backwards and into the future
November 12, 2016
Long Island, New York
It’s our final tour performance, and so far it feels like my best by a stretch. My body is relaxed, loose and strong. I have no nerves. This is unusual for me.
I stand in the second wing, facing away from my colleagues on stage as I prepare for my first retrograde jog into Brahms Paganini. On the stage right wall hangs a clock that also appears to be running backwards tonight. Above the clock sits a sign that reads “THE END.”
I hear my eight-count warning and propel myself backwards and into my final entrances.
November 9, 2016
City Center Studios, New York City
We are in New York, rehearsing away a weeklong lull between our last performance on the road and a final “home(ish)coming” on Long Island. Before we proceed with a day of filming Beethoven, Opus 130 for Twyla’s teaching archives, Amy leads us in a warm-up class built to a playlist intended for a morning of celebration following the election of our first female president.
“Oh boyyy,” she moans as we do our rond de jambes to Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.”
This week I spend my spare evenings attending every possible dance performance I can fit into my schedule. Before the tour and before the election, I would’ve stayed home most nights to study, claiming to be sick of Manhattan’s cliquey dance scene. But now I’m tired of The Times and CNN and the vitriol on my social media feeds. Tonight the city’s momentarily lost its wind, and I can feel it most acutely as I sit on the other side of the “wall” with my fellow audience members, none of whom I recognize. We’re watching a stellar guest company from abroad, and as the show concludes many of us in the sold out crowd are now cheering or in tears or on our feet, emboldened by the energy and commitment of these artists.
This performance punctures a huge hole in my feeble theory of late that in the scheme of things, what I do doesn’t matter. The day-to-day might feel petty, but what dance can deliver is not.
October 25, 2016
I’m with dad at a restaurant across the street from the theater, where we’re celebrating the conclusion of my final performance on the road with a beer and his new take on Twyla’s Beethoven. My lawyer father has seen more dance than most people I know (he fell in love with a Sugarplum Fairy and they raised two dancer daughters) and still he’ll drive twelve hours round trip in one day so as not to miss this performance.
He says it’s because he never knows when I’m going to give it up again. When I left NYCB, it was ultimately an impulse walk and an event too anti-climactic to commemorate. I don’t regret the decision, but sometimes I think he does a little bit for me.
“Speaking of your future,” he chides. “How are those grad school apps coming along?”
Though my body has been Benjamin Buttoning – strangely getting younger in the years since I left New York City Ballet – I can’t help but anticipate the inevitable reversal of this welcome curse. Lately I finish every performance, the weak ones included, wondering if it’s the best I’ll ever be again. I think I’ve hit my prime now, even if the pay I accept for some projects would suggest otherwise. If only I could bask in some kind of glory for a minute without insecurity and practicality interrupting to ask:
October 22, 2016
San Diego, California
Twyla gives the company notes for the first time since we’ve started the tour. She visits each dancer with praise and a few fixes then returns to me, sidling over with her eyes narrowed and a gleeful little bounce in her walk. She’s preparing to pounce. I can tell by the way she circles the note on her yellow pad with a flourish of her pencil.
I blush and she offers her hand for me to shake. I take it as a few of my friends chuckle hesitantly.
Twyla continues. “Somehow you’ve managed to make EVERY TURN YOU DO in Country Dances (pause) into a TRIPLE PIROUETTE (pause).” By now I’m obviously embarrassed but also secretly quite pleased she’s noticed. If we’re assessing technique alone, three is better than two is better than one.
She pauses again and looks around the room to make sure everyone’s enjoying this as much as she is. They are. She continues: “Impressive. But NOT REALLY. I’m BORED. Try something ELSE for a change.”
Twyla usually knows what I’m thinking before I do.
October 20, 2016
I wake up to an announcement on the #teamtharp group text: “She’s here.”
Twyla has flown out to join us for the first time on this tour, and we all have no idea that’s on the agenda until she’s spotted at breakfast. My buzzing phone thankfully alerts me to her presence before I plod down to the hotel’s lobby in my mismatched plaid. (Ramona is not so lucky – she shows up at the buffet in floral print PJs, much to Twyla’s amusement.)
