In my War and Peace dispatches, I express the belief that ballerinas, when not onstage, are sylphs who flit about in a wooded glade. Even an American Ballet Theatre orchestra member I meet on the subway cannot dissuade me.
“Do ballerinas also take the subway?” I ask her, after polite preliminaries about her cello reveal she plays for ABT.
“They have to eat,” she says.
“Not much!” I counter. “Don’t ballerinas live like dryads, sylphs, or water sprites backstage among the forest glades?”
She clearly has encountered men like me before.
“Believe me, they are not sprites,” she says with a sour expression that suggests the opposite is true. My eyes narrow. I can tell she’s jealous of the attention the sylphs receive.
So, when I receive an e-mail from American Ballet Theatre saying supernumerary auditions for several ballets will be held in May, I tell myself I shouldn’t even hope. Back in December, when I was told of this possibility by a War and Peace super, I dreamed of mingling backstage with ballerinas like Irina Dvorovenko, it’s true. But I tell myself that I’ve had my time on the Met stage and that my career is over. Besides, the specifications say things like “Male Pasha Guard, 5’8”–6’2", slender build dancer type preferred" and “Male Pasha Litter Carrier, 5’8”–5’10", slender build, should be fairly strong." I fall short in almost all categories—literally in most. Plus, they only need four or six of each type (plus “covers,” or understudies). I feel that I was chosen for War and Peace because they needed 200 men of no specific physical description other than “small enough to fit the uniforms.” And, though I have an enormous head, they had enormous hats to cover it. But onstage with ballerinas? Me? No. Only if “dancer’s build” means short, stumpy legs and a sunken chest.
I ask my wife if it’s too late to worry about my “turn out.” I demonstrate it: heels touching, toes pointing to opposite elevator walls. She tells me that ship has sailed, like in 1973.
Nonetheless, I arrive early at the ABT studios for the audition. Just being let in the cramped, dingy building exceeds all my Toulouse-Lautrec expectations. Classes in session, ballerinas stretching splay-legged on the hallway floors. In five minutes, I pass both Paloma Herrera and Xiomara Reyes, and the latter, I think, smiles at me. I later learn she smiles all the time. For years, I’ve admired these dancers from the audience or on my screensaver, and here I am sharing a hallway with them!
I elbow Rick, another War and Peace supernumerary, mouthing “Oh. My. God!” to alert him. He looks at me blankly. He doesn’t know about ABT ballerinas, and doesn’t seem to care much. He’s an actor and this is a job. For me, this is a dream—like when Solor falls asleep in Act II of La Bayadère and dreams of a kingdom of ballerinas. Rick is tall, easily 6 feet 2, so I think he’s a shoo-in for Male Pasha Guard, and I kind of resent him. We enter the studio—hardwood floors, light filtering through enormous half-moon windows, a piano in the corner. I nearly faint. But I look around at the other hopefuls, my competition, and I have to concede they are mostly tiny little girls. I believe they are trying for the “Slave Girls,” each of whom should “appear as a company member”—and they do: most wear ballet gear and white tights as they stretch on the floor, pulling on their pink slippers and adjusting their bows.
I look at my dirty white socks, wishing I had slippers to adjust. I’m already feeling very fat. I get on the floor and try to start stretching, too, but my stubby little legs will not point in opposite directions or even stay flat on the floor. I press my knees down with my hands. The ballet moms are eyeing my pudgy inflexible form with suspicion. I resolve that if I’m accepted I’ll tote around a bottle of water, and get more flexible, pronto.
Some other War and Peace veterans gather in one makeshift regimental unit. Being veterans, they grouse about the War and wonder whether this audition will be as difficult: the marching, the drilling, the orders barked in Russian. But my nerves at being admitted to this magic kingdom have my ears ringing so much I can barely hear them. I wonder if I’ll be asked to passé, penchée, or plié. I want entrance into the ABT so badly that I don’t think I’ll remember how to bend my knees even if they don’t say it in French.
