I don’t think being backstage at ABT is ho-hum, but I think I may be in the minority. The dancers often seem bored backstage, even though there are many ways to pass the time. Marcelo Gomes pretends his pirate swords are a stripper’s tassels and whips them around first at breast level, then at groin level. Then back at breast level. He positions himself so that Ethan Stiefel can see him in the opposite wing, as ballerinas dance onstage between them. Hector Cornejo massages ballerinas’ legs, and when they are not around, he playfully massages Angel Corella’s legs. These two always chat in Spanish, and I understand just enough to know they aren’t making fun of me.
I find it difficult to be bored because my eye is always on Irina Dvorovenko and her annoyingly present, annoyingly good-looking husband, the principal dancer, Maxim Beloserkovsky. They’re the Cinderella/Prince Charming on all the posters and playbills. He’s always giving her tips, criticizing her, showing off how much he knows about ballet, insinuating how much better he is than me. It’s all in Russian, so I’m going by his tone, mostly. In the story ballet playing in my head, he is the dark ogre and I’m the young prince. But it’s hard to compete in my ballooning, nearly transparent bloomers. The only way in which I’m his equal is that we both have a “los” and “osky” in our names. I’m not bragging. Besides, Irina is gorgeous − in the imposing style of Maria Sharapova − and is a working mother to boot. She has her hands full without embarking on a love triangle with a $20-a-show pasha carrier like me. But here we are in the wings together, and my feeling is that in the magical world of ballet, anything can happen.
She paces back and forth in her sweats before she goes on. She stretches against a light tower, practices a turn (inches away from me), and then paces some more. Now she’s stretching on a red velvet divan, head down between her legs, feet pointing off the couch like a rag doll. Her nanny holds her daughter, who cries for her mommy. Irina rises. I step back. Maybe the baby is crying because the scary, squat man in the turban and bloomers is hovering so close to her mommy. Irina caresses the baby’s cheek as she passes. When she quiets down, the nanny puts her on the ground. But then she makes a break for the stage, and is two feet from her own debut when Irina scoops her up and hands her to her useless husband. Now, the baby starts to really wail. Ha! Maxim hands her to Irina. Doesn’t he know Irina’s entrance in the veil is just two minutes away! Irina will need to strip off her sweat pants in preparation for her entrance as Medora, the most beautiful harem girl at the bazaar. I almost grab the baby. That would show Maxim. But she hands the baby back to the nanny, who takes her deep backstage, where the crying can’t be heard. As the nanny paces back and forth, the baby grows quiet and content, watching her mother move onstage in stately, measured steps – the most beautiful mommy in the ballet.
Four shows in, and my presence hasn’t managed to disrupt the ballet. At least I haven’t crippled a ballerina yet with my flower placement. When it’s done right, my opposite and I enter behind a wave of ballerinas and we are invisible − as my wife attests. But sometimes my flowerpot placement is way off.
When I hear the tattooed stagehand say, “Wow. Not even close!” I sidle up to him and mention that the ballerina gets awfully close to the tape he’s mis-positioned. “Yeah. It’s never the same twice,” he says, unfazed, “as long as they don’t step in it.” I point out that they are dancing right on the oval where the flowers are supposed to go.
I confer with my opposite across the stage. He hesitated tonight and the assistant stage director yelled at him, “You’re off! You’re off!” as he tried to get the flowerpot closer to the mark. He thought she meant off the mark, so he was fussing with it, but she was just trying to get him off the stage.
If the stagehands notice my three-foot miss, I’ll be sure to get a note about it before tomorrow’s performance. I live in fear of getting notes. But just as the stagehand predicted, the ballerinas fluidly avoid my poorly positioned flowerpots.
After five shows, I’m exhausted from worry. I’ve been the only “every nighter” so I think I’ll let an understudy go on for me tonight. Besides, I don’t want to look like a harem hog. In Le Corsaire we make ad hoc switching arrangements among ourselves, without any outside input from an actual ballet professional. No wonder the pirates chase us away without a fight in Act III.
On my night off, I’m in the super costume room, which is stuffed with racks of sultan robes and crates of shoes. The physical therapy room for the principals is right off the super costume room, so we are treated to the sight of ballerinas getting massages on our way in. We’ve been instructed not to loiter. You can tell there’s a certain type of extra for which this rule is difficult.
