Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet (9 page)

Over the rest of the summer and fall of 1989 I took the time to heal properly and was soon strong and ready to dance fully again. I was in my last semester at Professional Children’s School because I had enough credits to graduate early. Hopeful that this would be My Year, I was eager to get started at SAB and see what exciting things were in store for me.

Things felt different, however. It seemed that the teachers were not that interested in me anymore, and I often felt ignored. I wondered if I had been written off because of my injuries or if I had somehow fallen behind. Had I somehow missed my chance?

Feeling very upset about the sudden turnaround at SAB, my mom and I, at her urging, prayed a lot and searched the Bible for guidance. I was now “all in” as far as ballet was concerned; I wanted to be a dancer for a living and was desperate to get into New York City Ballet. It wasn’t even a question anymore; I
had
to be a dancer at City Ballet. I had no other plan. My life was geared perhaps too much to just this one goal. At SAB, the only company ever talked about was City Ballet, and it seemed that to go anywhere else would be a failure. This was of course a misconception on my part; there are a good number of gorgeous ballet companies in America producing great art and excellent dancers. But I was almost brainwashed into believing that City Ballet was the only place worth dancing.

And truly, when I saw the company dance for the first time, it caused a complete change in how I viewed the dance world. I’d only ever seen classical ballet companies dancing classical ballets. But City Ballet dancers moved like no other company I had seen. Their energy and power swept them across the stage like whirlwinds, yet they could stop and be
delicate on a dime if they needed to. The choreography was riveting, and small dramas unfolded within the nuances and subtleties of each particular dancer. My mother and I had gone to see every ballet company that passed through New York—American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey, the Royal Ballet, the Kirov—but in no other company did the dancers sometimes appear to be roaring with their bodies. City Ballet dancers growled in their quest to eat up the space of the stage, yet they somehow contained this fierce beauty within strong technique and musicality. This was how I wanted to dance, and I didn’t think I could bear not getting into City Ballet.

My mom and I searched the Scriptures, looking for answers or reassurances. We wondered if I should perhaps jump ship and audition for American Ballet Theatre. I would have to rethink everything—but perhaps being a professional dancer somewhere, anywhere, would be enough? Then we did come across a verse that seemed meant for us: “Will I prepare the baby for birthing and not let it be born?” (Isaiah 66:9).

We got the sense we should wait things out and see what happened. It was still early in the year, after all, and apprentices were not usually taken into the company until the spring. So I waited, and trusted that God had a plan for me that was better than any plan I could envision.

A few weeks later, at the end of October, I was roaming the halls of SAB in sweatpants and fuzzy lion slippers waiting for my Friday-evening pointe class with Stanley. I saw Peter Martins at the end of the hallway, watching a class through the doorway. My stomach did a flip, as it always did when I saw him.

As I passed, I caught his eye, and he came toward me with a smile on his face.

“You’re just the person I was looking for,” he said.

I grinned vacantly at him, having no idea what to say.

“I wanted to tell you that I’ll be making you an apprentice,” he continued. “You can start with company class on Tuesday.”

I felt a rush of . . . something indescribable. My dream had just come
true. The greatest desire of my sixteen years had just been granted to me during a conversation in a hallway while I was wearing fuzzy lion heads on my feet. I wanted to squeal, but Peter was still there looking at me, and there were other students passing back and forth on all sides. I contained my joy and tried to be dignified and adult about the news.

I gushed my thanks to Peter anyway and attempted to look suitably happy without completely losing my head. He might have given me a hug, but I don’t remember. I went into the girls’ locker room, not knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t tell anyone, because I didn’t know who else had been chosen as apprentices and I didn’t want the other girls to feel bad. I opened my locker and stared inside. My toothbrush was there, offering me an activity to perform. So I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth.

