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TENDU LATTE

27 Sep

I always walk into my morning ballet class holding coffee in a take away cup.  I know it’s wrong, but I do it all the time. I presume it’s annoying – even one of my teachers once made fun of me, saying out loud to the class, “Look at her, just like Makarova – she’d come to class wearing her bandana, with her cigarette and coffee cup, smoking and drinking coffee while doing her tendu!” I imagine my teacher, formerly with the Kirov (now the Mariinsky Ballet) would know if that’s true, but I can’t confirm it and I’m definitely no Makarova! Nevertheless, I know I do bend the rules when it comes to class etiquette – sipping coffee between combinations is definitely a no-no.

Natalia Makarova - Photo: Derek Bailey (website). Did Makarova bring her coffee cup into company class?

As a kid at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School the rules were strict – no water (not that there was bottled water to purchase back then), nothing to drink at all. Not even a sip until after class, and that was in the hallway at the water fountain. I remember standing en pointe, trying to reach the spout.

Today, theories on staying hydrated during exercise have changed. The American Council on Exercise® (ACE®) recommends exercisers maintain a constant supply of water in the body, essential to performance. They say dehydration leads to muscle fatigue and loss of coordination, and that even small amounts of water loss may hinder athletic performance.

“In a dehydrated state the body is unable to cool itself efficiently, leading to heat exhaustion and possibly heat stroke. Without an adequate supply of water the body will lack energy and muscles may develop cramps. To prevent dehydration, exercisers must drink before, during and after the workout,” says ACE®.

According to a New York Times story by Blair Tindall, Dancers Learn to Get By on Aspirin, Coffee and Grit, “caffeine may hold some benefits; research shows that low doses significantly increase an athlete’s stamina.” The story includes a quote from Linnette Roe, who danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet from 1987 to 1999. “I wish I had racier stories for you… but the No. 1 performance-enhancing drug today is coffee,” she said.

Water? Coffee? Neither is really within the traditional parameters of ballet class decorum. Typical rules on drinking water during class, for example, are outlined on the Virginia Ballet Company website: “It is good to drink water before and after class ends. Drinking water between barre exercises or center exercises is generally not allowed. It is inappropriate to drink water while a teacher is giving a combination. If the teacher allows, students may drink water from a water bottle between barre and moving to the center.”

There was a recent post on the blog Ballet for Me and You called “When to Drink Water During Ballet Class.” The story explained, “Yes, it’s true. There is etiquette when it comes to drinking water! Some schools are strict about their water policies, while others are not. Even if a school is not specific, there are those unspoken rules that exist… some teachers are okay with students taking a quick swig of water between combinations, while others prefer for student to wait until barre is complete. If you’re unsure what’s acceptable, my best suggestion is ask the teacher prior to class if there is a preference or a rule. Otherwise you can take a quick drink, but know the combination, and be ready to start before the music begins.”

And now for the truth – I not only bring my coffee cup into class, but I bring a water bottle too! When I finish off my coffee, I continue on with Poland Spring, stashed in my bag. (Indulge me, please… after 45 years of taking class, hydration is by far the least of my issues)!

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WHOSE SPOT IS IT ANYWAY?

13 Sep

I often wonder, why do people always stand at the same place at the ballet barre? No matter what the class, or whom the teacher, no matter what the day or what the level, it seems dancers always stand at the barre in the exact same spot! (In my class, I can almost tell you where people are standing with my eyes closed).

I remember when Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Tudor Trust, told me she always stood at the piano when she took barre in Mr. Tudor’s class at the Metropolitan Opera House and that’s how she became close with Elizabeth Sawyer, Antony Tudor’s accompanist for 17 years.

Dancers at the Barre - Tudor Centennial at Juilliard; Photo: Cliff Jernigan

I’m not talking about “the middle,” where the more advanced or higher level dancers tend to be first. I’m talking about the barre and why people always seem to stand in the exact same place. In my class, dancers are often so committed to their spot that people are literally afraid to “steal” a regular spot from another class member. (I recall one day a dancer holding a tiny section of the barre at the piano relocated like a bullet when the person who normally stands in that spot arrived late – yikes)!

Actually, there seems to be a bit of protocol regarding where you stand at the barre. In a 2009 article in Pointe Magazine, author Temple Kemezis said, “At the beginning of every day, class sets the tone for how you will work. Make note of where people like to stand to avoid standing in someone’s favorite barre spot….”  The article, which discussed proper etiquette for a first-year company member, went on to say, “Communication is your best friend. Checking ahead of time is far better than being kicked off the barre mid-plié by a principal who is late for class.”

