July 1, 1999


This diary was written during the rehearsal of the 1999 concert for Dance as Ever.

I began writing the diary on Day 4 and a hard drive crash on Day 35 prevented me from finishing the diary until the Tuesday after the performances. At all other times, it was written on a daily basis, except the few days when circumstances forced otherwise. The diary was hosted, also on a daily basis, at Ballet Alert!, a web site run by Alexandra Tomalonis. I’d like to thank her for her part in its existence, which includes the original request to do it.

The diary was arguably a proto-blog written before blogs and blogging software became common. I wanted to give it a permanent home on my own website and it seemed logical to present it in blog form. This work was done November 16-19, 2005. This entry from 11/19/2005 is deliberately misdated to place it first. The dates of the entries are correct, the times of the entries are not known, so are set to just after midnight. I have corrected some grammar and punctuation and also inserted some hyperlinks to make use of the medium, but the content has not been altered from the original. It seems strange to leave comments open on journal entries more than six years old, but as an experiment and in case people have something they wish to ask or add, I'll leave the comments open for the time being. UPDATE 1/12/06: Feedback turned off.

I dislike being a Grinch, but I found out by happenstance that this diary was being used as teaching material without my permission or knowledge. I understand the impulse, but I'd like to emphasize that I do not relinquish any rights to this original material by placing it on this blog. If you wish to use these writings for a purpose other than personal use (reading and the printing of a single copy), please contact me for permission and/or licensing.

July 28, 1999

Day 1

The first day of rehearsals is always the hardest day. I usually can’t sleep the night before from being wound up so tightly, and until the first step is choreographed, there is always the small voice asking, “What if this one turns out to be really stupid?” I’ve chosen to take the bull by the horns for a few reasons. The piece we’re beginning with, Scherzo Fantastique, to the music of the same title by Josef Suk, is the one I feel I have the loosest grip on conceptually. But it’s also the only one for which I have a full cast assembled at present (I’m still looking for one man - and it hangs over my head like any undone task) so it’s what we must begin with.

I walk into studio; Frances is already in the dressing room, blastingly air-conditioned in the intense heat of this summer. We sit down and chat. I like the small talk at the beginning of rehearsal; it calms me, and helps me to get to know the dancers. Most of my choreography comes from judgments and assessments of the dancers as people, as well as how they move, so the chat is more necessary than the trivia it seems. Adriana arrives next and then Mary (Morgan won’t be here today, but will join us tomorrow.) The dancers introduce themselves to each other (they all know each other at least tangentially) and we begin.

Without a full cast I always feel tentative, not liking to set any step on the person not doing it. Worse still, I really don’t yet know what this ballet is about. There are several different aesthetic palettes possible on a continuum ranging from La Valse to The Absinthe Drinker out to Brides of Dracula. I’ll only know by throwing a few steps onto the canvas, like Jackson Pollock making a Rorschach test, and analyzing the splotches.

I’ve used this music before, and I didn’t like what I did, the music was too strange for the conventional waltz piece I made, I caught the music’s beauty and sweep but missed its oddities. The first question I needed to address was how to portray the strangeness in a way that still acknowledged what was beautiful in the music, and that these dancers could do. I had hired ballet dancers, and it’s a waste of time and resources not to respect their process. One difference between ballet-trained dancers and modern-trained dancers is that modern dancers tend to work from the inside out and ballet dancers work from the outside in. Modern dancers ask about intention and style early on in the process, ballet dancers tend not to be comfortable with those questions until all the steps have been set, then they will add coloring to them.

The music is a sumptuous waltz, so we start in the simplest place possible, with a balancé en tournant, a step commonly used in most ballets containing waltz music. We do the step as it is usually done, then vary it by altering the arms slightly so that they curve delicately in front as if imploring. This establishes a palette for the ports des bras and épaulement of the work early on. I then ask the dancers to do the waltz step at half time or slower. This answers an important question, I know that I want the ballet, like the music, to be beautiful yet strange, but strange in what way? The possibilities seemed to me to be either to be strange in behavior or in incongruities (disrupting the expected flow of movement or tempo.) The second of the two relies less upon the dancers and more upon me, so I opt to try it. Setting a dancer moving at unnaturally slow speeds against a group of dancers moving at the tempo set by the music provides the slightly disorienting effect I am looking for.

Work proceeds that day, but in fits and starts and somewhat uncomfortably. The only one I’ve worked with before is Mary, and we’re quite comfortable with each other. Adriana is very even keeled, Frances eager to get things right, but they still don’t yet know how I work, my vagueness throws Frances slightly, even though I assure her that at this preliminary stage of choreography, there is not yet a right or wrong way to execute what I’ve asked for (and generally in the vaguest terms.) Because this is not the full cast, and because I’m not yet sure what I’m doing, I am loath to set any steps as choreography, and so am building movement phrases without the music, not even playing it until more than an hour into the rehearsal. I simply throw out ideas at random for the remainder of the rehearsal. They’re not choreographed to music, but will be compared with it after, to see which are appropriate. Some, like a lengthy phrase with immense sweep, are ready for almost immediate incorporation, others, like an almost mimed phrase denoting entrapment will be thrown out.

July 29, 1999

Day 2

Happily, the first day’s random explorations produced decent results. I’ve found that like the Rorschach analogy above, the first day’s work on a piece I am unsure of is also like shooting arrows. I don’t worry about hitting the target on the first arrow. I shoot twenty arrows one after the other, look at the target and see which ones hit. Sitting down and listening to the music in the morning and dividing it into sections makes the task manageable and I can also sense the throughline of the dance. The main waltz theme recurs five times, after the fifth (right near the end) a completely new (and ominous) subject breaks out that the composer gave no hint of previously. It’s part of the strangeness of the music. I realize that in order to make sense out of the end of the music, or more properly, to justify its accompaniment to this dance, the choreography will provide foreshadowing that the score doesn’t. Each of the iterations of the waltz will be slightly more disorienting than the last. I feel much better walking into rehearsal, as I have some idea on what I need to work on.

I now work as I often do when I feel surer, in chronological order. The music begins with an introduction before the main theme enters and I deal with it in a similar fashion, as an atmospheric prologue to the action, setting dancers rushing or slowly walking across the floor. At one point they stop their action in unison and all turn to look back at an object unseen to the audience. “That’s creepy,” Morgan says. I guess I’m getting the effect I wanted.

Morgan is the dancer I’ve worked with the longest in the group, since 1996, and a favorite of mine, just for the natural beauty and singularity with which she moves. She’s not a textbook dancer, but there’s something about the lushness of her movement that makes her compulsively watchable to me. Her back is also extremely flexible, and I realize how much of this dance is going to be based upon a pliant upper body. I warn her not to take all the movements into her lower back full out during rehearsal, because I’m going to be using that exaggeration, and if she does it over and over full out, she’ll be at the chiropractor’s by the end of the month.

In the middle of June, I had done six hours of work in the studio with Morgan and Mary, making isolated phrases to videotape and show to the designers, so they could have an idea of the overall style of the new ballets. One of those phrases gets incorporated, with changes, into the first occurrence of the waltz subject. It’s a particularly lovely passage of music, so I try to use a long, lush phrase here, knowing that at later repeats I’ll need to do something less viscerally satisfying. A transition is choreographed (using material taken and varied from the introduction) and then the second repeat of the waltz is choreographed to a combination of a phrase made in June and the sweeping phrase I made yesterday. We’re about two and a half minutes into the 16 minute piece, and on our way.

July 30, 1999

Day 3

Frances had to leave early the day before, so is trying to learn the phrases she missed, and it’s frustrating her. If one is self-producing, all types of ancillary management skills become as essential to survival as artistic talent. Managing and adapting to schedules, and dealing with the dancer’s needs, complaints and insecurities are daily events, and there’s more than small satisfaction in handling them with successfully and with grace. I choreograph a transitional phrase for Frances with jumps in it, and she’s trying so hard to show me she can do it accurately that the musicality of it eludes her. She seems convinced this is a black mark on her, I just tell her to go away and work on it, and that it will be fine later on. The musical cue where to do the phrase eludes her for the rest of the day. It was a treacherous cue, I choreographed a phrase isolated from the music and then told her that a jump in the middle of the dance phrase had to be at a certain note at the beginning of the musical phrase, and she’d have to work backwards to figure out where to start. At that moment, I bet she fiercely wished she were dealing with a choreographer who worked with counts. I count music so eccentrically that I refuse to count in rehearsal, not wishing to waste time on having the dancers decipher my counts. I’ll do the phrase in front, with one of the dancers counting behind me. We then set the phrase to those counts. It may also vary slightly in translation, but I enjoy that part of the process. If something is lost in the transition from my head to their bodies, I’ll let them know. Often, their miscomprehension of what I requested is an improvement upon it.

Another transition is set for Adriana and Morgan, made from sections of the phrase Frances just danced. Then a section for Mary. I smile at her as she listens to the music to which she is about to dance. “You’ve given me the dinky phrase again!” she laughs. Mary is a tiny redhead, and the day before I had set a step for her that she decided she had to do on “the dinky phrase,” laughing that small dancers always dance to the dinky phrase. Hearing the next phrase that comes up in the music, an eccentric little waltz in a high register, I know she has to dance it, as a private joke between us. The phrase, a balloné followed by a pas de bourree and a chassé en tournant is interesting as the timing mutates slightly as we do it, on the first few attempts, the chassé begins the phrase, as I demonstrate it again, the balloné more naturally accents the opening of the phrase. It’s almost like watching an oddly shaped piece of a puzzle rotate and wiggle into the correct spot.

Mary was laughingly chided by another director “You’re not a dancer, you’re an actress masquerading as a dancer.” Mary is actually a rather nice dancer, and thoroughly ballet trained, but unlike many ballet dancers, she needs to approach repertory theatrically rather than technically. The advantage to this for me is that it helps me to clarify what I’m thinking and what the dance is doing, because she needs and wants to know. I ask the dancers to show me what we’ve done up to this point, so I can see what it is. As they do it, the dance’s qualities become more fully formed, like shapes emerging out of a mist. “You’re not dancing with each other. You’re each dancing with an imaginary partner.” I instruct them. I had made a phrase with an imaginary partner in June, and that had been the original impetus of the dance. I had such trouble with the men I had worked with last year that I decided to do a piece without men, that the partners would be imaginary. Even with that conceit, I hadn’t realized that it would be the controlling impetus of the atmosphere of the piece, a sort of tenuous connection with reality and the fantastic. When watching the first five minutes of the work, I knew that that idea would be brought to the fore and others discarded. We have just less than six minutes completed when we break for the weekend.

August 2, 1999

Day 4

I knew well in advance that Morgan would not be able to attend most Monday or Tuesday rehearsals, but a snag in her schedule prevents Frances from attending as well, so I work only with Adriana and Mary. We’re on schedule so it’s a relaxed day, and because of Morgan’s planned absence, I was already mentally prepared to work with a fractional cast. I choreograph the third iteration of the main waltz phrase, expanding on the concept of the imaginary partner. It’s still a big sweeping waltz, but I have them dance it making it very clear that there are four other people on stage they see but the audience can’t. We’ve moved from a more conventional use of the music to something odder. I then move out of chronological order to make a jumping phrase for Adriana. I have her pegged as a jumper because of her Joffrey training, and my instincts are right, she soars. Like Mary’s phrase the day before, the timing is complex, we create the phrase without music, and set it to music, so the two fit together, but not in the expected way. Ends of the dance phrases don’t coincide squarely with the end of the musical phrase, and the result looks more interesting for it, without seeming heedless of the need for some sort of congruence.

We do the final repeat of the main waltz phrase, skipping the fourth for now. I have a hunch that the right effect would be to have the dancers remain in place, moving very slowly. On Friday, we left off at a point where the dancers had all been waltzing in a circle, and then stopped and swayed slowly with their arms at their sides as if intoxicated by the waltz. When we repeated that section today, I altered it to move twice as slow and with the arms raising and lowering. This became the start of the final section, a decorative series of arm movements done on geologic time. It seems quite right. I’m left at a point today where the question in my head is striking the right balance between dance content and theatrical effect.

August 3, 1999

Day 5 - Before rehearsal (ancillary tasks)

I leave rehearsal each day at 5:30 p.m. to go to work until about midnight, but last night until 1:30 am. At that point I went food shopping (there was nothing in the apartment.) It can be an exhausting schedule, the first two hours of work are difficult because even on the simplest days one is mentally enervated. As time goes by I learn to reserve simple tasks at work for those first few hours so that something can get done other than computer games. Food shopping, cleaning and simple maintenance of a normal life become even more important now, because they keep me in good spirits. As the rehearsal process goes on, they become harder and harder to keep up, so I try to prepare now, and have food on hand.

I wake up at 10:30 this morning to a call from Gia Kourlas, who writes for Time Out. She wants to come to rehearsal on Friday to write a feature and asks about photos. I say there are some in the press kit I sent her, and she replies with embarrassment, “You don’t understand how busy I am.” I want to tell her that in fact I do. Because I really do understand, I let it pass. She wants a color action shot, which I don’t have, and she says not to worry about it. After we hang up, I realize it would behoove me to worry about it. I call her back and ask her exactly what sort of picture she’d like and email a few photographer friends to see if one of them would like to shoot a rehearsal. I also realize I’ve overslept and was supposed to see a male dancer in class at 10:45. It’s not happening and there’s nothing to be done about it but call and apologize. I had a feeling that this would happen before I went to bed the night before. Not every task can get accomplished; not every moment is efficiently used.

