I Remember the New York City Ballet – by Cybele Zufolo
Published through the Writers Guild of America
Like Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, my remembrance of The New York City Ballet is one of sublime depth and scintillating radiance. The grand and glorious blaze of the ballet will always be a revelation to me; it will never stop its hypnotic and divine fire within my existence on earth. In ballet, there’s the outer world, and the inner world, and the two merge on stage, in performance. When the lights go up, the pain from injuries and sore feet disappear.
The rapturous music transports my soul into a young girl who wants to experience the extreme joy and profound excitement of dancing on the Lincoln Center stage of the New York City Ballet, dancing to the symphonic swirl of the great composers, wearing the most exotic and ornate relics of human beauty. I remember dancing amidst the mystical lights of green and blue, gold and purple that stretch beyond this world, beyond the stage, reaching the galaxy like a comet shooting across the universe, up, up, into the sky, where the seraphic munificence of angels dance in carefree delight.
I remember the New York City Ballet, the rehearsal studios and the stage in an empty theatre, then the stage in performance. The intense lights and orchestra all harmonizing in one great call to me, telling me that a world of excitement was there for the taking, all within my reach. Ballet was a myriad of color, a rush of scintillating stage light, red velvet and navy silk, taffeta tutu’s and Capezio European pink leather ballet slippers. I remember the enormous amount of bobby pins and make up that I experimented with as a very young girl, all the eye shadows and lipsticks, rouges and mascara. The wardrobe mistress would put on my dress because I was a star and that’s how you treat a star. I was a very serious young lady, a little woman, who had reached full maturity and adulthood at eleven years of age. I’ve been getting younger ever since. That was it for me; it was all I ever wanted in life. My body was a sinewy sculpture of muscle and definition.
My feet told a story of pain and hardship, of hard won excellence and precision. Every movement of the hand, leg and arm was carefully thought out, intended, strategically placed. The hypnotic music on stage was mesmerizing and flowing like a golden elixir from a Louis Comfort Tiffany painting, a holy grail that I would drink every night as I went on stage. The secret to eternal youth was on that stage and I could attain it, as I leaped, pirouetted and cheneed my way to unbridled bliss and hypnotic exuberance. The gasp of the faceless, nameless mass of audience as the red velvet curtain rose was a snapshot of memory to me, an image of the adrenaline coursing through my veins as the outside world invaded and spied on our utopia, our perfection on earth.
The experience of dancing in The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center as a child was a fairy tale, a candy land where every wish was granted. I never wanted the curtain to fall, I begged for it not to fall, like ripping me out of a sacred dream of all of life’s fantasies come true, and coldly grafting me in to an all too harsh reality of subway cars and estranged parents. The show was an opalescent, luminescent dream that turned into a grey mass of concrete when the curtain fell. We felt like the lucky ones, who were guided by a higher calling, chosen by the deities to experience such extreme joy and wonder. I felt so beautiful when I wore those Karinska costumes and danced Balanchine’s choreography. There was never any question that I looked and felt my absolute best. In the ballet A Midsummer Nights Dream, I was given a featured dance part, in which I had to run across the stage alone and do a grande jete flying past the middle of the stage and landing on my knee. This was a rare solo opportunity for a young dancer. Thousands of people would watch, including fellow dancers and audience alike as I leaped across the stage landing on one knee. The pose on the knee was painful but the excitement and fantasy on stage overpowered any feelings of discomfort I had.
I needed a mindset of extreme confidence before my solo performance on stage. I would say to myself in the few remaining moments before the curtain rose: Here I go, flying across the stage like a dancing fairy, with a transcendent and sacred leap, everyone’s counting on this leap, and I’m a fantastic dancer. Here goes my chance at fame and fortune; here goes the most riveting excitement I’ve ever had. The forest is lit up and awaiting my arrival. The green glowing emerald verdant fantasy awaits my presence, my converging. I have arrived, here I come. I am a star. The flutes flutter just for me. The fairies dance and sing with my arrival. I am entranced, enthralled; my talent rushes through the forest. Then I leaped onto the stage in front of a sea of blue heads, in such an enormous theater that I couldn’t see a soul. If only I could go back there, that’s all I could ask for in life.
