Tolstoy writes, “All happy performances are alike; each unhappy performance is unhappy in its own way.” Or something like that. Opening night was a happy performance. It ran on rails, and, like a long-planned party, it was over in a blur. There’s nothing to report except that the precision we exhibited would never be seen again. A picture in the _Times_’ Arts section and a glowing review of our marching testifies to it. The overweening pride it produced (the Greeks call that “hubris”) resulted in the disastrous second show, an experience still so raw I can’t write about it quite yet.
My anxiety gradually rose after the second show, as we moved toward the fourth, when my wife and friends would be in the audience. Before each show, regiments are taken, in their stocking feet, to the ballet studio. The ballet company, we’re told, is particular about their floors. What a thrill it is for me, a balletomane, to know that tidbit! Why, Irina Dvorovenko might have danced on that very floor.
I once believed ballerinas lived like nymphs or sylphs backstage among the forest glades. Now that I have seen backstage, I know it’s not a forest glade. It’s jam-packed with enormous wooden scenery and heavy light towers (one’s called “the tormentor” by the Met crew because it hampers our exits). It’s populated not by sprites but by burly, foul-mouthed Teamsters and chorus members who wear fancy costumes but curse like longshoremen. Now, I value the hardworking Teamsters almost as much as I value the ballerinas. And now I know that the men in the ballet troupe (ballerinos_) who play the officers in our regiments are not at all lighter-than-air dryads but gigantic pains in the ass, who drag their feet, take breaks every half hour, refuse to hold their flags straight, and will not—no matter how much they are yelled at—wait for non-_ballerinos like me to catch up when we are doing our “16-man crossover.”
This, by the way, is what I like to think of (in ballet terms) as my "solo"—though I’m doing it with 15 other men. Maybe it’s my pas de seize. And, if I hang on to my uniform, I can count on this solo being seen by my wife. The 16-man detachment crosses the stage slowly just before the battle begins. Then we wait offstage, let Pierre sing a bit, and cross back. I know, as I wait for the “crossback,” that my wife will have her binoculars trained to catch me on the march fro, especially if she’s missed me on the march to. We are “the 16”! We have a special call to stage: “Crossovers to stage right.” The jubilant troops cheer our return backstage. “Hooray! The 16 have returned! The Mighty 16 are safe!” William calls us “the cross-dressers.” Anyway, this is my big moment and I don’t mind lingering in it with a slow, stately march. But the ballet guys are always on the verge of screwing it up by beginning too early and by racing across the stage like there’s a caffè-latte break waiting on the other side.
So, it’s the night before the fourth performance. Though I’m in the ballet studio at the barre that Diana Vishneva might have touched with her slender calf, I’m preoccupied. The director is giving us notes. He says, “Remember to bring ‘Mr. Focus’ onstage with you tonight!” and “Don’t let the second-show blues get you!” and “If you make a mistake, do it with conviction!” We march around the studio to warm up. He’s studying us. I fear he will look over his black square-rimmed glasses (he looks like one of the Kids in the Hall—or maybe all of them) and point his pen at me. “Him, let’s put him in the back row and get someone, you know, better.” Meanwhile, men are jockeying to slip into the front row.
All through the rehearsals, in the meticulous way of the Met, there were grids drawn up to mark our places. But sometimes the grids weren’t consulted, people were absent, and there was flux from rehearsal to rehearsal. The joke-stealing soldier, Daniel, took it upon himself to make his own notations. I first took this as the helpfulness common among Ismailovskies. But now I see he was trying to lock in his desirable position. And once he lost it, due to a kind of herky-jerky mechanical chicken walk that no amount of rehearsal could mend, he stopped making elaborate grids and began to get confused about his position. The confusion usually leads to him claiming a prominent position in the front, with a shoulder shrug and a comment like “It doesn’t matter … they are going to move us anyway.”
I can tell it breaks Daniel’s heart that he’s not highlighted. His relentless jockeying for a forward position lost it for him. Once, on the stage at a break, in full view of every director (including the Mad Russian Kutuzov), he asked Sasha to give him a one-on-one tutorial on the moonscape. There, Sasha saw the herky-jerky chicken walk in all its glory. As he stooped, bending at the waist, Daniel’s short, atrophied legs jerked upward at unfortunate angles and in improbable rhythms.
I admit here—and I’m not proud of it—that it wasn’t only the 13-year-olds who lost me my place. Perhaps jealous of the attention Daniel was getting, I sought to demonstrate, just to his left, my own leg-kicking prowess. I gave full stretch to my kicks, feeling their arcing power blossoming under Sasha’s gaze. Vishneva would admire my grand battement. Sasha looked past Daniel at me and said, “Not so high. You’re not punting the ball in the football game.”
Blast! I cursed my confounded arrogance. My wife has alerted me to my habit of picking out the worst person in tango class to compare myself to and ignoring the 17 other men who are better than I am. And I’d broken my resolution to fly under the radar. And, sure enough, Sasha moved me, “because of height.” Sure. But maybe also because of punting?