I listen to the music for Horizon (Glenn Gould’s piano recording of Bach’s Keyboard concerto No. 1 in D minor) a ballet I am reviving from 1993. I’m excited to be working with the music again; less excited to have to relearn the ballet. It’s not in my body, this is why choreographers forget ballets that dancers remember. Kinesthetic memory is very long lasting. What I remember when re-setting a work is what I originally asked for, not what it became after cleaning. So I have to re-teach myself the ballet as a dancer, in order to teach it. It will also be complicated to assign roles; none of the dancers I have is a perfect analog for any of the original cast. Either parts may be divided and shuffled or I may re-do some individual steps to better fit it to the present cast.

Day 5 - Rehearsal

Since we again have a partial cast (no Morgan) I work out of order, doing ideas as they occur to me. A transitional phrase on pizzicato music is first. To me, there are ideas that are the meat of the dance, and then sections that bridge or buttress these pillars. The pizzicato music, about 30 seconds long, introduced a new section and thematic material in the music. It conjured images of rushing forms, of anticipation, and I choreographed accordingly, making the phrase on Mary. I had left a gap of about twenty seconds in the music, a repeat of Frances’ treacherous jumping phrase, and rather bombastic music. I made a different jumping phrase on Adriana. I had her pose, then take two successively larger jumps to a rising phrase in the music, and she did them, showing a crisp fifth position en haut, but that wasn’t what I wanted. “You’re giving me shapes. I want you to direct my attention upwards.” She then produced the breathy abandon I wanted. The passage of an idea from a picture in one’s mind to a movement in someone else’s body is not a direct route. One of the daily small pleasures of choreography is figuring out how to guide your dancers there, and seeing the results. We worked as a group on a segment about a minute later in the work, a sweeping trio that I envisioned rushing about as Morgan danced in another corner. Again, I got to make a “dance-y” phrase full of grands ronds des jambes and attitudes en tournant. It’s as viscerally satisfying an event for the choreographer as well as the audience, a beautiful, lushly danced phrase to beautiful music. The final section choreographed was to the same music that returns later, more fortissimo. I had gauged that this was again a point to insert a theatrical effect, the dancers swirl in then stop dead as the music reaches its climax and rushes past them. They each bow to their imaginary partner and shyly offer him their hands as they walk with him, averting their faces. At this point I choose not to do any more new material, preferring to wait until I have a full cast, and we spend the time reviewing old materials, primarily to allay Frances’ doubts, and it’s successful. She’s much more comfortable after having the time to catch up and figure things out.

August 4, 1999

Day 6 - 8:48 a.m.

A call from Morgan practically in tears awakens me. I can’t really tell what she’s talking about. From the sound of her voice I’m afraid she’s injured, but it’s car trouble (she lives and works at least an hour’s drive from the City). Naturally, both of us have our own personal and self-centered scale for calamity. I tell her to come to rehearsal if at all possible, and that I understand the problem. In truth, I want to get her off the phone and get back to sleep, but I’m glad she’s told me, I need to be mentally prepared for not having a full cast again. It’s frustrating, because I’ve got 30 hours to make this ballet, 15 have gone by. Her absence today leaves only two days with a full cast this week and two more rehearsals left. If I make them next week, I lose Mary to a pre-arranged absence. I wish I had enough money to have dancers as employees and be able to insist upon attendance. One of the compromises I make for dancer quality is to allow them some flexibility in schedule, but it becomes an awful juggling act, and I never feel as if I rehearse with a full cast at times like these. I remind myself there’s really nothing I can do about it and try and catch up on the lost hours of sleep.

Day 6 - Rehearsal

It seems keeping a cool head paid off. We manage to get a good deal accomplished, even without Morgan. The first section to be worked on is for Mary, a more theatrical section incorporating two ideas from the first day of rehearsal, the “entrapped” phrase I thought I would discard (although much changed) and a sort of badminton game where Mary is passed between Adriana and Frances. Mary quickly figures out the mood I’m looking for (it’s heading more and more towards Tennessee Williams, huge dusty folds of velvet draperies and creaking shutters) and produces it. I make a legato section for Frances, because she has good lines, and because she needs it. She seems intent on showing me correct steps, I make her an entire section where all I want her to do is “yearn” – penchées to renversés, all with arms imploring and importuning. She looks both lovely in it, but thrown, something’s preventing her from dancing with abandon. It will give her something to work on. Finally, we make the fourth iteration of the main waltz phrase. Again, I’m trying to bridge the dance effects of the first repeats of the waltz with the entirely theatrical ones of the final repeat. So we build on the “imaginary partnering” in the third phrase, and in the fourth they appear, then vanish. The trick, of course, is making that clear to the audience. What excites me is that the dancers catch on to the theatrical effects almost as quickly as the dance ones. They intrigue them, and me as well. Going from doing a very pure classical ballet at Ballet Pacifica less than a week before I began rehearsals for our concert, I am enjoying making a dance work that relies equally on dance design and theatrical atmosphere. It’s not something I do frequently, but then again, in almost anything I do, (choreography, writing, knitting, making dinner. . .) the next project is almost always something in strong contrast to the previous. Scherzo Fantastique is no exception. I leave rehearsal after having a long, enjoyable and illuminating chat with Mary and Frances. I suggest to Frances she try doing this ballet almost as if she were “marking” and learn a bit more about her. She also becomes more comfortable with me, which should only help the process. Then to work, where I attempt to arrange for a photographer, deal with the preliminaries for upcoming mailings, catch up with my designer on production issues and track down leads on a male dancer. And do some work.

August 5, 1999

Day 7

Morgan makes it in, bleary eyed from cold medication, but at least corporeally present enough to be nudged into the correct spot. Very little new choreography is made today; holes are patched instead. The end of the ballet has not been choreographed, but it’s about three-quarters completed. At this point in a work, I tend to be loath to introduce any new ideas into a work, preferring to stay with thematic material already developed. I believe it makes the construction sounder. The ballet reminds me of a bridge with the main piers hammered into the ground; the final rehearsals are spent constructing the spans. We begin inserting Morgan into the sections choreographed since she was last here, with me making decisions where in the group she is placed, and which dancers do what sections. A pleasant surprise is how much more comfortable Frances looks today and it shows in her dancing. There’s still accuracy, but now there’s also a flow, and better still, a genuine relaxed enjoyment of the process. The transitions between most of the central sections (the solos between the third and fourth repeats of the main waltz phrase) are made. We figure out how Frances begins her yearning section, how Adriana leaves before her jumping section. Interestingly, some of the transitions are dance phrases; some of them are acting. I’ve learned that the overall effect of a ballet is often determined by those final transitions set into the work and it’s why I often leave holes in the dance when I don’t have a great idea for a certain section of music. As I understand the work better the more of the dance I make, I use the unchoreographed holes as an opportunity to bolster the atmosphere of the dance. Those undetermined sections become crucial coloring. I leave Morgan’s section for tomorrow, assuming Morgan with fewer sinus problems is a better Morgan on which to choreograph. There’s about 12-13 minutes of ballet done at the end of the day, with Morgan’s section (under a minute), two minutes between the fourth and fifth waltz repeats and the final minute of the ballet to set.

David Quinn, our costume designer, comes today and is the first person other than myself to see the ballet. Even though I enjoy people watching my work, I can tell I’m a nervous parent because an almost involuntary narrative pours forth in a whisper as the dancers dance. David, bless his heart, ignores me and watches the dance instead. The only thing concrete we decide is that the women will be in flesh-colored soft slippers. He has many other ideas, but wants to talk with me about them later. He tells me he wants a heavier fabric than chiffon; I think he senses the weight of the dance. I mention that I think the colors for this should be dusty. The idea of a sort of genteel dilapidated quality becomes central to the work. The dancers and I keep making Tennessee Williams references, and I have the idea that the costumes should look faded, perhaps colors that once were saturated before thirty years of storage in a dusty closet.

August 6, 1999

Day 8

We start by bridging the section between the fourth and fifth waltz repeats. It’s interesting to think about the period when a ballet is nearly finished, the process speeds up markedly, but it feels like a speeding car; there is tremendous inertia and force, some of it dangerous. One has to be able to distinguish between keeping to a consistent palette of ideas and repeating oneself for lack of inspiration. I know that I have ended the fourth repeat with a mildly disturbing theatrical moment. We jokingly call it “trouble at the plantation,” the “imaginary partners” vanish and the dancers can no longer see them. One joy of choreography, though, is that sections as simplistically and reductively explained in words as the previous one have multiple meanings and associations in dance. If anyone reads this diary and then looks at the dance and thinks that the section in question is about “trouble at the plantation” I’ll kick myself. I have to move in two minutes from that section to the actions of the final waltz; slow arm movements done almost entirely divorced from reality.

Knowing my start point and my end point, I proceed to bridge the gap. The dancing needs to become less and less formal and unison, we need to move towards disorder. After this point in the dance (about 12 minutes in) many of the waltz steps dissolve into walking or running, and pick up as a waltz again. The dancers are used to how I make a phrase, I grab the dancer I think the idea would look best on and work it out on him or her. I’ve always considered that to be a very personal moment and a sign of affection from me. In 1996, I worked with a lovely little dancer named Jenny Polyocan, and because I liked the way she moved and she was an easy height for me to work out partnering details, she (and Morgan) got grabbed frequently. Jenny got used to see me coming at her, looking pensive and staring at the floor, which is what I do when I’m thinking up steps. Once, as she saw me gesturing for her, but looking at the floor, I heard her say, “Come here, my little hamster.” I realized I looked more than a little like a mad scientist at those moments.

I use Mary to work out most of these sections (whenever I do something which involves acting I grab her to work on first.) The entrapment idea from the first day returns again, oddly enough, and again almost so completely altered to be unrecognizable, but I know that the idea I discarded on the first day became the genesis for better ideas on following days. I have Mary balancé, then run, along the perimeter of the stage, which has become a boundary line. I’m working mostly with words and descriptions, and she starts to fill in actions, and even steps. At that point I take one of the steps she’s put in (which is actually probably fine where it is) and move it to another spot in the phrase. I smile inwardly, although a bit ruefully, when I do that. Control freak to the end, I hate letting anyone else put steps into my ballet. Three-quarters of this section is done by the first break, and almost no new steps have been introduced, mostly already used vocabulary (lots of pas balancés and soutenus) recombined.

I pick up after the break with the end of the ballet. I’ve been trying to lay the groundwork for the abrupt switch in the music in the last minute, which is so emphatic that I try to avoid obvious choreography shifts. I have them start to run at that break. Mary breaks in even before I can see it that it might be a little obvious at that point, and I know she’s right (just as I took a backwards look at the beginning of the ballet off an obvious cue on the timpani.) Instead, we start running two counts after the change in the music. The runs move into a phrase from the first day, rushing off balance turns in attitude that have appeared in a fragmented form throughout the dance, and the phrase is seen here for the first time as it was originally choreographed. I then have them do the same waltz phrase they’ve been doing, but painfully slow and off tempo, and no longer in unison. As the music comes to its final crashes, they again break into a swirling run to rush into a mass at the upstage corner and look back on the final crash. It seems to be nicely balanced between “satisfying” and “obvious” and I’m pleased. The final thirty or so seconds are stitched between the fourth and final waltz sections, all in the same vein, rushing and swirling to place.

I’m slightly amazed. In an episodic way and all in spurts, the ballet is complete except for Morgan’s section, which I’ll make next Thursday. The process felt so low-key that it never seemed as if we actually did any work or made any progress. As we run it, it reminds me of the other female quartet I have made, Word Become Flesh in 1996. Both were atmospheric pieces made off pointe, but the atmosphere of each is quite different, the first piece, to Perotin, was contemplative and otherworldly, this one is dramatic and overwrought. I find the piece interesting to watch because its emotional tone is unlike any I’ve ever made; the dancers have a larger than life theatricality I’ve never asked for to this point. It looks to me like it might have come from Hollywood in the late 1930’s (but not a movie musical, rather more like Jezebel or Now, Voyager.)

The other similarity to the 1996 quartet is that both pieces were created very smoothly. I never expected this one to go so smoothly, especially as unsure as I was at the outset as to what the piece would be. A little paranoia of mine is that when a project is near completion, I’m afraid that fate will force me to leave it uncompleted, especially if it has gone smoothly. As I walk to work, I find myself crossing the street very carefully to avoid tempting the gods.

August 9, 1999

Day 9 (First day of rehearsal with Chuck) - Before rehearsal

These are the notes on my scratch pad after I listen to the score (Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade) a final time.

0:00 Opening rush in and first theme
1:10 Development (minor key)
1:45 Excited pas de chats.
2:30 Opening theme repeats
3:00 Much thicker texture
3:30 Hesitation
3:53 We’re hunting wabbits
4:47 Slight change in the theme – skipping.
5:25 Heading to the end in a spiral.
5:40 Repeat of opening theme, transformed slightly to exit music.

A shiver and a rush off.
There’s really more or less one emotional note.
Romeo with Rosalind.
What does one do while waiting?
How does one feel when one is in love with love?

