The most nervous extra, Wally, who thankfully is only a “cover” (an understudy), keeps asking everyone how our “choreography” in Act III works. It’s Monday. The first dress rehearsal with invited audience is in an hour and opening night is in five hours. We all rehearsed for the first time on Saturday, and because Wally’s only an understudy, he didn’t get to do it repeatedly. He only watched us do it over and over, so his concern is understandable. He doesn’t have the “dance in his body” as dancers say. In fact, he seems to have retained nothing. And the more you explain it to Wally − and I tried with my own scribbled dance notation diagrams − the less he seems to understand.
He is 50ish, has wire-rimmed glasses and a wiry body. He wears a white shirt and a tie tucked into the second button slot at all times − like a flyboy in a 1940s World War II movie. He was in War and Peace and then I thought it was a military affectation, but it’s here in the ballet world, too, so I guess it’s just an affectation. He has the awkward angularity of a math prodigy. He appreciates my diagrams, but they don’t help. Further, he has a conversational tic that retards instruction: He asks you the “next” question before you have answered the “last” question. “So we line up and the Brahmin passes between us?” You prepare to answer, and he asks, “When do we follow him?”
“Well, you have to kneel first. He passes us…” I say.
“Then we turn?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“Then we get our torches?”
“No,” I say.
“Oh, then we follow him?” he says.
“No. He passes. Then, we have to stand in unison as he passes. Otherwise, we’d be crawling after him. We’re on our knees,” I say.
“Right. And then we turn?”
“What do you mean turn?” I say, trying to figure what part of the ballet he’s thinking about.
“When we get our torches,” he says.
“We’re not to the torches part yet. We have to follow him downstage, come back upstage and stand in a diagonal line,” I say.
“Then we get the torches?”
“Not yet. We turn and retire slowly to stage right. Then we turn and face center stage. We have to stand in that line for a long while. And after a series of Jettes, and the big music change…”
“No. We’re past that. We turn upstage, exit and get the torches.”
“Let me ask you a stupid question: what’s ‘upstage’?” he says.
“It’s the side furthest…”
He interrupts: “And what’s stage right? Is that the part nearest the audience?”
Wally would be in trouble if he were relying on just me to tell him what’s what. But he’s in even worse trouble because he asks everyone − sometimes in groups of two or three. “Can I ask you one question,” he says, before he asks four more. So, the questions and answers from various people are overlapping and contradicting each other. The people he asks usually start to disagree and argue among themselves. Everyone sees the ballet from their own position in it, so almost all of our answers differ, depending on what side of the stage we’re on or number in line we occupy. It’s not long before people scatter as Wally approaches with a quizzical look in his eye. You don’t want to be mean, but it’s an act of self-preservation: his confusion is contagious.
At the Saturday rehearsal, two days before opening night, he tells me he’s had his eye on me because I seem to be “hitting my marks.” I don’t think that’s true, and Wally wouldn’t be a good judge anyway. I have a problem lining up behind my column’s leader when we’re on the diagonal. But now that I’m seeing through Wally’s point of view, through his confused questions, I’m surprised he was able to fix on any stationary spot in a turning world. But it’s okay, because he’s just a “cover.” Until he isn’t anymore. The lead man doesn’t show up for the dress rehearsal and suddenly Wally is the lead man − the first to execute all the moves he has so many questions about. The questions accelerate as we approach the curtain for the dress rehearsal. Now, five people are trying to answer them for him. The priests are mostly helpful, except one older priest, a veteran super with a Met locker, who is a little preemptory and bitchy with neophytes. But again, the overlapping answers are coming and Wally doesn’t have a clear picture as to exactly who he is replacing. Different priests take leads at different points. Wally’s tall, so he’s a lead at some point. But he’s a little fuzzy on his place in line. I’m next to last, owing to my tiny size, sandwiched between two veterans, so I’m not worried: he’s not going to be near me.
Suddenly, the bitchy veteran turns to me and asks, “What number are you?”
Now, I know I’m in front of Larry and behind Ling − next to last. But the number? I don’t know right off. I just stare blankly. I think it’s priestly serene, but I wouldn’t rule out stupid.
“What number are you?” he asks again.
“When we enter, I’m in back of Ling, in front of Larry,” but for some reason, I can’t say it. I just move to that position and say, “Here.”
He counts for me and says, “Your number is six. Remember that: Number 6. It’s not that complicated!” He has the aggrieved cadence of _Seinfeld_’s Uncle Leo. This, I now recognize is not the harsh rebuke I took it for when I first heard it on Saturday. That night, I was having some absent-minded difficulty lining up behind the lead man. But rather than a gentle nudge, or a “just move an inch to the left,” what I get is a yell: “Just stand directly behind Ling! It’s not that complicated!” So, I hear the rebuke I’ve been stewing over − through dinners, movies − in a different way now. He just says it after every direction. When two others screw up their bows − entering from the wrong side − I ask him whether we entered correctly, from the side we exited. “Yes! From the side you exited! It’s not that complicated.” I agree, when it’s directed at someone else.