So, Mr. Focus is my friend, and, in the dark wings, I hold my position in the packed confusion. Someone yells, “Horse coming through!” We scramble. The stage manager, a tough-looking Roy Scheider type, warns, “Watch out for the cart.” We move and reassemble. A horse has shit on the stage, and we’re warned to avoid it as best we can. Joke-stealing Daniel is pretending that he doesn’t know what his place is (it’s in the back!) and is asking people to switch with him. He told three different people on each of the first three nights that his mother was in the audience that night, so it was really important that he be in the first row that night. Quite an appetite that woman has for War and Peace: she’s seen 15 hours of it for sonny’s 15 minutes. On the fourth night, he resorts to confusion. “Am I here? Here in the front?” He stares at me with his mopey brown cartoon-turtle eyes. I look back impassively, as if it doesn’t matter to me, but say, “No, I think you were behind me.”
So it’s no surprise when, back in the rehearsal room, during the three hours of downtime we have between our appearances, I catch the following: William nudges me, “Look at Daniel.” I look over at him. “Don’t look at him! Look in the mirror.” William directs me with his glance. There I see Daniel’s reflection, crawling, reaching toward the mirror. “What’s he doing?” I say. “He’s practicing his death scene,” William says, with brows that say, “Isn’t that sad?”
I should note here that Daniel does not have a death scene. We have a French-retreat scene in which all 160 of us, now disguised in overcoats and ragged hats, wander slowly across the stage as the bedraggled, beaten French soldiers. Some have been directed to fall, others to pick up the fallen. But most of us just cross the stage in the blinding fake snowstorm, vaguely aware of an enormous audience to our right. We are supposed to be cold, weary, and hungry, but have been directed by the Kids in the Hall not to overact by shivering or “indicating” to a distracting degree. We have also been told not to wander aimlessly but to “own our journey” across the stage. Daniel is owning his with a vengeance. He confided to me that he wanders to the lip of the stage (we are supposed to cross upstage) and looks out into the audience, sometimes holding out his hands like Marley’s ghost or the Mummy, searching, searching (for who, his mummy?), so that the whole audience can see him. He says he’s not going to wear the hat anymore, either, so the audience can see his face. Get their money’s worth. So, here he is practicing his death scene, crawling, holding out his hands, searching, searching. For the first time, I feel sorry for him. He is an actor, and believes he is going to be discovered. The Broadway casting director, sitting no doubt right next to his mom, is going to say, “There, that 147th French soldier, there, the one without the hat, crawling toward us. There is something about him.” There is something about the yearning, the hunger, in his face. It appears he wants to eat … to eat … the scenery.
The performance—the all-important fourth—goes smoothly. My wife and friends are in the audience with their binoculars trained on me as we stand at attention. My posture is erect, and my eyes are focused on the middle distance.
We are trained to remain impassive even as the chorus members playing the grief-stricken wives try to make us laugh. With their backs to the audience, they whisper things a 19th-century Russian mother never would. They say, “Don’t you have a job? Are you unemployed so you can be here all day and night?” I stand stony-faced. They ask how big our dicks are, ask us to come home with them. I do not blink. When our marching is bad, they say, “Man, you guys sucked!” One says my eyes are too pretty to be Russian. “I found an Irish boy!” she says. I smile, and begin to say, “My mother’s Irish!” She says, “Ssssh! Don’t smile! Be professional!”
I pretend to be misty-eyed when General Kutuzov kneels in prayer. I don’t look to my left or right. I don’t adjust my rifle or my hat. Sweat is trickling down my face, but I don’t budge. Apparently, the teenager to my right, my wife tells me later, is doing a veritable jitterbug. He’s Stanley J. Green—the younger. He’s scratching his nose, he’s pulling on his pants, he’s shifting from his left foot to his right foot. He, improbably, stands just in front of a 47-year-old man with a comb-over mullet who is also named Stanley Green but is no relation. Stanley Green—the elder—is more disruptive.
We’re supposed to stand silently, but Green the Elder talks a blue streak about Led Zeppelin. Undeterred by arias all around him, he gives younger actors tips on how to format their résumés (never include your age). For final bows, we’re supposed to stand in formation in a silent tableau, but he’s buzzing about how ridiculous it is that fat opera singers are getting applause. Sasha is standing three feet away with his back to us, his hand on his sword. Stanley is saying, “I wish they’d stop it so we can go home.” After a minute: “Come on now! Hey, do you think opera singers have groupies? Who’d want to fuck them? Look at how fat they are. What opera singer would you want to fuck?” Someone says, “Sasha.” Stanley says, “Oh, sure, Sasha. Me, too. But he’s not a singer.” Do Sasha’s shoulders tense at this? Is he gripping his sword tighter? I wonder if he’ll spin around and lop Green the Elder’s head off for insubordination. “I’m telling you, as soon as that curtain comes down, I’m pulling this uniform off. I’ll be undressed before I hit the elevator.” The cheers continue. “Enough already!”
When the curtain finally comes down, Sasha doesn’t chop Stanley Green’s head off. He doesn’t look at him, even though he must have heard. He’s a little tired as he says as we retreat, “Vell done, gentlemen,” with a pat on the back of a departing soldier. We are all in a kind of retreat now.