Edgar Degas - 1888. "Tänzerinnen an der Stange" Source: Wikipedia

Ashley Bouder,  Principal Dancer for New York City Ballet, told me she always stands in the same spot in company class. “I have stood in the same spot in company class for eight years. I always stand directly behind the piano, no matter which studio the company is taking class in. It makes me feel comfortable. It’s like waking up in your own bed. A hotel bed may feel great, but nothing beats home. That’s how I feel about my barre spot. It’s my home base; a place to start my day,” she said.

In a story called, “A smile on my face… as long as you stay clear of my space” columnist Heidi Rice said it doesn’t matter if  it’s where you sit in college, yoga class or church – “People stake out their territory.” The article, recently published in The Post Independent of Glenwood Springs, CO, went on to say, “When I looked up this whole phenomenon on the Internet, I found something that said, ‘Humans are homeostatic by nature.’ In other words, our bodies like things to pretty much stay the same.”

Yes, we are creatures of habit.

Recently my daughter told me a lawsuit was filed at her NYC gym after one man pushed another off his “favorite” bike in spin class and wound up breaking the trespasser’s arm! She hears the “pusher” is now banned from the Equinox gym for life and “is probably in anger management.” Well, ballet people don’t go that far, but yes, we do like our spots!

Do you always stay at the same place at the barre? (I try not to. But then again, I do like a clear view of the mirror and hate being squished in the corner. The back of the room gets too warm for me and I don’t like being too close to the door…).

Well, I guess I do always stay at the same place at the barre! Or try to!

APPLAUSE FOR ME?

29 Aug

Back in 2008 students of the Juilliard Dance Division participated in the Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration, the 100th birthday commemoration of the late choreographer.

The purpose of the weekend celebration was to bring together generations of dancers, writers and musicians who were touched by Mr. Tudor and his work. In addition to class workshops and a performance of Dark Elegies at the Juilliard Spring Concert, the weekend included informal studio performances of Tudor’s Little Improvisations, Continuo, Undertow and Judgment of Paris, performed by Juilliard students as well as dancers from the JKO School at American Ballet Theatre, ABT II and New York Theatre Ballet.  And that’s where the applause comes in.

As event coordinator of the Tudor Centennial weekend I was invited to observe a rehearsal, along with Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Tudor Trust, of Tudor’s Undertow by Juilliard dancers under the direction of Trust Répétiteur, Kirk Peterson.

That day, just prior to the Centennial, students were rehearsing in a 3rd floor studio at The Juilliard School at Lincoln Center.  Sally and I were ushered in and seated – Sally in front of the mirror on a folding chair next to Larry Rhodes, Director of the Dance Division, and I, refusing a chair, just plopped down cross legged on the floor next to them. The dancers worked with the taped music of William Schuman’s commissioned score, stopping occasionally to grasp one of Kirk’s pointed corrections, and I was excited to observe.

During a short break, Kirk introduced Sally as Trustee and the person responsible for these wonderful Tudor ballets. The students were thrilled and began bowing and applauding her, as proprietor of these important works. Then, to my surprise, I was also introduced – as Event Coordinator of The Tudor Centennial. And again, all of the dancers began bowing and applauding, but this time, to me!

Me? They bowed and applauded me??  What a reversal of fortune – dancers applauding me, instead of the other way around. Will wonders never cease?

UNDER THE ORCHESTRA PIT

13 Aug

There is a wonderful man who lives under the orchestra pit in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Well, he doesn’t actually live there, but it’s where he spends his days.

I’ve spent a lot of time at Lincoln Center in recent years (as Event Coordinator for the ABT Dancer Reunion and the Antony Tudor Centennial at Julliard), but it wasn’t until years later, as Archivist for the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, that I had the opportunity to unearth Met Archivist John Pennino’s underground lair, home of the Metropolitan Opera Archives.

The trip to the Archives, led by Mr. Pennino himself, began by walking through the pass door to backstage, continuing on through narrow pipe-ceilinged hallways and down remote staircases to the building’s depths. As dramatic and elegant as the Met is upstairs, the opposite is true of the space underground. Cinder block gray walls and harsh fluorescent lights are de rigueur. It was a long walk to the archives, buried as they are, under the orchestra pit and stage.

