My big fear, the legitimate one, the fear of not being able to breathe, took the form of a very large, very temperamental dancing bear in the fall of 2006. I had carried around the fear of suffocation ever since a lung disease kept me blue and wheezy for the first year and a half of my life. But that lung disease had vanished overnight when I was a toddler, so my continued fear had been an unreasonable one until I booked what many of us around the city considered to be the jackpot of short-term gigs: The Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
I was going to be performing in New York for the first time. I was going to be making a nice chunk of money doing sixteen shows a week, the overtime pay amounting to more than I’d made on any previous job. I’d be able collect the maximum amount of unemployment benefits come January when the show ended, and I’d have health insurance for the next twelve months. It all seemed ideal until I had my first costume fitting, after which I immediately called my mother.
“Hi,” I said.
“Brian Louis,” she snapped before I could say anything more. “What’s wrong? Tell me.”
I sighed and explained that along with the padded Santa suit, the elf outfit, and the blue snowflake-embroidered skating sweater that were my costumes in the Christmas Spectacular, the character I played in “The Nutcracker Suite,” the first number of the show, was a Russian Bear. The Russian Bears squatted and kicked their fat, furry legs out, they did split leaps in the air and slid on their knees at the end of the number, landing precariously close to the edge of the stage. And they did it all under a fifty-five pound outfit of foam and fur and a three-foot high head. The head was heavy, to be sure, but my worry was not about dancing under the weight; I was worried about the fact that there was only a chicken wire covered gap the size of a small rodent to see and breathe through.
When I tried on that bear head, I found myself in near-total darkness, in a place where the air was thick and damp, where the only sound was the rasp of my own shallow inhale and quick, stilted exhale. Inside that bear head, my usual underlying sense that the world was an ok place to be began to slip away. I suddenly remembered a recurring dream that had followed me from kindergarten into adulthood, a dream in which I am walking down a dark hallway, hearing footsteps behind me, and when I turn around, there’s no one there. That familiar sensation of knowing something is about to happen, that something is wrong, but being unable to see it or name it, pushed me to rip off that bear head in the middle of my costume fitting. While I panted and looked around wildly, the costume mistress chuckled and told me that everyone loses their shit a little when they first try on their bear head.
“Honey,” my mother said. “You go back in there and just tell them you have a lung disease and they have to give you a different bear. Tell them you nearly died when you were a baby and your mother says you need a different bear head.”
But I had a feeling the director of the Christmas show, the person who had hired me, would be less-than moved by my tale of weak lungs and a worried mother. The director was a ferocious goddess, brutal and magnificent, generous or vengeful depending on the moment. Because, even now, I fear her wrath and retribution, I’m going to call her Janet, though Janet is not her name.
During the three weeks of rehearsal for Radio City, Janet would stand on a ladder in the corner of the dance studio and look down on us through narrowed eyes, her cropped red hair spiking in aggressive peaks away from her head, her long, long legs stunning and exposed beneath a black-stretch mini skirt. Janet would have us run each number again and again and again, the phrase “once more to lock it in” repeated over and over, the idea being that her dancers—the twenty ensemble members and the thirty-six, towering, terrifying Rockettes—were slow, early model computers whose memory banks could only be relied upon if the system was backed up a dozen times or more.
By the time dress rehearsals began in late October, I was doing all I could to become friends with my Russian Bear. I told everyone that I had named my bear Victor, not because I was trying to be cute, but because I thought joking about my bear might conceal from the other dancers how real my fear of him was, and that perhaps by naming him, I could establish a kind of owner-to-pet dynamic: I would be the one giving the commands, I would be able to tame and control him.
As the season went on, I thought perhaps I was winning when I noticed how Victor and I, like an owner and his pet, had begun to look more and more alike. One day we had shared only the same thick, furrowed eyebrows, then suddenly we had the same long, Slavic snout. The next day, someone pointed out that we had identical, withdrawn scowls. But then our similarities began to shift: as I lost weight from the strain of the show schedule, Victor seemed to double, then triple, in mass. As my eyes became bloodshot and dark-ringed from exhaustion, Victor’s seemed to brighten and sparkle with a menacing glee. He was overtaking me, bit by bit, and I began to wonder how long it would be before he consumed me completely.
At any given 9 a.m. performance during those two months, I’d be dancing beneath Victor’s weight and think, this is it, I can’t do this anymore, I will not survive this. But at the next show that same day, it would seem easier somehow, Victor would be lighter, I’d enjoy being so close to something so cuddly. Then it would be the third show of the day and again I’d find his demands for my full effort and concentration to be utterly impossible to fulfill. My fear of the thing I couldn’t see or name had taken the shape not of Victor himself, but of the complete unpredictability of when his weight would be crushing and when it would be tolerable; when I’d be allowed air through that chicken-wire vent and when I’d be unable to do anything but hope the number would soon end.
