ONCE AND ALWAYS A DANCER
The pointe shoes nest on the shelf nearest where I draw my jewelry designs.
They are such a part of the landscape that I don’t notice them most days. Those pointe shoes have always been a part of my life history, just like my Nana’s “magic” perfume bottles.
Although I don’t use them anymore, those pointe shoes and the training that came with them have informed everything…the way I move, sit, stand, fold up and stretch to relax, dance with my husband, pirouette when no one is looking (because it’s just better that way now,) and resolve conundrums by looking at them from other points in time and space.
Those pointe shoes explain my current involvement with The Joffrey Ballet. As a young person, ballet was the core of my existence and its discipline has remained with me ever since, so my affiliation with the Joffrey (Women’s Board) is a natural outcome of a love of dance.
What I’m about to tell you was never on my bucket list because who could ever dream this? Recently, the Joffrey was invited by the Joyce Foundation to dance Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet at Lincoln Center. I was blessed to have a role as a Supernumerary, or extra in the ballet, so off to New York City I went along with four of my fellow Women’s Board members.
Divided into Montagues and Capulets, we alternatively liked or hated one another, according to dramatic necessities. Hovering upstage, we added volume and gesture by graciously greeting one another complete with air kisses and murmurs of “Oh hello, dahling.” In the first scene, the Montagues and Capulets are on friendly terms, so faux-hugging, was in order, as was a happy promenade in the opening scene.
In contrast, we dashed downstage with the dancers during fight scenes and displays of competitive bravado between the young men from the opposing families. Then, we needed to look worried or horrified. We broke up fights, trying not to get maimed in the process because dancers faking anger are unstoppable. Exits and entrances ranged from log-rolling offstage to creeping slowly on in the dark. It was crucial to stay out of the way of the dancers’ exits and entrances. Once, during rehearsal, a growl behind me said “get out of the way!” Yessir!
We were busy. We were eager to do everything perfectly so the artistic staff would not regret their decision to use us.
But before the curtain rose on the performance, there was the first-moment thrill of walking into Lincoln Center at the stage entrance and getting a stage pass. Actually belonging there was almost too much to bear. Seeing signs for “Stage,” “Orchestra Pit,” and, above all, “New York City Ballet,” brought tears and reverence. I’d spent so many years watching the NYCB from the other side of the building.
Growing up in New Jersey and later, living in New York City, I took classes regularly at the Joffrey School and The School of American Ballet. Classes were fast, complicated, and nonstop, but I was intrepid . One of the most memorable experiences ever was one night when I was leaving after class. The lobby was full of dancers putting on leg warmers, pulling off coats, stuffing extra pins into their hair, and rolling out their feet in anticipation of the next class. I noticed one guy with a sculptural torso who leaned over to put on his shoes. He was only wearing tights. He must have felt my eyes on his back because when he looked up, I was staring into the baby-blues of Mikhail Baryshnikov. I froze and he nodded graciously. Somehow, I got one foot in front of the other and left the studio.
Finding myself in the dressing room we supers shared on the fourth floor of the New York State Theater all these years later was practically an out-of-body experience. I marveled at the make-up lights and an open closet to hang the costumes, which were quietly waiting there, cleaned, pressed, and expectant.
In a flurry of bobby pins, hairspray, hairnets, eyeliner, and amped-up lipstick, we cultivated the required look of Italian matrons of the 1940’s. We wore vintage dresses or suits, flesh-colored tights, and character shoes. I wore my large white pearl studs, but no other jewelry.
Rehearsals were exciting because we had reason to be in the Joffrey Chicago or Lincoln Center studio. For that moment in time, we were part of the production and able to watch our beloved dancers doing what they do best. I was the newest Super so my fellow Supers gave me a quick rundown of what to do. Two rehearsals were in the NYCB studio. The air was charged with electricity and the perfectionist drive that inhabits dancers’ bodies and minds. Mountains of leg warmers and spare towels, water bottles, gym bags, elastic, foam rollers, and shoes lined up between the barre and the wall.
Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, choreographer Krzysztof Pastor, Joffrey music director and conductor Scott Speck and the ballet masters sat up front to observe.
Later came the notes: how to lift-off to the next step, spacing, speed, expression of arms and torso, how to contain the fight scenes so no one actually gets hurt, and so on.
Dress rehearsal brought the new thrill of stepping into the empty Koch Theater and onto the stage. This stage is hallowed ground for dance lovers.. Looking closely I could see faint circles etched into the floor from thousands of turns. The empty theater was peaceful. The only sounds were the orchestra tuning up and the soft tread of ballet slippers. I looked up at the beautiful “diamond” lights that line the balconies, the wine-red velvet seating, and then down at the small spotlight on the center of the stage. I sat down next to that pool of light and tried to take it all in..
I donned my costume which fit to perfection. Ironically, the red and black tweed, shirtwaist dress with modified mutton sleeves is one I might have bought when it was new. The back pleats create a slight pouf which balances the tulip-shaped skirt. Fortunately, the dress moved gracefully when I walked and was ample enough for me to drop twice and log-roll when necessary. My bun was sprayed into submission by Sandi’s professional-grade hairspray, so nary a wisp. We took many photos of one another in attempts to record the moment forever.
Finally, my turn to perform arrived on Friday night, March 31. The family: Stuart, Evan, Rebekah, Sonia, Alec, Jackie, Mikayla, and Carol were out in the audience.
Backstage, the dancers were still warming up with turns, foot rolls, leaps, conferences, and play fighting. The lights blinked three times. The dancers kept twirling. One minute later, the lights blinked once and the Company took their places.
The stage was dark and we were posed in a pastiche of town life. The overture began after the audience applause for Maestro Speck. We waited in frozen motion as the curtain rose slowly along with the lights. The goosebumps return as I write. I decided to be aware of the audience so that I wouldn’t screw up, but to focus on the action around me. Every cell in my body was happy, excited, nervous, and amazed. Perhaps I was even in a bit of shock.
This was a profoundly internal experience in a sacred space with people I respect. I was proud to be associated with bringing the Joffrey back to New York City and do my part on the continuum of dance performance in that great city. My family observed the joy evidenced by total absorption in all the details for two weeks. For that span of time, I released everything else to circle back to the utter joy of ballet. When I returned home, the pointe shoes greeted me with quiet knowing.