Tag Archives: Pacific Northwest Ballet

To Dance Again: Confessions of a Masochist Part 4

In the Sleeping Beauty Pas de Trois, 1984

About that shoulder injury I mentioned in my last post.  I skipped last week’s ballet class because of one silly maneuver I tried to pull off during the class before.  There’s an exercise known as grand battement en cloche: the standing leg remains straight while the working leg swings from a high front kick to a high back kick, then repeats: front and back and front and back, like a pendulum or a real swing (your foot is the kid going higher and higher, you’re the tree and the mirror is the fence over which your foot can see the whole world).  Just as there’s some give to the rope of a swing, it’s okay to bend your leg in attitude as you cloche.  The idea is to free your hip and get a great stretch without straining.  Grand battement en cloche happens toward the end of barre when your body is pretty warm and at its most flexible.  When nothing particularly hurts it’s kind of fun, especially if you’re sixteen and each leg weighs about ten pounds.  When I was younger, my favorite thing to do was grab my foot at the end of the combination and pull it down over my head to touch my nose.

Doing the exercise two weeks ago, I experienced a warm surge of nostalgia, wacked my leg as high as it could go in back and lifted my chin.  Yes!  I could see my foot!  Just like in the old days!  On the next pass I kicked just as high to see if I’d been dreaming.  I hadn’t been: there was my foot, just inches from my forehead.  Then I pushed my luck.  On the last swing, I kicked with total abandon, arm in fifth overhead, turned my face toward the mirror to see if I looked just as fabulous as I felt, and heard a loud snap.   It was the head-turn that did it.  My leg came down, but my arm would not.  Nor would my head comfortably return to the front-facing position.  It shouldn’t have been a surprise; this had happened before.  I can usually recall the origin of my dance injuries—where I was when they started (my Cincinnati Ballet Knee-Blow-Out), what I missed, how my psyche was holding up.  Each old battle wound comes with its emotional baggage (my Pacific Northwest Ballet stress fracture, the subsequent weight gain and depression).  As for this shoulder thing, its era was high school.

So as I stood there, massaging my shoulder blade—two weeks ago, in January, 2012—1983 descended upon me.  Performing Arts High School, Dance Studio A: longer than it was deep, sticky with resin, rank with the bodies of energetic teenagers, of whom only a handful were fastidious about deodorant.  I see my friends in the mirror, dressed in tights, cut-neck t-shirts (we predated Flashdance with that, by the way), chiffon skirts, bunchy leg warmers.  Someone is out on the fire escape smoking a cigarette under the assumption that the teachers can’t see him.  There’s music playing, of course, and there’s me.  Tiny, hyperactive, even for a dancer, dressed all in slimming black, though I don’t quite weigh ninety pounds.  I’m making people laugh with a Gelsey Kirkland imitation,  now an imitation of the teacher himself.  I look like I’m having a blast until I look in the mirror, which I used to do often.  Checking, always checking.  That was how I got the trick shoulder.                                                                                                                                                                                                              I’d take a grande jete  ( a big leap) with my arms overhead, go as high as I could, split my legs 180 degrees, arch my back.  Then I’d toss back my head to look in the mirror.  When I came down, my left arm would stick in place and I’d have to get someone to help me release it.   The teacher would scold me; I shouldn’t turn my head at such a crazy, unnatural angle.  It wasn’t choreographed; it broke the line; it didn’t look right.  But I’d do it again the next time.  Just to see myself fly.  To see a joyous version of me when the real one was anything but.

The mirror was fickle.  Sometimes it showed me the best of me; other times the worst.  It was a crystal ball who reveled in the lies it could make me believe.  It held what I needed: a positive answer to the question on my mind—on the minds of all my friends: Will I make it?  Will I ever get to dance with a ballet company?  That was all that mattered.  We grew up hearing that out of a thousand little girls in pink tights and leotards, only one makes it as a ballet dancer.  But we’d worked so hard for so many years.  We’d passed auditions; we’d performed.  At this point, we all felt we were that one in a thousand.  Not making it would be the end of the world as far as we were concerned.

But Ballet is hard.  If you go to the ballet, look at the girls, the women.  The intricate moves they pull off with superhuman strength and delicacy.  It takes years of daily training, hours and hours each day.  Ballet technique is based on a series of geometric lines that describe impossible images of beauty.   A human body simply cannot do it perfectly, but to be a professional you must come close.

Now take ballet, add teenage girls, and you have a dangerous mix.  Our fear of failure was paralyzing; the likelihood of failure ridiculously high.  Many of us smoked, starved, purged and engaged in other “unhealthy coping behaviors.”  Still, we’d never quit because we loved ballet too much.

There were moments when everything came together.  You’d hit your balance in a pirouette and sail around six times, or take off  in a leap and defy gravity.  When the moment was over, you’d look around hoping someone saw.  But we were often too focused on ourselves to notice one another.  So you’d peak in the mirror as you danced, trying to record those split seconds of success for the darkest hours of self-flagellation.  Those times when you stood in front of the mirror alone, listening to your inner voice tell you how fat you were, how far from being a true dancer.   Compared to you, it said, your friends are perfect.   Then, a small, quiet voice might break through your private torture, whispering: yes, but you can fly.  Yes, but you did six pirouettes.  And you’d survive.