 

I was asked to stop before entering the Archives, which are contained in a dark basement room piled high with file cabinets, stacks of boxes and old tin desks.  I had to leave my handbag, my tote, my jacket… I wasn’t allowed to hold or bring in anything. I had to tuck all of my belongings in a corner before even being allowed in the room! (No one is allowed into the archive with coats or bags because of theft.  But I wasn’t offended… I was excited)!

I was there on a mission to discover photos and memorabilia of the great choreographer Antony Tudor, who began staging his ballets for American Ballet Theatre (then “Ballet Theatre”) in 1939, and who in 1951 became Director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School. It was at the Met where Mr. Tudor recreated his ballets Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, as well as created his first American masterpiece, Pillar of Fire, in 1942. And it was in 1974, as Associate Director of American Ballet Theatre, he created his final masterpiece, The Leaves are Fading. The Met Archives were a treasure trove, and I had access!

So there I sat, kindly tended to by Mr. Pennino, quietly going through files of photos and memorabilia that he had stacked up for me, anticipating my visit. He sat behind me, at his own desk, hearing me occasionally gasp, mutter “wows” and voice disbelief. I found telegrams to Mr. Tudor, letters, old programs, rehearsal photos, performance photos… the collection was priceless.

Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets” – Photo: Louis Melancon

The Trust wasn’t given permission to use all of the materials – copyrights and all –  but Mr. Pennino did give permission when he could. It was through his kindness that The Trust could gather materials not only to publish in their fund-raising book but to also digitize and store, in the hopes of further preserving Antony Tudor’s legacy to the dance community.

Before Mr. Pennino brought me to the Met Archives I was given a tour of the lobby, with its huge archival displays of photos, beautiful paintings and glass-lit cabinets filled with costumes, accessories and memorabilia. But nothing on display in that dazzling lobby compared with being able to go through the archival materials in that dusty room under the orchestra pit. That, indeed, was a rare treat!

YES, WE BOW AND CURTSEY!

1 Aug

A few Saturday’s ago I took a great class at New Jersey Ballet taught by prima ballerina and former ABT principal Eleanor D’Antuono. She had such a lovely teaching style, artistic, with great pacing, good corrections, difficult but still manageable.

On my way out of the building I saw Eleanor coming down the hallway – from a distance I blew her a kiss, bowed and curtseyed. When I got home I ran into my husband who asked if I had a good class. “Yes,” I said, “it was great! I saw my teacher on the way out and curtseyed to her for a second time and even blew her a kiss, the class was so good!

“Curtseyed?” my husband answered in amusement. “Are you serious?”

“Of course I curtseyed,” I said, explaining at the end of class we do a “révérence” where we give the teacher a round of applause and then bow and curtsey to the teacher and pianist.  His response was to laugh out loud and say, “Gee, I ought to applaud and curtsey after my spin class!”

Lance Westergard leads "révérence" at Tudor Centennial Workshop at Juilliard. Photo: Cliff Jernigan

It was at that moment I realized to a ballet outsider this behavior might seem odd.  I’d never really thought about it – is a curtsey, bow and round of applause at the end of ballet class (something I’ve done my whole life) really all that strange? And how did the tradition of “révérence” begin?

My online research yielded many explanations of the ballet term “révérence” but very little information on its origin. A blog called balletdancing4u said, “your ballet dancing class isn’t over until you do your révérence. A révérence is always done at the conclusion of your class and is an old ballet tradition that acknowledges your teacher and pianist, as well as showing courtesy, elegance and respect.” It went on to say, “today you thank your teacher for helping you and the pianist for the beautiful music, but one day you may thank your partner for dancing with you, or the conductor for the beautiful music and your audience for their applause.” I kind of liked that.

I also liked the simple, straightforward explanation of révérence on About.com, which defined révérence as simply, “a bow or curtsey – the last exercises of a ballet class in which the ballet dancers pay respect to and acknowledge the teacher and pianist. Révérence usually includes bows, curtsies, and ports de bras, and is a way of celebrating ballet’s traditions of elegance and respect.”

"How to do Révérence " - eHow.com

But what where did it all begin?