The stage was a mythical forest, adorned by green and blue lights. The forest was a mirage in a utopian greenhouse, tinged with an air of mystery. I was dressed as a firefly in green and gold. Felix Mendelssohn’s score of A Midsummer Nights Dream was brilliant to the point of tears. Not only is Mendelssohn’s music the perfect compliment to the enchanted forest and dancers, but illuminates the power of nature and the natural world, for in his music we can actually see and feel the green hills and verdant plains, the tall redwood trees and the speckled sunlight flirting through the trees at dawn. The music, the forest and the dancers were all in symbiotic harmony and a rare vision had been achieved on earth, here at The New York City Ballet. After dancing in A Midsummer Nights Dream, I believed in a sense of the divine, and that belief was alive and well on stage with us, as we danced in the forest. I was truly lucky more than I’ll ever know, among the chosen few. My dancer self superceded my civilian self, my pedestrian self, my mortal self. A Midsummer Nights Dream satisfied all my desires for a celestial fantasy on earth. There was comedy and drama, intrigue and alluring mystery. How lovely the world was, how full of hope, beauty, and joy, soft dreamscape lullabies. It is unfathomable that something so profoundly beautiful could exist on this earth, this earth with its inherent whimsy and imperfections, eternal metamorphosis, hidden evil.
From the perspective of a little girl trying to escape the reality of strict ballet teachers, snobby classmates, bickering parents and filthy trains I though to myself: The mystery of the forest and the fairies await you, they love you and are waiting to greet you when you arrive, with fairy dust of pink and purple glitter and ambrosia wine. They are taking your hand and hugging you. Peace is all around us now, and we slowly lilt off to sleep, a deep and restful slumber filled with fantasies and dreams come true. I dance and fly. I am a force of wonder awaiting my solo.
My firefly headdress itched. But the pain went away when I danced on stage. Backstage, the smell of the spray paint for dying toe shoes became a comforting and familiar scent. I loved spray painted toe shoes. The multi colored cans and costumes hanging up in the costume room always reminded me of performance time. I loved the scent of pink leather ballet slippers from Capezio. I remember when my father bought me a pair of point shoes for the first time. They were wrapped in a box with a card that said something like “break a leg, may you dance to the skies and to the heavens!” They were so elegant, those works of art in light pink satin and pink satin ribbons. I asked my father for weeks for a pair of point shoes because we had to have them. I was the last person in the entire class to get them. My parents were struggling to make ends meet.
On stage, I danced in the clouds, yet beneath those clouds were hidden burning rocks of coals. Any pain I felt became a minor setback, a sign of weakness, and a necessary stop on the road to excellence, and I must take it with strength and humility. Suck it up; your pain doesn’t matter, because you’re a machine, a thoroughbred horse, and a champion prizefighter. And you’re going to win even if it kills you. The intense competition and painful injuries are masterfully concealed beneath a ballerina’s serene visage. When I fell in class, I was embarrassed but did not want anyone to ask me if I was ok. The front. The cover. The beauty of the stage concealed pain and heartache. Hold it in. Be strong. Smile on stage for the audience while you cringe inside. Smile because you’re in front of thousands of people.
In Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, the Italian Suite was the converging of two flowing rivers into one great ocean. Titania and Oberon, the king and queen of the forest, wedded, and all was splendorous, all was magnificent. The fairies were in attendance, as were the fireflies, and the trees swayed in earthly delight, as the world was a myriad of beguiling emerald radiance. Titania was a fair and noble Queen for all time, to be cherished and held sacred. The fairies are all here, flying and glowing about, mixing potions and sweet elixirs, honey dew and golden fruit. They are laughing in bacchanalian delight. They fly throughout the forest at sunset and midnight with unbridled debauchery. The sky is alight with a purple and rose hue that simmers and glows to a light silver and pink. Flying free with bubbling elation and joy, they fall into clouds and on redwood trees. The seraphic love potion glitters in the air as they dance a very carefree dance. Their king and queen Oberon and Titania are together at last, and their prince, Puck, has finally returned. Now they can laugh and dance and rejoice, for Puck has come back to them like Persephone returning to the earth to join Demeter, making the earth greener with his presence.
