Maybe I grew complacent. Maybe I lost focus. No serious mistake was ever made on the Met stage in my nine performances of War and Peace, eight performances of Le Corsaire and three (counting the dress rehearsal) of La Bayadere. But I think now, in the painful twilight of the disastrous aftermath, that I was too focused on the details. I had my nearly-authentic dance notation diagrams, my stretching routine. I studied tapes of past performances (Kirov and ABT). I even had enough time to obsess about Wally and about late changes made to my first act choreography (“Move a step to your left,” essentially). In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have stayed to watch the dancing between my two Act One appearances. That swept me up in the dream of the ballet.
What else can explain how I treated the Wednesday matinee audience to the sight of my blue Adidas shower sandals? I’ve replayed it many times since. I stand in the wings, part of a two-person escort that will bring Victor (as Brahmin) and Paloma Herrera (as Nikiya) onto the bright stage. We stand on either side of the stars. We are inches and seconds from our entrance. Paloma asks Victor something, wants to make a minor change to their stage business. Will it affect my own choreography? I strain to listen to her question. I should be minding my own business. I should be looking down at my feet, performing my own “shoe check.” There wasn’t (as in our first entrance) the usual “shoe check” by a stage manager. It’s an awkward business, so I should remember it: I usually had to lift my too-long robe so she could see them. But I forget the shoe-check and we start moving out of the wing. Just as we are about to cross the threshold from dark to light, I realize I have my blue plastic slippers on, and I (deftly I think) kick them backward. My robe pools around my feet, so no one would have seen my shod feet, but better safe that sorry. Well done! Crisis averted! I’m an old pro. I’m standing on stage next to my partner, in full, brightly lit view of the audience, assuming they are not looking at Paloma Herrera dance. I think my partner didn’t see any of it, when he whispers, “your shoes are on the stage.” I literally can’t look. Because I must stare straight ahead for the next four minutes. I have no idea where they are. I think I must be blocking them from most of the audience’s view. But the evil henchwoman of Gazmatti comes sweeping around me to bring the poisoned basket, and as she exits she deftly kicks the slippers into the wings.
My partner and I are both worried. “I think you might get a note about this,” he says. We are in the super room. I pick up a book and bury my face in it. A voice comes over the loudspeaker: “A super left his shoes on the stage! Please make sure this does not happen again.” That was pretty bad − loudspeaker and all. Oh well, I guess they don’t know who it was. Then Dwayne, the dresser, comes steaming in. “Who did it? Who left his shoes on the stage?” Now, people are picturing the shoes on a Sleeping Beauty pillow in the center of the stage, bathed in a pinpoint spotlight − not off in the wings (where, admittedly they might have tripped a dancer). I push my way through the racks of clothes that separate us, and raise my hand. I’m beet red under my brown make up. The other supers stare. Dwayne takes a dramatic step back, “I can’t believe it! I would never have expected this from you − of all people. I am humiliated! What did I tell you on the first day!” I’m nodding my head; I begin to explain that I was trying to prevent wearing them on to the stage, but that’s not any better, and might be worse. So I just apologize. “You must go downstairs immediately, and apologize to the stage manager.” I leave and try to find him, but it’s just about the start of the Act Two “Shades” scene when we’re not supposed to be backstage, and with my luck, I’ll get locked in and disastrously distract the ballerinas during this most dangerous maneuver.
I will wait upstairs until Act III to apologize. Meanwhile I must absorb the pity of other supers, shaking their heads. “Can you believe how they yelled at that poor bastard,” someone asks me, before realizing I’m the poor bastard. With make-up and turbans on, it’s hard to tell each other apart. Wally, whose ineptitude I’ve so mercilessly mocked in past dispatches, says, “It’s ironic that you’d be the one to screw up and get yelled at. You’re so conscientious with those diagrams.” Yes, very ironic, Wally. I like to think that, like the heroine of The Red Shoes, I was undone by my Blue Shoes, which, like Moira Shearer’s in that ballet parable, refused to come off. But it’s not evil myth that has undone me, just absent-mindedness.
Omar, my make-up mentor, interprets my dressing down by the dresser in terms of the theatre company hierarchy. “The dresser had to yell at you in case he is yelled at by the stage manager.” He tells me I should not take it personally. He’s just doing his job.
Meanwhile, my mistake has made Wally more nervous. And Omar is extremely patient with Wally’s flood of questions. He uses saltshakers in the Met commissary to illustrate the movement of our priest line, but I can tell he’s not making much of an impression on Wally. I back away, heeding to avoid the drowning man’s advice.
