the skirt is layer after layer of stiff, hand-pleated tulle. She is bubblegum pink — and a lot to manage for the head of the costume shop at Richmond Ballet.
The tutus are in for some manhandling when the couples rehearse the grand pas de deux, performed toward the end of “The Nutcracker” to Tchaikovsky’s haunting, climactic score.
“They are obviously very precious,” DeAngelis says, “and they are made to be worn and handled. But there are those moments where you’re in rehearsal and you see them doing the lifts. The tutu is folded up like a taco on their bodies and you just have to sort of get past it.”
The Sugar Plum Fairy’s tutu is a classical, known as a plate, tutu. Its stiff skirt sticks out almost parallel to the floor.
“You can have a horrible moment,” ballet master Malcolm Burn warns the Cavaliers, company dancers Fernando Sabino and Trevor Davis. “If [the tutu] gets caught up, people will laugh. Do anything you can do to preserve [the ballerina’s] life, but leave an arm behind to smooth down the tutu.”
“I adore her outfit,” company dancer Valerie Tellmann says. “I’m not going to lie. I love that our Sugar Plum Fairy is pink, my favorite color. Every time I put that joker on, it makes me so happy.”
During the course of the rehearsal, company dancers Tellmann, Maggie Small and Cody Beaton end up arched over the Cavalier’s head, perched on his shoulder, swept downward, upward and spun like a top.
“The entire costume shop is full of artists,” DeAngelis says, “and they all work so hard and everyone’s hands have touched these. When we put them on bodies anything could happen. You have to kind of Zen out and enjoy the pretty, pretty dancing. Then they take it off and you can hold it close again.”
And you replace by hand all of the teeny, tiny crystals that pop off.
Despite being the only ones uninhibitedly enjoying the new tutus, the Sugar Plum Fairies have their own problems. The role involves not only the grand pas de deux, but also the iconic solo set to the tinkling music of the celesta. It’s a demanding exposition of classical ballet, requiring the dancers to rehearse, in combination with other roles, for six hours a day in unforgiving pointe shoes.
“This toenail is going to be the death of me,” Tellmann says, performing her ninth “Nutcracker.” She reveals a foot with half of her big toe bruised. “I also get corns. All three of us deal with corns.”
At home after rehearsal, they submerge their feet in buckets of ice and water, sometimes even taking an ice bath.
“But when you perform,” says Beaton, who will dance with Davis, “you get a surge of adrenaline, and then if something is really hurting, you don’t even feel it until after you are done. In the moment, it’s less about your body because you are in the character.”
Small’s favorite part is the beginning of the pas de deux.
“Here I am. In a pink tutu! In the spotlight! With Fernando!” she says, noting that she calls him her work husband. “When you have that magical performance, it’s fun to share that with another person. It’s not tangible, you’ll never get it back, and even if you see it on video, it’s not the same. But you shared it with someone.”
Tellmann will dance with her fiance, Kirk Henning, a free-lancer formerly with Richmond Ballet. Long hours in rehearsal and the high of performing together have been known to lead partners to dating or marrying.
“Let’s be honest,” Tellmann says. “I do ballet because I get to wear a tutu and a tiara and I get thrown around in the air like I did when I was 7 years old. And at the end of grand pas, you’ve done a really hard thing. And whether you’ve done a good job or not, he’s gonna throw you in the air. And it feels amazing.” S
“The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 19-28 at the CenterStage. Tickets are available at eTIX.com, by calling 800-514-3849, or at the Richmond Ballet box office, 407 E. Canal St.