There were occasions when I felt like the outcast in my ballet class of what seemed like millionaire’s children. There were chauffeurs parked in front of the building waiting to take the girls home. Every day I walked through the doors and through those halls where my classmates were stretching and most of the girls would not say hello to me or look up at me. These were the original mean girls. I became the invisible woman. Some girls were snobby to me because they were in a higher economic and social class than I was. I didn’t have a chauffeur picking me up from class; I had a babysitter taking me home on the F train to Brooklyn. I wasn’t the cool one, yet I was getting picked for top roles in the company. I was one of four students to be chosen out of the entire School of American Ballet to perform in George Balanchine’s ballet Mozartiana. I was especially unpopular then.
Like Hester Prynn in a dance class of eight year olds, I wore a scarlet letter every day, P for poor. Yet we were middle class, but this was still poor to them. I always put my things in a plastic Capezio bag, like a vagrant or a run away. The other girls had fancy leather bags. Many of the mothers would wait outside for their daughters. The stage mothers would devoutly take their daughters to and from class, while chatting with the other mothers. My mother had to work long hours to support my sister and I. My father was never around; he was either working or missing in action. Although it was my father who obtained an audition for me at the School of American Ballet. I’ll always be grateful for that. I often had a babysitter take me to class who put my hair up in a messy bun.
Despite this, I still said hello to the other girls and had the same smile on my face that I had on stage. That glazed smile made of cement, nothing could break it down, or corrode it, that smile would still be on my face throughout gusts of wind, snowstorms and torrential rain. That pained smile could be found on an archeological dig, like a cement statue of a Chinese soldier from the Ming Dynasty found deep within the earth. I was a weathered creation trying to hide the sting of isolation. Jealousy and snobbery ran rampant and spread like a virus among the girls vying to be the best, to be the favorite among the teachers. Our self-image was based on the degree of attention and accolades we received from the teachers. If the teachers and choreographers admonished at us we felt terrible. When I finally earned a compliment from a teacher after years of hard work, I was elated. Some girls were upset that I was the only dancer in the class chosen to dance lead roles in The Nutcracker and Mozartiana, and appear on a television show. Some girls were not chosen for any role at the auditions. Naturally they hated me for being chosen.
At the annual Nutcracker auditions, hundreds of girls were rejected and went home depressed, frustrated and hurt. As a pre-teen girl, competition and rejection is very hard to take. I was often cast in the productions. Suddenly, I was one of the lucky ones. I was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. The one in which the poor boy catches all the fish and the rich boys capture nothing. At these auditions, I experienced my greatest good fortune, always being cast in a lead role. I remember going back to Brooklyn on the A train with an unbreakable, intense joy and confidence. I was filled with the most incredible happiness that I floated around my house and nothing could bother me, not my bickering parents or my teasing sister. I was on a cloud. This was a wonderful day, but tomorrow I would be back in the grueling dance class. That was the price I had to pay. Every day I exchanged a zenith of happiness for extreme humility. In the ballet class, my classmates pale back in front of me became a movie screen of all the things happening in my life at the time. As a young teenager, in an extremely strict and regimented ballet class, I was disconnected from the strenuous environment as I danced fondues, jetees and coupees. As an unexpected “favorite” among the ballets, I started to make friends with the girls I danced with. The young boy I danced with in the party scene of The Nutcracker was my first romantic crush. A few years later, I was very fond of the boy I danced with as the teenager in the party scene of The Nutcracker. We never spoke to each other but holding hands on stage was very exciting for me at 14 years of age. The joy of this Victorian party scene was real. We were all having as much fun as it looked.
The School of American Ballet gave me the chance to be in Vanity Fair magazine with world famous ballerina Suzanne Farrell and I was chosen to appear on television in a sitcom called “Love Sydney” with Tony Randall. The demanding ballet academy was the same place that gave me the exciting opportunity to dance with the NYC Ballet. Those halls of fortune were laced with gold and burning mercury. The teachers were excellent ballet masters who sculpted our souls into works of art. They were the true artists who worked all their lives for our future. They were a consistent source of strength, and guidance like our mothers and fathers. They would accept nothing less than the best, and demand that we gave 100% of ourselves to the movement. One of them believed in me at a crucial time when I needed someone to believe in me, when I felt alone and bereft over my parents divorce. That teacher gave me a chance to feel like a beautiful artist and I’ll never forget it.