I hope that I can somehow play the hero in Act III and redeem myself. And the chance is delivered to me by Carpy Maynard. We are told before going on that some “covers” (understudies) have been slotted in to key roles and we should look out for them. I take a look in front of me, and I see that it’s Ling, as it should be. I look behind me and see Maynard. Bad news, but the last time I tried to remind him about his Act I duties, he gave me his bridled, impervious Carp-like “how dare you,” stare. So, we march on stage, our palms pressed against our chests, looking serene. We kneel. We are now supposed to stand, one after another, in a wave as the Brahmin passes. I feel that as a Catholic, I am excellent at kneeling and standing on cue. I have my eyes fixed on my partner across from me, Jack − we are supposed to move in unison and I want to make sure we do it perfectly. He’s giving me eye signals that I’m not immediately able to interpret. The Brahmin passes. Maynard doesn’t stand. So Jack and I can’t. He must or we can’t. I whisper to Maynard, “Stand up.” He doesn’t. Jack is departing, as he must. Maynard’s frozen. I grab him under his haunch and pull him up with me. He wants to stay behind me, but he’ll be left alone at center stage if he does. I’ve gotten him on his feet. I push him ahead of me. He’s in a daze, and marches forward and, to my relief, doesn’t march off into the orchestra pit. But as we approach the line of ballerinas, he begins to turn right on the inside of them, a la Wally, rather on the outside as he should. I say under my breath, and then louder, “straight, straight, straight!” He veers right and then left and then straight, describing an “S,” and we get safely behind the ballerinas. From this point until the end, I have to tell him everything he needs to do: “move up,” “turn,” “turn left,” “get off the stage.” When we are off stage, I apologize for grabbing him. Shaken, he says, “No. Thank you. I needed it.” But now he will hate me. When I later tell him that when we’re in a straight line, he has to move further upstage so everyone behind him can find their mark, he Carps me, and seeks me out later to say, “Did you find your mark? I’m so happy for you.”
I go on my apology tour, and the assistant stage managers are generous: “Don’t worry about it: it won’t happen again, right?” And even the stage manager, when I apologize to him a few days later, confesses to me, “It wasn’t as bad as what I did yesterday. My headphones made an appearance in Act I.” And then I hear from others who want to console me, that indeed, the curtain went up unexpectedly and his headphones landed downstage right in front of the audience, and he was unable to retrieve them for the whole first act. So there the 21st-century artifact lay, in front of 15th-century Indian princesses and Brahmins playing chess. Were my slippers that bad? I still think so. But even with the embarrassment of these minor disasters, the whole experience was like having a temporary access pass to Never-Never Land. It was worth seeing that angle of light cutting across the stage, giving the ballerina that dusky halo of back lighting in a pool of inky black. The low, single spot light defining her. Or standing on stage, inches from the dancing, seeing the shaking tension of the leg extended, as the young woman fights to hold on to an arabesque. All the while, I’m acting as the impassive Indian or Turkish guard. It’s all so clear why some supers are willing to compete to do this year after year, some for three decades, for practically no money.
It’s the last night. There have been four performances since the Big Shoe Show. I’m watching from the wings with Dwayne the dresser, who is wearing what the ballerinas call his “serial killer plastic apron” (he uses it when removing the gold paint from the “golden idol” character). A super − an extremely erudite translator of the works of poets with whom I’ve discussed Faulkner − asks how my wife liked the show. I tell him she said my make-up was so dark it was distracting her from the dancing. I turn to the dresser, Dwayne, so he’s not insulted and knows it wasn’t his instruction that did this but my application. I say, “she watches with binoculars trained on me.” “Your wife gives you Notes!” “Always!” I say. “Well, what right does she have to criticize my make-up?” he says, smiling in fake outrage. “You tell her Dwayne says she can’t cook! Not Really.” We laugh. All is forgiven, hopefully. This is _shoe_business, and I remember that scene from the movie Twentieth Century, when John Barrymore, playing Oscar Jaffe, great director, says “Now, before we begin, I want you all to remember one thing. No matter what I may say…no matter what I may do on this stage during our work…I love you all.” Maybe that’s the way Dwayne feels about me.
It is a supers’ ritual to view the opening night photo in the Times, for a glimpse of themselves in the background. Sometimes the photos were taken ten years before. But they are not disappointed. One grizzled, bearded vet points to a picture of his younger self, and says in a dusty croak, “That’s me.” I look at the photo and then back at Gabby Hayes. He has a beard. The guard doesn’t. He’s 101. The man in the photo isn’t a day over 85. “It doesn’t look like you.” “It was twelve years ago.” The older men ask me if I’ll be back next year. I picture myself fifteen years from now, having graduated to the old man parts − jug-carrier, wandering villager. I’m slightly depressed. “I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t.
After that disastrous Wednesday matinee, in which shoes appeared and lines veered, in which we received notes about making too much noise near the ballerina’s physical therapy room, and about indiscriminate switching without notifying stage managers, that left men like Maynard at the front of the line, another serious mistake was not made. And now, it’s over: nine shows (counting tech) in six days, producing a feeling of being almost constantly on stage. Life is what happens in the wings. Two days after my last performance of La Bayadere, I’m on a tiny island in Maine at a writers’ retreat, far from the bright lights of my mild success and traumatic failure. There are so few lights here, you need to carry a flash light to find your cabin. To think, I almost thought of surrendering this three-week idyll to audition for Giselle, which has only a handful of slots for supernumeraries. I asked my wife, "Is it crazy not to want to do the Maine writer’s residency − that I’ve been trying to land for four years − so I can “work with” Diana Vishneva in Giselle?" She said, not to put too fine a point on it, “Yes.”1 But still, there are moments when I catch myself all alone in the kitchen of the main house, looking out at the quivering birch leaves and shimmering water, but thinking of a Met audience of 4,000 staring at me. I’m thinking, “Did I leave my shower sandals on?” I think Ms. Gelsey Kirkland, Crack-addled prima ballerina, says it best, and if not best, she says most grandiosely: “My purpose was to please the audience and my choreographers, but what pleased them was a brief as a dream.” Oh well.
