PORTLAND – Thirty minutes to showtime, and James Herrera finds himself alone in his dressing room.

It feels like the last quiet place on earth.

On the other side of the closed door, backstage at Merrill Auditorium churns with shrieks and laughter as young women in leotards bounce down the hallways, musicians tune their instruments and singers quietly exercise their vocal cords. There’s a whirl of colors, energy and emotion.

The dim chatter of the early arriving audience crackles through backstage speakers.

Amid the madness of another production of “The Nutcracker,” Herrera, playing the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer, has carved out a few final moments of solitude. With the calm of a seasoned actor, he leans over a mirror with cotton swab in hand and blends dark lines with soft shadows of white to create exaggerated lines across his face.

“I’ve always done my own makeup,” he says, savoring these final few moments before he takes his place at center stage and begins the show.

The Maine State Ballet production, which closes today with another sold-out performance, involves hundreds of people and countless hours of angst. There’s a core cast of two dozen that appears in every show, and another 270 dancers in two casts that alternate performances, as well as an orchestra and a chorus. For every young dancer who appears on stage, there’s a nervous parent somewhere backstage with fingers crossed.

“I started by getting tons of advice from former Angel hair mothers,” says Dana Baldwin, explaining the details of preparing her daughter, 12-year-old Lucy Denton, for her performance as one of the Christmas Angels.

Baldwin’s day commences at 8 a.m. for the 2 p.m. matinee. That’s when she cajoles her daughter out of bed, plops her down in front of a movie and begins the hours-long task of turning Lucy’s mostly straight hair into a thick bed of tiny tight curls.

They arrive at the theater at 1 p.m. and join dozens of other dancers and their parents who have all spent their mornings pursuing similar tasks.

“It’s really fun. Once you decide this is your entire weekend, it’s pretty fun,” says Baldwin.

“We’re a well-oiled machine,” says Julie Finn, a dance parent and Maine State Ballet board member who has participated in this chaos for the better part of two decades.

The backstage routine is like an assembly line. Each group of dancers arrives at an appointed time, and each goes through a specific makeup and dressing routine.

The most entertaining part of the makeup process is watching the 24 toy soldiers. They’re all little girls, dressed in black tights. They form a perfect single-file line in the middle of the kids room one level below the stage. At about 25 minutes to curtain, the dancers begin moving from one station to the next.

At the first, a parent-volunteer applies a perfect circle of makeup to each cheek. A second parent fills in the circle with bright red, and then it’s on for lipstick and other details.

By the time the show begins a little after 2, they’re still downstairs, growing increasingly antsy for their turn on stage. When it finally comes, they march up in two groups of 12. One goes stage right, the other stage left. Parent volunteers help them into their costumes and hand them their toy-gun props.

They’re on stage for just minutes, then it’s back into the wings, out of the costumes and back downstairs. The goal is to keep the kids in the costumes for as little time as possible, Finn says. The less wear and tear, the longer the costumes last. Once the kids put their costumes on, there’s no sitting, no food or drink and no trips to the bathroom.

By 3 p.m., intermission arrives. The curtain drops and the audience stirs. No sooner has the last snowflake fallen from high above the Merrill stage than stagehands with big brooms begin sweeping it up.

Downstairs, ever-adorable Christmas Angels are giddy with excitement. After a long day of anticipation, their makeup is fresh and their costumes look perfect. There are hugs from parents and well-wishes for one another as they await the announcement for Act II.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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