Today, perhaps the greatest ballerina in the world, Diana Vishneva, is sitting just outside our dressing room, speaking Russian into her cell phone. Her hulking, KGB-ish Russian duenna sits directly in front of her at a folding table. She gives me a warning look: Keep valking tiny man. I pretend to forget something in the super room so I can pass by her one more time. I spent nearly $400 on tickets to see Diana in April, and here she is curled up like a cat in tights and legwarmers. I get another “move along” look from her as, finger to chin, I pretend to consider drinking some water.
I give up and take the stairs out to the stage door where I see some civilians waiting for a glimpse of the ballerinas. I want to say to them, “I’m nobody, but I know where the prima you most desire is right now. Indeed, I could walk back through that door and stand next to her.” Why do these ballet-crazy people have to stand outside when an untalented crazy person like me gets unearned privileges? It’s terribly unfair.
Back in the super costume room, I’m eager to glean ballet history from Franco, a charming Italian who’s earned a spot in ABT’s three-week Intensive Institute. Eleven men and seventy women auditioned for a handful of spots. Unlike my five-minute audition, Franco’s audition was a daylong process with judges observing dancers in class performing various disciplines: at the barre, adagio, in attitude, port de bras, leaps, turns, partnering. He lost me at adagio, so he expertly demonstrates a series of positions. You might excel at some things, but not others, Franco tells me, yet still get in the school. And I know what he means: I’m good at standing with my hands behind my back, at lifting a pasha, and running from pirates, but I’m not so good at placing flowerpots after an 8 + 8 + 6 + 4 count.
I’d be good at leaping, too. My thighs are dancers’ thighs, after all. And sure enough I receive comments about them from some of the young ballerinas and danseurs, Franco included.
“How did you get thighs like that?” Franco asks.
A chiseled extra walks over: “Do you do squats? Do you ride a bike?”
“Not really, they just came this way,” I say, flattered.
A few others gather around. It’s a crowd now, staring at me on the floor, at my thighs, sitting there like rolled carpets. But now their response seems to be more freak-show-horror than envy.
Another person comes over, “Damn! What kind of pants do you wear?”
“It’s hard,” I admit.
Someone else says, “Those harem pants work for you − you should wear them all the time. Like MC Hammer.”
I decide to get in my baggy-pants costume and go downstairs.
During my time standing in the wings, I find that ballerinas and danseurs are quite generous with each other. The sweet-tempered Angel Corella says, “Brava!” to exiting ballerinas. Julie Kent, with her warm southern accent, compliments another principal dancer on how she can do three turns fixed in one place. “Just amazing,” she says. “If I did three like that. I’d just stop and take a bow” − she throws her arms up in the classic ballerina “I’m done” or “Ta Da!” posture: two arms overhead; hands curved toward each other.
When she’s not complimenting other ballerinas, Julie waits in the wings singing along to the music in a playfully squeaky voice: “Do-do-do-dum-do-dum-do-do.” Another dancer asks how she’s feeling, and she says, “Odd. Not as relaxed as I did on Tuesday.” Just as she’s about to go on, her dresser takes her legwarmers, but has difficulty removing a veil from a hoop on her own utility belt. For a long minute, we stand there − Julie, the Dresser and I − as the cue music approaches for Medora. She needs that veil to cover her face! It’s not coming unhooked. Again, I’m repressing an urge to jump in and help. I’m always trying to help and instruct (maybe because I’m a teacher).
However here, as with Irina’s baby, I know I shouldn’t offer assistance. But I can see how the veil is catching on the loop, and Julie might have to go on without the veil and the scene’s comic business and big reveal are both dependent upon the veil. I’m about to panic and, despite better judgment, reach for it myself, but then, thankfully, it comes free of the hoop. Julie stands there with Angel Corella for a second, then he gives her a big wet air kiss seconds before their cue. They step on stage and, just as she seemed to predict, she falls out of her turn. There’s a loud echoing gasp in the wings. Some Harem girls turn and look at me. It seems it was me who had gasped. Apparently, I was projecting an All About Eve or Red Shoes plot here, but it won’t work, because she’s too nice and encouraging.
Julie is one of ABT’s most beloved ballerinas. She’s regal, and she gets the big ovations. My wife used to say that she found Julie to be “cold.” And because I’m not at all a balletomane in the sense that I understand dance technique, I deferred. I worship ballerinas in the way some Catholics worship the Blessed Virgin Mary: with an intense reverence and spiritual devotion, while being thoroughly uninformed about the catechism. But where once I accepted my wife’s assessment, I now cannot. Oddly enough, I’m surprised to find I’m disappointed at the lack of backstage backstabbing. So, while I may be Eve Harrington, Julie is definitely not Bette Davis.