Even though I know I’ll find TT at the breakfast table, I still startle when I see her in person. She orders me to sit. I shift uncomfortably in my seat, trying to avoid squishing several stolen breakfast items shoved into the waistband of my sweatpants as we discuss how difficult it is to stay in good shape on the road.
Later, the company marks through tech rehearsal and I can tell Twyla has a few things to say to me, in Country Dances especially. For now, she elects not to mess too much with our pre-show prep. She does join us in the theater green room, however, where we tentatively joke with her about our now expert food thieving techniques.
When we explain to her that Kaitlyn’s invented a new way to take soup-to-go spill-free sans suitable container, she rolls her eyes, unimpressed. “The old company… we made away with the entire chicken once. One of the dancers just stuck it in her bag.” I give Ramona a look and eye the cold cut platter.
After the show in Folsom, we peel off our fake lashes in the dressing room and listen as Twyla speaks casually with our audience.
“Art is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” she begins, and they roar with appreciation.
October 18, 2016
San Luis Obispo, California
I finally decide to follow Ramona to a yoga class, hoping it might provide me with some physical and mental clarity to combat my persistently Debbie Downer attitude. Within the first few minutes of child’s pose I’m crying on my mat; thirty minutes later I snap at a fellow male yoga student who grabs me inappropriately in class.
“Don’t touch me,” I growl as he reaches out and squeezes my arms together to “help” me in a stretch. He later apologizes profusely and I won’t meet his gaze. I blame the election miasma for his misstep and for my rage.
Later, lonely in my grim hotel room, I enlist a smuggled hospitality snack to keep me company. As I bite down on the granola bar, out pops my tooth.
I immediately head to the mirror, tooth in my palm, to inspect what is now a gaping hole in the center of my bottom jaw. No tears this time, though. Just laughter. My reflection is an overgrown reincarnation of my five-year-old self waiting for her first visit from the tooth fairy. I immediately send a few toothless selfies to unsuspecting recipients then try Syd for some superglue. She says no way am I allowed to squeeze that carcinogenic stuff into my gums.
So I plod to CVS in the pouring rain and comb through the aisles, finally discovering some denture glue that holds well until my first bite at Syd’s birthday dinner. Out comes the tooth again and into my clutch it goes for the rest of the evening.
“I think it’s an improvement, actually,” Matt decides, assessing my new look.
All of the per diem I’ve so far saved spiriting away our catered food goes toward replacing the bridge I break taking a bite out of a free, stale granola bar. (The tooth has always been fake. The permanent never never showed up.) I finagle my emergency dentist some comp tickets to thank him for fitting me in last minute. He enjoys the show and emails me to tell me he thinks I have talent.
October 14, 2016
Today I’ve spent too long in the theater. I can tell by how snarky I am with myself and with my colleagues. And by the silly tears between shows (I cry a lot anyway, but I’m setting a new record on this tour) first because of a brief tiff with my coworkers and later because of a larger and more painful blip in my personal life. Not even a visit to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen – really – can snap me out of this funk.
I’m warming up too early for our second show of the day, killing time between exercises by analyzing my face and then my profile and then my figure and then my smile from every angle in the studio’s full-length mirror.
As I put on my makeup I consider the number of minutes I spend primping every day and decide that for the next performance, I’ll make some new rules about how much time I’m allowed to spend on my reflection.
It’s funny, just this morning we’ve danced a show for school kids bused in from Monterey County public schools. My daily questions about why I do what I do have already been answered by the delighted shrieks of children who cheer for us by name with each entrance we make. Now, five minutes from our evening show, my doubt has returned.
When the performance is over, I jog to catch up to our company manager, who’s just leaving the theater.
“Al? Hi. I think I’m ready to retire.”
I launch into a long-winded explanation having something to do with art probably being good but me not being a good person while practicing it. At some point during my monologue, a man approaches me, eyeing the Styrofoam container I’m holding. He’s young and obviously hungry, an apparent anomaly in this wealthy town of retirees, and he asks politely for my leftovers. This is my best hospitality hoard yet – gourmet sandwiches, cookies, brownies and even some crudité meticulously stuffed into a small to-go container. I clutch it possessively to my chest for a moment too long before I realize I’m an asshole. I hand him the food.