Day 9 - Rehearsal

Chuck is waiting for me at the studio, we start work as soon as he changes, I begin by telling him basically the last five lines of the scratch pad, and then I just move directly into steps, the “excited pas de chats” from my notes. I begin there primarily because it’s just steps, and it seemed like a good place for each of us to learn how the other works. One funny thing I notice is that Chuck is a physical type that flits in and out of my work (and life), the tall, lanky blonde. He reminds me both of David Pittenger (a dancer on whom I choreographed eight works) and my brother.

The rehearsal process with Chuck is even more stop and start than with the women, there’s only one person, I give more than one break an hour. It’s very relaxed, just me and him, and the gossip and jokes fly thick and heavy. I try the pas de chat phrase beginning with a pas de chat landing on two legs with the leg brushing à la seconde, and then into a grande pirouette in attitude. Because this is the first thing we do, everything gets adjusted step by step as I try to make it look right for him. The first thing is the grand pirouette in attitude. I first ask for two en dedans turns in passé, followed by an attitude turn, then I try reversing the idea, having the en dedans turns pull into passé. Neither is quite right. It’s remembering how David danced that helps me figure out the problem, which is that Chuck, like David and other tall, thin men, looks interesting in turns that keep close to his axis. Between the two of us we come up with an en dedans turn in passe where the leg “corkscrews” down to a fifth position and the other immediately steps over into passé. Now for the first step, the pas de chat into the leg shooting into à la seconde. It would be dandy if it didn’t look just like Hot Chocolate or any one of a number of Pas Espagnoles out there. We change the brush to a contretemps.

Now that we’ve had a chance to nitpick over a single phrase, we seem a bit more comfortable with each other. Chuck’s interested and eager, he just doesn’t know what to expect, and neither do I. I go back to the beginning and proceed to work chronologically. Work proceeds smoothly. I’m impressed what the two years at NYCB have done for Chuck, his legs never looked like this when he was at ABT and he never looked this energized, but I have to ask him to watch for a few instinctive NYCB-isms he’s acquired since he arrived there. He tends to hit a pose at the height of a dance phrase and also to accent transition steps so quickly they almost disappear. I ask him to hit any pose at the height only to move out of it, not to show me a shape. This reminds me of watching the students at SAB doing Valse Fantaisie as Suki Schorer coached it, where the height of any movement was only held for the briefest gulp of air. Presently, phrases are shaped much more deliberately in the company. Also, I often give pas de bourrée with a gentle rocking motion, almost as if it were a “grapevine” step in a hora or a Fred and Ginger movie. This throws him a bit, he’s now used to doing pas de bourrées up, up, up into fifth position and mine often sink softly into the floor.

I build the dance a few steps at a time, adding the steps on, marking the whole dance to this point with the music, repeating the process with a few new steps. The dance phrases also loop around and braid into themselves, making it hard for him to remember the sequence at times. By the end of rehearsal we get to the point where the pas de chats are and add them into the dance. The dance, as it builds, has an excited rushing quality to it, like a florid signature or a sentence said in a single breath, but a few phrases are overchoreographed. I start to identify them, and remove steps, but the remaining steps are less crowded, they are also no longer quite musical. The final adjusting of the phrase will wait until tomorrow. As I watch Chuck speeding through the work a final time, I remind myself that I’m just shy of 5’10” and he’s 6’4”. I want to make the work on his body, not mine.

August 10, 1999

Day 10 - 37 days until performance

I continue work on the solo with Chuck. The solo has a working title, Aubade, and I feel clear about the danced characterization, which I discuss with Chuck. Reductively, it’s the balcony scene, if Romeo were doing it with Rosaline instead of Juliet. The young man in this dance is not very experienced, but what little fooling around with the chambermaid he’s managed has given him an appetite for more. An entire world of love is awaiting him and he’s not yet been hurt. He does most of the dance to an offstage balcony downstage left. It seems unseen characters are to be a theme of the evening. I’m either going to have to include x-ray spectacles with the program or buy some inflatable dummies.

There are several different facets to making a solo like this, commercial and artistic motives are inextricably mixed. Much as I enjoy working with Chuck (he’s awfully fun to work with and a very good dancer), my goals in hiring him were commercial, and in my head at least, his pay as a dancer isn’t filed under “professional fees” but “advertising”, and he’s already started to pay for himself. So if one is having a “guest artist”, what are the artistic concerns? What’s the checklist? I think that most solos and pas de deux, if performed in isolation, become partly about the choreography and the story if there is one, partly about the performers themselves. My job here is to show Chuck (and myself) off. I also plan the solo, practically, to be portable and repeatable for Chuck. It’s to my benefit for him to have a solo to perform for guest appearances, so it requires minimal production elements.

In the context of the entire evening, I regard the solo like an entremets in a meal. It will be placed in the middle of the evening and should clear and refresh the palate, whetting the appetite for larger things. We start by reviewing yesterday’s material, and correcting the overwritten sections from the previous day. The work moves along in a rush, but no longer looks harassed. As yesterday, it still has the quality of a florid signature, and I find that attribute to be integral to the dance.

We pick up where we left off. I keep the new choreography simpler and less dense. The dance is 6:47, as well as artistic and commercial concerns; there is the simple and practical one of making a dance that doesn’t overrun Chuck’s endurance. We also include a few sections of mime towards the “balcony”, both to provide a narrative thread to the dance, and to give Chuck time to breathe. The middle section also shows off Chuck’s line more than the opening. He has long, well-formed legs, and they’ve been the primary beneficiaries of his tenure at NYCB. I add several arabesques and attitudes here so that people can see them. As we near the end of rehearsal I begin to raise the technical difficulty of the dance a level, he’s had a good rest, told a little story, and now I need to make sure I include the multiple pirouettes and jumps that identify him as a dancer of national caliber. I’ve seen Chuck do seven pirouettes on stage, I find a place in the choreography for him to be able to crank up and go, but interestingly, it’s on quiet music, so again, the pirouettes are more like a rush and whirl than a cyclone. It fits what the rest of the dance is doing.

The mime is actually far more complex to deal with than the dance steps. The music is my instinct for the characterization, it’s youthful and excited, and while watching Chuck in rehearsal, I told him to make sure to mime tenor, not baritone. In fact, that’s my principal regret about the solo as it forms, which is that the solo is extremely youthful, and Chuck will grow out of it, rather than into it as time passes, but that’s something that can’t be predicted, so I choose to concentrate on the dance as it looks now.

August 11, 1999

Day 11 – 36 days until performance

Though it’s the last day I’ll see Chuck for more than a week, we make very little new choreography today, going over the material already made (more than 5 minutes of 6:47) and trying to simplify and pare down parts of it. It’s a very demanding solo, even though I’ve tried to choreograph rests into it. Once Chuck ran through the entire piece, full out, the excess steps stuck out rather obviously for removal. I just looked for the parts where it looked as if he was going to vomit, or trip and fall over, and there were about four or five good instances in there. We did make one new section where we left off, a final burst of virtuosity, and as we did it, we both joked about checking off the laundry list of required steps, rather like the compulsory events in skating. What’s fun is to try and provide the expected steps (a double tour to arabesque, a manège of saut de basques and other turning steps, multiple pirouettes) in an organic fashion, and hopefully the result is slightly unexpected. The majority of the rehearsal was spent with a photographer, then the costume designer. David looked on in approval. “Something lovely.” I suggested, referring to what I wanted Chuck to wear, and received “That’s just what I was thinking.” in reply. This is probably why I’ve worked with David since 1996. At the end of the day, Gia Kourlas came to interview Chuck for Time Out magazine. We managed to make use of each of these “interruptions” as an opportunity to see what the ballet looked like when run. It became obvious that two ten second holes weren’t holes, but necessary rest points, and we needed to put nothing there but mime. A jeté combination repeated three times could only be repeated twice, before Chuck ran out of both time and room. I didn’t realize just how much space he covers when he moves full out. The room we rehearse in is much too small for him. Gia watches the rehearsal and Chuck and I dutifully overact our roles as egotistical star and dictatorial choreographer.

I’m pleased with the solo to this point, if only because it’s flattering on Chuck and because it seems shorter than it is. I was worried about not only the question of endurance – I know I’ve now reached the limit of difficulty of the work, the final minute has got to be much less taxing – but the question of maintaining the audience’s interest in a single dancer for seven minutes, primarily through dance. It’s a deceptively difficult task, and all too easy for the solo to look like nothing more than a bunch of steps strung together. One can’t rely on one of the most important tools for maintaining interest in a dance either, geometry. There are precious few shapes and designs to be made with a single body. I think this dance will be held together by the specificity of the mime. When Chuck “plays” an instrument, is it clear it’s imaginary to him as well as to us? Is it clear exactly what instrument he’s imagining, a guitar, a lute, a mandolin? I tell him to make sure it’s exactly the same size every time. Not a ukulele once, then a double bass. Chuck plays air guitar in response. More importantly, I will probably change some of the mime to “age” it slightly. It could just need further coaching and discussion, but I’ve got a hunch that the sections that feel the least specific are because I’m asking Chuck to do something, like act nervous, that just doesn’t fit his actual age and temperament.

August 12, 1999

Day 12 – First day of Armature, 35 days until performance

Starting work on the new piece is exhausting enough for me, but it brings the dancers right back to square one of frustration. It’s a tough day, and I spend some of my energy trying to work, and a good deal of it just trying to get them through the rehearsal. Armature seems simple in structure, worked in sections, some to music and some to silence, but it only provides the dancers with complications. I’ve thought about Armature for a while, it’s to be the “classical” work on the program, most specifically, the work about classicism. I wanted it to be like the “Visible Man” dolls we had as children, a ballet with the skin peeled back. I have a notion to start with a stated theme, as a simple series of ports de bras and a small dance primarily à terre. It’s not a particularly original idea (Serenade, Études, The Goldberg Variations) but it’s an appropriate one. I start on Adriana, but Frances catches my eye almost immediately as she tries out the ports de bras, her long limbs and academic training (I believe she’s the only one in the room from an academy, the Australian Ballet School) are exactly what I want in the series of ports de bras, and I can give her clear, almost Cecchetti, épaulement and it looks like something.

But nothing moves smoothly. Because the combination phrases are only slightly differentiated and not set to music, even the dancers with the strongest retention are having problems remembering the steps. Worse, these sections seem to play into the dancers’ weaknesses instead of their strengths. The vocabulary may look exactly right on Frances, but for the life of her, she can’t remember a step of it today. Adriana learns it, but it doesn’t look as suited to her. Everyone’s tense, and trying not to be short-tempered. Mary isn’t here, having gone to Washington DC for the week to teach and I sorely miss her at the moment. I think part of the tension is her absence. Often she stabilizes a room.

We make three phrases in the rehearsal, the one mentioned above, a second one amplified from the first (it includes jumps and turns). At this point, about 2/3 of the way through the rehearsal, I put on some music (the prelude from Bach’s solo partita #3 for violin) just to give their aching heads a rest and make a phrase to that. Even with the frustration, I instinctively feel like I saw what I wanted for the piece out of Frances when I saw her first do the ports des bras at the beginning, a classical style, academic and patrician. But how to make that look right and natural on all of my dancers? I’m going to have to build their individual sections on each of them.

I let Frances and Adriana go early, and make Morgan’s section of Scherzo Fantastique. Jeff Salzberg comes in at that point, because he’s doing the lighting design, and watches as I finish the ballet. We put together the 30-40 seconds quickly, it’s very sweet, innocent music. “Younger than springtime, are you.” I instruct her. Morgan plays the ingenue very well. Her solo is related to the lush trio that follows it, extensions and developpés, so that the trio becomes an amplification of her solo.

August 13, 1999

Day 13 – 34 days until performance

Things go better today. I find the final man, Abraham, who was recommended by several dancers as having clean lines and being available. When I see him in class, I realize he’s smaller than I’d like (about 5’7”) but has a good look and very good lines. I think the smallness might become an advantage in Horizon. The other two men I have, Barry and Ted are about 5’6” and 6’1” respectively – but Adriana and Mary, who, along with Frances are the cast in Horizon are about 5’5”, 5’1” and 5’6” (The decision was based primarily on schedules. Morgan has the tightest schedule, so she’s in two ballets instead of three.) If Frances and Ted are in the center and Adriana & Abraham and Mary & Barry at either side, I’m hoping that Abraham’s size when partnered with Adriana will balance the side couples a bit more.

In Armature, however, I put Abraham with Morgan, and begin to make a simple pas de deux on them. I have them enter from opposite corners to meet each other, and spend the first five minutes getting Abraham to think about walking properly. He’s got great raw material, and clean training, but unsurprisingly, he’s rough around the edges. He can do double saut de basques, and point his feet, but he can’t walk, yet. It’s the placement of his head on his neck, he juts it forward. If one walks with one’s neck craning forward, it looks rather savage. Movement habits are not erased by a single correction, though. I correct him repeatedly, but attempt to be encouraging about it.

Most of the vocabulary I’m using is simple, but very exposing, and I seem to be drawn to the Cecchetti ports de bras with the opposition in the shoulders. Why? I was never trained by a Cecchetti teacher, so the attraction to me is a small mystery, but in this ballet I seem to be looking for a pre-Balanchine épaulement. As harrowing as silence is to the dancers (it’s twice as hard to retain steps isolated from music) I love watching the combinations in silence. It focuses your eyes. For a work that is very conservative in vocabulary, it all feels very experimental to me. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that one can experiment around the edges of a form, but it’s also very possible and very healthy to experiment within the center as well.

