Saturday, September 19, 2009

OFF BALANCE IN LONDON

It was a final dress rehearsal in my studio -- I was dancing full out. My eight dancers and I were boarding a plane at 5 a.m. for London.

I'd deliberately arranged it so that after the rehearsal, we'd change clothes. Our personal luggage was already in the station wagon parked downstairs. At the airport we'd have dinner, and check in early at Icelandic Airlines -- the lowest cost, low-cost airline did not have reserved seats.

My eagle-eyed, perfectionist, ballet teacher, Aubrey Hitchins, who was once Anna Pavlova's dance partner, was sitting on the audience bench, watching the dress rehearsal, along with two dozen other important guests.

We were performing "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," a choreography for five dancers that I'd created to Samuel Barber's music, a song with words based on James Agee's poem. As the curtain rose, seated in a rocking chair, I said -- "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee... the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child ... " (Sometime, I'll write about what Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti said to me when I was presenting this dance in Spoleto.)

I was in the center of the studio, dancing my tricky brilliant solo, with four other dancers as my parents, motionless in the background -- in the middle of doing the balletic, brilliant fast foot-work that I'd been rehearsing everyday for weeks.
...
"Achh! I gasped as did a "brisé dessous," my right foot gliding out, beating on the front on my left calf as I'd landed on my right -- with the sharp pain, thinking oh dear --. oh no -- did Aubrey notice?

I stopped. The music played on. I couldn't continue.

Everyone had suggestions -- ice, aspirin, get a doctor. My ankle was swelling. Someone brought me my large cooking pot filled with ice cubes. I stuck my foot in it, kept it there till the doctor arrived. He was the doctor all the dancers flocked too. After determining it wasn't broken, he used a hypodermic needle to extract the blood from the ankle, cleaned and taped it, and told me to keep it iced, keep off of it for a few days.

Poor ankle -- it looked like this.

Of course I nodded, though I had a plane to catch, a rehearsal the day after tomorrow in London, and our opening night the next evening.

Have you ever been in on the edge of cliff? I don't know how else to describe it -- knowing you have to get across a chasm -- not sure if you can. It's not the same as taking on a challenge. You fear everything -- you fear your fear.

On the plane, I couldn't get an aisle seat, but a French passenger saw me with a bandaged foot hobbling down the aisle. She gave me her seat.

There was no food service. The steward brought me cups of ice. The ice wet my sock and bandage. With my foot propped up on my travel bag I dozed. Someone, on the way to the lavatory, accidentally bumped my propped up foot. It throbbed for hours.

In London, I didn't see London -- saw only the inside of my bathroom at the hotel. Then, at the theater, I saw the raked stage.

Take a quick look -- you don't have to see the whole film to know what a "raked" stage is.

Why didn't I know? Why didn't Blake the producer tell me? But why would he have told me? Raked stages are what most London theaters have. They are not common on the college concert circuit. They're in Broadway theaters rarely.

I hobbled onto the stage -- the thought of doing a pirouette was ... terrifying, overwhelming.
With the music playing, I walked around "marking" the steps -- didn't try the "brisé dessous," or the big lift at the climax, or the soft pirouette on the final note. I used the rehearsal to set the lights, and to rehearse the other three numbers that featured the company, before "Knoxville," at the end of the program.

Afternoon of the opening night I re-taped my ankle, tighter than it was before. I warmed up haunted by Novikoff, Murial Stuart, Obukoff, Gundren Galloway, Mrs. Linnekin, Ella Dagaova and Aubrey Hitchins, saying the names of my teachers like beads on a rosary. I did stretches, extensions, and plies -- no jumps, turns, or anything testing my right ankle..

Standing in the wings, I watched the company do their three numbers. Then, it was curtain time for me.

I said the words about summer evenings ... the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

And became the child, danced full out, then fuller, fullest out as the music built to the climax, the crescendoing phrase when my "father " (danced by my tallest, strongest, male dancer) picked me up like a child, huddled, crouched against him with my feet against his chest.

The music soared as the singer sung Agee's words -- "The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near."

Doing exactly what I'd choreographed, I stood up.

My only support was the dancer's hands holding my shins. For a second it didn't seem possible, but the music soared and with it, so did I -- standing all the way up until my head was ten feet above the floor, I reached up to the blue-gelled spotlights that were fifteen feet over my head.

The singer sang, in a crescendo --."Now is the night one blue dew...."

And with the words and music, I reached, taller, higher and higher, touching, embracing God in the sky.

When I was a little girl, praying to be a dancer, dreaming of pink toes shoes and tutu -- if I had known I could dance like I did that night in London, I would have been proud. Not because it was London, or I was the soloist, the star. Not because of the applause or the reviews, or the sold-out tour that followed. I would have been proud of doing what I did -- transcending myself, fearlessly, gloriously touching the sky when I danced.

Yes, I did. It's a feeling I own.

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