It felt so good to dance on the grandiose stage in Karinska costumes and under the lights with a thousand people watching. There and only there did I feel revered, loved, cherished. The grand and glorious blaze of the ballet enveloped me; it illuminated me then humbled me. The unbridled elation in performing and the depths of heartache in the ballet class was as contrasting as day and night. I was celebrated and snubbed all in the same day. Yet I knew that I was on a very special track and was destined to transcend my Brooklyn upbringing. As an adolescent student of ballet, I was a star or so I thought.
On stage, all you feel is the immense bliss and sumptuous vitality of Mendelssohn and Stravinsky, the sublime profundity and refined brilliance of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Everything else melts away. On stage we are no longer mere mortals riddled with imperfection, we are magnificent artists, enlightened and elevated to a higher plane of existence, transformed into demi-Gods and super powers. We have the gift of an eternal life spring flowing through our bodies, quenching our deepest desires and hydrating our realities into a dream. This inner source waters down our human suffering. We translate our hopes, fears and passions into our bodies, so that we can express them to the world. A hundred colors of the human condition are manifested primordially, with our arms and legs, feet and hands. Our dances and foot steps are the ancient hieroglyphics of the soul. A timeless ritual occurs when the curtain rises to reveal endless fascination and seduction of the many dances.
We dance in a theatre on a stage to form a human panorama, a terrestrial document, and the earth establishing its place in the universe. Like a flower to the sun, photosynthesis takes place on stage, and we grow just watching the dancers of the New York City Ballet. Dancers carve through space with their bodies; they attack the space. They seduce it, they provoke it. Like in drama, dancers reveal personal truths on stage, with their bodies instead of their voices. I told my story on stage, and if you really look into my painted on extreme smile, you may hear it and piece together the puzzle, decipher that which is undecipherable. As a young dancer, I showed my heart to thousands of people every night, and found it to be so much easier than expressing it to one person. Love is much easier danced than spoken. Words are lost in translation. Dance is instinctual, and the body never lies. Exasperation is much prettier on stage, it screams without a sound. Sorrow becomes melodic, almost lyrical, love becomes mythical.
The New York City Ballet was an altered reality every night to a young girl. I left it like I left a great young love, with terrible heartbreak and regret. Most of all, I left it with eternal wondering, what if I stayed, why did I leave. Looking back, I only seem to remember the good, like a great love, I remembered the intense joy and exhilarating. Somehow all the stresses of fours hours a day of grueling ballet classes, the injuries, the mean girls, the snobbery and sting of being the outsider in my millionaire ballet class, contorting my legs and hips into submission, all seemed to evaporate with time. Instead, I remembered my extreme good fortune of always being the one chosen to dance the plumb roles in a variety of New York City Ballet productions, dancing a solo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, being one of four students in the entire school to dance in Balanchine’s Mozartiana, appearing on stage to represent the School of American Ballet at a 10th anniversary Gala, getting picked from my ballet class to be on a national TV show with Tony Randall, being photographed in Vanity Fair magazine. These are all magnificent and sacred memories to me. While I was living the memory, I thought that it would go on forever. This was the same feeling when you’re a young girl in love. Each experience was worth an entire lifetime.
When I watch the ballets that I danced in as a young girl, and hear the music, I am overwhelmed with a sense memory over-drive, trying immensely to hold back the waves of emotion that I feel. Memories of joy and nostalgia illuminate my face with the glow of remembrance of things past. I revel in the image of the little girl that I lost forever. Or did I? I wonder if that little girl is somewhere deep inside of me. Or perhaps she is still there, waiting in the wings for her entrance. I wish I could watch her dance again as she once did, watch her as the grown woman that I have become. Today I am no longer a dancer. I am a teacher of writing and literature. A dancers career is often short lived. The requirements of being a dancer are both grueling and beautiful. The elasticity of the body is ephemeral.
So many dazzling things happened when I was a young girl that it became very hard for my adult years to match up. Yet my adult years have matched up. I love being a teacher and writer. Good fortune was handed to me without asking for it. I was lucky. Yet I paid my dues in the strenuous ballet classes. I had talent but I never would have had these opportunities if I were not a student at the School of American Ballet. I’ve spent my adult life in awe of this experience not realizing what I had. Like a skydiver jumping out of a plane, I soared in my childhood and landed with my bare feet on the ground in my adulthood. Now I walk the streets with my eyes to the sky, looking for the harness that held me.
Cybele Zufolo, 2010