Morgan and Abraham’s pas de deux is derived from the opening phrases from the previous day, reverences become more central because there are two people dancing with each other. They meet, bow to each other, he offers his hand, she takes it and walks under his arm to pose in ecarté. The dance continues like that, and it wasn’t until I heard Frances softly humming the music from the grand pas de deux in act III of The Sleeping Beauty that I realized consciously what I was doing. I hadn’t stolen any choreography, but the Kirov Beauty had unquestionably gotten under my skin. It’s another one of the pleasures of choreography. When I see what I make in the studio, I know what had been filling my head in the interim. Tanztheatre and Cunningham in other years, now the Kirov and Paris. It’s always ballet, that’s what I know, but the accenting is different each year and each work.

I make small solos for each of the women next. I learnt yesterday that I had my work cut out for me, because the palette of movement I want most for this ballet is really only natural to Frances. Adriana was trained at the Joffrey, she moves beautifully but she’s athletic, not delicate. Morgan is delicate, and has a beautiful back and arms, but they are so flexible that she’s almost never orthodox. So I start to try and make solos for them that take the way they each move and make it look as clean and classical as possible. Adriana senses I’m perplexed about her ports de bras, she keeps asking me “Can you just tell me a little clearer what you want? If you can tell me, I can do it.” She’s right, the problem is, I can’t quite tell her. So I make a solo that works with what she does, very aerial. She laughs softly at one point, “It’s a man’s variation!” It isn’t, but it is a variation for a jumping female. It very well might be one of Adriana’s nagging fears that her ability to jump and turn means that she’s not very feminine and I’d rather not exacerbate that.

Frances’ section contains more ports de bras than Adriana’s, but also several difficult turns, and I try to make use of her precision, the very quality that was giving her a hard time in Scherzo Fantastique. She retains the steps much faster today than yesterday, I’m glad some of the tension is gone. For Morgan, I try to soften the unorthodoxy of her arms, getting her to move just a little less floridly, but only a little. The moment either Adriana or Morgan try to do things “correctly” it doesn’t look correct, it just looks strained. It’s my job to make how they move naturally look correct. When we break for the weekend, I know that I have to decide on an order for the ballet. Once that is done, it will fall into place.

August 14, 1999

Day 14 – 31 days until performance

From my scratch pad:

“Space - the same thing moved in space
in time
different bodies
silence - music, different music.”

We start to build an armature. I take the first few steps of the phrase I initially made on Frances and divide them in half. First Frances states the first part (about five steps). Morgan then does it in reverse. Mary then does it, but will be half concealed by the wings of the stage. Frances then does the second part (a port de bras, three steps and a pose). Abraham and Adriana meet to enter and pose to each other. Frances and Morgan do the same “greeting”, but not facing each other. Mary walks to center doing the second part of Frances’ phrase and everyone walks to a diagonal line, to repeat Frances’ phrase. I plan for each of the above actions to be separated by blackouts, to render them distinct. Frances is left alone when the lights come up to do her phrase in its entirety. The beginning is dry as a bone, but I like it because it focuses attention on each movement as a component of a dance. It’s a residue of my Cunningham immersion from a few years ago. Every year, something fascinates me and becomes grist for the intellectual mill. If there is something that ballet can take seamlessly from other dance, it’s a concern for process and structure that some of the best modern choreographers have. Ballet once had its experimental wing too (not just Balanchine, but Nijinska for instance) but that seems to have been supplanted. I think we take all the wrong cues from modern dance when we try and incorporate its vocabulary into ballet. What we should borrow from it (or merely reclaim as ours as well!) is its intellectual curiosity and its concern for the structure and geography of a dance.

I feel like I know what I’m doing at this point and we proceed chronologically. Once Frances has done her entire phrase, I ask her to do it again, but this time, I find a section of the solo violin partita that I think matches the tempo and mood and play it as she dances it. Hallelujah, it fits. I ask Morgan and Adriana to also do the phrase we learned the first day immediately after. It also fits. This is all partially serendipity, I haven’t been making the phrases with the music in mind, but I have been keeping my eyes and ears open for any possible congruence. I fade the music out, and make an entirely new duet on Mary and Abraham. Poor Mary. Since this is her first day with the new material, she’s now undergoing the initial agony the others have mostly managed to get through by this point. When their duet is finished, I begin the music again, this time at the beginning, with the intention of playing it through in its entirety (although possibly with sections “erased” after the choreography has been made and thoroughly learned.) I ask Adriana to do the jumping phrase I made for her on Friday to begin. I change it slightly to eliminate one or two unflattering arm positions on her, and she phrases certain parts slightly differently than she would have done in silence. It looks better bit by bit. What I have to do is figure out how to encourage a different carriage in her neck and shoulder area, something with more breath in it. The first step in the right direction is to make sure that most of her head positions aren’t presentations to the audience. I think the dancers equate being classical with being very presentational to the audience, and in very artificial ways. They peer out from under their arms, they tilt their heads to forced angles. I ask Adriana to keep her head moving in the direction she is going, so in an arabesque, the arm looks out over the hand, not to the audience. It helps to make her less self-conscious. I’m a little surprised that she’s wearing pink tights today, and I can’t help but notice how nicely formed her legs are.

I give Morgan a solo to do based on a phrase I made for her on Friday, and we are at the same musical point where Frances initially did her phrase. I ask Abraham to do the exact same thing that Frances did, and ask Frances to do it with him so he can learn her phrase. When I watch her do it with him, they look so nice together that I leave it as a duet. From there, I ask Mary to learn the short pas de deux I made for Morgan and Abraham on Friday and stitch it in. Morgan will also do it with Abraham, but later in the dance (and perhaps facing a different direction?). We’ve put together about 3-4 minutes of the dance and are on our way.

August 15, 1999

Day 15 – 30 days until performance

It’s very humid today, which makes everything more lethargic today, but we continue along with Armature (without Morgan until Friday) and complete one section of the dance and begin another. After going over the material previously made, we completed the pas de deux for Abraham and Mary. I had left her in a penchée, so we got her back on her leg and off the stage in a series of small supported jumps. Abraham partners quite nicely. I also figure out a way of describing to the dancers what I’m looking for in the port de bras. I tell Mary and Adriana to be constantly aware of “the other arm”, meaning the one that isn’t leading the motion. It’s like the second leg in a pas de chat or a jump, it tends to get forgotten, and in this case, held rigidly, rather than with breath. Frances’ section from Friday gets appended, and with additions, ends the section to the partita. I’m very pleased that Frances comes into her own in this material. I don’t expect every dancer to be flattered equally by everything I do, but I do like to be able to give each of them something that shows them off.

We start work on a new section, made to a piece of music called So You Want to Write a Fugue? So we indeed make a fugue, a very humid fugue today for Mary, Abraham and Adriana. I have Abraham lead the fugue, but find myself choreographing the bulk of it on Adriana. The choreography is an interesting balance of terre à terre and aerial work, all my instincts about this ballet make it have a good deal more terre à terre work than I might ordinarily. But it’s very detailed, with only slight differences, and though we choreograph it to the music, it gives everyone’s memories a thorough workout, and placing it in canon becomes a struggle for Mary and Abraham. Adriana somehow keeps on top of all of it, and I ask her to do the section once for me alone, without music. It will become a prequel to the fugue itself.

When I look at what I’ve done today, I also realize that Forsythe and Artifact II have been thrown into the gristmill. The similarities in titling were not intentional, nor in musical choices or in choreographic austerity, but there they are. I felt his ballet (at least the smaller version that is only for two couples) was about relationships, to me, mine is about ballet. There’s no point in comparing choreography and quality, nor is that my intent, but the emotional tone in Armature is optimistic and Artifact II is not an optimistic work. And there is no such thing as a classical pessimist.

August 18, 1999

Day 16 – 29 days until performance


This was just a frustrating day for me, a true mid-point doldrums day. I felt like I was just spinning my wheels and wasting everybody else’s time. I guess I was frustrated because it’s practically impossible to assemble a full cast for the ballet. Morgan had to be out Tuesday through Thursday this week, Frances wasn’t able to get into rehearsal today until the last third of it, Mary needs to come in late on Friday and leave early on Monday, Adriana’s husband just surprised her with a trip for their first anniversary, but didn’t consult her about her schedule and now she may not be in on Monday. I may have a full cast for this ballet for four hours on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. I can never feel certain about choreography until I have the cast in front of me, doing the steps, so everything I set today felt like a pencil sketch, nothing felt final. It was like I was marking time.

I began by making solo material for Mary and Abraham, for the same reason as I made it for the others, to find a way to make their individual qualities classical. Mary is having trouble with the sustained lines of the ballet because of the way she approaches things. The day before, she joked with me and said, “I think we better come up with my motivation for this dance real soon.” To ameliorate that, I keep her moving. Her solo is quick and darting, like a hummingbird. “This should be very carbonated.” I say to her and she looks at me, puzzled. “You know, fizzy.” I put in pas courus for her (runs on point) and she immediately brightened. “I like pas couru. No one else does, but I do.” She does them well, also.

Abraham’s solo is simple, but makes use of his lines. His difficulty is making movement fluid, he tends to overemphasize individual movements from a desire to show that he knows what the steps are. He also tends to overjump most aerial steps, so I have to check that as well. What is lovely, however, is that his feet are always pointed and his knees are always stretched. If his ports de bras aren’t fluid, they are at least simple and correct. There’s definitely something to work with here. I’m feeling rotten, though, because while I’m working with Abraham and Mary, Adriana has gone off to read the newspaper. I don’t think she minds, but I somehow feel as if I’ve planned rehearsals badly if I have a dancer there needlessly. And yet, it’s impossible not to, especially in a work that’s being formed as one makes the steps.

Once I’m done with Abraham, we work on more material for the fugue with the three of them. It goes slowly for me. I make it one step at a time, appending and looking at the whole phrase, but every step feels overused, nothing feels inspired. Somehow, though, I end up making an acceptable phrase, and when we come to a loud phrase in the music, I give Abraham a chance to do grand allegro. This fugue has words, and this year, I’ve found that I often choreograph puns to lyrics, more for my own amusement than to illustrate the words to the audience. At Ballet Pacifica this summer, when I was working on Come Ye Sons of Art to Purcell, two men came on and took a woman’s hand on the words “thus she supports.” On the words “strike the viol” the man touched his partner’s waist with a plucking motion. And in this ballet, on the words “for the sake of showing off” Abraham does a double tour to the knee. It’s not central the ballet to get the joke, but I did like that Mary cracked a smile when she saw what I had done.

Frances races in breathless for the final hour, trying to apologize, but I just tell her to change and we’ll get to work, but alas, I proceed to make a singularly uninspired duet on her and Adriana. I then try to place Abraham and Mary’s material to appropriate music, but everything looks as if it were choreographed in silence and dropped on the music. I press on with it, but I’m relieved when Adriana has to leave a bit early, and we review the material and I don’t have to make up anymore steps. I’m frazzled and tired, but I’ve been choreographing too long to be upset by a day when the muse doesn’t visit.

Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

August 19, 1999

Day 17 – 28 days until performance

A much better day. I start to append isolated pieces of choreography to the structure of the dance. This Armature doesn’t have the most supportive armature of all, a musical score to lend its structure. I’m building it myself as I go. That’s why the phrases I made look unsatisfying, they have no context, and as I give them one, they look better.

I begin the rehearsal by giving an impromptu lesson on fugues. Every one of the dancers has danced a fugue before, and they all know what it means to dance “in canon” but not all of them know what a fugue is. We run the material in the order I think it will have and I can see where I need to insert material, and who will do it. This is infinitely reassuring to me, as is the realization that somehow, even though I feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels, there’s about 10 minutes of choreography made. We then review the material for the fugue from yesterday, and have our first explicit moment of Employ in rehearsal. In echo of Mary’s solo material from the day before, I had Mary and Adriana exit in pas couru on the diagonal. Doing it today, Adriana explains to me as she grimaces doing the step, “Only little people should do pas couru.” I can’t help but think of the discussions of employ on Ballet Alert! when she says that. Am I using Employ in these dances? Well, kinda sorta. I know that there are times I use Frances and Adriana as “big girls” doing more grand allegro and turns at a slower tempo than Morgan and Mary. I often give Mary soubrette material, because she’s so good at being charming, but she also gets the sparrow-like adagio parts. Morgan gets more ingenue parts from me. I see Frances as a danseuse noble (it’s the long, long limbs and the patrician neck) and Adriana as Diana the Huntress. But one needs many more employees in order to Employ. With only four women, I use whoever is available at that moment.

I pick up where I left off (which is where Abraham finished his double tour to the knee) and make a duet for Frances and Adriana. At first, I start making a phrase isolated from any music, but I realize that I’m getting sick of that, and it’s not producing good work right now. So I take most of the same steps and ideas and make a different phrase, but this time made directly and specifically to a certain piece of music. It’s a satisfying relief, almost like getting to eat ice cream after doing one’s homework. After the break, I start to work on the final section of the ballet, done to Bach’s Cantata No. 29 (Wir danken dir, Gott.) The music is essentially the same as the music for the solo violin partita, Bach often scavenged from himself in the cantatas, which he needed to make on a weekly basis. I had made the opening phrase in June on Mary, and I tell Abraham to do it with her (as well as Morgan when she returns.) I continue on, bringing Frances and Adriana out, and having everyone do a polonaise, which is exactly what the music seems to call for. More ice cream. Happier still, we end up on a phrase of music where the hummingbird solo for Mary (with a few of its opening movements lopped off) looks as if it had been made for the music.

