Over in Q&A, someone asked what my biggest onstage gaffe had been, in my dance performing days. Ooh. Now that’s a good question. You don’t hear ballet dancers talk about that too often, do you? Most performers have their share of the little stuff, such as falling off pointe, having a sloppy pirouette turn, even falling out of it and being forced to roll right back up with a “ta da!” smile on your face as if the fall, the springing back up, had all been part of the plan. Observe, the blissed-out smile on your face, after all. Forget the choreography? (Surprisingly, not so common, as it’s so very ingrained in your brain, your body, by performance time.) Keep the smile on your face. The golden rule of any dance performance.
Here’s a near gaffe: I was minutes from going onstage for a final dress rehearsal, and stupidly put a hot iron to my skirt, back in the dressing room, hoping to coax out a lone wrinkle. I lifted the iron a few seconds later, looked down at the skirt (I was wearing it as I was ironing it) and there was a perfect iron-shaped hole dead center of the costume. The fabric, a silky polyester, had melted away. I had no choice but to wear it, and get on that stage a minute later. The artistic director, also in the ballet with me, took one look at the skirt from across the stage, and her eyes bulged. But we leapt right out there and danced as if nothing were up. Hilarious, yes, because it had been a final dress rehearsal and not a performance.
But enough of this coy hedging around, you’re thinking. You want to read about the real stuff, don’t you? You want to wince and laugh and slap your forehead and think “oh, dear, oh, idiot Classical Girl…” Okay. Here you go. There was the time I was in a unitard-clad ballet, in the midst of a touching pas de deux, just me and the partner out there center stage. He lifted me overhead, I arched back beautifully, then slithered down his chest a few seconds later, facing the audience. Next came prep for a partnered pirouette. Except that I realized my low neckline had gone too low and voilà, there was my left breast peeking out for the whole audience to see. Allow me to rephrase. It was bobbing around out there, waving cheerily. (I have never had a dancer’s chest. I have a woman’s chest.) I quickly added a soutenu turn, giving me a millisecond to yank the neckline back up, before I was there, facing the audience again, no longer exposed. But who were we kidding? They saw my boob. They had a delicious, salacious, utterly un-self-conscious view of it. The ballet went on, I kept my smile bright, my technique strong, but inside I was dying. Backstage, post-performance, I burst into tears. What’s funny to me now, at 50, was anything but, that night.
Then there was the technical gaffe, the year I was the Snow Queen for our company’s Nutcracker. The role has a gorgeous pas de deux scene, behind a scrim, all ethereal lighting and such, gorgeous choreography, really, my favorite part of the whole variation. From the audience, you get this glorious shadowy view, part-dancers, part-apparition. After sixty seconds of this lovely adagio work, the scrim rises, the lights brighten, the music swells and ta-da, there we are, the Snow Queen and King, and we have another two minutes of lovely pas de deux work before the snowflakes ensemble joins us.
Well. The backstage crew was having trouble raising the Christmas tree display up out of view one performance night. They were working the pulleys backstage and nothing was happening. It became clear pretty quickly that this was A Situation. Until the tree display rose out of view, the scrim remained dark. Behind it, my partner and I were virtually invisible. But the music had started, this was a live performance, and we had no choice but to dance. The seconds ticked past, this beloved adagio playing out in mostly darkness, and now you could hear chuckles from the audience as the two-dimensional Christmas tree rose a few inches, stopped, dropped an inch. Rose another two inches, stopped there, frozen. I was so upset, calling out to my partner, “the tree, the tree. It’s ruining everything.” I began to shout it, shriek it, as the seconds ticked away and it sank in that we’d pretty much lost our pretty scrim-adagio for the night. It was here I fully understood that you can be screaming backstage during a performance, and the audience won’t hear a darned thing, not if the orchestra is playing. I was raving. I was all but sobbing. “Goddamn it! That fucking tree,” I shrieked. “My parents are out there tonight, and they’re missing the best stuff. Everyone’s missing it!”
No audience member observed my unforgivable break from character, and, in my defense, I was still dancing full out, lovely and graceful and ethereal, even as I screamed and ranted. And wouldn’t you know it, the pulley and/or Christmas tree finally got worked into submission, the tree rising to its proper storage space, only too late. Seconds later, the scrim rose as well, the stage lights going brighter, and there we were, the glittering, smiling Snow Queen and King, with our gorgeous pas de deux knocked down by a third. Ah well. Live performances, what can you do?
I’ll end with the most spectacular gaffe, or willful sabotage of a ballet, that I’ve ever seen in a professional production. I think this is the Moscow Ballet. I could be wrong, so don’t quote me. Two dancers are valiantly trying to perform Nutcracker’s Act II variation, the Arabian Dance. But the tiger on the left (stage-right, for you performance-savvy peeps) is determined to upstage them. I have watched it over and over, stunned by the dancer’s gutsy nerve. I am certain he’d been told, backstage, just before performing, that he was fired, laid off, what have you. This was to be his last night on stage, and he was going to go out in style. Create the ultimate onstage gaffe. It is both howlingly funny, and wince-worthy. Those poor Arabian dancers. After the first few minutes, I stopped watching them entirely. And I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there are people backstage screaming, screaming that he is in trouble, deep shit, stop that right this minute or else. Oh, what the audience doesn’t hear from backstage during a performance. The stories those wings could tell…
Watch the clip. Enjoy. Laugh and wince with me.
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