The last time I saw Balanchine, he was barely coherent. It was a sad, confused and difficult time at New York City Ballet. A period of time I chose to nearly erase from my memories. I’d always thought that the last time I saw Mr. B. was the December day in 1982 when I went to Roosevelt Hospital in New York City where he’d been living for 6 months. I’d gone with other girls before, but this time I went alone.
I was one of the lucky ones. The Ford Foundation had given a very large grant to the School of American Ballet to scout talented dancers across America. My parents were poor and I had talent. George Balanchine – the greatest master of dance of the twentieth century and the co-founder of New York City Ballet – liked me. I was raw, rebellious, and had the physical look of a “Balanchine ballerina.” So, from age 13 to 29, my life depended on everything he said, wanted, needed and required of me.
He was lying in his hospital bed in his private room, dressed in his own pajamas and robe – blue and white stripes, nothing fancy – with his familiar silver and turquoise American Indian bracelet on his left wrist. His nurse, Maeve, was sitting in a chair nearby. She politely said hello to me, nodded and left the room. Choreography she seemed to have perfected at this point.
I had come to see him with a purpose. I wanted to dance the role of Marie’s mother, Frau Stahlbaum, in the first act of The Nutcracker. It is a small, odd role – but that was me. Other dancers were always vying for leads. If I danced a lead, it was because Balanchine gave it to me. If I requested anything, it would be a strange little something, which wasn’t considered appropriate for a dancer of my stature. This was my response to political-in fighting. Ask, but ask for little.
So, yes. despite our difficulties, I had already asked Peter Martins if I could play the role.
Peter and I had seen stormy times. He was now “acting” director of New York City Ballet, since Mr. B. had not officially retired. Death would be his official retirement, and nothing else. It was a peculiar time. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. No one was. I tried for a change to play by the rules. I went to Peter and requested the role, and he agreed. After all, it wasn’t like asking for the second movement adagio of Bizet, Symphony in C. Once given the role by Peter, I went straight to Balanchine.
Mr. B. had always discouraged his girls from marriage and having children – discouraged the advances of men in general. Like many of his girls, I had already had several abortions. The one place my detoured maternal instincts could surface was in the role of Marie’s mother. I’d always loved the part and the music fueling it. Particularly where she rushes across the stage with a candle in her hand to find Marie and see that she is tucked in for the night. A violin solo propels her across the stage. Pure Genius! She knows her daughter is fine. And yet every mother is pursued by that phantom dread; has made a habit of checking to be sure. I wanted to revel in that simple, gorgeous gesture and make it the moment.
Every cameo role must have a single instant and a memorable reason for being. Otherwise it is superfluous and shouldn’t exist at all. Occasionally, the cameo role crystallizes an entire ballet, upstages the lead and steals the show. I was able to accomplish this a couple of times in my career. Again, this was my vengeance on the machine politics of NYCB. To find a humble role with that moment – not make too much of it and give it room to breathe in order to set it apart. Call it artistry, if you like. It is the reason you work like a slave, and why they applaud you as heaven’s angel.
Understand that fairness is not a consideration when casting ballets. Careers are made according to the immediate desires of the Ballet Master or choreographer. You may have the talent, work ethic and be a sure bet for a role, but if you’re not playing the game of the week you may get passed over or replaced. No explanations are offered when your bad news arrives, just a rehearsal sheet on a bulletin board. You either jump for joy or run away to a corner bar to drown your troubles in a few too many glasses of red wine. Mr. B. even taught us what and how to drink.
As a dancer, Peter Martins was a magician. To see him dance was to forgive him everything. But as a Dance Master? The only way that Peter rivaled Mr. B. was as a casanova. However, where Mr. B. was charm incarnate, Peter was a basher. It was not likely that Martins would give me that cameo role. But if Mr. B intervened from his sick bed, that was a different story.
So here I am at Roosevelt Hospital with a very specific mission. Mr. B., however, isn’t quite up to specifics. He recognizes me, kisses me on the cheek, and cocks his head in that habitual sidewise tilt: a man amused by life, or trying to glance up your skirt. Or both. But I’m not wearing a skirt.
I babble out my dilemma. That I would like to fill the role with the poetry that The Nutcracker demands. That I feel strange asking Peter for that coaching because I do not see him as a man who understands poetry. Slowly, the sick old man melts away and my teacher returns. He demonstrates precisely how the men in the party scene should kiss my hand. Sitting up proudly in bed, elegance personified, he takes my hand, kisses it, then lets it fall. When he picks it up again, it is different, even more refined character. The guest cradles my thin, limp hand and places it to his lips. He stares into my eyes with the most polite hint of courtly flirtation, then reluctantly lets the hand drop again to the sheets.
