Monday, March 3, 2008

So Over Winter, Please?

These are the dark days of winter that try my soul. I am on my third cold of the season courtesy of a seven year old who brings home strange and exotic viruses to gift me. They have had strep and scarlet fever in her classroom and from the sound of my coughs I would not be surprised in the least to hear that pertussis is rampant in the hallowed halls of her public school. And they keep having holidays and early release days so these typhoid Mary’s and Moes can spread their viral load into the community.

My yard has turned into a swamp and my garage is surrounded by a moat which must be waded through each time you wish to toss out the trash or get in the car. It is all predicted to freeze tonight and we are to get another load of snow on top of what will be an ice rink. My back gate will freeze into the rink and we will have to either climb the fence or use the front gate, and slither around to the back….

I am told it will take a relandscaping job of very expensive proportion to prevent this from recurring. And so, in bad winters, we are doomed to this ridiculous dance of water in its various forms…..

My sense of humor went into hibernation two weeks ago. It is March, and I want snow drops and bulbs peeping through the wet ground. I want to see the ground, not the brakenish liquid coating the icy tundra that is my yard. When the tax bill came for this plot of earth and I looked out upon my “estates”, I could only laugh an evil cackle. Let the assessors come now and tell me what this bog is supposedly worth. I did manage to chisel several drains out of the ice so hopefully, before the freeze hits, some of it will drain.

These are the times when you put your head down and keep walking. One foot in front of the other, to get through. You set your jaw and your course, and continue. And in a brilliant bit of luck, we get to escape for three days to the land of lost angels for a family gathering. I would have preferred the kind of trip where you just leave the grey swamp and come back when the flowers are blooming, instead of getting to feast at spring then go back to the dungeon, but mentally, I think the break will refortify me. And maybe I will get to read a novel on the endless airplane ride.

I have been losing myself in the opera. With two kids appearing in two productions, I am there most nights. Somehow, being backstage is almost more comfortable than being at home, mostly because I think the black of the backstage, waiting to go on, is my home. I actually like the rehearsal process more than performing. I like the making of it. Digging deep and perfecting the piece with the partnership of the audience is a rush, but the part that really makes me feel most alive is in rehearsal when all the parts are starting to come together and you can see the show in your minds eye, just before it becomes real in front of you. Its like being a wizard, theater magic is. You have an idea in your head and you gather the ingredients of your spel, in this case good collaborators,and hopefully a nice production budget, and then you all alacazam, abracadabra do your work and viola, it comes alive. Opera is the last system of true royalty where caste determines status and role. There are the stars and you walk about in awe of them and do not approach without permission. They have their dressers and wig folk—like the ladies in waiting and retinues of kings. There are the knights: stage hands who make the world appear and evolve. Us supers are the peasants, allowed momentarily to bask in this rarified world.

Ballet is quite similar. I reprint below my story from being a ballet super last year.

Everything is beautiful at the ballet?
When I was 17, I made a life list in my journal. My father had dropped dead when I was 13. He was 36. For some reason I thought I too would die young and I figured I had about 20 years left. I wanted to climb Kilamanjaro. I wanted to be on the cover of a magazine. And towards the top of the list, I wrote: APPEAR WITH A MAJOR BALLET COMPANY.

Last week, seeing as I am still here, as a 46th birthday present to myself, I finally ran away from a government desk gig, my home, my family and mountain of dirty laundry and schlepping kids to classes and tutoring and went off to perform in a grand classical, world famous ballet with armies of villagers on stage. It was Romeo and Juliet. It was the Opera House.

Despite my background as a retired modern dancer, I did not perform a single dance step. I was a supernumerary, which is a very big word for a person who serves as live scenery. Live scenery in a 40 pound dress with enough velvet and brocade in it to cover my sofa. Topped by a 10 pound hat that was about 8 sizes too small for my head. We were to tilt our heads back and arch, which results in the hat ripping hair out of your head in deference to gravity. We were to walk up and down a rickety set of stairs onto a shaking platform to get into position—do it quickly despite the nails dramatically and acoustically ripping the train of the period garb, and the platform wobbles so that it threatens to pitch you into a sword wielding throng….My part: Elegant Lady. I learned Elegance is excruciatingly painful. Rumor has it that the Elegants in the New York production all see a chiropractor once a week…..I looked absolutely stupendous in my Renaissance concoction and took many photos. Good thing that pictures don’t have smell though—since this costume has been worn by hundreds in the decades before I donned it, and had body odor before I even put it on. This costume had been to Japan and Mexico—around the world. It would be packed in a box, still dripping with my sweat, and shipped on to the next location as soon as I shed it at the last performance.

Supers are hired, ostensibly, because they fit the costume. This is obviously an inexact science since two people had to compress my ribs so they could lace up the back. Breathing is a bit hard, of course. For our suffering we are paid enough to buy nosebleed seats so that our families can come watch us. No comps. No discounts. We are to provide our own makeup, shoes, tights in specified colors and headgear of various types, which proves difficult to access given the fact that between a full time job, getting kids off to school and all the ballet rehearsals and shows, I have zero time to shop. We beg, we borrow, we make do.

But we are IN the ballet, close enough to see through the men’s tights to their tattoos. I can tell you the brand names of their dance belts. We know whose swords broke off bits on stage. We rated booties. We know that the advertised lead characters never appeared as advertised. We breathed in second hand smoke from the most famous dancers of our time, and were splattered by the sweat of an international cast of cultural athletes. We compare and contrast artistry, interpretation, and physique. We immerse ourselves in the score, coming to love it like a family member. I now know the MacMillan choreography as well as if I had danced it (that is if I could dance it). I fell in love with the Mercutio character and mourned the savage waste of youth, and it made me think of Iraq . I was transformed. I was seventeen again and ballerinas are not humans but unearthly fairies and I wish I was one, though that train left the station before I was born. I never had the knees or feet of a ballerina.

We begin to smell bad, as we sweat beneath the stage lights and brocade. The week is long. So many shows. I read three novels waiting, and taking the train back and forth.

At the opera, where my children have been supernumeraries for the past five years, supers are the lowest human on the food chain, but at the ballet, we are no longer human. We are dirt. We are given no information, expected to know things we have not been told, ordered about, fired summarily. Hints of the gulag and soviet style are evident everywhere, but I suppose that’s to be expected in an art form that reached its pinnacle in Imperial Russia. In America, half the ballet companies were founded by displaced Russians and the dysfunctional family bloodlines and behaviors remain.

I crouch in corners watching pas de deux practice and I secretly spy on company class. I am in a kind of sadomasochistic heaven, perhaps. I have stepped inside my favorite movie of all time: the Turning Point. Baryshnikov isn’t here, but its clear everyone is still sleeping with everyone else. They are young and exotic, speaking other languages in the elevator. They are coming off months of touring. We lowly supers are never to speak to them. I cast my eyes downward when passing, lowly animal that I am.

At the end of the week, I know I looked beautiful and elegant and earned every dime in my check. I am happy to go home to my kids and laundry and do groceries. I do wake in the middle of the night, humming the march in the ballroom scene, but otherwise I am fully recovered.

Next on my list is the Grand Canyon.

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