That was long ago, and how I’ve survived.  Suffering only a little from the aftermath of that wild kick and inopportune head turn.  When I was sixteen, a short massage from a friend was all I needed to pop my arm and neck back into alignment.  Since I am not sixteen, this shoulder episode takes several massages from my husband, a week and a half of hot baths and compresses and a whole lot of Ibuprofen to work itself out.   While I am healing, I find a moment to stand in front of the mirror in tights and try to remember what it was that I loathed so much.  I am not perfect—in fact I’m way less perfect than I was at sixteen.  But when I take in my form, the darkness doesn’t come back.  I think of my kids, how special they are, how this body made them, how lucky that I recovered from my eating disorders in time to have them.  I think how cool it is that I get to dance again.

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Why I left Ballet (from my essay “Cat among Crows”)

My dream of becoming a ballet dancer had come true.  The thing was, I’d outgrown it.

            Summer, 1992—Seattle’s had less rain than usual.  It’s so hot, even through tights my legs stick to the window ledge.  My aching feet, in pointe shoes, beg me to end this torture.  The little toe on the right is bleeding; I see red coming through the satin, but there’s no time to treat it.  The corps de ballet is on a ten minute break, just long enough to pee and smoke.  The other girls who didn’t remain in the studio to stretch headed for the smoking room for a quick round of bitch and moan.  I declined their invitation, retreating to this hideout that I discovered my first day here.

            It’s getting harder to pretend I’m like them, though I once was.  All I wanted was to be a dancer in a major ballet company—to be one of the four cygnets in Swan Lake; to dance the Balanchine masterpieces.  Now I am living the dream of that former self.

To be fair, there are some aspects of my job that still give me a charge, like dancing the opening in Who Cares?, where the music’s all Gershwin, and you whack your legs up in the air, flick your wrists and jut out your hips. Or Swan Lake Act II, after the corps’ entrance: where you tear around the stage, flapping your arms like a maniac and then stop on a dime when the prince comes.

I’ll be so into it, remembering at last why I do this in the first place and then, after a performance, I’ll get notes—the director’s list of everything I did wrong during the show.  (Everyone gets notes, but lately I get more than average.)  And I think to myself: I’m having a great time out there (not counting the pain) if you don’t like my dancing, watch someone else.

So I know it’s time to stop.  To become that other me, who went to a fancy Ivy League University and then lied about it, so people would believe I was only eighteen and consider me for their corps de ballet.  Before I left for college, my ballet teachers begged me:  “Dance now!  School will wait!”   I should have listened.  Princeton changed me, removed my blinders to the world outside ballet.  Once they’re off, they never fit right again.  All you see is yourself on the other side of the looking glass.

And speaking of looking glasses—what would it be like to have a job where you don’t spend ten hours a day staring into one?   The mirror is for checking your line and position, your spacing in relationship to the rest of the girls in the corps.  But mostly you’re just taking measure after measure, scrutinizing every flaw.  Thighs, hips, stomach, butt.  You are the fattest one, my reflection tells me, a matron among the sylphs.  It’s not your imagination; you will get another weight warning.  I catch a glimpse of myself in line with the rest of the corps; there is no angle from which I can pretend the above is not true.

And sure enough, the artistic directors—a married couple of aging ballet stars—call me into the office.

“You’re not looking you’re best,” they tell me. “We miss seeing you in your aerobic svelteness.”

            Oh, right, I imagine myself replying, when I was anorexic, you mean.  Yeah.  I miss it too.  Those were the days.

On weekends I devour whole loaves of bread in minutes, throwing up only occasionally.  My bones have begun to drown in flesh.  My thighs, especially in pink tights, become unrecognizable.   I must weigh over one hundred twenty pounds—unthinkable for a ballerina of my height and build (anything over one hundred is pushing it, frankly)—but who’s counting?  It’s just another way to distance myself from this place, this life.

From my perch, I track a spider, tiptoeing across the air a few inches from the stone exterior of the building.  The Good Shepherd Center, in the Wallingford section of Seattle, is the home of Pacific Northwest Ballet, though a move to Seattle Center is planned in the coming year.  The center itself, a former orphanage, later a home for wayward young girls, is an aging beauty of a place, made of stone, wrought iron and dark wood.  The window I’ve claimed is at the end of a quiet hall, with just one office leased by Greenpeace.  I push the window open and take in the wild, rain-enhanced outdoor smells.  Everything is wet and green, the air thick with the mixed-up scent of mildew and wildflowers.  There are crows gathering in the nearest tree: big, black, fixated on something.

“Hey.”  It’s Douglas, invading my solitude, uninvited, undesired.  He’s come straight from wardrobe in his Steadfast Tin Soldier costume, jaunty blue cap and all.  Douglas puts a hand on my neck and starts massaging the wrong way.  “You didn’t come up here to smoke did you?”

“Of course not.”   I turn to give him a smile, to which I’m hoping he’ll respond with a kiss and make tracks.