The Russian Bear choreography was challenging, but actually performing the relatively brief combination wouldn’t have been so bad if we had been able to leave the stage immediately afterward, take off our bear heads, and catch our breath. But we couldn’t. Instead, we finished the choreography with a slide forward on our knees (we’d been told to angle our bodies back while we slid, otherwise the weight of the bear head would topple us forward, we’d be unable to get up, and we’d be trampled by the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear). Then we stood in unison, walked upstage left, and remained frozen, watching the other characters dance for a few long minutes until we joined in to dance again for the finale.
Standing there, gasping, upstage left, I could only see fragments of the stage around me—furry limbs, blurred blue and red lights—and the only way to get air was to turn my own head inside Victor’s, get my mouth as close to the vent as possible, then blow out quickly to avoid filling up the narrow space with any more heat. I kept thinking that if I could just be calmer, be a better dancer, a stronger person, I could handle this bear. So I sang lullabies to myself and to Victor, I told myself that I was ok, that this bear suit, too, would pass, that maybe at the next show or tomorrow or the day after that things would get better; or they wouldn’t, and this was how it ended, here, inside a giant dancing bear.
I had found a pleasant and necessary solace from Victor in the form of Ted. Ted was a beautiful, long-lashed donkey whose white markings and doleful eyes had landed him several years of work as one of the real, breathing animals in Radio City’s “Living Nativity” grand finale. During the year, Ted was also as a body-double for the Donkey character voiced by Eddie Murphy in the Shrek movie franchise, for which he traveled the country, appearing at premieres and publicity events, commanding sums that would have paid off my student loans.
My costume for “The Living Nativity” was a purple velvet robe with gold trim and a headdress that fell in folds down my back. I was supposed to lead Ted slowly and solemnly across the one hundred forty-four foot stage, then come to stand with him on stage left to observe the glowing plastic Baby Jesus held by Mary center stage.
At the end of six days of tech rehearsals, when we finally got to run through “The Living Nativity” with the three camels, six sheep, two donkeys, and fifty-six dancers dressed as shepherds and wise men, Ted had refused to stand with me on our designated mark. He had planted himself five feet downstage and to my right—which, I later learned, had been his “Nativity” spot for the previous four years—and no matter how much I tugged on his lead and whispered his name, Ted would not budge. My heart had started pounding. He was standing right where the Three Kings were supposed to kneel and offer their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.
The hallelujah chorus being blasted through the speakers had been abruptly cut off, and the disembodied voice of Janet had suddenly surrounded the stage.
“Brian,” Janet’s voice had boomed. “What. Is happening. With your donkey.”
I’d squinted out into the darkened six thousand seat audience where I knew Janet must be sitting somewhere, unseen.
“He won’t move!” I had said, my voice squeaking.
“And?” Janet’s had voiced echoed back.
Thirty-six Rockettes, twenty ensemble dancers, three camels, six sheep, and the donkey that wasn’t Ted had all glared at me. The only creature on that stage not looking my direction had been Ted, who stood resolutely profile, looking off stage right batting his long, harem-fan eyelashes at nothing in particular.
“You’ll fix this,” Janet’s had voice continued. “Yes?”
“Yes!” I had said as Ted finally shifted from his profile position, not moving next to me as I’d hoped, but simply rotating upstage to display his hindquarters and swishing tail to Janet and her associates out in the audience.
Despite the fact that Ted had been responsible for nearly bringing Janet’s wrath down upon me, I couldn’t help but admire his defiance, and from that day on, he went to his spot with nothing but quiet compliancy and loving glances at me from under those long lashes, as if his one act of insubordination had simply been a way to teach me a lesson about standing one’s ground. As the Christmas season went on, in fact, I found myself so physically worn out and emotionally unraveled from engaging in my struggle with Victor that I often let Ted lead me to our spot on stage left. I sometimes wouldn’t notice until I heard the final, resounding “Amen” that I was standing on stage in a purple robe in front of six-thousand people, leaning on a donkey, feeling, for the first time that day, safe.
Then, on Christmas Eve, the camel walking in front of Ted and me excreted a long, steaming rivulet of shit onto my purple-slippered foot. I looked down at my foot, looked back up at the camel’s ass in front of me, and kept on walking across the stage. I had been doing sixteen shows a week for nine weeks. I had, without being totally sure when it had happened, been defeated by Victor, by Janet, by Christmas itself. I had given up, much more so than I realized at the time. So when that camel shit landed on my slipper, I really didn’t think all that much about it. I just continued on across the stage, looking forward to the moment when I could stand still, lean on my donkey, and stare at the glowing Baby Jesus.