It’s months later and my time in the ballet is a gauzy memory. I’m lecturing earnestly, full of high seriousness, on Jane Eyre, when my students stop listening. This happens more than I’d like, and I recognize the signs. Their eyes drift up over my shoulder and they are smiling. I turn slightly, and I realize my laptop, which I’m using to project quotations from the novel onto a movie screen, has gone into screensaver mode…which means a series of pictures have cycled through: my friend Will mugging in harem pants, jeweled breastplate and fez, and then ME mugging in harem pants and fez. Then, from La Bayadere, my friend Will in Indian blackface and robes, and then me in Indian blackface, turban and robes. I don’t have to look to know this. Instead I lunge back at my laptop on my desk and close it. The image of me as an Indian fakir lingers for a second on the giant white screen then disappears.
Now, some are laughing. I decide to pretend it’s a teaching moment. Let them in on my other pursuits. “Okay, I was in a ballet,” I say. “It was for something I was writing.” I explain − like it was a big investigative assignment entrusted to me by a major news organization − “I was embedded in the ballet!” − and not me just being a quixotic jackass. As we talk, I manage to get sense that it has not changed their opinion of me. They have exactly the same amount of respect for me − and like my wife − expected nothing less or more from me. Let me underline that: their confidence in and respect for me as a professor was exactly the same before and after seeing me in harem pants and blackface. Many have said to me after reading a dispatch, “Your poor wife.” They say it with a sympathetic headshake. This is the look that’s in my students’ eyes.
Halloween. I see Paloma Herrera sitting alone in Starbucks at 57th Street, a corner table with two drinks in front of her: a hot coffee and an iced coffee. She is drinking them alternately and staring out the window. I am on line for coffee. After my initial double take, I start checking in my bag for a ballet program for her to sign. There are about six in there, I know. She continues to sip and stare, not noticing anyone noticing her. She looks remarkably un-prima-ballerina like. She’s very pretty, but no prettier than most New York women, and not even much thinner. She seems distant. I happened to have seen her two days before in Brief Fling at City Center around the corner. I know she must be on her way to rehearsal for her performance tomorrow night in the last presentation of ABT’s Fall season.
I want to tell her how wonderful she was on Wednesday night. But I don’t want to disturb her, and I’m afraid that my knowledge of her schedule and whereabouts might come spilling out along with the disturbing number of ballet programs I clearly carry everywhere. I might even apologize for the shoes on the stage during her turn as Nikiya. Suddenly, being here at 10 a.m. might look like stalking, which of course it is not. I’m here most Friday mornings. (Or is that the definition of stalking?) This is the strange position of a normal ballet fan who doesn’t want to be mistaken for a creepy balletomane − the kind who buys old ballet shoes autographed by ballerinas. As I’m wondering whether to approach her table, reassuring myself that she’s used to much creepier balletomanes than me − those purveyors of sweaty gear. I remind myself that we worked together − we’re colleagues! On the other hand, it might be like my bus driver introducing himself to me four months after I was on his bus: “We collaborated from 96th Street to 34th Street! Remember?” But even if she doesn’t recognize me out of costume (which, delusional as I am, I think unlikely), I might volunteer it, and that would only make me seem more obsessed, and make her feel more exposed. “You, YOU! Had unfettered access to me backstage? You, carrying around all these ABT programs in your bag, whose date book, I see from here, is crammed with the Fall and Spring ballet schedules!” This to my mind is the probable outcome of approaching her in a Starbucks. When she reads theses dispatches − because of course, in my world, she will − she will put it all together: a scary montage set to screeching Bernard Hermann violins: me in the Starbucks, asking for the autograph; me staring from Row C of the City Center Wednesday night, and Row B on Monday night; me standing outside the ABT physical therapy room, as she’s massaged; me dressed as a harem boy in Le Corsaire; and me in scary blackface, as she comes off in La Bayadere after an exhausting Pas de Deux. She will jackknife out of bed and reach for the phone.
No, I feel my working relationship with her forbids my approach. When I turn to check again, she is up from the table and at the condiment bar, adding milk to her ice cubes. Now, I know I won’t approach her, because you always feel crowded at a Starbucks condiments bar, and only feel more crowded when it’s a creepy half-balletomane at your elbow. The moment has passed and it makes me wonder whether I will audition again for ABT, with the dispatches out there. Perhaps my magical one-time proximity has, fairytale-like, exiled me from that kingdom forever.
1 As it turned out, an injury prevented Diana Vishneva from dancing in Giselle. So Ms. Vishneva and I were never going to work together.