August 20, 1999

Day 18 – 27 days until performance

The day was taken up with other tasks, so not much new choreography was made today. Instead, photos were taken, and the ballets were shown informally. My job as a choreographer is mostly over with regard to Scherzo, at this point, I take off my choreographer hat and put on my ballet master hat. On the other hand, Armature is . . . skeletal. Morgan is in today and I start choreographing the missing sections for her, but she’s running on half speed and three hours of sleep so I’ll do the bulk of her material on Monday. The only other major change I make is to change the direction in which the final section of the ballet is moving. Yesterday after the polonaise, I made a solo for Mary, then one for Adriana, and also one for Abraham. I don’t like it when I watch it, because it’s as if the insistence upon structure that has led up to this point went out the window for a vaudeville turn. I want the final section to be about structure, not personality where everyone flits in for 32 counts to show off their best steps, then rushes off. I change Adriana’s solo to a duet for her and Frances, which Morgan joins to make a trio. It rights the balance of the work

August 23, 1999

Day 19 - 24 days until performance

Armature starts to be put together today. I feel very unsure, very like I felt at the same stage in Scherzo, because the work is at a point where it is complete enough that chance needs to take a back seat to an editorial stance. It’s said that Michaelangelo felt that one did not decide what to sculpt, one released the sculpture implicit in a block of marble. In a less cerebral vein, there’s a joke:

Q: How do you sculpt an elephant?
A: Take a big block of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

Both statements are applicable here. For me, an important part of choreography is just throwing ideas out on to the floor, guiding them only on an instinctive level, and then scrutinizing it as it takes shape to see what it is in fact that I’ve done. Then, once you’ve decided it’s an elephant, you chip away everything that doesn’t look like elephant. That can be more difficult than it sounds. An example: As I’m running the ballet today, I see at the beginning that I have Mary doing the first steps half concealed by the wing. It’s an interesting idea that I inserted at the commencement of the rehearsal process, but I haven’t developed it at all in the following days, even though it would be appropriate to the ballet. Do I remove that idea, do I bolster it by changing existing sections or do I add new material to strengthen it? The uncertainty lies in places like that. It’s a sense of proportion and balance, like salting a dish. It’s unnervingly easy to wreck a dish in the final moments of cooking.

The entire concert is also at this strange stage of uncertain momentum. Publicity has been set in motion, and now there is little to do but hope. The new ballets are more than halfway complete. The designers are all at varying stages of creating designs, some much farther along, some preliminary. Time is sufficient, but at a premium and I can see what needs to be done, and what might not get accomplished. One also realizes, looking at the dancers, that not all of what I see in them will make it to the stage. Some of them have problems with retention, some of them with nerves. Some of them have body and technical limitations. I can look at my concept through their bodies with a sort of x-ray vision, now comes a time when I must actually look at the dancers dancing the dance and see what an audience member would see.

I do most of the choreography on Morgan today, essentially putting her into the ballet. Serendipity played an immense part in her role in this work, anywhere I left a hole in the choreography, I patch with a section for her. I begin by making a solo for her that comes directly after Frances’ and makes use of her flexibility and jumps. Mary, then Abraham join into it. Two duets for Morgan and Frances are then made, both in silence, but one is then set to music for Mary and Morgan. I work with Abraham on refining a small section for him in the finale and making it more fluid. For the second time, as a joke when I rebuke him, he calls me “Dad.” He’s 22. I’m 35, and four years older than my father was when I was born. When I look at the pictures taken of me with Chuck, I’m pleased with them, but I’m not looking at a young man any longer. Certainly not an old one, but Abraham is 22, and I was once 22, but I’m 35 now. I don’t see any point in complaining about the passage of time, but it catches one unaware. I smile at Abraham, and grimace a bit inwardly.

New ideas get put in sparingly (Morgan does an unsupported arabesque penchée, but I now realize there are two supported ones that it relates to.) and I remind myself constantly as I watch the dance which ideas to re-use. I think the strange feeling I get at this stage of the work is also because I’m instinctively associative, I’ll find that I’ve created closed and interrelated systems even when I think I’m working randomly. The questions will become even more crucial tomorrow and Wednesday. The work deals with the contrasts of movement and silence, and with different bodies doing the same movement. Do we add or delete the idea of the same movement in different spatial relationships?

August 24, 1999

Day 20 - 23 days until performance

It took a few hours to calm down enough to write about today’s rehearsal. Certainly nothing traumatic or disastrous happened, it was merely that I knew I had to finish both Armature and Aubade in four hours flat and the adrenaline kicked in. Armature lacks only its final 20-30 seconds, Aubade is completed and I was wired beyond belief by the end.

I had been thinking since last night about spatial issues in Armature, a bit discouraged. I was leaning towards deleting Mary’s opening section where she is half concealed by the wing and not dealing with spatial variations in the ballet at all. The theater we perform in is very wide and very shallow. Choreography gets flattened out enough on that stage, attempting to differentiate the space seemed harder still.

As often happens, a possible solution came to me in the shower. I began rehearsal by having Morgan and Abraham do Frances’ step from the opening, each at the opposite edge of the stage, so that as each of them do the section, they travel into and out of the wing. Abraham also faces backwards. I chose him to face backwards for more practical concerns. If I told Morgan she was doing a combination with her back to the audience, she’d start moaning about the butt shot. It’s hard to tell what the effect will be in the studio, we’ll need to see it in the theater, but I think it helps to right the balance of the work.

From there, I finish the final section of the work, to the cantata. I still have questions about my musical choice, but I think it will work. I love the austerity of the solo violin partita, for some reason, to my ears, the cantata, essentially the same music but scored for organ and orchestra, doesn’t have the same gravity, and I wish it did. From the point that I am at in the finale (where Abraham leaves after a small solo variation) I choreograph only group sections, to find and heighten that gravity I’m looking for.

Work proceeds painfully, two or three steps at a time, and then I race back to the stereo to listen to the next few bars, but I am dogged about progressing. Again, I’m looking for gravity. Poses, reverences, polonaise steps (slow stately brushing walks) form the bulk of the vocabulary. The women enter in a quartet, and then split to form two duets (tall and short), Morgan and Mary bring on Abraham and there is a final unison quintet with jumps and extensions, the sort of broad movement that ought to be in a finale. I leave the last 20 seconds unmade because I’m tired and I want to be able to ruminate about it overnight, so we spend the final half hour of rehearsal doing the ballet in sequence.

The ballet is hell on the dancers’ memories. The absence of music is further complicated by the fact that I have choreographed many phrases that are mostly alike, but contain some distinguishing detail they must also struggle to remember in sequence. As in a fashion show, the dancers ask that the running order of the sections be written out and posted in both wings. Morgan has already written her sections out, and holds her notes in her hand as she dances, alternately consulting them and tucking them into her waistband elastic.

Chuck comes in for rehearsal, looking happy and rested from a week of fishing in the lakes of Minnesota. “I kept telling myself I was going to do barre every day, but you know what? I didn’t do a thing.” I congratulate him. I’ve brought the videotape of the ballet, wisely, because Chuck remembers most of it, but not all, and my recollection of the ballet is even spottier, I’ve made another ballet in the interim.

It takes us about an hour to review the work to this point, as we go over it, I continue to simplify combinations. I like the rushing quality of the choreography, it matches the music, but there is a difference between Chuck rushing about and Chuck being rushed about by the choreography. We pull out some beats and a few extra steps, and I can see the work acquire loft and breath. I also start to delete the mime wholesale, not to replace it with dance, but to replace it with better mime. I can’t stand all the “instrument” miming when I look at it again. It just looks foolish on Chuck.

The final hour is spent finishing the work. We’ve got a minute to go in the ballet, and I honestly thought of the final minute like the final few minutes of an aerobics class, the cool-down section. A section of music that is obviously meant for mime (you can hear the strings whining) is left blank, and I keep the choreography as simple and uncluttered as possible. I’ve also learned that Chuck is a really reliable turner, even when he’s winded, so because the end needs to be impressive, but he’s also dying of exhaustion, there are a few handsome turns that he knows he can reliably do at the end of the solo. I conceived of the final moments of the solo (a rush in the music, then a diminuendo) as being a rush offstage, but by serendipity, Chuck is slightly behind the music and it ends when he finishes a turn under the “balcony” that he’s been dancing towards, and the effect seems just right. At the end I ask Chuck to listen to the music tonight and start thinking of what he’d like his own “story” for the ballet to be, so that we can set mime. I apologize and explain that I’m not abdicating the responsibility, but I think that what he does would seem more natural and suitable if it came from him, with my refinements.

August 25, 1999

Day 21 - 22 days until the performance

Another adrenaline day. I begin by setting a dance for Adriana and Frances, which moves quickly because it’s the exact same duet Adriana does with Morgan (material we made on the first day of rehearsal), only danced to the rear of the stage. What I find pleasantly surprising is it happens to be a dance with a very interesting “back” as well as “front”. I then make the final moments of the ballet, which end up being quite simple, a walk, pose, and balancés en tournant off. I add to this a brief postlude with Frances in silence restating just a moment of the beginning, but I have to discuss with Jeff how to make it clear that the ballet isn’t over until that point. I’d rather not annoy the audience at the end by making them feel that they’d been tricked. We run the ballet twice through, once for sequence and to solve small problems. I take out Adriana’s pas couru because she is no longer doing it with Mary. We make an ending for Morgan and Abraham’s pas de deux and we run the ballet a second time to make a notebook video and so Jeff and David can look at it for designs (Matt is in Berlin and will have to make do with the video.)

The ballet is actually completed, and I get to watch it. I’m mildly stunned, but I like it. I was worried about the ballet conceptually, but I can now see its concept. More importantly for the audience, it’s interesting as a dance, and that I hadn’t seen before and it pleases me. We’ll need to do a lot of cleaning and polishing. I’m sure I’ll tinker with parts. But it’s done. They’re all done.

Chuck comes for rehearsal and we start by discussing the mime. He asks, almost sheepishly, but also almost immediately, if we could just put some simple dance steps in instead of acting. “What is this? NYCB’s Swan Lake?” I snap at him, mock-sternly. I’m joking, though I am just a little disappointed, but only on a philosophical level. Another battle lost for mime, alas. But Chuck is right. He doesn’t look comfortable with it, the solo is meant to show him off and I didn’t put the mime in to strengthen a concept, but primarily to give him a rest. What concept I had (a youthful lover) I wasn’t pleased with, and I had been steadily paring all traces of it out. And frankly, the two years at NYCB had made Chuck into a dancer who looked best dancing, not acting. When you buy a lobster at the market, you don’t complain that it’s not filet mignon.

A few gestures are still left in, but the rest of the mime is taken out in favor of arabesques and other steps towards the “balcony.” It’s the same feeling, but in abstraction, and he looks much better in it. Chuck tries to run the ballet through, but collapses in an exhausted heap after three minutes with three and a half still to go. He apologizes, panting. “I know it’s possible. But just not today. Boy, I’m going to be in great shape when we’re done with this.” he says between pants. So the rest of the rehearsals will be about building up the stamina to get through a 6:47 dance, which in ballet is the equivalent of running a marathon. I’m watching for telltale steps, the ones that will show Chuck as being tired. Chuck can turn even after six minutes, it’s grand jétés and other jumps that betray his exhaustion, and as we go on if they are still a problem, I’ll substitute steps that camouflage that.

Tonight, David comes over to show me sketches for Chuck’s solo and Scherzo. He says that Armature has him stumped, so I rummage through the magazines I have at work, and come across a picture of the women in Symphonic Variations. “Oh! Now I know what you mean by ‘classical’” he says happily. With only a cursory glance at the tiny photo, he sketches out how he thinks the Fedorovitch costume was constructed, and we discuss the finer distinctions between “homage” and “ripoff.” But what scares me is that when I ask him what Abraham might wear, he immediately makes a quick sketch and I start to laugh. Without ever having seen it, he’s sketched Michael Somes’ costume from Symphonic Variations right down to the wristlet, except he made it an armband. “You’re channeling Sophie Fedorovitch.” I warn him. I think it shows that classicism has a race memory that runs below the conscious level. There’s an entire maelstrom of influences besides the obvious ones that went into the ballet. There’s always Balanchine. There’s Forsythe in the musical choices, but I think that the episodic structure is not as related in the primordial choreographic soup in my brain to Artifact II as it is to The Disco Project, a dance by Neil Greenberg, a modern choreographer active at present in New York City, whose work I greatly admire. The episodic structure of Armature probably germinated there, and also the insistence upon calling attention to the structure of the work within the work itself. Then running underneath it all, there’s the trip to see the Paris Opera Ballet and the epochal visit of the Kirov. But even that fascination with things classical has a sub-strain; there’s Ashton, but not Ashton as the works actually are, because I haven’t seen enough of it. There’s a fantastic and idealized Ashton in my brain that comes from having only seen pictures of certain works and having to imagine what they might have really been like. And none of this stops Armature from being anyone’s ballet but my own. Something similar will surely have been said before, but one says what one needs to say at the right time to say it.