In her new book Apollo’s Angels, historian Jennifer Homans traces ballet’s evolution over the past 400 years and how the art of ballet evolved from its start in the Renaissance court cultures of Italy and France. In a recent interview with National Public Radio Homans said, “It was a dance (ballet) that was done by courtiers and kings and princes at court in social situations. It was not a theatrical art set off from social life…. the ways that people moved had to do with the ways that they moved in their lives. Like for example, if you have a révérence, a bow, which is still performed today in classical ballet, both in dances but also at the end of most dance classes, that’s the same bow that you would see in a painting of courtiers leaving their king.  And how far they bow, how deep they go was a sign of respect for the monarch or for the person they were addressing.”

But I thought the best explanation of  révérence was in a Dance Magazine article back in December, 2009. The article, by Kristin Lewis, said, “The origin of révérence dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when bows and curtseys were choreographed into social dances. ‘Couples turned toward each other and bowed as a gesture of respect,’ says Elizabeth Aldrich, curator of dance at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. If one couple performed a dance for someone of rank or nobility, their bows and curtseys were given as gestures of respect to this higher authority. Today, the higher authority is the teacher.’”

After class that Saturday I did wish to honor and respect my teacher – to say thank you for a class filled with artful challenges and gentle corrections. I also wanted to thank our wonderful pianist, Marie Raffa, whose daughter is a ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre. Marie has a way of enriching the music so that it “tells me what to do” – the music she chooses helps me find the steps, figure out the choreography – her music choice is always a perfect fit to the combination.

Marie, who has trouble walking, once told me she takes great joy in watching us dance and move for her. Here’s an extra bow and curtsey for you, Marie, with utmost reverence and applause!

View stunning photographs of bows and curtsies at photographer Gene Schiavone’s website page: “ABT ‘Bows and Curtain Calls’.”

JUMPING AT THE CHANCE – Working with ABT on The Dancer Reunion, May 2007

21 Jul

I often reflect fondly on my year at American Ballet Theatre, planning their 2007 dancer reunion. I jumped at the chance… after all, what ballet aficionado would pass up the opportunity to work at the ABT offices in NYC, not to mention connect with every dancer they’ve ever adored in their life? What an opportunity I was given!

The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend became the target date for a 650+ reunion of American Ballet Theatre dancers. What we wound up with was a daylong event hosted by Gage Englund and ballet luminaries Susan Jaffe and Cynthia Gregory which included a morning JKO School demonstration, an evening cocktail reception and an invitation to an ABT performance at the Metropolitan Opera House that night. All would be followed by an alumni curtain call bow and after-party on the Met’s Grand Tier. Wow.

The ABT Dancer Reunion took close to a year of prep from my tiny office at 890 Broadway, and that year was nothing short of amazing. Working with Artistic Administrator Tina Escoda made each day a delight. My thanks to her always. Here are some fond memories from that wonderful year:

ABT’s offices and studios are not glamorous in the least. When you enter 890 Broadway you are met by two pint size elevators in the small lobby, operated by elevator men using hand levers and pull grates. After being dropped on ABT’s 3rd and main floor, you find a gray reception area with exposed ceiling pipes, a no frills space indeed. The administrative and artistic offices are on this floor, along with one ballet studio. Two staircases lead from the third to the second floor, which contains additional studio space, as simple as the floor above. But oh, the beauty that comes from this unassuming space!

One morning I walked past the 3rd floor studio and couldn’t help but stop and watch some of company class from the door. The class, often taught by ballet veteran and company teacher Lupe Serrano, was a joy to watch. What could be better than standing steps away from someone like Paloma Herrera, with those incredible arched feet, always in the same place at the barre, quietly observing her tendu combinations? Another day walking past the same studio I noticed a different person teaching company class. She was striking and dramatic, with a body to die for. She looked so perfect in her leggings and leotard,  her head topped by a long scarf, tied bandana style with ends draping long down her strong back. I wasn’t sure who this woman was, demonstrating a magnificent grand battement with perfect extension. I asked. It was prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. She was 67 at the time.

Sometimes I would pass the studio at lunch time, and the Corps would be sprawled out, sitting on the floor chomping on sandwiches, these little girls no older than my own daughters who on stage look so ethereal, so mature, so adult. They seemed so young, and who said dancers don’t eat!

