I recently viewed the greatest ballet movie ever, The Red Shoes, to soak up some ballet atmosphere. I learned that ballet sophisticates pronounce the word “BAL-let” and that when someone asks you about the art form, you must respond, “The BAL-let is life!”
This now happens to be a phrase I repeat to my wife with regularity.
I’m reading Dancing On My Grave, the 1986 ballet tell-all by the American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, in order to better understand supernumeraries’ roles in the world of ballet. I’m on page 171, and as far as I can tell they don’t have one. But what I do find is a mention of Victor, the charming Texan, who has been rehearsing us. He’s identified as “a dancer,” and Kirkland even refers to him as “charming.” This is her story, and she’s the star of every scene, so she doesn’t give Victor his complete due. In the scene he’s in, Victor is on an elevator with Kirkland, Baryshnikov and Peter Martins, when she asks “innocently” whether Baryshnikov has a big bed. Victor and Peter Martins break up in laughter. It seems that you had to have slept with her to get more than two pages. Martins gets roughly twenty pages; Baryshnikov about one hundred and fifty. Random drug dealers get as many as ten. Thus Victor has confirmed my good opinion of him by only getting one page. With us he has been an unstintingly encouraging leader, always telling us we are the best, and wishing he could “Take us on the road.”
It turns out that most nights in the ballet, he is the pasha that we lift, and there’s something fitting about that. When he piles into the pasha rig, he’ll say “Let’s go, ladies” or “Hit it girls.” The point being, you know, that we’re not, even though we are dressed like Maria Montez in Arabian Nights. It’s the last night of La Bayadere. We’ve dropped off and picked up the pasha successfully every time, with barely a bobble. And even when the whole rig seems like it might dump him on the stage, Victor makes it part of the routine and we get a laugh. I have a hard time not laughing myself − which would be out of character for an oppressed subaltern lackey, I feel.
The flower placement never gets better than hit or miss. Tonight, the assistant stage manager in charge of the other side of the stage tells me that the assistant stage manager on our side will not be around to tell us when to go on with the flowerpots, and that we’ll have to watch the other side of the stage to know when to move. Of course, this is business as usual, because our stage manager has never told us when to go.
But no matter how badly the flower placement goes, in three minutes, the curtain will come down, the stagehands will gather the props, and there will be no record: no video tape or film. There is a video monitor that the stage manager stares at intently, and that had me spooked, because that is how they always catch serious mistakes. But that hasn’t happened, because the video isn’t recorded. Sure, a tattooed stagehand might make a crack, ballerinas might gasp, but the ethos is to keep trying until you get it right, or nearly right. And if it isn’t perfect, we try it again tomorrow night or take our last bow and wait for the next “BAL-let.”
I’m in-between ballets, in the audience of Don Quixote, taking advantage of a discount ticket. I saw Swan Lake last week, and if you didn’t count the ten performances of Le Corsaire I saw (including the rehearsals), this would be a pretty typical ballet season for me − seeing almost all of American Ballet Theatre’s ballets.
I actually had tickets for last night’s performance, too. I only bought these tickets after Vishneva withdrew from that performance, a performance I was going to attend even though it conflicted with a writing panel I promised some writer friends I’d attend. Lately my ballet life and writer life come into conflict. I hadn’t been looking forward to the writing panel for fear of the event making me feel inadequate and lazy, because no doubt I’m not nearly talented, or hardworking, or well-connected enough to be successful, and the editors and agents in attendance would certainly clue me in on just exactly how inadequate I truly am.
On the other hand, I know I’m no ballerina (not yet at least!), so I can’t feel inadequate in the world of ballet. There’s no doubt about it: I have absolutely no talent, so there’s nothing to feel guilty about. Perhaps I made a wrong turn, but I made that turn when I was seven in feet-sy Spider-man pj’s, and chose sports over ballet. Not that the son of a Teamster growing up in Newark ever had a choice. On the writing front, my mistakes are of a much more recent vintage and have the appearance of being reversible, when in fact they are no more reversible than my Fluffernutter-era mistakes.
My writer friend Janis says, “Your future isn’t in dance.” I thought that was kind of mean, but I decided to give my wife the ballet tickets and go to the writers’ panel anyway. There I learned that to be successful I should be an Ivy League alum, the wife or son of a famous writer, and an editorial assistant at the New Yorker (and you need to be at least one of these things to do either of the other two). All of which I knew.
But here now, at the ballet, I feel almost at home. The old guy who sits next to me in Row N says “I’ve seen a lot of ballet this season. I’m a balletomane.” I say enthusiastically, “me too!” suppressing with some effort that I am actually in ABT.
But then he says, “I think there’s been a falling off in quality this season.”
I shift in my seat, look down at my program. “Well, we … they have a long Asian tour ahead of them,” I say, defensively. I want to ask if he thinks the “falling off” began with Le Corsaire − nine minutes into Act I, but before I can, he mentions that he’s more of a New York City Ballet fan.
Of course he is, the “piker.”
As usual, my binoculars are roving around the extras. I’m filled with envy when I see my friend Jack on stage holding a box with skulls and banners. He’s dark skinned, and looks the part, wearing a bandanna. He looks roguish. But why wasn’t I standing behind Irina for all of Act I? I’m the color of milk, true, but I was a Turkish Pasha guard for Pete’s sake. I could play Spanish. I scan, and look for other extras. I see that there is only Jack, from Le Corsaire. The rest are dancers. I can’t resent dancers − they aren’t taking a part I might have had. And if I wanted low-grade resentment, the writers’ panel was the place for that.
But why didn’t Jack − open and good-natured − tell me he was in Don Q? He told me he’d try for La Bayadere, that he’d been in it last year and he thought they’d call him back. I told him I was planning on auditioning. He said he hoped to see me. And now this: seeing him on the stage of Don Q, which he said nothing about. My wife says they might have called him unexpectedly. He wasn’t in the show before this, Swan Lake, because I assiduously scanned the faces of the extras in that, and saw only the old pro Derek, who is gray and distinguished (again, not my competition) and is in everything.
By the time I stopped scanning the back wall, Irina had done most of her solo and partnering work. She was the reason I bought a ticket for this ballet, and I was missing her. I tore my eyes away from Jack and focused on Irina.
But I kept imagining the view from the wings − where I’d be closer than I am from Row N − picturing the side view, the privileged view of the supernumerary, watching the lead up and through the aftermath of her fouettés: stretching in her sweatpants before, the pacing recovery after; and her relieved smile at the end. I was, in other words, not watching the ballet again. I was imagining watching the ballet from the wings. What would the sets look like from there? Would Irina’s tiny daughter be running around?
Jack disappears in the second act, and I’m much less distracted until Lenny appears on the overhead walkway for the wedding scene. Lenny is very good, another old pro. I don’t recognize the one trying to follow his lead. When Lenny claps, the newbie claps. When Lenny snaps, the newbie snaps. When Lenny leans in and pretends to talk, the newbie leans in. He’s not very convincing. If you are concentrating on him like I am, he completely disrupts the verisimilitude of the entire scenario, in which Irina (as Dulcinea) is hiding from Gamache, “a foppish nobleman” and is trying to escape, as her lover Basillo tries to conceal her with a not-especially-big cape. So, OK, yes, I admit the action on stage is pretty unbelievable as well.
But that extra up there on the elevated walkway, with the late claps and the tardy snaps is not helping matters at all. I have him pegged for someone who missed a rehearsal. And missing a rehearsal means missing half of the rehearsals. I really hope he’s not in Act III − it will put me completely out of the production if he is, and I’ve been really looking forward to seeing some dancing. Now, if only I can just focus my attention on the center of the stage.