I soon learned that I was one of four girls to be made apprentices. At the time, an apprentice didn’t have full rights or pay and could perform in only four ballets a season. Apprentices were paid by the hour or by the performance, not with a weekly salary. It was a probationary position, but it was how most of the girls from SAB were transitioned into the company. Except in very rare situations, New York City Ballet only took students from SAB into the company; they wanted dancers well trained in the Balanchine technique. Two boys, Arch and Ethan Stiefel, were taken in as full company members.

I look back on that weekend, my last as a student, and my heart goes out both to those of us who were taken in and to those of us who were not. For many of the students at SAB, the knowledge that they have been passed over when apprentices are chosen feels world-ending. They might stay on another year, hoping to get chosen for the next round, but many start looking to go to auditions for other companies in the spring. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but they have to change their mind-set and adjust their dreams. And the anxiety of auditions adds a whole new stress to the life of a ballet student; there are very few professional jobs to be had, and the competition is great. Many of the dance jobs don’t pay a living wage, and dancers have to get second jobs. And those who don’t
get jobs in dance companies must further shift the goals for their lives, looking to colleges or applying the skills of discipline and excellence that they learned in ballet school to other, nonperforming careers.

For those of us who were taken into the company, I see our euphoria and enthusiasm, our idealism and our naive certainty that this was just our first step on our way to being great stars in the ballet world. But we were wholly unprepared for the difficulties awaiting us in the professional world of City Ballet. We had no idea that this dream of ours was actually grueling work, with long days spent trying to live up to extremely high standards of excellence. We were teenagers, and we had just won the ballet lottery. It would take a while for us to realize that the world we were entering might well prove impossible to survive in.

Chapter Three

The Company

M
y first day as an apprentice with New York City Ballet was Halloween in 1989. I’d planned a funny costume to wear at SAB, and I had debated with myself over whether to wear it after all. What if all the company members dressed up for Halloween, and I ended up looking ridiculous because I had no costume? But then what if I wore a costume, and no one else did?

I ended up not wearing the costume, but I did bring it just in case. It is indicative of my complete unpreparedness for company life that I thought the company members might dress up for Halloween. I was still firmly rooted in the student mentality. I hadn’t crossed over into the dance-is-work thought process yet.

My first company class was a bit of a shock. Whatever I’d been expecting, it was not what I got. The theater was rather dingy and dirty, and Main Hall, the biggest studio where company class was held, was drab and gray. I arrived at the studio forty-five minutes early to warm up. The only other person in the room when I got there was my friend Inmaculada Velez, also a new apprentice. Fifteen minutes passed, and we were still the only ones. I wondered if we had gotten the time or place wrong.

Slowly dancers began to trickle in about twenty minutes before class was due to start. The company members looked cool and mature, ambling into the studio in their well-worn warm-ups and sloppy hair. They studied us curiously or ignored us completely. Some offered smiles tinged with amusement or something like sarcasm. The jokers in the company loudly remarked, “Hey, we have new apprentices!” making us blush.

Class finally started, and I was a mass of tension. Barre was much harder than it would have been had I been relaxed. Even the first combination at the barre, the simple leg bends called pliés that are supposed to start a dancer’s muscles flexing and stretching, left me sweaty and slightly out of breath. Was everyone assessing my technique already? Was this class my one shot? During center, when the dancers left the barre and did moving combinations in the middle of the studio, I stayed in the back out of everyone’s way, just trying to take the atmosphere in and figure out where my place would be. Even though I was about the same size as the rest of the company, I felt dinky and small and insignificant. The company members looked so confident and self-assured. They knew the routine and how to get through the day. I’d felt that way as one of the “big girls” at SAB; now, I was starting all over.

We were called into the administrator’s office and told some basic rules about our new life: we were supposed to write down all of our rehearsals so that the company could give us our hourly fee, we were only allowed to perform a total of four ballets as apprentices, and there was a phone number we should call every night so that we could listen to the tape-recorded message detailing the next day’s rehearsal schedule. Oh, and how did we want to spell our names in the program?