And what could be better than watching the rehearsal of La Bayadère from the studio door – principal conductor Charles Barker sitting on the piano bench next to the wonderful Gladys Celeste, ABT’s pianist who passed away little more than a year later. There he sat, conducting the music with pencil in hand, while Gladys played the famous score by Ludwig Minkus. I watched the ballerinas enter in crisscross, wearing leotards and warm ups, leggings and sweatshirts, stepping in to that beautiful music of the “Shades” scene. Despite the studio setting and bright lights and exercise clothes, it was so overwhelming and amazing to watch, I started to cry.

One day, looking for records in the supply room, I tried to bring down a box containing info on former dancers – we were trying to find and invite everyone to the reunion, research in every possible way. The box was big, unwieldy and heavy. A Russian company member was passing by the door and I asked if he could give me a hand. I said I hoped he didn’t mind helping me, and he said it was “no problem. Box doesn’t complain when I lift – only ballerina complain.”

And then there was this little boy, son of ABT Principal Dancer Julie Kent and her husband, ABT Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, bouncing on the knee of the company’s office manager and receptionist. He was adorable and I couldn’t help but ask him, “do you want to be a dancer like your parents?” He responded, “a dancer? I don’t want to be a dancer! I want to be a baseball player!”

There are so many wonderful memories, far too many to include. But I must mention one more – standing in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera House, watching an entire performance of  Swan Lake with principal dancer Angel Corella as Prince Siegfried and Julie Kent as Odette/Odile. The intimacy of watching that ballet from the wings, hearing that amazing Tchaikovsky score, watching the dancers who looked so effortless on stage exiting into the wings pounding their thighs to relieve the cramping, watching them heave, breathless, waiting to re-enter the stage where their dancing appeared so effortless, was an insider experience beyond compare. What a moment that was – so overpowering that I turned to Kelly Ryan, Director of Press and PR, and whispered, “now I can die.”

Read more: “Tableau of History: Generations Link Arms at Ballet Theater Reunion” – NY Times, May 28, 2007

BEER, NACHOS AND BALLET The Royal Ballet at the O2 Arena – Good or Bad?

10 Jul
Self made replica of the Royal Ballet Logo

I’ve been thinking a lot about last month’s performances of the Royal Ballet at London’s 02 Arena, which seats five times the crowd as the 2200 seats at the Royal Opera House.

On June 19, Sarah Lyall of the NY Times wrote, “In an attempt to bring ‘ballet to the masses,’ the Royal’s performance of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet was “a way for ballet to break free from its rarefied, elitist image” and attract younger and larger audiences. Here was big time ballet, in a venue usually reserved for rock concerts and pop stars. Is this a good thing?”

In general, the event reviews were good, although most note that the big screens only focus on specific body parts, rather than the entire picture.

According to Mark Monahan of The (London) Telegraph, “Even sitting relatively near the stage, your eyes generally went up to the middle screen, which, given all the camera pans, meant you were in fact looking at a selectively edited version of what was happening on the stage.” But, he went on to say, “Overall, the Royal Ballet performed with grace, grandeur and finesse, and to the thunderous approval of the vast, unusually varied audience. Who could possibly object to such rousing, heartening proof of the art form’s broad appeal and complete accessibility… the conclusion that this was largely high art as rock gig proved inescapable.”

And note that according to Maev Kennedy of The Guardian (London), “some of its more highbrow critics are bound to think, downmarket.”

So here’s the question: is ballet as “rock gig” a good thing? Does ballet really need to be regarded as “elitist?”

Personally, I think “mass market” ballet is a good thing – I find there is an awful lot of ignorance out there. How disturbing it is when I tell someone I take ballet class and they respond, “Wow – do you work up a sweat doing that?” or “Really? Do you wear a tutu? Put on a recital?” Why do I so often hear, “ballet – ick!”? And then when I ask, “when have you last been to a ballet?” the answer is most likely, “Never!”

When you remove yourself from the artistic community you inevitably find people are ignorant when it comes to ballet and rush to judgment without ever having had exposure. It’s sad. Maybe it’s “downmarket” to present the ballet classics in an arena with beer and nachos, but I think creating excitement for this beautiful and amazing art form is a good thing. Exposure and education are paramount.

Big time ballet as big time rock and roll – I think we should do what it takes. For me, an arena filled with balletomanes is happily upmarket!

COMING FULL CIRCLE

28 Jun
Lincoln Center, New York. June 7, 2007.

Lincoln Center - Image via Wikipedia

I was sitting at a long outdoor table at Café Fiorello at the end of a crisp October day in 2007, overlooking the spraying fountain on Lincoln Center’s plaza.  Among those at the table were Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, and Tudor Centennial committee members  Ernesta CorvinoLance Westergard  and Donald Mahler.