August 26, 1999

Day 22 - 21 days until the performance, first day of rehearsals for Horizon.

Oh Lord what a day. By the end of it I was pleased we had all gotten through it without injury. The ballet’s already set. We just have to learn it from the video. You’d think this wouldn’t be so awful.

Maybe it’s just that it was the first day of the work, which is proving to be disproportionately tense every time. Maybe it’s the humidity. But the angst level in the room was surpassed today only by the tension level, almost all of it inexplicable to me. After all, for me, the worst is over, for the dancers, the scary part is just beginning. But the atmosphere in the room can be exemplified by the several separate incidents of near injury, such as Adriana nearly overshooting Abraham in a jump. Or Frances landing wrong in a slide (and me being able to see that wrong landing coming miles away and being unable to stop it.) Or perhaps even more awful, me stepping on Frances’ pointe shoe in a fit of distracted activity, recoiling in shock when I realized what I had done and crashing my head right into her chin. Somehow it all made perfect sense when Bartok, the studio spaniel, escaped from the back where he stays and cornered Adriana, snarling.

I intimidated Bartok back into his area and immediately gave an extra enforced break, just to dispel the awful karma buildup in the room. (Would it have worked to throw the windows open?) , I desperately wanted a margarita, or at minimum to perform some sort of purification ritual on the studio. When we returned, I tried to remind everyone that there wasn’t going to be a quiz, nor did I need to see it ready for the stage. We’re just learning it. Please don’t kill each other, or yourselves.

On top of it all, I felt unprepared. I haven’t had time to learn the ballet, but probably couldn’t have learned it anyway without going into a studio and doing exactly what I’m doing with the dancers, watching a passage at a time, first the men, then the women. Adriana, bless her heart, is an extremely quick study from video, but dancers can’t tell spatial patterns from a video, it’s too flat a rendering. A horizontal pattern looks almost the same as a diagonal line in the video, and for that, I become crucial, and also, I know the idiosyncrasies of the performers and that specific performance, what’s the choreography, and what’s just something that happened that night.

I guess everyone was nervous because there was a previous cast to live up to (with no disrespect to the fine original cast, they needn’t be. They’re all capable of doing this ballet quite well.) Then there was the unitard angst, which goes with the territory of being a ballet dancer. I called David this evening to ask him to look at the unitards and do some sort of voodoo on them. What’s odd to me is for the life of me, I can’t recall a single member of the original cast complaining about them, but like the steps themselves, they were built on them. There’s a big difference between that and wearing someone else’s clothing and stepping into someone else’s role.

August 27, 1999

Day 23 - 20 days until the performance.

Chuck and I have decided to meet for a half an hour today and three times next week to run the ballet. Since it’s a brief rehearsal he goes over sequence once and the runs the ballet. Today, we work almost entirely on questions of endurance. A marathon can’t be run like a sprint. In the same way, a six minute solo dance can’t be danced at the same energy level as a classical variation of under a minute. Chuck takes an easy and efficient pace, pushing himself harder for the technical sections (which are concentrated in two areas, almost as if this were a competitive skating or gymnastics floor exercise program.) He gets through it, which makes us both very pleased, especially since he isn’t back in shape yet after the ten days off. I tell him to make sure that his interior focus is to that imaginary balcony for the entire dance, and also encourage him to have someone else look at the solo. I’m pleased with the work and can see my mind isn’t yet moving towards details. He might want the feedback on technique, and at this point I don’t see myself doing it.

rehearsal is less frenzied today but we still move slowly. I’m not a choreographer here, often I’m not even a ballet master, sometimes I’m just a traffic cop. Everyone is trying to learn their part at once and the process becomes much more unfocussed than choreography because instead of one head, there are seven. I’ve started saying things like, “OK. One person only is talking, and that person is Adriana.” It tends to be Adriana, because she learns fastest off the tape. Also, I’m really happy because this ballet looks really good on her, because it is a forceful work, and all about legs. Adriana has gorgeous legs. I felt as if, much as I liked Adriana, she had been unintentionally shortchanged a little in the two new works, she gets her due here. Also, the dancer who had originated Adriana’s part had similar training to hers, so there are some similarities, primarily in their attack. There are three couples in the work, and in the first movement, each dancer has a solo and a pas de deux. I’ve only rechoreographed one variation entirely, Ted’s, and it was amusing that without consulting the video, except to look at the original variation once and decide I didn’t like it, I found that I had made a variation with basically the same structure as the one I made six years ago, but the details were more flattering to Ted. A few solos have been left exactly as they were, others have been changed, but only slightly, to suit the new dancers. When I choreographed Horizon in 1993, I never regarded it as being sufficiently “cleaned” in rehearsal, because I had to replace the lead couple. So I’m also fixing details as I go. I can usually instinctively tell why I would have done something a certain way, even six years ago, or when something just was done a certain way because it was never specified. I try to wait before I change something that looks odd because it often gets explained a few steps later, or is a foreshadowing of something that recurs, but I’m glad I’m the choreographer. As far as I’m concerned, it’s my ballet, and no step is sacrosanct. If it doesn’t look good on these dancers, I put in another step.

August 29, 1999

Sunday - Meeting with Matt for set designs. 18 days until the performance

I go downtown to visit Matt, who has just returned from being on tour in Berlin. Matt and I have worked together in some capacity since I started doing the concerts in 1993, and he started doing sets in 1996. I walk in and Matt is listening to the new Ginger Spice CD, choreographing a Fosse homage for Girlina to do at Wigstock, the drag festival the coming weekend. I hand him the tape I made of the ballets once he stops shimmying. I discover much to my annoyance that my Handycam, now close to a decade old, has probably collected too much dust and cat hair and there is no sound and three permanent tracking lines across the screen.

Fortunately, I have brought an audio tape, which Matt refuses to let me dicker with to synch to the video, so like a Japanese monster film, he watches steps that occur four seconds before the corresponding music. It hurts my eyes too much to look at it, so I knit a few rounds on a sock instead.

Armature contains few surprises for him. We’ve had a discussion about it earlier in the day, where I tell him that I’ve really, truly made an armature. I need a grid, a skeleton, an armature, something with air and empty space in it. Matt first talks about plastic netting, then a sculpture of PVC tubing. We keep throwing up various possibilities, until he lands upon the idea of thick rope swags. Perfect. Easy, cheap and appropriate. His viewing of the video confirms that the ballet will take several possible decors, and this one is a very good choice.

Scherzo Fantastique is another matter. One of the reasons I work with Matt is that unlike David and I, who tend to think in accord, Matt and I rarely agree artistically, but the friction produces very good results. I’ve learned to trust his ideas. Matt takes one look at Scherzo and starts shaking his head. “You told me Tennessee Williams!” When I say Tennessee Williams, I mean faded roses and yellowed satin in tissue paper. Matt thinks hanging moss and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “I can’t give you a southern veranda. This needs a ballroom in Vienna. But David’s doing ‘40’s dresses. I can’t do Vienna.” “It’s not Vienna, Matt, it’s Hollywood.” Matt’s hearing Vienna, I’m hearing Erich Korngold and Bernard Hermann, the post-romantic composers who left central Europe before the Holocaust and went to Hollywood. Suk is earlier than Korngold or Hermann, but one can hear common influences and that same cinematic quality in the music.

Matt racks his brains trying to figure out what to give me that works with what I’m doing and we can do on a budget. After several ideas are brought up and discarded as impractical (mounds of decaying flowers, a set made out of old gowns and my favorite, which is to have four old ladies in wheelchairs and walkers placed in the back.) we start free associating.

“Lace.” Matt says.

“It’s not lace. Satin. Old satin, with brown stains from water damage. Ribbons?” I attempt.

“But ribbons don’t read from stage.”

“Bows? Huge bows?”




We continue rattling off things associated with a ball and a ballroom, dance cards, feathers, etc. until I say, “Picture frames?”

“That’s it!” Matt says. “Picture frames and mirrors. Huge, but distressed and sprayed so they don’t reflect.”

So it’s decided. Before I leave, I offer to act as factotum for Shasta and Girlina at Wigstock, and happily tote and carry what can’t be fit into their dainty purses. Matt also asks me to come to a rehearsal and ballet master on Saturday. Laughing, I agree. I’ll need the comic relief.

August 30, 1999

Day 24 - 17 days until the performance

Chuck and I go through Aubade again. I’ve told Abraham to come in early to watch Chuck rehearse, “because he’s the do-bee.” Abraham is too young to get the Romper Room reference, but comes early and watches attentively, which endears him to me. He’s a hard worker, sweet and even-tempered. A good kid, even if he calls me Dad. Chuck bumps the energy level of the run up a notch from when he did it on Friday, and still gets through the ballet, a good sign. It’s interesting for me to work with a dancer like Chuck, on that technical level. The main difference seems to be not so much the level of his technique, but the reliability of it. Chuck pretty much does four turns at the same place in the ballet almost every time. He can do a double tour landing in arabesque even if he didn’t set himself up perfectly for it. I like watching Aubade, merely to see his technique exhibited in this way. Now that I’ve used Chuck as a “guest artist” it would be interesting to see what using a dancer like that was like in a more conceptual work. Or is using them as a “guest artist” really their most appropriate use? In Chuck’s case, I think he left ABT to go to NYCB primarily to be used as more than someone who gets trotted out to do multiple pirouettes and a manège.

Horizon continues, step by step, inch by inch. It’s like pulling teeth, and the tension in the room is immense. I also have a head cold, which makes it even harder for me, I sound very curt, when I’m actually dizzy. We’re moving way too slowly. Three and a half hours of rehearsal produces somewhere around three minutes of re-setting. A section that should have taken fifteen minutes drags on for almost forty-five. I cut a run-through of Scherzo at the end of the day to steal time for Horizon and do my best to keep tempers even.

August 31, 1999

Day 25 - 16 days until the performance

Horizon rehearsals move faster today, but they are no less tense. When I finished choreographing the new ballets, I felt immense relief, but the dancers are moving closer and closer to performance day, so they are feeling the pressure I felt relieved from me. I just try to keep everything moving, and the flare-ups to a minimum, and to keep the lines of communication open and the dancers talking to each other and me. We review the beginning of the third movement learned yesterday, and then I teach the rest. I disliked much of the final section to a piano cadenza and being too disjointed, with a particularly vulgar lift where the women’s crotches are in the men’s faces. It was one of the first ideas I had when I started the ballet, and was actually an interesting acrobatic lift on its own, but should have been edited out as the ballet went on as being out of context. Often, the idea that germinates a dance no longer fits the dance that grows around it, but it’s hard to remove the original seed.

I choreograph a new section in its place, and it’s somewhat static, but better than the original. And frankly, I don’t want to nit-pick right now, it’s too tense. I just want to get some steps on the table, and I’ll fine-tune them tomorrow. I need to make the new material flow more, and in my head I’m seeing a rushing, massed quality, so I need to move to that somehow. Peter Lopez, who will be doing the sound editing for Armature, comes by at the end of rehearsal and the dancers run Armature (without Morgan) so he can see it and we discuss the editing of the selections.

I got up early today to pick up the mechanical for magazine ads for the company from the printer and deliver it to Dance Theater Workshop. I went to rehearsal from there. I set four minutes of the ballet, including new choreography in four solid hours of rehearsal, and soothed a few ruffled feathers and tried to listen to everything everyone had to say to me. I went to work and did the postcard mailing with two friends. Then I wrote this. I’m tired. It doesn’t hurt to remind myself how much fun I had making the three new works. I can see that no matter how worried anyone else gets, these ballets will be fine by performance. I’ve done this already through six concerts, better and worse, but we’ve always survived. And I don’t remember ever enjoying it as much as this year, even with the tension surrounding Horizon. I simply refuse to stop enjoying what I’m doing. As Mary said, God love her, “It’s just ballet. When did this become World Peace?”

September 1, 1999

Day 26 - 15 days until the performance

Chuck and I work on Aubade first. We don’t do a run-through, but rather work on isolated sections. I give notes on a few steps, but I’m not unhappy with the way he’s handling his technique, and don’t feel a need to nit-pick. Rather, at one point, I see him looking towards the “balcony” pensively, but in a way that seemed to me indistinct; someone “acting” sad rather than being sad. So I ask him what he was doing at that point. Chuck starts to tell me the story he’s made up in his mind about the ballet, without specifics (I don’t want them because they’re unnecessary) but that the woman he’s dancing for is someone he likes, but it’s an impossible situation. I start to watch a few phrases of it and I become excited because I can see how that might work. The dancing becomes a way of saying, “Even though this can never work, I remember that wonderful time we had together.” She may not be at that balcony to which he’s directing his dancing, it may simply be the place where they first met. The danced phrases become conversational in nature, especially the repeated steps. Now, they’re no longer musical repeats, but emphases of a point, done for the same reason one might repeat the same things in a conversation. “Do you remember? Do you remember?” I can see the idea works for Chuck. The phrases become taut and start to shimmer with an inner life. We’re not working together Friday (he’s working with Susan Hendl of NYCB, which I’m pleased about.) but I’m looking forward to the next rehearsal even more than usual. It’s become more than pretty steps.