Now, having worked with some of these same men in War and Peace, I recognize there are two ways to be a supernumerary veteran. One is to be gentle and encouraging which the vast majority of veteran supers are, welcoming young newcomers with upbeat tips, and offers to take your picture in costume. And the other is to be like Margo Channing in All About Eve when she sees Eve Harrington nipping on her heels: brittle, censorious and fault-finding. It turns out the cat-fighting intrigue I was looking for among prima ballerinas exists only among the middle-aged men in the super room. If I ever become a real ABT or Met veteran with my own locker, I vow to be the former. I know, however, that even as a novice in War and Peace I was a little fault-finding. Ling − who looks like Jack Soo from Barney Miller − keeps poking me in the arm to move over and saying “Left!” even before the time to turn left has come, because once (maybe twice) I turned right instead of left. He’s so sure I’m going to turn right on him that he keeps anticipating it.
In a quiet moment, far away from Ling and in a dark corner, I turn left repeatedly to remind myself. I wouldn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but I realize he is being a good veteran in getting me to practice.
My friend Omar continues to mentor me. Midway through the run, he’ll take the makeup sponge out of my hands and daub it on me himself to show me how less is more. His Shakespearean friend is exactly the same − a veteran of hundreds of operas, he’s a treasure trove of gossip about stars who were “sick, until, lo, her understudy fairly dazzled in Act One. And don’t you know, Jessye’s throat recovered post haste.”
I finally find an ugly side of supering with one of the bitchy supers, Maynard who has an affect somewhere between Scrooge and a carp. Maynard was a War and Peace cover who never made it on stage because of his inept marching. When his gets a piece of information he doesn’t like (advice of any kind), he bridles, draws himself up and closes his mouth like a carp. He has revealed to me a long list of people and things he “has no problem with” before listing his problems with them (they include Newark where I grew up, all people of color, especially Hispanics, and gay men). This sixty-year old man is telling me his mother wouldn’t let him travel to Newark in the 1960s because “you know … the blacks.” Even though his nanny was black and was “very dignified.” He avoids Elizabeth, New Jersey because of the Cubans. My wife Elizabeth is Cuban. He’s insulting me three ways with every tidbit. And yet I say nothing. He’s standing in the wings of the Met, prosing on about how gay men (and not his own incompetence) have blocked him from more substantial Met super opportunities. Do I need to tell him that he is surrounded by gay men, and that he himself is very likely gay? No. I tell him I’m going to stand on the other side of the stage.
There I find Wally wading through the answers, trying to process them. He’s found out he’ll be going on. I take a shy step forward (against my better judgment) to try to help. But I get a silent shake of the head from the Shakespearean super. Now, all business, he pulls me aside and says helpfully, “You never try to clear up someone’s confusion. Let the stage manager do it. Otherwise, a wrong answer will be traced back to you. ’_But Rob said I should_ … ’”
“It’s like, stay away from a drowning man?” I ask.
“Verily, verily. Truer words were never spoketh. Forsooth, out of the mouths of babes, lo, comes the truth.”
Wally figures out that he is at the front of line. The first position. I don’t realize how badly his confusion will affect me until he hits the stage at dress rehearsal. Every one of his questions − some I only half heard as he asked others − is given physicality and stage life. He doesn’t kneel in time. He doesn’t stand up in time. Instead of leading us on the outside of the line of dancers we are supposed to flank, he leads the line inside of the dancers where we are upstaging and blocking them. By the time he realizes his mistake, half the line has followed him, and he cuts abruptly through the dance line − a big no no − like we’re a bunch of monks in a hurry to see a movie at the multiplex and need to cut through the ticket holders’ line. He then forgets all about the torches he was so interested in earlier. For a split second, I panic − wondering whether I should follow Larry, who’s followed Wally through the ballerinas just to preserve the line, or to break off and go behind them as we were supposed to. I’m at the stage edge so I have to decide quickly. I break off, and it turns out to be the right thing. Larry − a veteran of the affable, encouraging type − takes the blame for following Wally (something it’s almost impossible to avoid), and possibly leading us astray. We are made to pay for shunning Wally. He is apologetic, but in a way that makes us all feel terrible for not helping him earlier.
“I went inside the dancers, sorry,” he says, anguished. “Next time I’ll swing really wide. I promise.”
I pat him on the back, still eager to get away from him.