How to Defeat Your Demons (Exercise them)

| 7.31.16 |


Early this summer, a few colleagues and I sat down with Twyla Tharp and Gia Kourlas for a Times feature on our recent July season at the Joyce Theater. When we’d exhausted our reflections on the company’s current repertory, talk turned to a 50th Anniversary Tour debrief, during which Gia asked us each to comment on how we felt landing at the Koch [State] Theater in November after ten weeks on the road. As I waited for my turn to speak, I sensed I would be expected to address, with some ceremony, my return to the stage where I once performed with the New York City Ballet.

I combed through my available tour memories while the others spoke. I’d had plenty of “Is this really my life?” moments during the entirety of Twyla’s 50th, but I realized several of those had occurred while I removed my makeup, packed up my theater case, and listened/laughed as Twyla brilliantly addressed her enthusiastic audiences in post-performance chats. Los Angeles. Portland. Chicago. In New York there were no such events. It was a shut up and dance kind of finale, and my mantra for the week? Just get through it. For the last and most intense leg of an unforgivably rigorous mental and physical commitment, we were on the much-harder-than-I-remembered stage at Lincoln Center, my plantar fasciitis was screaming, and my circadian rhythms were seemingly rising and falling in reverse.

But it was my turn to offer Gia my two cents. Ever the performer, never the actor, and consistently unpracticed in the art of the concise interview, I felt inclined to wax verbose on a tearful, climactic, full-circle homecoming. At one point, to my own surprise, I even faux-confessed “and this is where I always start to cry.” (And awkwardly tried and failed to muster a look of repressed anguish for effect. Busted for schmacting by John Selya’s raised eyebrow across the table.)

Truth: Crying at any point on the tour would have been a waste of energy, and also probably impossible given my goofball colleagues and our on-stage antics. Since completing this mammoth assignment, too, the company has braved many more adventures that include dancing up mountains in the Catskills and sliding down steep rakes in Italy. Week Ten in New York now files away briefly as follows: seven shows for TT, a friendly run-in with my former boss Peter Martins, familiar and welcoming faces stopping to say hi around the theater, and a few carefully staged selfies in choice backstage locations. Pretty much business as usual with ample rejoicing as our run concluded on an uneventful (injury-free) and surprisingly strong note.

Two weeks following the interview, I pick up the phone to call my dad from Saratoga Springs. I’m crying. He answers, briefly assesses the situation, and sighs. “Oh sweetie. I remember these Saratoga summers. Don’t you? You always had a hard time.”

I had arrived on one of the last days of June at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, well recognized as the New York City Ballet’s summer home, with Twyla Tharp and Three Dances in two very large vans. I am early for class the day of our performance, eager to get to the theater early to get “organized” for an exhausting triple bill. I take my first steps down the steep hill to the stage door alone. Cue first flashback: former colleagues and ballet masters smoking or sunning on the loading dock. Some chatting, some observing (judging?) as I descend. Either I’m overly self-conscious or this is the first performance of the day. My stomach knots itself accordingly.

As I enter the theater’s back door, I look right toward the studio. Cue second flashback: I stop in the bathroom to steal paper towels for my pointe shoes before I head in to take the last “optional” evening warm-up of NYCB’s season. I will always take every single company class offered, no matter my exhaustion or injuries or performance schedule, as recommended by my boss (“get stronger,” he suggests) and my own unforgiving self-assessments.

I look left down the hallway to the production office – cue third – where one of my dearest friends in the company has just learned his/her contract will not be renewed.

I hurry down the hall (fourth!) where I’ve just seen something I wish I hadn’t: definitive evidence that my recent ex, also in the company, has “moved on.” I now pass the bulletin board (fourth continued), where I find casting, daily schedules, and a single glowing review of NYCB’s most recent mixed repertory program – including my Saratoga Debut of The Siren in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son – that has nothing but good things to say about the performance except where it has nothing good to say about mine.

I pause. Back to the present, briefly. I see a wall now littered with pre-performance Twyla interviews. I head to the dressing room, suddenly homesick.