One of the Greenpeace guys—the lanky, Mediterranean-looking one with the beard—walks past.

“Nice duds,” he tells Douglas and catches my eye for a split second, which is actually better than a cigarette.

Ignoring the guy, or failing to notice someone out of tights—a lowly civilian—Douglas turns around to model his delt-and-pec-accentuating costume for me.  I dutifully acknowledge the improved fit, glancing over Douglas’s shoulder to watch the Greenpeace guy disappear into his office.

Douglas goes back to the seamstress before my ten is up.  No time to smoke now; I’ll just enjoy the smells and watch those crows for a minute more.  They keep on coming, filling the branches of the tree.

“They’re sure going Hitchcock out there.”

I turn, surprised to find that the Greenpeace guy has returned.  He points: “What’s that?”

I look: the crow at the center of the mob is the same color and size as the others, but its movements are awkward; it doesn’t have wings.

“It’s a kitten!”  I say, and the guy leans close.

He says, “Holy shit—it’s a kitten all right.”

I give him a clandestine once-over; he’s about five years younger than me: early twenties.

I say: “Can you climb that tree?”

*

            “So just come home,” says my mother, a few nights earlier.  She waits, listening to see if her words have stemmed this: my weekly crying jag.

It’s two here, but eleven in New York, which means I didn’t wake her this time.  Curling up on the sofa, under the red and orange afghan she made me (Douglas has the AC up high), I try to speak: I’m on contract here.  All that comes out is a juicy, snot-filled sob.  I reach for a tissue to muffle the sound; the bedroom door is closed, but Douglas is a light sleeper.

Mom says, “Oh honey,” which makes me cry harder.   She starts her monologue: “We learn from our mistakes …”  She lists mine: Seattle, signing the contract when I knew it was time to hang up the point shoes and be a real person.  She lists Douglas.

“He was fun in Philly.  But since you moved out there together, you’ve done nothing but complain about him.”  Be kind, she says: let him go.  Jump ship and come home.  She reminds me about a job I can have if I’d just call the number she gave me.

When we hang up, I wrap myself in the afghan and walk into the kitchen.  Douglas forbids smoking in the apartment, so I switch on the fan and open the window before lighting up.  I can see the lights downtown, beyond them the pier and the Puget Sound, all of it facing the wrong way.

*

The Greenpeace office is full of cheap card tables, covered with pamphlets and papers, clipboards and empty Starbucks cups.  One of the sturdier ones supports the weight of two Macintosh computers.  On the floor beneath it is an old-style printer, noisily running something off.  The only person still here when I stop in at six is a girl standing at a table, collating something.  She looks up.

“Can I help you?”

I describe the guy with the beard.

“Jonah?” she says.  “He left for the day.”

She takes in my rehearsal outfit, on the verge of a smile.  She’s younger than me too, with a gangly skinniness I suspect is natural.

I hesitate.  “Did Jonah mention anything about rescuing a kitten?”

She locks eyes on me, knows just why I’ve come.

“He climbed the tree,” she says.  “There was nothing there.  Just crows.”

The printer stops; the girl gets up to gather the accordion of pages, but I beat her to it.

“I’ve got it.”

My fingers quickly find the perforations; fold gently and tear.  Thin paper ribbons ripple to the floor, leaving the edges of the paper clean as a book.   I stack the pages, tapping the bundle on the table to make it even, and suddenly I’m back in college.  I can feel the pleasant weight of pages in my arms, the headiness of seeing my own words in print, the tedium of the chore sweetened by the euphoria of accomplishment.

“Thank you,” says the girl, bringing me back.  “I really hate doing that.  We were supposed to get a laser printer.”

“No problem.”

Now, eyeing my feet, she says, “Do those shoes hurt?  I’ve always wanted to know.”

I tell her, “Yes.”

As I keep folding, tearing, gathering, I start wondering what happened to that cat.  I know I didn’t imagine it; Jonah saw it too.  If the crows had pecked it to death, he would have found something—a carcass—still up in the tree or down among the roots.   I’m sure Jonah would have told this girl, and she’d have told me.  Then I remember that cats have nine lives.

*

A few days later, I’m walking alongside the Puget Sound, which I do whenever I get the chance.  It’s Seattle’s best feature, making up for the haphazard architecture that someone decided made it look like a real city.  But this walkway by the Sound—it’s why I’ve survived here this long, this far from my beloved New York.  I walk.  I gaze at the water, soaking in the view of the mountains, the impossible range of colors in the sky and suddenly, it comes to me: you can stop, you know.  A week goes by, and the thought grows into a promise.

Gradually I release myself from my old dream.  Bit by bit, the weight drops off because I’m not using food as an anesthetic any more.  I stop hating ballet (I am no longer its prisoner) and begin to really dance full out again.  During a petit allegro combination in company class one day, Douglas watches me.

“That was pretty,” he says when I’m done, but his face is sullen.  He says, “You’re leaving.”

It’s not a question.  If it were a question, he would specify: him, the company, or Seattle? Of course, I’m leaving all three, but he doesn’t specify.  I just take his hand and squeeze it.