Now, in my defense, I was sixteen and wanted to be unique. There were twelve Jennifers at SAB and already five Jennifers in NYCB when I became an apprentice. I couldn’t bear the thought of being one more Jennifer. I’d thought about using my middle name, Ellen, as my new stage name, but it just felt weird to suddenly have everyone calling me by a different first name. My big move toward originality was to drop one of the
n
’s from
Jennifer
. I’d seen a street in Washington, DC, called Jenifer Street and had always liked the way it looked. So from that day forward, I was Jenifer Ringer.

My fellow apprentices and I were called to understudy all the ballets being rehearsed throughout the day. This meant we were working on three or four ballets a day. Sometimes we were all called together, and sometimes we were called to different ballets based on our size; I learned
that some ballets were for the shorter girls and some were for the taller girls. At the time, there were many very tall girls in the company, so at five foot six I was considered medium to small.

I was amazed at how fast the dancers learned the steps. The main ballet mistress for the Balanchine repertory, Rosemary Dunleavy, was extremely clear and methodical, and the dancers responded well to her teaching technique. Rehearsals were serious business once they began. Everyone was very focused and eager to get as much accomplished as possible in the time allotted.

The first ballet I performed as an apprentice with the New York City Ballet was the Scherzo section of George Balanchine’s
Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3.
The ballet comprised four sections. The first three sections were danced behind a sheer scrim that from the audience’s perspective made it look as if the dancers moved through a mist. The women wore long chiffon dresses and had their hair down. My section, the Scherzo, was the third. The last section, called Theme and Variations, had bright lights and no scrim, and the ladies wore tight buns and tutus.

I’d been understudying ballets for hours every day, weeks on end, and I was so excited to finally be actually dancing in the center of the room during the rehearsal. It didn’t matter that it was a part usually reserved for the newest and youngest members of the company because the other dancers had risen to better things; I was just thrilled to be dancing. I was doing it—I was dancing with a professional company.

We didn’t have much time—when my fellow apprentices and I began to learn our parts, we were only a week away from the performance. I was soon to learn that there was often very little rehearsal; with forty or so ballets to put on every season, there just wasn’t the time, space, or people power to rehearse ballets for a long time. One of the amazing things about the dancers of New York City Ballet is that they can be given steps for a piece one day and be ready to perform it the next with at least the appearance of confidence and poise.

Rosemary was the ballet mistress in charge of
Suite No. 3
, and she
taught us the steps in a rational, systematic way that somehow made them easier to learn. I still retain many of the steps and counts that Rosemary taught me, even now, twenty years later. She was strict and businesslike with us, though I’d seen her laughing with some of the older girls, and she made sure the choreography was correct in every detail. I was a little scared and very eager to show how well I could do—she definitely seemed to be sizing up us new girls those first rehearsals. We never ran the piece straight through because someone was always making a little mistake, but I learned all the steps in that first rehearsal, even though I’d never seen the ballet before.

A few days later, the night of the performance came. I was nervous about where I would sit in the dressing room. Since at this time we shared the theater with the New York City Opera, the dancers moved into the dressing rooms anew at the beginning of every performance season. I found out that most of the spaces already had designated, but unlabeled, owners. The rows of mirrors and lights were reserved already by the senior girls, and I was too intimidated to try to find a spot. Luckily, the two girls I’d met at my church—Meg and Katey Tracey—were senior dancers themselves, and they took me under their wing and gave me a spot between them in their dressing room. They helped me with my stage makeup as well, often laughing kindly at my inexpert attempts.

The Scherzo section, named for the piece in Tchaikovsky’s musical score, was one of the hair-down sections behind the scrim, and the corps girls actually wore soft ballet slippers, not pointe shoes. For these reasons, I felt that it was a minor piece not to be worried about, but I wasn’t certain, since we had never done the whole ballet without stopping. Meg seemed to confirm my thoughts. She remarked, “I danced that part when I first got into the company. It’s a puff.”

