Mikhail Baryshnikov sauntered onto the stage of Segerstrom Hall during an American Ballet Theatre rehearsal one afternoon last week, looking so unprepossessing that 13-year-old Stephanie Balmer scarcely recognized him.
"Maybe he'll turn around," she said, hoping the famous ABT artistic director would glance her way.
But the seventh-grader from Costa Mesa, a talented ballet student already planning on a professional career, was playing hooky from school for something more serious than stargazing.
What drew the rapt attention of her sky-blue eyes was the ABT corps de ballet being put through its paces.
"You can see how they're working," she whispered as the renowned company prepared for a performance on its Southern California tour.
Moments earlier, by the invitation of an ABT dancer who shall remain nameless, Stephanie had ambled past security guards at the stage-door entrance to the Orange County Performing Arts Center, like a real-life Alice in Wonderland.
Then, she had been led down a huge backstage corridor lined with rehearsal rooms and into the lavish concert hall. Once there, Stephanie threaded her way across a red-velvet sea of empty seats to the middle of the dimly lit orchestra section and sat down shyly with her hands in her lap.
Had Stephanie been in a church pew, she couldn't have seemed more devout. Blond, pretty and demure in a peach-colored skirt and blouse and black patent leather shoes, Stephanie was cognizant of the rare privilege of her invitation.
"Usually my mom is pretty strict about school," she said, clearly thrilled by her special glimpse of the company's world-class dancers. "But my mom thought this was a neat chance for me."
The famous ABT artistic director never did turn around. He stood with his back to the hall in a blue blazer and powder-blue jeans. Aviator-style sunglasses shielded his eyes. A coat tossed over one shoulder gave the impression of studied nonchalance.
But Stephanie didn't waste much time watching Baryshnikov. She marveled instead at the grace and extension of three couples rehearsing a sequence from George Balanchine's "Donizetti Variations."
ABT associate director John Taras was less approving. He stood up from his chair on-stage and brought the couples to a halt with a clap of his hands. A thickset, silver-haired gentleman distinguished from the rest of the company by the formality of his suit and tie, Taras emphasized the ending of a musical phrase by gently spelling it out: "Yam, pah-tam, pah-tam."
Finally satisfied after the corps repeated the sequence, he brought on principal dancer Amanda McKerrow. She took the stage with her red hair flying and "walked" through her role in a pink sweat shirt, tight jeans and white high-tops.
Indeed, the entire rehearsal's lack of sartorial or scenic splendor--a sharp contrast to the actual performances--could not have been more pronounced.
But the beaming audience-of-one found that especially wonderful.
"It's so neat to see them dancing in their regular clothes," Stephanie said. "It makes the whole thing less distant."
More than a little serious about becoming a professional ballerina, Stephanie spent six weeks last summer on a full scholarship at the San Francisco Ballet School. She typically trains four hours a day, five days a week, during the year. It is a grinding schedule that takes up most of her time when she's not doing homework for her classes at the MacArthur Fundamental Middle School in Costa Mesa.
"Yeah, I do my homework and I get pretty good grades or my mom wouldn't let me take dance," Stephanie volunteered.
The mere thought of cutting back on dancing darkened her face. But it seemed inconceivable to her, under the spell cast by the ABT rehearsal, that she would ever be anything but a ballerina.
"I'm going to try out for a company one day," Stephanie said.
And when the rehearsal ended, and her mother insisted she return to school to finish off the last 20 minutes of classes, Stephanie went without even the shadow of a frown.