Tudor Centennial Planning Meeting

We had just left a long first meeting of the Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration, being planned for March, 2008. The meeting, which took place across the street in a Juilliard conference room, also included the wonderful Elizabeth Sawyer, Antony Tudor’s pianist for 17 years, Amanda McKerrow, the amazing prima ballerina and former star of American Ballet Theatre, Diana Byer, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Ballet and Yasuko Tokunaga, director of Dance at The Boston Conservatory. The committee included over 33 American Ballet Theatre alumni, Juilliard alums and assorted ballet luminaries.

The Centennial Celebration, for which I was hired as event coordinator, was to be held at The Juilliard School, March 29 & 30, 2008. The weekend was designed to bring together generations of dancers, writers and others who were touched by the life of Tudor, and would include teaching workshops reconstructing his class combinations and choreography. They were also going to feature panel discussions with dancers, writers and musicians. (Ultimately, the event was attended by over 250 guests and participants).

So what brought me to the Tudor Trust? A year or so before, with a bit of luck and some really great contacts, I had the opportunity to meet with Rachel Moore, Executive Director of American Ballet Theatre. I was soon given what for me was the ultimate gig – planning and executing the American Ballet Theatre Dancer Reunion which took place on Memorial Day, 2007.  Working in the Ballet Theatre offices for close to a year’s event planning is a story in itself (more later) but after that wonderful event for 600+ dancers (including a cocktail reception, “JKO” school demo, performance, on-stage post performance bow and party), my credentials were sealed. I was taken on by the Tudor Trust for the Centennial event at Juilliard.

Now here I was having my drink, watching the sun set over Lincoln Center plaza while listening to the laughter, lively conversation, and most importantly, the wonderful stories of the Met and Tudor. Past and present had combined in the most wonderful way. I felt I had returned to my childhood roots, working with people who loved the ballet, who understood the importance of the arts, who shared my passion. I had come full circle, sitting at that table with these incredible artists, staring at that magnificent fountain-sprayed facade so many years later.  I had come home.

THE “NEW” MET! WHAT A DIFFERENCE!

24 Jun

In September, 1966, the new Metropolitan Opera house opened its doors at Lincoln Center in New York City’s Upper West Side. The Center spanned 16 acres and eventually had 12 resident organizations, including The Met, New York City Ballet, The New York Philharmonic and The Juilliard School.

The Metropolitan Opera House was, and still is, located at the center of the Lincoln Center Plaza, on Columbus Avenue between 62nd and 65th Streets. The outside walls were made of travertine marble; a giant circular fountain stood in front of the building, and hung from the entrance foyer were the wonderful murals by Marc Chagall, specifically created for the space. And what about the beautiful red carpeted lobby, and those gorgeous starburst chandeliers that rose to the ceiling before a performance? A shocking change, this theater, from the old Met Opera House on 39th street.

Photograph of the facade of the Metropolitan O...

The Metropolitan Opera House; Image via Wikipedia

Clearly, we had to move – the old Met didn’t have adequate space, and the new one had all of the needed technical facilities, but the old Met, in my heart, was still a gem. I remember Jackie Kennedy tried to “save it” – make it a historical site, preserve it, but in the end she failed and it was raised to become nothing but a nondescript office building.

But here we were at the new Met, and like wow! REAL dressing rooms, with rows of mirrors and lights and lockers and showers! There was an intercom system where you could hear an announcement when you were supposed to come up to the stage. There were wardrobe rooms, and makeup rooms, and fitting rooms, and makeup ladies that came to your dressing room to apply their craft. We would rehearse on stage and there would be a group of gray uniformed ladies in the orchestra, wiping and polishing the chandeliers that were lowered to seat level for cleaning. How they made them shine! There was a revolving stage, with sets that could appear and disappear – no more dragging sets into the street in all kinds of weather. The curtain went up at the push of a button. No one had to pull the cord! The difference between the two theaters was staggering.

The Fountain at Lincoln Center

In the new Met, ballet classes and rehearsal halls were downstairs. In those days no one was allowed to bring water into the studio – and, of course, there was no such thing as “bottled water” – after class you could go to a water fountain to take a sip. There were “no-smoking” signs in all of the studios, but tons of cigarette butts were left on the floor beneath them. The floors in the studios were perfect, the walls gleaming. I had a locker. It was exciting.

