While my wife works on the computer, I try to encourage her to audition with me for the next ballet, La Bayadere. I do this by dancing around and asking her questions. She reminds me that she lacks something I have that makes it impossible for her.
“Passion?” I ask, “Love of the Dance?”
“Three months vacation,” she says.
Soon, I’m pacing around, agonizing over my last-ever placement of the flower flat a week ago in Le Corsaire: it was again too close to the ballerina’s delicate back leg. When I tell my wife that being a supernumerary in an opera is very different than being one in a ballet, and that writing about it will be very different, she asks absently, “What’s the difference?”
“Well, opera has a lot of story to work with,” I say, “and so the writing is …”
“Overblown, longwinded?” she says.
“Yes, but you know, ballet is brief, understated, elegant.”
“Yes. That’s going to be hard for you. Can you do it without words, maybe? Silently?”
I forgive her for that, for she is beautiful. You couldn’t see it, but when I said “beautiful” I mimed a circle around my face and kissed my fingertips like a French chef − because that is ballet-acting mime for “she is beautiful.”
In the past, I’ve shown my wife that the mime for “I’m leaving” is arms extended as you tippy-toe backwards, like a DeSoto hood ornament. She mimes this now. When I try to tell her more about my worries over the flower flat, she adds to the mime by raising both arms with her palms outward (“NO MORE!”). Then she brings her index finger to her lips, before crossing her wrists (“Or I will KILL YOU.”)
I am chosen for La Bayadere (LB), though I was dead certain I wouldn’t be. This audition is at the Met in my old subterranean War and Peace stomping grounds, and we once again begin rehearsal minutes after the audition. I have an additional thrill of seeing opera stars Roberto Alagna and his wife Angela Gheorghiu rehearsing for their big outdoor concert in Prospect Park. Being at the Met, mixing with stars, winning parts is beginning to seem natural to me.
We are put through our paces, and right away, I can tell this is going to be much more difficult than Le Corsaire (LC). Prior to this I had convinced myself that ballet was a charmed world of beauty where nothing terrible could ever happen, even if I was involved. Through _Corsaire_’s ten shows (counting the dress and tech rehearsals) nothing − despite my apprehensions about flower flats − ever went seriously wrong. No mistakes were ever made. During the regular run, we never received a “note” from the director of any kind.
This was a change from the opera, where we received notes before every performance. But now I find LC was nothing compared to LB. Our choreography in LC was short and uncomplicated: carry Pasha from stage right to stage left, then back again; put that flat of flowers behind the line of ballerinas and don’t be late. But mostly it was “stand there” as ballerinas spin around you and wave their arms inches in front of your face: delightful duty.
Now in LB, I am in a choo-choo train of barefoot priests that glides through a narrow doorway, down steep stairs, marches downstage, turns right at stage edge, re-forms stage right, and at the proper cue, collapses to the bonfire at center stage. Then we do a ring around a scrum of ballerinas, bonfire and fakirs, before drifting away balletically and in unison to the wings. Only to later, at the appropriate gesture, follow the bald Brahmin upstage, up the steep stairs and out the too-small door off the stage.
During our Saturday rehearsal before the first show, we practice this over and over again. We get incrementally better. Towards the end, I learn that my hero, ABT’s charming Texan director Victor, is married to my favorite down-home ballerina Julie Kent! She brought their little boy by practice today. Victor called him his “little Brahmin” and he carried him around as he was directing us. Julie watched us rehearse. Extras put a paper crown on the little boy and gave him things to play with.
Victor runs through the choreography of the two serving men. He tells them that when the dancers return the cups, they are likely to place them on the wrong side of the tray. He’s told the dancers to place them on the left, but he assumes that they will put them on the right, unbalancing the tray. It’s like being a waiter at a cocktail party with 3,000 spectators. He demonstrates by putting the cups all on one side. “So try to steer them to the left side of the tray,” he says. As he’s instructing the Priests on how to squeeze two-by-two through a small doorway that doesn’t easily accommodate even one, he reminds veterans of what happened last time: the violinist had to extend the last note. He demonstrates in comic exaggeration a violist pulling an extra long bow across strings. “And soon he’s going to run outta string and not be able to go any further. So when you get to that door, you’ve got to organize yourselves to make sure you get through quickly.” Through these stories, like the one about the ballerina who might not say “thank you” when given a flower, or the one slave girl who doesn’t bow when everyone else does, Victor makes us feel that we have a vital role in directing events on stage. This goes to my head and will get me in trouble later.