Mr. B. is in his element. I am in mine.
No dancer ever matched George Balanchine as an actor, as a gallant. No courtier in Nutcracker would ever kiss the mother’s hand with this grace. Balanchine never played the role. Yet here, in his hospital bed – from the waist up – he performs to perfection. And as Mr. B. rallies, so do I. For if Balanchine is still alive and well, then so is Willie-one of his troubled daughters.
Or so it seemed to this 27-year-old whose career at NYCB would last exactly one year beyond her champion’s death.
But in this instant, we are laughing, flirting, gossiping, as in happier times. I notice beside the pile of books on his bed, a Christie Brinkley pin-up calendar. She’s in a bikini – displaying a not particularly Balanchinesque physique. He explains that she has come to see him several times and he has put her picture up. He has that leprechaun expression I know oh so well. He says that he put it up in gratitude.
“Sure,” I say. “Gratitude for what?”
“De-er,” he rasps in his nasal rat voice. “Open up that drawer over there.”
So I look behind me and there is a metal hospital bureau.
“Which drawer?” I ask.
I open the first drawer – clothes. I open the second drawer and it has bottles of Slivovitz inside. I open up the third drawer; it too has bottles of Slivovitz in it.
“Take one out, dear.”
Knowing that I didn’t have to perform that night, I think, what the hell. Here I am with what remains of one of the men I love most in the world, one of the people I love most in the world. Maeve is gone I say to myself. I guess Balanchine is still Balanchine, hospital or no hospital.
I break the seal on a bottle of Slivovitz, which, unbeknownst to me, is probably the most powerful alcohol on Earth. He points to the generic water glasses that pervade all hospitals and pats the bed beside him. I dutifully hop on the bed. He is the choreographer.
We begin toasting. One drink and he puts his arm around me. When half the bottle is gone he starts playing around with my blouse, “Just let me investigate,” he says, starting to unbutton it. I’m half disgusted; half admiring his tenacity. Here he is at the end, still compelled to trace the gentle curves he has devoted his life to glorifying.
He tries to kiss me. I hold my lips shut. His hands work on. I’m surprised, yes, but not very surprised. I am old enough now not to be shocked. I complain, “Oh, Mr. B….” pretending to be in control, to know for sure what is right and wrong. A sureness that is a lie. Part of me is saying, Let him…
After years of refusing to be the girl of the week, or the month, the Saratoga girl or the tour girl, let him…
There is nothing to be gained. No lead role to win. No insider’s circle to reign preeminent in for a minute. Give in. Like I had to my mother’s boyfriend when I was thirteen. His hands are there… but fathers don’t do this. And because I love this father so much and because I hate him for not loving me enough to not do this, I push him away and step off the bed.
He is drunk and old and facing death. He has these excuses. He has tried and I have refused. It’s our relationship. Our dance. He isn’t even insulted anymore. We pick up as if I had given in, once, long ago. I think he loves me partly because I never did. I always love him, and fight him and love him again. I still do.
Suddenly he raises both hands in the air and lets them drop again, like a puppet master tossing his marionettes down in comic disgust. “I can tell you, dear, how you should do, maybe show you little bit here, but you will be fine. Just do not overdo, Vil-hel-meena! Don’t make faces or go, Ahee-Ahaw. I can’t see you dance anymore, dear. I can’t stop and start you. Peter does that now. That is his job, and listening to him is yours. You must listen to him.”
This is tough for me to take. Tougher than the pass. Tougher than seeing him captive in his bed, tougher than anything else.
I get drunk easily, by the way. I am a hundred and twelve pounds of drunken ballerina now, laughing with Mr. B. for what I’m beginning to realize might well be the last time.
I don’t remember saying goodbye. Just the gurneys rolling by as I attempt to remember the steps to this, the strangest ballet I have ever danced. I come to in the cab and find the remains of the bottle of Slivovitz in my dance bag. I still have it.
Performing Frau Stahlbaum was a healing experience for me. Balanchine passed away that spring. The following Nutcracker season when gentlemen guests took my hand, I could see Mr. B’s noble and distinguished expression reminding me of something he had once said: ”De-er, you are a pussycat and a pussycat can not be a pig or a horse.”
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