DANCING AT THE OLD MET

20 Jun

The year was 1962, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway between 39th and 40th street was an amazing place. From its opening in 1883, the Met has always been regarded as one of the world’s leading opera companies.

And this overwhelming, historic building was also home to The Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School, directed by the great Antony Tudor who teamed with Margaret Craske, a “Cecchetti pioneer.” This is where I spent my days, after school and on Saturdays and sometimes Sundays, a world very much apart from my Brooklyn home. Not only was I there for class, but I was also in residence for performances on many evenings and matinees as a “super” in operas including La Giaconda, Faust, L’Elisir d’Amore and Parsifal.

The “Old” Met – Photo Courtesy Metropolitan Opera Archive

The world of the old Met, which disappeared in 1966 with the opening of the “new” Met at Lincoln Center, is just a memory, but is very dear to me. So here’s a peek at that behind the scenes world from the eyes of a little girl in ballet shoes:

Dancers, stars, chorus, staff, all entered the building from a tiny stage door on West 40th street. Outside the door was a fruit stand, owned by an old man who sold the most enormous and delicious oranges and grapefruits. I used to call him the grapefruit man. We’d buy one to bring in, peeling it the dressing room and eating the grapefruit sections before class.

You would enter through the stage door into an old and tiny reception room, with a guard sitting at a desk and the opera stars dressing rooms only about four steps from the entrance. Before performances you could hear them in their dressing rooms, vocalizing while piles of floral bouquets were delivered and piled high on the floor next to the guard, waiting to be presented at curtain calls.

Ahead of you was a big iron door, the “stage door” itself – literally 10 steps from the front entrance. Things were tight – so tight, that at intermission the stage hands would drag the scenery onto 39th street, even along Broadway, because there was no room to place the scenery in the house between acts. And to the back left of the entrance hall was the elevator – a tiny lift, with an elevator man and a chain door he would pull open and closed. Two memories of that elevator – one, it would bring you to the glorious ballet classes upstairs, and two, it was the elevator that brought the chorus down to the performances – and I would be with them in that elevator, with their vocalizing, joking, faces covered in pancake makeup, all of us wearing full costumes and period hair – what a scene it was!

The old Met was so tight on space that the children in the operas used a “dressing room” that was really a costume storage closet, with Met Opera ballet dancers in their cramped dressing room across the way. You’d squeeze in to the closet for makeup, have a dresser, and then have your costumed stage mother escort you down that elevator with other members of the chorus. I remember my first peek at the professional dancers – how immodest they were, parading around naked, and squealing when they heard the ballet “boys” were coming up for a party after the Christmas Eve performance. I wished I could have stayed for that party.

The kids in all performances were under the supervision of a lady named “Spyri” – everyone loved Spyri, especially the guys. I always remember hearing Spyri was married to a stagehand, and everyone would stare at her – she always wore a buttoned down shirt, unbuttoned really, with her big breasts popping out of the top. She was a legend. I ran into Ernesta Corvino recently, and even then, we were amazed and laughing at how well we remembered Spyri! (Ernesta’s father was Ballet Master at the Met Opera Ballet Co.)

Some particularly memorable moments of my stage time at The Met include the night Nicolai Gedda, the famous opera star, was peeling an apple as part of his role as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore” and while singing badly cut his hand and was bleeding all over his costume and floor. He held his hand behind his back and continued singing while everyone in the wings were waving handkerchiefs and bandages for him – if only he could get off stage, even for a moment! During a small pause he did get off to the wings, wrapped his hand in a cloth, and flew back on the stage to continue on with the scene. No one in the audience was the wiser.

Or the time there was a scare, a big scare, that a stagehand came down with meningitis, and according to doctors we were all exposed! My mother was terrified, didn’t want me to go back, but I did and thankfully no one caught it.

And who can forget the time Nathaniel Merrill, the stage director of “L’Elisir,” singled me out at the dress rehearsal, with a stage full of opera stars, chorus and extras in place, to say, “Who did your makeup? Why aren’t you wearing lipstick?” I told him the makeup lady said, “little girls don’t wear lipstick” and the 100+ people on stage, including the great soprano Mirella Freni, started laughing out loud! Then Mr. Merrill said, “Well you tell her from me that you have to wear lipstick!”

Do you know to this day I never walk out the door without it?

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