Learning to Swan

This is an excerpt from my memoir Standing Room, which is about my experiences as a student at both American Ballet Theatre School and Stuyvesant High School in the 1970’s.

Late in the spring we heard wonderful news.  Gelsey Kirkland was going to doing her first Swan Lake.  There was a long article in the New York Times about her preparation for the debut, with a wonderful photo of Gelsey in a rehearsal tutu.  I just had to go. 

Greta and Susan were with me the first time I saw Gelsey perform.  She did a pas de deux with Ivan Nagy as part of a repertory evening.  I’d read so much about her but I had not yet seen her dance at the studio.  I would see her in the hallway sometimes in pale blue velour sweats with her brown hair escaping from a ponytail into her enormous blue eyes.  She didn’t seem to meet anyone’s eye and seemed lost in her own routine and internal dialogue.  She had a reputation for being overly emotional, subject to moods, but she had a perfect technique and she was rumored to be a great match for Baryshnikov, both on and off stage if the gossip was to be believed. 

She was also the ultimate icon for all the skinny dance students.  Gelsey was amazingly slim and childlike, appearing almost too frail to maintain her skeleton let alone perform as she did.  She was in her early twenties and had come to ABT from City Ballet, where she had been one of Balanchine’s favorites. 

            When she danced with Nagy I was taken as much by her soulful eyes, which were able to communicate way up to the back of the house, as by her amazing technique.  Her legs looked endless and the most supple I’d ever seen.  She seemed to have no muscle mass in her thighs, her legs were just rubber bands ending in a tutu.  She had the familiar Balanchine overbite, which on her made her appear vulnerable and poignant from hundreds of feet away.  She was just perfect. 

            I began to study Gelsey.  I scanned the rehearsal and performance schedules for her name.  I learned to pick out her slight frame in the group of company dancers in the big studio.  She often looked tired and drawn in rehearsal and she always wore an odd combination of over-sized clothing, some of which just looked like menswear pajamas she had picked up accidently off the floor.  It was like she was hiding out, not wanting to reveal herself until it was time.  The dance students imparted more information in bated breath.  Stories of Gelsey’s sacrifice to obtain and maintain her thin frame, her unbelievable extension, her depth of character.  She was otherworldly, she didn’t belong with the rest of us. 

            Late in the spring I saw Gelsey and Baryshnikov do the Don Quixote pas de deux.  This is a standard of the repertory and is something that every dancer who is the best dancer in their small town will show up in New York ready to perform.  It is a crowd pleaser complete with a Spanish fan as a prop, heart-stopping spins by the danseur, and the famous fouette turns by the woman, in which she performs 32 consecutive whipping turns and ideally does not travel one inch from the spot on the stage where she started.  It’s kitschy and cannot help bringing a smile to the face of anyone watching.  I’d seen this in rehearsal so many times that I knew all the steps and but for my indifferent technique could have certainly performed the first female variation. 

            With Gelsey and Baryshnikov it was like watching a gold medal performance in the Olympics.  With her hair in a central parted low bun and a stylized curl on one cheek, Gelsey looked engaged and almost ferocious with charm.  Baryshnikov looked boyish with puppy-dog energy.  I was seeing the transformation to being on stage, being ripe for the performance, as opposed to the work of the studio.  They each took every turn, every step to the ultimate, sneaking an extra turn, an overly long balance at every opportunity.  It was rebellious and a slap in the face to every indifferent dancer who had been required to perform these parts.  The audience was roaring by the end.  I was ready to declare my commitment.  Gelsey was my favorite dancer. 

            When her Swan Lake debut was announced, I checked the schedule.  I wanted to cry.  It was going to be Friday evening performance in early June.  Friday — a weekday.  No way to go standing room during the week, since the box office opened at ten in the morning.  I had all sorts of exams and projects to finish in June, including the dreaded Regents exam in chemistry.  Regular tickets were already sold out as word got out in the ballet community.  Hard to know what to do. 

            I began to scan the studio when I arrived for class, to try to find Gelsey rehearsing.  She was never there.  After a few days I realized she must be using one of the private outside teachers she famously frequented.  I was very disappointed.  But even though I didn’t see her, based on what I read in the article in the Times, I sensed her fragility and nervousness about the role.  It was vitally important for me to be at the performance, to lend her my support and strength across the rows of seats.  I had vigor and energy for both of us.

