I haven’t seen the costume for my role in Le Corsaire − a ballet loosely based on a Byron poem about pirates, pashas (think turbaned sultan), and abducted harem girls. I fear my outfit will be harem pants, a bare midriff, and a vest. My midriff is probably too milky white to read as Turkish. In the meantime, I’m required to buy black ballet slippers, which is delightful! I go to Capezio’s. I hope to find “rehearsal pants” to really impress Victor. I shyly ask the girl, “Where’s the men’s section?” She shakes her head sadly, and says, “There, like, is no men’s section.”
But they do have men’s shoes. I pretend to thoughtfully browse in the shoebox-sized store, admiring the Lycra and tulle, and then go back and announce to her grandly, as if I were too modest to admit it at first: “I’m in American Ballet Theatre’s upcoming production, so … I’ll need some shoes.”
She asks, “Leather or cloth?” and I am flummoxed and revealed for the fraud I am.
“I didn’t know there was a choice,” I say, “I’m only an extra.”
It’s the day of the first show, and our first rehearsal with ballerinas. The pantaloon harem boy pants and bejeweled breastpiece do not instill me with manly confidence when standing next to Irina Dvorovenko. I remind myself that everyone is in pantaloons. But somehow the dancers seem to carry it off better, maybe because they are purposefully striding about. But maybe it’s the muffin-like fake turban with elastic chinstrap that makes me feel like an organ grinder’s monkey. Also, I’m wearing a black polyester unitard under my pantaloons, with a crotch that will ride up and take my underwear with it. I do have on the black leather slippers I bought. Dwayne1, the lead dresser, looks at the elastic straps I painstakingly sewed in last night, shakes his head, and tells me to hide them or cut them off.
We’re a small band of harem boys − 8 all together. Four of us are pasha-bearers in the Bazaar Scene in Act I, two are covers, and six get to come on stage in Act III for a palace guard scene. There is none of the rivalry or vying for placement that grew in the ranks of War and Peace.2 Some have done it enough. Some will do other ballets this summer. It turns out that competitiveness seemed to be a product of the military structure more than the theatrical one. But the tension is higher for me because being in a position to seriously injure ballerinas makes me nervous.
The first time we lift the Pasha during the tech rehearsal (our first with a small audience watching), I’m on the rear “passenger side” pole of the fringed and tasseled cart. All four of us must rise simultaneously from our crouches and carry the Pasha on stage. It’s a clean and jerk and walk. On the count of 1-2-3, I pull on my end, but it doesn’t budge. Something is holding my end down. I yank harder, and I hear a zippering tear. My pants! I’ve caught my pants on the pole and torn them off! But we’re moving onto stage, and I’m trying to keep pace. Straining to hold the Pasha up, I can’t look down. The audience will let me know if I’ve ripped my pants.
We deposit the Pasha at center stage, and exit. My pants are intact. No one else seemed to hear the tear. I sidle over to the empty pasha cart. A gold tassel is missing from my rear side. It hits me: I was kneeling on the tassel, which prevented me from lifting the Pasha’s cart. I find it on the other side and kick it under a curtain until I can figure out what to do. It’s a 30-year-old cart and smells like dry rot. I could tell the stagehand the tassel’s fallen off, but then I decide it might be better not to alert them to my destruction of ABT property on my first touch. I surreptitiously tie it back on myself. It’s only a little shorter than the others. On our return trip, when we’re supposed to pick up the Pasha on stage and carry him off, we are so late with our cue that we have to blow by him, and he chases us like a pasha who’s missed his train.
For all of that, the most scarifying part is not the pasha-carrying, which is heavy-lifting and fraught with the real danger of dropping the Pasha, it’s the delicate job of placing a 4′ × 3′ flower pallet on the stage as intersecting lines of dancers glide around on pointe. Victor told us we must place it between waves of ballerinas (after the yellow line, after the peach, but before the orange one) on an 8 + 8 + 6 + 4 count. My persistent (and unasked) question: “What’s a 8 + 8 + 6 + 4 count?” The music is supposed to guide us, but as one veteran pasha carrier, Jim, told me, “Don’t listen to the music, look at the bodies. The dancers will follow the music; you just follow the dancers, and avoid hitting them.” That’s rule #1. But because the tech rehearsal, dress rehearsal, and first show all happen on the same day, the first time we ever practice with ballerinas is the day we have to do it perfectly. And in the first tech rehearsal, the dancers cross, I do follow, and place down the flowerbeds perfectly by sheer happenstance.
