Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I arrived by plane, on a cold morning, bundled up in my white, sheared Badger fur, with white, kid-leather, medium-heeled boots, white leather gloves and purse. The coat was a traffic-stopping cape, which I wore with a matching Cossack's fur hat. I looked like I'd stepped out of Dr. Zhivago's Russia.

I felt important. The booking was important. I was scheduled to dance in New York City's Town Hall two weeks later. The performance in Huntingdon was an out-of-town warm-up.

The college concert series was paying me well. They had a large audience. Their students and faculty, as well as students, faculty, and lovers of ballet from other colleges in the area had reservations.

After the show, there would be reception at Mrs. Clifford's home. I'd be sleeping in her guest room, which was walking distance from the auditorium. Mrs. C. was dean of students, head of the committee who arranged my rehearsal, clothes rack, hangers, pitcher of water, and the six student helpers for lights, curtain, props, costume ironing.

Yep -- Em, the Queen of one-night-stands (title I invented for myself), always sent a detailed stage preparation list, specifying the stage areas that needed to be lit, the booms (or side light), the blue, green, orange, lavender gels that I used for the booms, changing color for each section of my solo.

(The college's drama department did four plays each year. They had 120 spots on the bars above the stage and balcony rail (more than what I'd be getting at Town Hall).

Since I was going to be performing my 70 minute solo to Mahler's "Fifth Symphony," just one number on the program with taped music, I'd requested professional sound equipment and a technician to handle it. (See my 6/14 post "High Diving.")

It was peaches and cream -- everything top flight, done right, and more -- knowledgeable, peppy students and the head of the Drama department on the lights and main dimmer board. The rented sound equipment was excellent. And best of all the stage was large -- 50 feet across and 35 feet deep. The second movement of the Mahler, with its leaps, jumps, and running, needed space, and a wide, deep stage made the fifth movement extra thrilling.

The rehearsal finished at four. My set, props, costumes, my giant Chinese silk bird wings, a costume device that I donned that made the ending of the piece stunning, was arranged. The staff had prepared a cot in my dressing room, so I could rest before the show.

Was I tired? Traveling, arriving, setting up a show, and performing the same night is tiring, but after my nap and light bite (scrambled eggs brought in by one of the students), I was ready to do my best. Though I was very slender (like most dancers, I was hooked on looking like a Balanchine skinny ballerina), I'd taken a diuretic. During my onstage costume changes, I could be seen in my flesh-colored body-suit -- it showed every hill -- including the tummy one gets, slender or not, around that time of the month.

The hush as the curtain opened meant a large audience was expecting something special.

My five costumes were works of art -- my extraordinarily talented designer, and two seamstresses had taken over my living room for the month it took for the costumes to be made -- each representing different ages in a woman's life -- each garment exquisitely detailed -- hand-painted, be-ribboned, petaled, fringed, or be-jeweled.

The costume for the grown up woman -- (see the picture), was a transparent, shimmering, purple, floor-length gauze gown with a train, like on a wedding dress.

My dance movements (created by choreographer Norman Walker), ran the gamut -- modern, ballet, Spanish, Oriental -- 70 minutes of dancing needs a lot of invention -- fast foot work, adagio, sustained poses, sudden dramatic changes.

Did I judge myself while dancing? Sometimes, but the best performances, are when the dancer lives in the moment, and I lived in the moment till the fourth movement of the Mahler. After 55 minutes of strenuous dancing, as I stepped on my right foot, the calf muscle cramped.

When I typed "Huntingdon" on my list of blog ideas, I whizzed through a memory -- my sister JB saw the performance. A friend from Harrisburg, where she was living at that time, drove her to Huntingdon. ("Ouch,"I thought, remembering what my sister said after the show, "I won't write about THAT!")

Ouch -- my calf muscle hurt, felt stuck, twisted -- wouldn't untwist, let me step on the foot, and move forward, gliding smoothly ... each step in the fourth movement required that the rolled, weighted hem of my gown be subtly pushed forward by my foot, so that I wouldn't step on it.

Mustn't step on hem I thought as the pain increased. The next step, a pivot on the right foot was coming up ... a step left, step right ... relevé on it ... half-circle pivot ... a pause on the right foot, as I lifted the left leg into a high extension.

(My right foot is stronger than my left. My left leg is more limber and does higher extensions. I turn better to the left, standing on the right. I leap better pushing off the left foot, landing on the right.)

That was where my mind was at. I couldn't do a pivot. A leap was out of the question -- even a pose, a pause, standing on the right with the calf cramping was -- yow -- too painful.