However, we soon learn that everything about the ballet is easier. With War and Peace, we had to bring headshots and résumés. Here, they ask for neither. I was so eager to enumerate all my Met stage appearances and rehearsals that I listed them all on my résumé, but the forms don’t ask about this, or whether any of us have a history of mental illness involving ballerinas.
The charming man leading the audition, Victor, has an easygoing Texas accent, and he tells us that if we’re not chosen it’s probably because we don’t fit the costume. I can’t help but feel him looking at my plug-like thighs when he says this. We have numbers on our chests. We stand in line at the center of the room: the floor-to-ceiling mirrors inform me that there is no angle from which I’m not squat. He and two assistant stage managers look us over, and within a few minutes numbers are called. We are not asked to dance or even walk. I’m asked to stand near the window with three other young men. (OK, most of them are practically boys.) I’m not sure if this is good or bad, until he dismisses the seven or so other men in our height category. Lots of older men are released, too.
We don’t know what role we’ve been assigned until we’re handed sheets of paper: I’m a “Pasha Litter Carrier” in La Bayadère! I’ll be carrying a pasha litter—whatever that is. Scanning the sheet as the other roles are being cast, I see that performances begin in 10 days and that rehearsals begin … now! Everyone up! Within 10 minutes of being cast, we’re practicing our stage business. I learn that a litter carrier has nothing to do with collecting trash, as my friends later joke—I’ll be holding up a corner of one of those pasha conveyances you see in movies set in the Middle East. I’ll be carrying the pasha onto the Met stage. The rehearsal is going so well, with Victor gently directing us around the room, I have none of the fear of being cut that I had in War and Peace.
The way I figure it, the only way I will not appear on the Met stage in 10 days is if I drop the pasha. And there’s no chance of that for the first three rehearsals because there is no litter and there is no pasha. We pantomime everything: picking it up, carrying it, putting it down, letting Victor, as stand-in pasha, mime getting into the invisible contraption, with us miming picking him up and carrying him off.
Victor, in fact, mimes all the parts: the pasha, the female leads, and whole lines of dancers. He’s a gifted actor, and he sums up every character, from blushing virgin Medora to evil pasha, with a gesture. He has the muscular build of a third basemen, but he has the whole ballet and all its characters in his body. Because supernumeraries rehearse separately from the dancers until the day of the show, Victor himself does jetés, bourrées, and pirouettes to suggest what we’ll be seeing just before our cue. He directs the rehearsal pianist on where to pick up the scene, then he shows us in shorthand the ballerina’s solo, the pas de deux, the pas de trois, and the flower dance, where he plays the entire 30-ballerina corps de ballet. He’s amazing. And all the way through he’s full of encouragement about how we’re doing: “That’s great. You guys are pros!” When he’s directing a 7-year-old flower girl who must deliver to Medora a “magic flower” (it’s actually drugged, but you can’t tell that to a child) on a pillow, he leans over and tells her, “After the ballerina takes the magic flower, she’s supposed to thank you. Then you curtsy and thank her. But she’s a ballerina, so she may not thank you.” The little girl nods sweetly, not catching the irony. “So, even if she doesn’t thank you, you have to curtsy anyway.” 1
By the end of the hour-long first rehearsal, we feel as though we are pros and that the two rehearsals we have before opening night will be more than enough. As I drift down the hall toward the elevator, I peek in at the studios and see the ballerinas stretching at the barre. In the old-fashioned metal-cage elevator, I ride down with a principal dancer, Michelle Wiles. She’s tiny—as most ballerinas are, I’m finding—and she’s serious. She wears a sweater and is sniffling. Her miniature nose is red. I’m ready to say “God bless you” should a sneeze come, and to use the opening to gush about her Sleeping Beauty. But I don’t want to break the spell of standing next to a ballerina. So I stare straight ahead and try to pretend that I belong. I’ve only been in ABT an hour and I’m already acting with a prima ballerina!
1 I learn later that Victor is married to one of the leading ballerinas—easily the sweetest ballerina in the company. She always thanks the little girl.