My biggest concern before the third rehearsal is that the marching excellence my wife instilled in me will not translate to group marching, or that I’ll be cut before even getting the chance to show off my skills. In preparation, I buy a serious marching outfit (black running pants, shirt, and Samba soccer shoes). I’m desperate to please. I’m desperate to blend in.
I’m already used to the rhythms of the rehearsal: having arrived, individually, at “call time,” we are led down to the third subterranean floor in groups of 10. We sign in, stretch, receive something like “orders of the day” (changes in rehearsal dates and reminders), and then begin to “muster” into our units.
Still, I’m worried that, after my disastrous early stumbles, a closed-door meeting was held in the dead of night to discuss my reassignment. But I sign in and find I haven’t been demoted to another regiment. And, in fact, I’m still having trouble distinguishing between regiments, figuring out which is best. I pore over this like a Kremlinologist. I had assumed the Cossacks were the best, because of the following data:
1. I was in the Cossacks at the start.
2. I was promptly removed after 20 minutes of marching.
3. The (American) director of the supernumeraries (like the former U.S.S.R., this production has many directors) remarked to us in an offhand way, “All of you have been randomly distributed into various regiments, except for the Cossacks.” (This makes me really want to be a Cossack.)
4. During the first rehearsal, as the director was shifting soldiers, they pulled a clearly inept old man out of the Cossack line and dumped him in the chasseurs. I heard the director say quietly, “Let’s find someone … you know … good” to put in the Cossack regiment.
On reflection, I took this all to mean that, despite their burly, hirsute, ungainly appearance, Cossacks had to be uniformly excellent marchers. And that, perhaps because of my last name, they assumed I would be an excellent marcher, but that I didn’t measure up.
I’ve done research and found that the Cossacks were horsemen: so maybe they aren’t supposed to march well. Also, they get the unflattering baggy uniforms. After despairing when I got transferred out, I’m in misery throughout the third rehearsal, thinking I’m one misstep away from being put in one of those billowy nightshirts the Cossacks call tunics. I want the trim elegance of the Ismailovsky colors I’ve seen in the movies. I’m an autumn and I look good in green.
Now I’m doing well on the standard marching, but I’m still a bit unsure during the “parade” marching (the goose-stepping). With my wife, marching to the grocery store, I am perfect—or nearly as good as she is, whose tango dancing, and longer legs, give her an unfair advantage. I’ve implemented technology, practicing for hours with a digital metronome. I can keep time alone. But will it be the same when I’m surrounded by 30 men in quickstep?
Every march down the center of the brightly lit rehearsal room, with all the directors’ eyes on us, I’m aware that even a momentary lapse in concentration will have me hopping like a bunny trying to catch up with my departing troop. We are marching badly. The directors are conferring, pointing. Sasha is shaking his head. Soldiers are being shifted around.
As we get ready for another run, I draw strength from the memory of Sasha’s comment to me in the elevator after the second rehearsal. He said, “Vell done,” in that adorable accent. I thought he was doing it to be nice, and because saying “You’re the vorst” would have damaged regiment morale. But still we marched into the elevator, and, once inside the elevator, we continued to march in place, from the lower depths of the Met up to the stage level. We nalye-vo!-ed (left-faced) and we napr-vo!-ed (right-faced). We even kroo-gom-ed (about-faced). “Ah, this is the life,” I thought, “to be accepted by my Russian commander and be given a private tutorial in the elevator.” When the doors opened, opera singers, staring bemusedly at us, stepped aside to let us march out. They’re used to this kind of thing in the bowels of the Met.
At the end of marching, we line up at the pay table. We are paid in cash: $10 per hour; we’ll get $20 per act in the show itself. But it’s announced that we’re shifting from cash payment to payroll. We’ll need W-2s and I-9s. There’s grumbling in the ranks; people vow not to return. “I didn’t sign up for this,” a soldier to my right says. I never see that soldier again: our first casualty. There will be “melt” from our regiment even before the first staged snows of the great battle and retreat. The outside world reasserts itself, with some supernumeraries jockeying to be the first ones paid and out the door. What are we? Serfs? I don’t know why this bothers me. Am I so naive that I want everyone to be here for the joy of the march, the joy of serving Holy Mother Russia? Da—I mean, yes, perhaps I am.