Neat Little Bows

A short piece about Lucia Chase for International Women’s Day

            My professional women’s networking group is meeting this afternoon.  Forty or so women will gather in a hotel restaurant at the end of the business day to have a glass of wine and a few bites of protein.  We will arrange ourselves at tables of eight to ten and focus on the discussion topic for the day.  This is the end of women’s history month so our topic is themed to that – name two women who have had an influence on you:  one you know personally and one you don’t, from history or contemporary times.

            The first one is easy for me.  That would be my Aunt Maureen.  She was my father’s only sister.  She was a “career woman” before that term even meant anything.  She was a computer programmer starting in the late 1940’s and when I was a little girl she wore gorgeous cashmere twin sets and drove a white two-seater Mercedes convertible.  She was a girl who was good at math, as was I.  When I was a freshman at Stanford she was in the last few years of her working life at Pacific Bell in San Francisco.  She would come and take me to lunch on weekends, picking her way down my dormitory hallway in the same cashmere sweaters.  We would go to a lovely lunch and she would give me a check toward my expenses. 

            The woman you don’t know what a harder one.  My husband suggested Joni Mitchell.  I had used her recently in our Italian class when we had to discuss a public figure we admired.  “Lei e un’artista profunda e pura,” I had said, in my barely intermediate Italian (you don’t get as far when you are an adult and the homework seems optional) – she is a profound and pure artist.  True – but not necessarily what you want to say to a room full of lawyers and consultants.

            Then, it came to me in a flash.  Lucia Chase, the founder of American Ballet Theatre. 

            When I was a teenager in New York, I had the great, good fortune to attend ballet class at American Ballet Theatre school.  They had open classes, meaning anyone could take class at whatever level you thought you could handle.  I was a serious, if imperfect dancer.  I loved ballet with a passion that still burns within me.  But even at age sixteen it was clear I was going to be relying on my logic and writing skills to make a living, rather than my ability to pirouette and emote.  I was not built for ballet, but my hard work and my musicality allowed me to keep coming back, day after day, week after week. 

            It was a heyday period for ABT.  Baryshnikov was there, as was Makarova and Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland.  Jerome Robbins was there sometimes for rehearsal and one time I took morning class next to Anthony Dowell from the Royal Ballet.  It was a heady, amazing place and I spent every moment I could there when I wasn’t studying calculus or physics.  I watched rehearsals, I listened to ballet scores at home, I learned to appreciate if not love Stravinsky. 

            As students we brushed elbows with all the people associated with the company.  There were no express rules about how to interact with luminaries.  I suppose if someone did something awkward like ask for an autograph they might be asked to leave the school, but nothing like that ever happened. 

            In my senior year of high school, Baryshnikov was staging a new version of Don Quixote.  The air was filled with the Minkus score and our teachers even had us do Spanish reminiscent variations in class.  I watched rehearsals almost every day.  It seemed to me that Baryshnikov was having trouble with the big group scenes in the first act.  Maybe his English wasn’t quite good enough to direct a room of eighty people, maybe he didn’t know what he wanted.  I wasn’t sure.

            One day as I was leaving, Baryshnikov stood talking to a woman in the lobby.  They were standing in the doorway of a room I had never noticed before.  Inside was a small office with a desk lamp throwing a soft yellow over the room.  The woman was just about Baryshnikov’s height and wore a navy knit skirt and sweater and precise little shoes with grosgrain bows near the rounded toes.  I had never seen shoes like that before.  I looked up to see what kind of woman would wear such wonderful shoes, caught her china blue gaze and quickly looked away.  It was Lucia Chase, the woman who ran ABT.  I recognized her from the portrait that was in the front of the commemorative program I’d bought.  I had never seen her at the school before and I had often wondered where she actually worked.  The girls in the school were afraid of her.  She was the one who decided whether or not someone would be accepted into the company, who told a dancer if she needed to have surgery to fix a too prominent nose or a weak chin, who told someone when it was time to think about taking that coaching job in Houston. 

            On that day she stood with her arms crossed with just about a foot between her and Baryshnikov.  Their tone was too low to catch, but Baryshnikov was gesticulating to the sides as he explained something to her.  I couldn’t even tell what language they were speaking.  His eyes were enormous and fatigued, with what looked like a bruise on either side of his narrow nose.  He stood with his weight on one foot, the other turned outward to the side.  His tights ended at the ankle and the exposed skin of his feet showed ropy veins above dirty white slippers.  Not the portrait the newspapers and magazines painted.  I had a sudden sense of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to witness.  Lucia Chase took Barshnikov’s elbow and guided him into the little office as I waited for the elevator. 

            In an instant, I had a different vision for my future.  I would never be a Baryshnikov or even someone that Baryshnikov directed.  But someone like Lucia Chase?  Someone who formed a company out of sheer desire and determination and brought great art to the world?  Someone who got to wear Ferragamo shoes to work?  Someone who needed to be listened to, whose opinion was very important?  Now, that was something I could strive for.

            Well, that hasn’t happened either.  But I do have the shoes.

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