I’m almost thirty now and I’m on the phone with my dad bawling the way I did when I first made the trip to Saratoga in my teens and I felt lonely and I didn’t know how to drive and I felt nervous around most of my fellow company members because I didn’t know anyone and Rosemary had called me out in rehearsal in front of everyone because I kept landing late on the music. And there’s more petty stuff. Also there’s heartbreaking stuff. Sad stuff. Laughable stuff. This theater somehow unlocks some of the most painful coming of age moments I experienced both as a young woman and also as a young dancer in a competitive ballet company. I’m glad now that I am sharing this with my dad and not with Gia.

My cheerful colleagues come in, interrupting my conversation. I am sort of smiling until I get to class, which I take aggressively and in pointe shoes. Twyla watches in the corner and taps her feet along with us while I audition, for no one in particular, as though I’m desperate to be cast in next season’s ballets. (You’re already in three tonight, I keep telling myself. And they’re hard. So calm the fuck down.) Next I dance too full out in rehearsal, as if pushing myself past exhaustion in every run is the only way to prove I’m worthy of performing these dances. Old habits.

We’ve just finished tech-ing the Beethoven, the most difficult piece for me on Twyla’s program. Tharp endorphins are keeping me firmly in the present now, and I’m in a better mood. I sit in a chair placed off of the second wing. Whoopsie! Flashback five. I am so distraught about aforementioned hallway discovery (see flashback four) that I nearly miss an entrance that merely requires I walk slowly from wing to quarter mark on stage and stand for a few seconds following a ballerina’s bravura performance. Screwing up a walk-on role? To this day, a career low.

“So, what are you doing here?” A member of the stage crew sitting next to me has leaned over to ask. Assuming he is wondering about my character in the Beethoven we just rehearsed, I offer my opaque response: “I’m not entirely sure, but I’m definitely not nice.”

He looks surprised and apologizes. “Ok, sorry to bother you. I thought I recognized you from before.”

As it dawns on me that I’ve misunderstood his question – it’s not about my role in the dance he just saw but about my very presence as a dancer in Saratoga – I begin to laugh. I apologize and explain my decision to leave NYCB, go back to school, and work with Twyla following graduation. I can finally feel the knot in my stomach beginning to relax as I remember aloud how far I’ve come and how much has changed since I was last here.

The day continues to unravel my tension despite my anxiety’s best efforts. I share pizza with the boys for lunch (this feels risky), do makeup and hair while laughing with the Tharp ladies, and warm up at my leisure to John’s DJ-ing with the group we call #teamtharp. As we convene on stage with five minutes to Country Dances, my new boss goes out of her way to give us a hug and a few well-chosen words of encouragement before curtain. This reminds me once again that I am in the same theater but in an otherwise very different place.

I rarely hold on to anything more than a blur of the mood from any performance so long after its completion – unless something goes very wrong. What I still savor from that midsummer night at SPAC is the familiarity of the sun’s slow set over the lawn as we danced for a welcoming audience. The memory of many magical nights on stage with the New York City Ballet finally restored.

And what of dancing Tharp? This echoes that other question: What am I doing here, again, after all? The real answer is elusive, and inexplicable, and has something to do with love.

By our last dance of the night, the stage has cooled off as it often does when the sun sets. I enter to dance my favorite part of the program. Beautiful, brief, melancholy. I am onstage alone, but on this night I can’t help but think of how happy I am to be in this place, at this time, with this group.

And that is ALMOST the actual full-circle story-closing sentence. This is where I would usually try to end it. Dancing into the sunset with faith fully restored and past now neatly tucked away. But it is the day after the premiere and we’ve piled into the vans again. We’re passing a familiar mansion on our way to our next tour stop. Ah. Last, but certainly not least: It is my first summer in Saratoga and I catch a ride to a company party here with a fellow apprentice. At the end of the evening we learn we have accidentally locked the keys in the rental car (with the ignition running!) and have no choice but to persuade a baffled but kind principal dancer to help us call AAA and drive us to our hotel. That night, traumatized but back in the car, we head to Stewart’s for an ice cream binge.

3 Responses to “How to Defeat Your Demons (Exercise them)”

  1. John Selya

    Some EXCELLENT writing IMO.
    Glad you are blogging!

  2. John Selya

    On the other hand, please think about a bolder font.

  3. Maggie

    No more s***. All posts of this qulatiy from now on


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