I know pain. I know how to make another muscle do the work of the one that hurts . I know how to avoid pain -- work through it ... even so, I couldn't step on that foot.

... 15 more minutes ... 14 more minutes ... I tried to keep track of where I was, in the choreographic sequence, but each step I took was improvised -- done to get the purple train behind me, not twisted around me, not on the path -- the diagonal toward the center of the stage, where the fifth movement of the Mahler was supposed to start.

... 10 more minutes, then I had to move the movable set pieces, and with swift, lateral, broad steps, gather up the costumes that I'd scattered in a danced tantrum, end of the third movement -- swoop them up, gliding, traveling over and around things when I couldn't glide, or pivot or leap, when pivots, leaps, jumps, and turns were what I was rehearsed and ready to do.

If I'd been in a basket ball game, the coach, the umpire would have gotten me off the field. I thought about stopping, moving to the edge of the stage, telling the audience "I hurt my leg. I have to stop." But then, what? Re-schedule Huntingdon for when? What was wrong with the foot, the leg? Had I broken or torn something?

Thinking those things, and creating steps to avoid putting weight on my right foot, keeping the purple gauze train untangled, I got to the end -- upstage, kneeling in the center -- slipping each of my arms into the sleeves of the huge silk wings, grabbing the 15 foot bamboo poles that were hidden inside the sleeve, poles that were preset on the floor.

I felt no pain, had no thought but "Stand up Em ... lift the bamboo ... arch back ... lift, now swing back and circle your arms ..."

"Thar she blows!" I sang to myself as the Chinese silk billowed up, up, up to the light bars above my head and floated down -- closed around me as I crossed my arms on the last note of the Mahler.

Mrs. Clifford took care of everything after I whispered what happened to me. The reception was canceled. My sister said to me, "You look so beautiful -- so young, My friend Ellie wondered how old you were." (My sister turned to her.) "I explained to Ellie that you were in a terrible accident and they fixed your face -- you didn't have your face lifted, but it made you younger looking."

(When people come back stage and tell you they loved your costume, loved your hairdo, it means what it means -- that's what touched them, not your "art," but the way you look.)

I wanted to get out of my clothes and get ice for my calf, but there was more chatter about -- did I, should she, should her friend have a face lift?


At Mrs. Clifford's, in the guest room which had been her married daughter's room, we iced my calf, and made plans to get to the hospital early, and talk to the head of orthopedics.

In the morning, there was pain and swelling. Mrs. C opened a drawer, and gave me a pair of her daughter's knee-high socks -- I couldn't wear my white boots, so I wore the ballet slippers I'd worn during the performance.

The doctor said I'd torn the gastroc, a muscle in the back part of the calf. After I asked was it serious, what about my performance in two weeks, he shrugged. He said, "It's a relatively superficial muscle -- just.keep off your right leg for three weeks. Then, use it, get back in shape, modifying what exercises you do, and carefully, gradually use your right leg a little more each day."

The stage crew had packed up my things and arranged for my trunk to be shipped back to New York. In my Cossack's hat and fur, (boots in my overnight suitcase) in the daughter's knee-highs and ballet slippers, I boarded the plane for home, dozing and figuring what to say and do about canceling my Town Hall performance and re-scheduling it.

The gastroc healed, but there's scar tissue (from Huntingdon as well as two other times my muscles have cramped on stage). I massage it, every now and then, feeling lucky -- that my face was "sort of fixed," that the improv I'd done wasn't noticed by my sister and her friend, and therefore, probably others in the audience were admiring the look of me, not judging the dancing. I guess that's what happens when singers sing with a sore throat or bad cold. You do what you can do.

Yesterday, with medical revelations about football players' helmets not protecting them from brain damage, we've heard star players declare -- "It's worth it --even if it shortens my life by fifteen years."

I don't take diuretics now but I did before my performances at Lincoln Center. Nowadays, when muscle or bone hurts, I use ice, or massage it, and remember the knee-high socks which sit in a dresser drawer with my exercise clothes.

My darling JC took a picture -- yep, that's my leg in the knee-highs, on my desk, yep, I'm still slender, and limber -- you do what you can do -- I do what I can do to stay that way.

1 comment:

carola said...

It amazes me how you can improvise steps when you are injured so that nobody ever knows it. It would be interesting to see a film with your commentary, so that one could tell. Yes, I was always spell-bound by your beauty. It was part of the magic of the dance. I think for an uneducated audience member, I was taking in the whole thing: the dance, the music, everything, and it all works together.