            I tried to get information on when the Regents exams were scheduled for and when I needed to sit for my regular Stuyvesant tests.  Nothing was scheduled for that Friday.  I hated chemistry and for the first time in my academic career I was afraid I would fail a class.  Our teacher, Mr. Kramer, had been our homeroom teacher for a few semesters and we all liked him a lot.  He looked like George Carlin and probably spent his evenings smoking pot.  I was amazed to find out what a terrible teacher he was when I was put in his class.  He taught a theoretical, hazy version of chemistry and said that it was up to all of us to learn the stuff we needed to pass the state-required Regents’ exam at the end of the year.  He scoffed when we protested.  And there was no option of getting out of it – chemistry was strictly required at Stuyvesant and everyone knew that you needed a full four years of science to be considered by any meaningful college.  With just a month to the Regent’s exam, I couldn’t see a way to getting a decent grade in the class.  I’d also just gotten my SAT scores.  620 verbal, 710 math.  Totally unacceptable.  The verbal needed to come up 100 points and the math needed to edge up a bit too. 

            But I pushed all of that from my mind.  I asked Greta and Susan if they thought their parents would let them skip school that Friday morning to get standing room tickets.  Their parents were fairly strict so I was doing this as a test.  They looked at each other, weighing what the reaction of the other one would be. 

            “I’ll ask,” Susan said, bravely. 

            The next day Susan said her parents had said it would be okay and Greta piped up that she had also checked with her mother.  Now it was up to me. 

            To my surprise my mother agreed right away.  She had been the one to point out the article in the Times to me and she was almost as fascinated with Gelsey as I was.  She had come with me to see her at a matinee in early May. 

            “I think it’s OK.  I’ll give you an excuse note.”  Her tone was conspiratorial.  It was the first time in all of my school years that my mother had agreed to bend a rule. 

            The Thursday night before the performance my mother wrote a note to Mr. Kramer in her clear, calming script that explained that I needed to miss the first few periods of school to attend to a family matter.  I folded the sheet in my notebook and set my alarm to get up even earlier than usual.

            We decided we needed to get to the Met before eight in the morning to have any chance to get tickets.  We met for the six thirty boat and for a treat ate donuts and milk from the Italian bakery in the terminal.  We were giggly and jumpy from fatigue.  When we got to Lincoln Center the line already snaked around the corner and had begun to turn around on itself at the back corner of the theater.  It didn’t look good for us.  Susan and I went to grab a spot at the end of the line, while Greta went to count how many people were ahead of us.  For this performance tickets were only going to be sold one to a person so the head count should give us an idea.  When Greta got to us she was grinning. 

            “We should be OK.  We’ll probably be in the balcony, but we’ll be there.” 

            When the line started to move at precisely ten o’clock it moved even more quickly than usual and we were all back at school with our tickets carefully guarded in our wallets by eleven o’clock.

            I met them at the Bagel Nosh after my afternoon class and we ate shrimp salad on egg bagels and kept looking at our watches.  When it was time to walk across the broad white plaza to the theater, there was a pink glow of excitement in the air.  I shivered in anticipation.  The crowd, which gently jostled to get into the theater, gave off a hum of laughter and high pitched tones.  This was going to be wonderful.

            Every seat in the opera house was occupied ten minutes before eight and every standing room space was taken.  We nodded at the couple who had been in front of us in the morning, who were standing right next to Susan.  I waited impatiently through the first act, which is mostly taken up with peasant dances and back story involving the prince and why he hasn’t yet married.  All I wanted to see was Gelsey.

            When the music for the long pas de deux in the second act started, I felt the hairs on my arm stand up.  The audience was hushed as the harp and viola started their simple interplay and Gelsey and Nagy began to dance.  She was so beautiful.  Her profile made her a perfect swan and as they danced I truly felt I was watching a couple making love.  I’d read over and over again how the pas de deux form was a shorthand for the characters expressing their love, but it had always seemed symbolic and theoretical to me, on a very high plain.  But that night it was tangible and intoxicating.  As the music picked up tempo I began to feel nervous, as if there was a slight chance Gelsey wasn’t going to have a perfect debut.  I was mentally pushing her on, waiting for each difficult turn or extension, hoping, hoping, watching her perfectly execute it, and then wishing I could have it back, to have it not yet be danced, to still be able to look forward to it.  I felt pulses of chills, unable to believe I was experiencing something so special.  When the final bars came, with a series of slow, controlled pirouettes on pointe supported by Nagy’s firm arm, I felt my heart pounding, so proud of Gelsey, so happy for her.  When she finished, the theater erupted not just with applause, but with loud shouts and thundering feet, things I’d never heard there before.  Susan, Greta and I alternatively clutched each other’s arms and clapped as loudly as we could, shouting with everyone else.  Even without speaking, we knew we had experienced something life-changing.

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