In the dress rehearsal that immediately follows, with an orchestra and 30 ballerinas in intersecting lines − instead of just Victor miming 30 ballerinas − it seems more complicated. All day I worry about placing this 4-by-3-foot wooden prop behind the delicate arch of a 95-pound ballerina, who may not know it is inches behind her extended right foot, because this is the first time it ever was. It’ll be like the time I put my coffee cup on the living room floor − and my wife kicked it over. I’m fixated on the fragile ballerina’s stick-like leg. It will be three inches from the mark that I’m positive the lackadaisical tattooed stagehand has moved forward a foot since last time. I dither for a split second, and as I dither, I miss the line of ballerinas I was supposed to tuck myself behind. When I come to, I run out double quick, still staring at the fragile leg, delicately placing the flat just inches behind it. I pivot, and cross through the line of ballerinas who are now peeling off and arcing backwards. I see a pink confection, arms overhead, spinning, bearing down on me. We just avoid a collision. A trio of ballerinas in the wings are shaking their heads. In a beat, I’m safely off, but the microphone of the ballet mistress booms, “The flower guys on the right were way late.”
We have been told that we can cross before or after a line of ballerinas, but never in between the line. It would be like walking right through the middle of a delicate line of baby chicks following their mother: dangerous and ugly. Victor comes over after the dress rehearsal, and says in his affable way, “What happened there? Did a girl get in your way?” He’s giving me an out. I start to explain that I think the mark was correct in the first run-through but that the stagehands have moved the blue tape too far downstage for the Tech − right behind the leg of the ballerina en pointe. I’m talking excitedly, and illustrating with my fingers. He chews his gum a few more times, nods, looks at my hands, and says, “Yeah, I’ll look into that.” He saunters off. I realize, as he walks away, that I’ve given the associate director of ABT − who has put this ballet together hundreds of times from New York to Abilene − a note as he was trying to give me one. Nicely done. I never disappoint. The tape remains where it is, and I’ll have to place the flower flat inches behind the ballerina’s delicate pointed foot tonight. I will have to figure out what Victor’s entrance instruction of “8 + 8 + 6 + 4” means.
Before the show, I retreat to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library to view the 1999 PBS broadcast of ABT’s Le Corsaire. It’s the same staging, even some of the stars in the same roles. I note the music changes both in time, and in the instrument transitions from strings to oboe, so I’ll know what my cue sounds like. I replay the placement of the flower flats over and over. I draw intricate diagrams with the music and time cues next to them. In theory, I can watch my opposite in the facing stage left wing, but I get the feeling he’s depending on me, god help him. I have my entrance keyed to the clock on the wall, the musical transitions, the swooning oboe, the colors of the costumes and the last ballerina solo’s applause.
There are other distractions. Each ballerina has a grandmotherly duenna who follows her around with a plastic sippy cup and straw, towel, and sewing kit. Male dancers have their counterparts with bottles. They meet the dancers each time they exit the stage, asking with a glance if they want anything. The women typically bend over, hands on knees puffing, sometimes cursing: “Shit!” and then saying to the teenage Slave Girl Super, “Pardon me, I should watch my language.”
A typical ballerina exchange after something doesn’t go well sounds like this:
Ballerina #1: “What the fuck?”
Ballerina #2: “Was it that bad?”
Ballerina #1: “Well, at least it’s over with.”
This same ballerina, who was clearly having an off night, said between her second and third solos, “Only one to go,” as if she were a runner with one last heat.
I feel so lucky to be in the darkened wings, standing inches from a stretching Irina or Julie. But I can do no more than smile blandly at them in my I Dream of Jeannie outfit because (a) extras are essentially animated scenery, and (b) they are super-focused and stretching before they twirl on, and then bent over, huffing and puffing when they leap off. Then, it’s hands on knees, panting. Or they flop to the floor, and lay there until they drag themselves up and go out again. They’re not sprites, like I thought, but sprinters, loosening-up their hamstrings by grabbing them with two hands and shaking them. I stand trying to be invisible. Their dresser holds out a sippy cup, offers a towel. Hair is attended to. Some ballerinas pull on their sweats and Ugg-like plastic booties as soon as they are off. They walk around, hands-on-hips, like the jocks that they are. But everyone is immediately focused on what comes next. Even me. I’m so worried I’m going to miss my flower music cue, one of my ABT favorites, Maria Riccetto, has her left leg thrown up on a light tower six inches from my ear. Only a few months ago, I saw her outside City Center. I was waiting for my wife. Maria seemed to be waiting for her boyfriend. When my wife arrived, we were thrilled to be walking in the same direction as she was. Or at least I was thrilled. But backstage, it was five minutes before I noticed who the leg belonged to. I had a tub of flowers to deliver, you see, and it had to be there on time.
1 Not his real name, for reasons that will become clear.
2 For a complete account see Napoleonic Dispatches 1-12.