We have a calm and productive rehearsal of Horizon, and it’s a refreshing change from the previous two days! Lots of progress gets made, we go over the third movement and I tinker a bit with the new section to make it move better (it’s a matter of changing some spatial patterns and inserting a fouette before an arabesque). I then teach the three pas de deux in the second movement, changing them all slightly to suit the dancers. Adriana’s becomes more linear, she gets more extensions, and the angles get changed to show off her legs. I’m really impressed with how Mary coped with hers. This ballet is not her best ballet (that’s Scherzo, which she very nearly steals). It’s simply too abstractly technical for her. Mary has technique, but not without motivation, and she’s not a leggy dancer, and this ballet is all legs. But what we did was took a pas de deux built on a long limbed, almost floppy dancer and changed that entire elastic quality that the pas originally had to the specific sort of adagio quality she does best; that sort of McKerrow-Kirkland like delicacy where one gently resists every step with the chest and arms as if one were walking underwater. Almost none of the steps were changed (whip turns were changed to finger turns), it was a question of emphasis. It was also why I cast her in that specific dancer’s part. I knew she didn’t have the same adagio quality that the original dancer did, but I knew she could produce one that would be equivalent. Frances’ section gets changed the least it seems, questions of favoring one leg over another or changing the position of a lift. She and Tai, who originally performed the role, actually have a similar linear quality, so the changes I make are more to suit Frances than to suit my eye.

September 2, 1999

Day 27 - 14 days until the performance

Horizon continues to progress. The ballet was set in its entirety today, when the “window dressing” (what the other dancers are doing when one couple comes forward to do a pas de deux) in the second movement was completed. Because I was often dealing with one couple at a time, there was time for each couple to go into a corner and work out timing and technical issues quietly and at the level of detail that suited them, and everyone looked better today. Not everything was perfect, but steps that had looked like a struggle were flowing. Were I to set the ballet again, I might start with the central adagio movement, rather than the outer ones. I taught them first, because they are the most demanding, but some of the tension in rehearsals was from the initial shock. Working on the slower second movement might give new dancers a chance to ease into the ballet and test out their partnerships.

Once the initial learning of the steps was completed, we began cleaning the ballet phrase by phrase, beginning with the first movement. “Cleaning” is a process just like it sounds, one looks at all the dancers doing a given movement and ensures consistency and correctness of vocabulary and spacing. It’s a slow process, and can be a tedious and tense one. If a dancer has been doing a step a certain way for a while, and you ask them to alter it to conform to the other dancers, you’re breaking his or her kinesthetic memory, and there’s a physical as well as a mental strain involved. The rehearsal period for Horizon has been short enough that I don’t think the ballet is very firmly embedded in anyone’s muscle memory, so cleaning is less frustrating in that way than it might be.

Also, as I have said about ballet dancers, they work from the outside in. Now that the dancers know the steps and their transitions, they are starting to shade the movement and find their inner impetus, much as Chuck started to do yesterday in Aubade. As I suspected, the first to do so was Mary, because she’s already worked with me, and we understand each other’s metaphors. The sort of corrections I gave her during her variation in the first movement: “It’s all about the expansion of the chest, it’s that prow of the ship thing.” “Yes, more like Gelsey!” “Take a breath at the top of the movement here and keep it moving forward.” They sound inscrutable, but she knew exactly what I meant, and delivered it. I’ve also started to correct Abraham the same way. “Show me both shoulders and both hips when you dance, don’t close yourself off from the audience. We want to see more of you.” “Keep your torso moving legato, even when your legs are moving fast. Your arms and chest need breath in them.” Most of the dancers also requested small changes in their first movement variations, which I accommodate. A series of turns for Mary became a similar one that she did more reliably, Abraham asked for a different jump in his variation, so we changed it from a saut de chat to a cabriole with a fouette, Adriana asked that a series of turns on a diagonal be moved to the opposite side, Frances is still tinkering with the specifics of a manège of pique turns. They’re making the ballet their own. And once again, I’m having fun.

September 3, 1999

Day 28 - 13 days until the performance

We continue cleaning Horizon, and run the ballet twice, once at the beginning and end of the rehearsal, to build up stamina. It’s a tough ballet, 23 minutes long, with long stretches of uninterrupted dancing for the dancers and lots of petit allegro, both characteristic traits of my work. However, the studio where we work has many advantages (quiet, inexpensive, great location and the proprietor gives me the time I need) and one massive disadvantage, the floor is extremely hard. All of the dancers’ ankles are hurting.

I function today primarily as a traffic cop, to keep the process moving smoothly and steadily. Sometimes one dancer will get excited and race ahead, and a section isn’t cleaned unless everyone understands it. I’m also trying to coach the work, and that has varying effects, depending on the dancer. Mary and I tend to use similar metaphors to describe things, so she usually knows what I want when I start talking metaphorically. It’s less successful with someone like Adriana, possibly because she’s more matter of fact about dance than I am, but also because, as with Matt, my metaphors for things aren’t hers. Saying a word like “hover” to her doesn’t mean the same thing it would to me, and I have to keep searching for common images. For Frances and Abraham, I have to watch out for them taking what I meant metaphorically too literally in their eagerness to get what I’m driving at.

It’s also interesting for me to reset this ballet from 1993, as this is the longest time between original performance and revival of any work I have yet revived. It’s odd to meet yourself six years earlier. So much has happened, personally, artistically. Someone else might not notice it, but I notice the change in my choreographic style. I don’t think it’s a linear change, that my concerns in Horizon will never be my concerns again, I could make another ballet like it again some day. But Horizon is a very leggy work, and the new group works are very interested in the upper body (Aubade is also very leggy, but then, so is Chuck quite literally!) It’s also a very dense work, more so than the present ballets. Less telling, I see things in Horizon I’m glad I finally have the chance to edit out, awkward exits and changes of direction. The ballet had a cast change due to injury three weeks before its premiere in 1993, and there was barely the time to re-teach it, much less clean or edit it.

September 7, 1999

Day 29 - 9 days until the performance

I’ve had a good Labor Day weekend. It felt like a vacation, but then I realized I didn’t really get a day off, on Saturday and Monday I worked in the office, and on Sunday I was den mother at Wigstock for Shasta Cola’s and Girlina’s dancers. I didn’t realize until I cracked a broad grin helping Matt ballet master Girlina’s number Saturday evening how refreshing it was to be helping out on something that was not my problem. Interesting though to be in a room containing several dancers from the Cunningham, Morris and Graham companies, to say nothing of White Oak or American Ballet Theatre, all being chorus boys. I make a very good parent. “Who needs water, I brought water!” “You do what you need to, Matt, I’ll lace him up.” “Not a problem, I brought safety pins!” “You don’t have black shoes? I’m wearing black shoes, are we the same size?” [further comic aside – at the moment I am busy unlacing my shoes to switch them with a dancer, a man in a red ball gown with a microphone in his wig and a camera crew trailing behind him sticks another mike in my face, exclaiming that he loves my shirt. I am torn between the desire to promote my show and the need to get these shoes on the dancer.] All goes well and I discharge my final duty of the day. “You danced very well. Here’s a cookie! You danced very well! Have a cookie!”

I think I’ve had a bit too much hubris over the organization of the performance, because the gods fired two warning shots across the bow. On Monday, there is a message on the answering machine in the office from the production stage manager, explaining awkwardly that for personal reasons he cannot do the show, and he is busy trying to find a replacement. I call Jeff, the lighting designer, and offer him the position first, which I think is a better solution, because it allows Jeff to be better compensated for the extra work he’s already put in. Chuck and I work on Aubade first, primarily dealing now with acting issues. It’s tiring, but there’s no question he can do the solo, although when a guest walks in late halfway through it to watch, he shouts out jokingly in mid-leap, “I’m not running it again!”

We run Horizon, cleaning the outer movements before the run, but Frances comes up to me, red faced and exhausted after the run and the second warning shot is fired. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to make it through three ballets. Please take me out of Scherzo.” I think about it for a moment, she’s not just talking from fear. She’s come off of an injury, and isn’t built for stamina. I ask her if she’s sure, and if she realizes that at this point that her decision would be final and she says yes. I do what I’d usually do in a situation like this. I grab Mary and ask her advice. She knew someone who had said they’d be happy to get thrown into a ballet in case, but Mary suggests that rather than trying to teach someone new the ballet, we see what it looks like as a trio. Instinctively, I know she’s right, there were crowding and traffic problems in the quartet, and this may even solve more problems than the immediate one.

After a run-through of Armature, we set to work on making a trio out of a quartet. It’s surprisingly short work; all of the sections with four dancers in them are in unison, the effect is much the same with three dancers as with four. Because Morgan had missed a few rehearsals for the central section, she wasn’t onstage for much of it, and was available to step into Frances’ sections. I will miss Frances in the ballet, but thankfully, the effect of the work as a trio is very much like what it was as a quartet.

I have cast on and am mostly finished knitting a warm winter hat for a charitable drive for Russian orphans, the gods must be appeased. I’m just hoping they are satisfied with warning shots and don’t fire off a salvo I can’t handle.

September 8, 1999

Day 30 - 8 days until the performance

The closer we come to the performance the less I am a choreographer and the more I am a producer. There is a certain amount of coaching that I do, but also I try to choose “self-cleaning” dancers, the process of readying a ballet is so ingrained in them that I function primarily as an arbiter. Cleaning can get tricky at times like this, they know to ask me if something is a piqué or a relevé, for instance, but often I don’t care, they should do the one that works best within the combination (and usually one of them has grown comfortable with a piqué and yet another with a relevé. . .) Other times I will be specific, because the step has a specific effect.

We worked on cleaning Armature and Scherzo today, but my attention gets divided more and more between the concerns of the dancers and the concerns of the production. Jeff was there trying to get as much information as he could for lighting and production management, and Peter Lopez, who is doing the sound editing for Armature was also there. The violin partita has “erasures” in it where the music fades out, and I needed to supervise their placement (it couldn’t be where a dancer needed a musical cue.) The dancers still need help with the sequence of Armature, I’ve written out a sequential order of the work to give to all of them, post at the wings, and give to Jeff to assist with the sound cues. Scherzo got its first step-by-step cleaning today, of the first 10 minutes of the work. One reason Horizon takes so long to clean in comparison is the cast is double the size. If six people are all doing a given step, the ballet isn’t clean until all six of them are consistent, and that takes longer than ironing out inconsistencies in three dancers. One of the reasons Aubade takes so little time to clean is that Chuck can really do any step he chooses, within reason. It’s a solo, if he opts for a piqué instead of a relevé, no one is going to know.

Another person watching the ballet was Lilian, who is doing publicity for the show. I insist on doing the initial publicity, and the writing of press releases, because that’s my image and I wish it to be accurate. But it’s been a relief to hand that job off to someone else after the mailings were done, and have her do the follow up. It seems the decision to work with Chuck has paid off practically, when Lilian makes follow up calls to invite VIP’s to the concert, they are aware of it. I know from my own experience as a writer that the brutal truth in New York is that one gets enough PR and other mail demanding one’s limited time and attention that a lot of it gets ignored. If I am sent a press release and see no name on it I recognize, it gets thrown out. At least I know that mine has not been thrown away this year.

September 9, 1999

Day 31 - 7 days until the performance

A long, crazy day. I thought I was leaving early for rehearsal when to my horror, I realized I had left the music tapes and CD’s at the office, and I did not have any extra copies at home. After an interminable cab ride through Times Square to the office to retrieve the tapes I tried to hail a cab back to the studio. I narrowly avoided a confrontation with two very large black women who sauntered right in front of me to hail a cab after I had been attempting without success for five minutes and my temper was quite short. I’m not sure if I would have been the first choreographer to appear on Jerry Springer for “Jell-O wrestling with people who steal your cab” but I opted to run the 16 blocks to the studio instead. It ended up being faster than my original cab ride.

I arrived 30 minutes late for my hour-long rehearsal with Chuck, but we managed a decent rehearsal anyway, going through Aubade musically once, than running it full out. The piece is ready to be put on stage. At this point, I just enjoy watching it. David took measurements for Chuck’s costume, Jeff was there making a video and making notes for lighting cues.

Horizon rehearsal consisted of cleaning the second movement and about 3/4 of the third movement and a full run through. It’s progressing, but the scale and the size of the dance means that rehearsals are still more tiring than any of the others - six people in a room all trying to figure out what they do and what they need at once. Like most dancers, I don’t get it when people have problems with something that comes naturally to me. I have tremendous sympathy for someone having technical struggles, but just cannot comprehend problems with retention or musicality. I know intellectually to be patient, and I think I am, but my understanding is purely on an intellectual level. Viscerally, when I see someone simply unable to hear a musical cue or remember sequence, I keep wondering why he or she can’t do something so patently obvious to me. Still, they run the ballet and it’s shaping up. I need to get them to a certain comfort level with it, so they don’t look like they are assaulting a particularly treacherous mountain peak or rappelling up a sheer cliff. Part of that is my choreography, the ballet takes a lot of stamina. It’s 23 minutes with only brief rests for each dancer. I was going to say that my work has gotten less demanding, but it hasn’t. Horizon, Les Noces (1996), and Reger/Mozart Variations (1998) are all dense 22-25 minute ballets with intricate petit allegro work that are demanding on both the body and the mind because they tend to be complex in structure and repetitive, but with slight variations to make them even more fiendish. Horizon is more driving and angular than the other works, but I made it at a point when my only model for choreography was Balanchine. I can tell the difference that broadening my dance viewing made in my choreography, Horizon is a massive, final closing of an insular period for me as a choreographer. I also notice that in this diary, there comes a point in each work when I can finally see what I’ve done, both as the dance stands alone and in relation to my other work and I start describing the work almost as if I were writing about some other choreographer, not myself. It must seem very self-absorbed, but it’s part of the final stages of making the dance for me. I don’t quite know what I’ve made until I really, really look at it.