That night, I left Radio City stinking of barnyard animals and three performances worth of sweat, and went to stay overnight at a friend of a friend’s apartment my parents were renting for the week on 78th and Lexington. Walking into the large, classic six apartment, I marveled at my family’s capacity to so thoroughly inhabit any space: my grandmother’s Christmas tchotchkes were out on every surface, showtunes were playing over the stereo system, and the woodsy, two-dog, three-kid, dirty-soup-pots-soaking-overnight smell of my childhood home in Maryland was clinging to what had previously been distinctly Upper East Side air.
My family comes from a long line of Eastern European peasant Jews, make no mistake, but the five of us—my parents, my older sister, younger brother, and I—are Jews who do Christmas. So when I came into the rented home, cranky and exhausted, my family was gearing up for our annual feast of turkey, sweet potatoes, and stuffing before our half-viewing, half-recitation of The Muppet Christmas Carol.
While I waited my turn for the shower, I helped my father set the table. He told me my mother was furious at him for spilling grease from the roasting turkey on the apartment owner’s white dining room tablecloth. I was asking if she was still angry when my mother shuffled from the hallway into the kitchen. She squinted her eyes and looked around as if she’d just been awakened from a long nap, her honey and gold curls surrounding her head like a chaotic halo.
“Well,” she said to me. “One more week and you’re done with that bear. You see? I told you you’d be fine.”
I was going to remind her that she’d been pretty sure I wouldn’t be fine, but before I could, she pushed back her shoulders, shook her curls and said, “Ok, I’m going to put my face on and get ready for this dinner.”
My father crossed the kitchen to her in one long stride and enclosed her in his arms.
“And I will love you while you do,” he said, kissing her forehead and inhaling the scent of her hair. My mother relaxed into his chest and let her be held.
“Oh, honey,” she said then, raising her eyes to his. “It’s Christmas!”
When I think back to that Christmas and those months dancing at Radio City, I have to admit, I find myself missing my Russian Bear. There was no final showdown between Victor and I, no ultimate test of wills in which I proved that I was stronger or better than I had been before. Instead, at that last performance, I had ripped off my bear head, gasping, when the number was over, and it wasn’t until I was racing to pull on my white beard and padded Santa costume that I realized I wouldn’t see Victor again and I hadn’t even said goodbye. Victor would be packed up, brought back to a storage warehouse in Queens, and be taken out again next year for some younger, prettier boy to try on and lose their shit beneath. I would finish that final performance, pack up my spot in the dressing room, and leave Radio City for good.
Sometimes I wonder if anything—or anyone—will ever demand as much of me as that bear did. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be forced to work with such intensity for such a tiny bit of air, and I wonder if I hadn’t had to work for it, would the air I got have been as delicious or as rewarding? If there had been no struggle, would I have just taken it all—the moments when it was easy to breathe, the times when it was even joyful to dance—for granted?
I thought that, at the time, what I wanted from that job at Radio City was something like what my parents have with each other. That ease they have together, that lack of fear in each other’s presence, that sense that you mess up, I get mad, I forgive you, you forgive me for getting mad at you; things happen, then they pass, and all the while, there was never a doubt that we loved each other. But maybe I never gave Radio City or Victor a chance to be that for me. I resented their demands and high expectations from the start, and I had been terrified of some danger I couldn’t quite see from the first moment I put on that bear head. If I had been a different kind of dancer, a less fearful, stronger kind of dancer, maybe I would have found the safety I was looking for under those fifty-five pounds of foam and fur.
It’s strange—admittedly, very strange—but I find myself wanting to go to him, that bear who is right now dancing on a stage not so far from the Ambassador Theater where I’ll dance tonight. I want to find him and tell him that I always begrudged his domination and the constant effort and attention he required. I want to tell him how he eventually wore me down to the point where I haven’t been able to walk past Radio City Music Hall in years without the muscles in the back of my neck constricting or my breathing becoming quick and shallow. I want to tell him how he almost—almost, but not quite—ruined Christmas for me completely and permanently. I want to tell him that, thanks to those months of wrestling for survival with him, I’m not as afraid of things as I used to be, and maybe if I danced with him, I’d know when to fight back and how to surrender without resenting his taking my ability to breathe. I want to tell him that, if I could do it all over again now, I’d refuse to dance with him unless the head was made smaller, the air vent made wider, the choreography made simpler. Or maybe I’d just forgive him for being unable to change any of those things; I’d just accepted that, no air, no way to see, this was Radio City; this was the gig I’d signed on for.
As Christmas draws closer and closer, I find myself wanting to go to Radio City, go backstage, find Victor, and tell him how, despite everything, he became a part of me. I want to look into his dark, deep-set eyes and say, I stopped knowing where you ended and I began, and for that, my Russian Bear, I can’t help but love you. You will go on, I’ll say. You’ll go on dancing and scowling and suffocating boy after boy after dancing boy. And I, my friend, I will continue to love you while you do.