Puff? Well, surely that must mean it was a light and fluffy ballet, just fun and dancey. Since my ballet was the last of the evening, I warmed up backstage while the first ballets were going on, fascinated by the difference between the effortless, ethereal beings onstage and the panting,
groaning beasts they became once they had exited into the wings. I will never be like that, I thought.

During the intermission before my piece, I put on my costume and waited for the ballet to start, dancing around a bit both to stay warm and to generally look like I knew what I was doing. The Scherzo was the third movement, so I waited backstage during the first two movements, the butterflies in my stomach increasing in their violence with every passing moment.

Finally I realized the second movement was winding down and it was time to take my place in the wings for my entrance. I saw my opposite and fellow apprentice, Inma, in her place across the stage in her wing. We stared wide-eyed at each other. We were waiting for our music—there were only four very fast counts of music before we were supposed to leap onto the stage, and we needed to be ready.

There was applause after the second movement and then an anticipatory silence. I was so nervous I thought I would either throw up or explode.

Then one-two-three-four, and I was suddenly leaping onto the stage. It was glorious. I felt as if I were dancing above the ground and flying across the air. This is what I was meant to do, I exulted to myself. Everyone must be able to see!

Quite soon, however, I started to have trouble breathing. This is kind of hard, I thought. I was only a quarter of the way through. I kept my feet moving, but they were definitely grounded now. Shuffling, really. Halfway through, my arms felt oddly heavy, as if they had lost the blood that was supposed to be in them. Did that mean my body was going into shock?

Three quarters through, and I looked hazily over at Inma, dancing across from me. Her lips were blue. I wondered if I looked the same.

Finally the Scherzo was over, and I was one of those panting beasts in the wings, doubled over and wondering where the oxygen had gone. I made my way shakily to the dressing room, thrilled that I’d survived but a little surprised by how hard the ballet had been. The tissues I used
to remove the thick stage makeup on my face revealed stripes of bright red, sweaty skin.

I later said to Meg, “I thought you said the Scherzo was a puff.”

“It is,” she replied. I stared at her until she said, “Well, here at the theater, that means it’s really hard. You get really out of breath, or puffed.”

Ah. I had much to learn, apparently. But still, I was here. I was doing it. I was a professional dancer.


S
oon after my first performances of the Scherzo, the company got ready for
The Nutcracker.
Christmastime in New York is about giant Christmas trees, shopping, and huge snowflakes made of lights hanging over the avenues. But for City Ballet dancers, it is all about
The Nutcracker—
eight shows a week for six weeks straight.

As the time for our first performance of the ballet drew near, I looked every day for a
Nutcracker
rehearsal on the daily schedule but none showed up. At SAB we had rehearsed for months for the Workshop performances; for the Scherzo, we had only a week. But certainly for a big ballet like
The Nutcracker
they would rehearse far in advance? The days went by, and I started to panic.
Nutcracker
was only a week away!

Finally, three days before opening night, we had our first rehearsal. The older dancers all knew the ballet well because they had danced it every December for years, but for us new dancers, there was a lot to learn in very little time. I was to be a Maid in the party scene at the beginning of the ballet, a Snowflake during the transitional snow scene, and one of the Hot Chocolates dancing the Spanish divertissement in the second-act Land of the Sweets. I also understudied the famous second-act Waltz of the Flowers.

That initial week of
Nutcracker
performances was a shock to me; to suddenly jump into eight consecutive performances, where I was expected to perform every single minute onstage at my highest level, was exhausting even as I was exhilarated to be working a real dancer’s schedule. A couple of days into the run, there were multiple injuries among the corps ladies, and Rosemary discovered she didn’t have
enough dancers to cover all of the roles. The solution was to have Monique, an apprentice along with me, and I do something very unusual. In the second act, we were to dance in both the Hot Chocolate dance and the Waltz of the Flowers. Normally dancers do only one of these at a time.

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