Victor’s exceedingly attentive to detail. There is one big number when we are arranged around a ceremonial fire, and at a shift in the music we turn abruptly and walk briskly counterclockwise for twelve beats and then return to our original positions − like musical chairs without the chairs. Then we raise both our hands in salute. He warns us against sharp military turns or overly energetic walking or too crisp of an arm salute: “You’re a fasting priest, you are hungry and tired!” But he is also encouraging, telling us after two tries that it is perfect, even though I turned left when everyone else turned right and walked in a rapid clockwise circle. I nearly collided with the priest to my left. My mistake had the visual impact of a man suddenly changing his mind in a revolving door. I corrected myself pretty quickly, and I’m not sure I was spotted. Jack, who was in both the opera War and Peace and Le Corsaire has been giving me good directions with his eyes − making sure I’m arranged directly across from him. I have to fix myself so that I’m at 6 o’clock and Jack is at 2 o’clock. It’s comforting having Jack, after losing Chris, the 10-year veteran super, marathoner, cancer-survivor who was my anchor in Le Corsaire, but who was mysteriously cut from La Bayadere.
Ballet can be a cruel mistress.
Dwayne, the head dresser tells to us that we, “have more choreography than the Corps de Ballet.” And much more makeup. We have to be covered in Egyptian Brown body paint and wear a robe and a turban. The turban is a 5’ by 3’ square linen sheet. We have to place it on our heads like a tablecloth and twist the ends until they are like long tightly twined rabbit ears. Then we wind the rabbit ears around our heads, tucking in the ends. Dwayne urges us to make it like Ava Gardner. When I finish my turban quickly he compliments me, “You’re a natural.”
“I tried to make it like Lana Turner,” I say. But I’ve used “Egyptian Dark” rather than “Egyptian Light” and I’ve put it on a bit thick.
I stand in my tighty-whities in the bathroom surrounded by older men similarly attired in their buttocks-exposing dance belts, which are essentially jockstraps. No costumes allowed in this “wet” room. We have to apply the brown make-up to our bodies and air dry before we put our robes on. My body is gleaming white. I’m at the mirror, over a row of five sinks, next to my fellow priests, and I clearly don’t know what I’m doing, so I pretend I’m a wall that needs to be paint rolled to a creamy finish. I slather, I slop.
It’s then that I get a sense that my sixty-year-old friend, a fellow priest, is flirting with me. He sings, “I wish I had his ‘twinkle toes,’ his baby-blue eyes, his aquiline nose.’” He rhymes in pretty decent iambic pentameter, I have to admit. “Is your skin as alabaster pale everywhere on your body − even your penis?” he asks. “Would I be able to see the blue veins.”
That’s so direct, it’s not even innuendo − but is it too aggressive to be flirtation? His face is as serious and closed as the character Omar in The Wire. He doesn’t need any dark makeup, but he’s applying eyeliner, and asking me, “Is it dark enough?” I look at his eyes, but I can’t see where he’s applied the stuff. I’m looking earnestly. I can’t make it out. Then, I realize he’s joking. He gives me lots of makeup tips. Things like “daub,” “blend,” and spread the excess on a paper towel before you apply. I try to comply but I worry that he doesn’t realize how milky white my complexion is. I’m going to need several coats, and maybe some primer. Thinking I know better, I trowel it on thick and dark.
Some extras startle − physically jerk back − when they see my deep brown face. They politely advise that after dress rehearsal I should put on a little less. I stand in the wings, being invisible. Another super, an African-American named Dan, laughs out loud. “Man! You should see yourself.”
I was wondering why ballerinas were suddenly seeing (usually invisible) me in the wings, doing double takes. I look like I’ve been dipped in Nestle’s Quik Chocolate Powder. My blue eyes make me look like an evil freak − someone with a nuclear perma-tan. “I have to take a picture,” Dan says, and he runs upstairs to get a camera.
I edge around backstage in my too-dark makeup and head scarf and billowy dress, looking less like an Indian Priest and more like some horrific stereotype − a half-starved Aunt Jemima. I’m engrossed in the side-view of the ballet stage with dancers in mid-performance, and I’m not looking as I make my way around a corner and come face to face with the famously affable dancer Angel Corella. He jerks his head back, startled at my caked face. I startle back at him. He startles again. This happens several times. It has to end soon, because he’s got to go on as Solor. My enthusiastic make-up application has clearly disrupted his preparation.