Ballet live: biggest onstage gaffe


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.

PS: Like reading about ballet dancers and their lives behind the scenes? Check out my women’s fiction ballet novel, available on Amazon for only $2.99 this month!



8 thoughts on “Ballet live: biggest onstage gaffe”

    • Rachel – I’m so glad you got the chance to watch that! Wasn’t that positively surreal? Both fun and horrifying? (And I still think, “oh, that poor female Arabian dancer, who is sooooo being upstaged!”

      And let me use this spot here to say “thank you!” for your comment over at my [now broken-linked] “Motherless Daughters” post. How sweet of you to comment, and I hope you and your mom were able to connect and have a wonderful Mother’s Day, if only over the phone (I don’t know if she’s local or not). I was so touched by your comments over at your own blog, her sweet gestures. Ah, treasure that stuff. And the good thing is, it seems like you do!

  1. MarySue – I know, right? ((Said in that teenaged boy sort of way.)) I think I’ll go watch it again right now for some Saturday morning entertainment.

    And thank you for subscribing to my blog!

  2. I’ve been fortunate, no gaffes yet during a performance. But the first year I was the “bed boy” during the battle scene of the Nutcracker, I almost had one during a tech rehearsal. For those who don’t know what the “bed boy” part is, it’s the poor, unfortunate soul under the bed, steering a dreaming Clara across the stage.

    I see only through a small opening of sheered bed clothes and had to learn the battle scene music by heart for cues (there are times when I’m steering pretty much blind, counting counting panels and tape lines on the marley.

    This particular rehearsal, the tech people didn’t turn on the spotlight for some reason, so my vision was even more obscured. I was having my best rehearsal so far, but all of the sudden, I felt a tuck on the bed, and it was being pulled.

    I almost steered the bed right into the orchestra pit with Clara on top. The artistic director saved the day at the last minute.

    Ever since that time, we’ve never had a tech rehearsal where the spotlight is not on during the battle scene. And I’ve become far more aware of where I’m at on stage even in the darkness.

  3. OMIGOD!!! See, I KNEW you had some good stories. That is both funny and scary and whew-worthy. Thanks so much for sharing. : )

  4. Terez – Great story at so many levels. I had no idea you flashed your boob… Your Mertes girl boob at that. The show must go on, right? Loved the video at the end – watched it three times. 🙂 First time full on – what a hoot! Then, because the Arabian paux de deux is one of my Nutcracker favorites and in order to fully appreciate it without the distraction of the hilarious lion, I actually put my hand over the portion of the screen to hide him. And then of course I watched it again so I could fully appreciate him, again. Thanks for the entertainment all around.

    • Annette – I can watch it over and over, too. And concurrently wince at the poor dancers who are being so horribly upstaged. What do you want to bet the female who did such lovely dancing in Arabian went backstage and burst into tears?

      Regarding Mertes boobage, fortunately, the full effect didn’t kick in until my late 20s. Of course, even being “normal” for a 20 y-o female is too much boobage for a ballet dancer. Ah well. Such is life. And such is live performing. Fascinating stuff. I think I’ll go watch that link again… : )


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