After rehearsal is done, Mary, Abraham and I trek out to Queens to Peter’s studio to record the vocal sections of the score for Armature. Abraham comes along as a lark but proves invaluable, because he marks the dance Mary is narrating at tempo, becoming her guide and metronome. Mary is recording a narration of the steps of two sections, plus a few simple sentences (“This is the beginning of the ballet”) all done to focus the audience’s attention on the structure and inner workings, the armature of a ballet. It takes three hours and several glasses of warm water to record about four minutes of spoken material, but we get what I think are good tempos and correct inflections. It was above and beyond the call of duty for both of them (we all got home well after 11 p.m.) and I promised to take both of them out for dinner.

September 10, 1999

Day 32 - 6 days until the performance

A quiet day. Cleaning rehearsals for Scherzo and Armature, both of which are in decent shape. Very little of note happens in Scherzo rehearsal, we clean the ending of the ballet, run it and end early. I spent a little time with Abraham (“But, Dad!”) before the actual rehearsal going over his two solos in Armature, changing the longer of the two slightly to keep him moving and eliminate egg-on-face moments in it.

Peter arrives with a rough edit on CD, which works as I expect it to, but it’s a little shock to the dancers, especially the erasures in the violin partita. I think they will have the effect I planned, which is to focus attention on the music by its absence. The most difficult section to deal with is Mary’s narration of Adriana’s solo, which is at the best tempo we could manage without Adriana’s presence, but certain sentences are too drawn out. I get Adriana to move through the solo section by section, finding pauses that Peter can eliminate in the score to bring it to the tempo she’s used to.

There’s an undercurrent of edginess, but it’s normal at this stage of a rehearsal, people are fatigued and nervous, but somehow they all managed to remain collected and things got accomplished. I was glad Morgan had given me some jellybeans before rehearsal. When things got a little tense, I would sidle up to whichever dancer needed it and slip one into her hand.

September 11, 1999

Day 33 - Saturday. 5 days until the performance

We work in the early evening on Saturday to give Horizon a final cleaning rehearsal - beginning Monday, we will be using rehearsal time to run all the ballets.

My friend Amy comes to rehearsal as an extra eye to help out with the ballet. I’m glad she’s here, the central part that Frances is doing was originally choreographed on her, but she was unable to perform it because of a ripped ligament in her foot. I begin by cleaning the last three minutes of the ballet (where we left off the last rehearsal) and then we run/mark the piece movement by movement, giving notes, and then do a run full out. Amy asks me why they’re marking the movement by movement section, and I explain that the studio floor is so hard they really can’t do the ballet twice full out. I’m not making excuses for them, unfortunately. One day, I jumped only a little to demonstrate something and my ankles and back started to hurt. Alas, finding 110 consistent hours of rehearsal time for an affordable price in New York City is no easy task.

The rehearsal progresses in an orderly enough fashion, although with the same edginess that’s been present. I have to really insist on the dancers paying attention to me, they’re wrapped up in their own anxieties and concerns. Once all the notes are given and the rehearsal ends, all hell breaks loose. I spend a good deal of time listening to some upset dancers who can’t communicate their concerns to their partners. It’s upsetting to them, and justifiably so, but I’ve done six concerts now, and something similar to this tends to happen right about now. I need to mediate where necessary, but most of this is nerves. At this point in the process, I’ve gone from being a choreographer to being a manager, because the steps are done and that’s what’s needed.

September 13, 1999

Day 34 - 3 days until the performance

Tools in the arsenal of the ballet master:

  • Preparedness and competence
  • Sufficient rehearsal time
  • An even disposition
  • Gummi Bears

We run all of the ballets in program order, cleaning and rehearsing as necessary. Scherzo has a solid run, Mary looks absolutely astonishing in the ballet, marvelous and frightening in her pathos. I really enjoy watching the piece. I love it when the ballets get to a point where I just want to watch. After all, that’s why I choreograph them. Chuck runs Aubade and gets a gummi bear (actually several.) It’s a little less solid than it was on Friday, but nothing to provoke concern.

Peter has dropped off the CD of Armature and Adriana’s section is much improved. This ballet has the most technical concerns to it, Jeff is there and “calls” the blackouts and music cues so everyone can get used to them. Several gummi bears are distributed to calm frazzled nerves.

Horizon looks much better than it did on Saturday. I give at least 30 minutes of the rehearsal over to letting each partnership go off and hammer out some of the tough spots, with me occasionally acting as referee if they’ve hit an impasse. It seems as if I’m doing nothing, but it’s what they seem to need most at the moment, to talk to each other. The timing of the beginning and ends of each movement is gone over, which is where that seemed weakest. The newly choreographed part of the third movement (about a minute and a half before the end) is still unclear, I need to really clean it step by step, which I will do tomorrow.

The run of the ballet looks much better than it probably feels to the dancers, let’s just say all the gummi bears are gone. I’m a little surprised with myself this year, I can’t recall being this calm ever in a previous concert. It could be that I’ve dealt with productions in far worse states than this one, or it could be that I’ve done enough concerts to realize that dancers get very edgy and their behavior gets exaggerated during theater week. It goes with the territory and it sorts itself out. Even so, it feels awfully nice not to internalize their tension, but it also makes me more effective for them if I don’t.

I’m bringing jellybeans for tomorrow’s rehearsal. I think I may have to break out M&M’s and other heavy-duty stuff for the theater.

September 14, 1999

Day 35 - Last Day in the Studio. 2 days until the performance

Jellybeans are used today. Again, all the ballets are run, but we turn them away from the mirror, so that the dancers don’t use it to stay together. I’m not saying that much today, again mostly in reaction to their nervousness.

Mary to another of the dancers: “I think our motto should be, ‘It’s just ballet, it’s not World Peace!”
Response: “Oh, if only it were World Peace!”

I admit I find this exchange breathtaking. My version of the same came when a dancer said “I’m afraid I’m going to hit the chairs when I turn.” I replied simply, “Then don’t.” It’s better advice than it’s taken for. A lot of the nerves are self-manufactured and unnecessary. One of the dancers nearly injured her heel when she stamped on the floor in a fit of temper because she was sick of the hardness and slipperiness of the floor. Even with all the nerves, the ballets all look in shape to go into the theater.

After rehearsal

More and more time is taken up on errands, with Mary and I running to Capezio to pick up shoes, tights, rosin and other sundries for the performance after rehearsal.

I head to the theater after rehearsal where Jeff is loading in, and Matt is constructing the sets. There isn’t all that much for me to do there except check in. Matt’s set for Scherzo looks ominously small, the sculpture of picture frames (“I was possessed by the spirit of Louise Nevelson.”) takes up too little of the stage area, and reminds me more of the Stonehenge sculpture from Spinal Tap. The Armature set has the same problem of scale, the ropes he uses are too thin, and don’t read from the audience. Matt knows all this already and asks me for more money to buy rope. I try to remember that Matt’s process tends to be absolutely last minute.

Jeff and I go to the impound lot on the Hudson River to release his car at 11 p.m., after having been towed, and I return home to find my hard drive has in all likelihood crashed. I avoid the issue by going out to see Shasta perform at midnight. The current Time Out has been delivered to newsstands, and I go to look at it. Gia Kourlas’ article is about 3 times the length I thought it would be and about as flattering as it could have been if I hadn’t written it myself (perhaps more so.) I float all the way to Barracuda to watch Shasta lip synch Madonna.

September 15, 1999

Day 36 - Spacing and Dress Rehearsal

My brain won’t really shut down enough to sleep. I turn on the computer tentatively at 6 a.m. to realize whatever problem hasn’t solved itself while I wasn’t looking. I can’t sleep, so I call my father and wake him up, but also because I know he can solve the problem by loaning me a computer. That problem tentatively fixed, I’m able to sleep a few more hours (and probably owe those hours of rest to my father in some Karmic Sleep Bank. Thanks, Dad.)

I go to the office for last minute preparations. I drop off my computer with my father to be fixed and check email and write hurried notes to people. I take one of the six copies of Time Out that I bought and cut and paste it into a single page layout which I run down to the copy shop to have enlarged. Press material and other boxes are loaded into a friend’s Jeep for an inordinately long drive downtown where I narrowly avoid being late for spacing rehearsal.

The main difficulty in the theater for me is to mediate between the technical staff and the dancers, who immediately begin complaining that the floor is too slippery, the lights are too bright, etc. The first action I take is to delegate that all issues will go through Mary to me or Jeff, partly because I don’t want to hear the same thing six times, but mostly because Mary is reasonable. Another dancer has already asked that the marley floor be relaid because of a gap. We have exactly eight hours in the theater daily and it takes at least two hours to lay down a floor. I ask her when she expects this to be done. Dealing with the slipperiness of the floor is a necessary issue, we have a small showdown with the theater on the use of rosin to achieve a compromise that allows rosin boxes, but not the use of rosin on the stage. Jeff asks me to get ammonia for mopping the floor tomorrow, I stupidly ask the theater director where it can be bought, where she predictably tells me it can’t be used on the floor. I’ve already figured out that the best course of action is to nod my head and buy it anyway.

There will be two rehearsals today, a walkthrough to adjust spacing and a dress rehearsal after a dinner break. The space is a good deal wider than the studio we worked in so adjustments need to be made for entries and exits, but fewer for the dances themselves. Spacing rehearsal goes with no major incidents, but a walk-through without lights is not the same as a full-out run. Dress rehearsal is another matter.

I don’t believe in smooth dress rehearsals, because people tend to relax in a bad way after a good performance, and the next performance catches them unaware. I’ve seen this happen more than once. This one was not smooth, although not bad - if we were able to rehearse all the pieces in the time allotted, and we were, it can’t qualify as bad. There were missed entrances and difficulties with crossovers. Tensions about lights seemed to dissipate once the lights were gelled, but not problems with the floor. A very thorough mopping is scheduled. The major problem is that Abraham is working all wrong - too tense and nervous and trying to overcompensate for it - he’s making horrible faces and he blows the double tour to the knee in Armature and starts swearing and stamping. He never has this problem in the studio, but the blackness of the house instinctively throws the dancers back. By Horizon, something is wrong, he’s obviously in pain, and stupidly trying to dance full-out through it. I shout from the house for him to mark, and his partner, Adriana, tells him the same thing. Since he’s not unable to move, I know it’s not a desperate situation, but it still is one that needs immediate attention. We get him to walk the rest of the ballet, and he goes upstairs and collapses on his back. Mary begins by seeing if anyone else in the cast has a muscle relaxant, and I gather up his clothing from the dressing room and make sure he has food and something to drink. It’s pretty obvious he’s sprained a back muscle, but not too seriously. Once we know what’s up, and I make sure he’s ok and feels better, then I start to yell at him that he can’t work like that and that kind of tension and inefficiency only leads to injury. “Stay on your back tonight! And don’t try to test it!” He looks at me guiltily because I’ve read his mind. We get his stuff and take him to the street and bundle him into a cab and safely home. I know there are lifts I’ll have to change tomorrow, but I spent my entire career with back pain, and know what it looks like. He’ll be able to dance.

September 16, 1999

Day 37 - Opening Night

It was a lovely day for a hurricane. The theater director called me at 10:00 am to ask me to cancel the show. The night before, the New York Times had sent a photographer to shoot the dress rehearsal, and Jack Anderson was coming tonight. I couldn’t take the risk he couldn’t re-schedule. At Jeff’s suggestion, I called New York City Opera to see what they were doing and they were going ahead with performances, so I felt I could also. Elizabeth Zimmer of the Voice had called and left a message saying that if there were a way to get there, she would be there. The dancer that concerned me most was Morgan, as she lived an hour away in New Jersey. After a rumor that the subways were shutting down was dispelled, I was able to make the decision that we would definitely go. Jeff left Westchester at 12:00 for a 3:00 call and I called the dancers and told them to leave now and left a message on the Dance as Ever voicemail that there would be a performance tonight.

At 1:00 p.m., when I left for the theater, there were no problems with the subways. I arrived at the theater without almost any delay (nor almost any rain) and ran to the supermarket to buy ice for the dancers, and some extra yogurt, bread and bananas for myself and anyone else who couldn’t get out of the theater to eat. Everyone arrives in time for the spacing rehearsal, except Morgan, but there is a garbled message on my machine that she is in the city. Working around her absence, we walk through Aubade first and then Horizon. By this time, a box office attendant tells me that a female dancer had called saying something about a fire in the subway and “her nerves sounded pretty frayed.” That’s my Morgan. I gave the attendant a message to tell Morgan to get into a cab and I would pay for it, and I continued with rehearsal.

Morgan arrived about 30 minutes later, and a cab had been unnecessary, the transformer fire at Times Square had been cleared. Abraham had visited an acupuncturist (at my expense) and was able to dance, but with his lower back taped (visible in the Armature costume, but not distracting.) and certain lifts we felt might be too jarring or dangerous were changed to promenades or other non-weight bearing steps. We walked through all the ballet and we all ran upstairs to change; the dancers into their costume and I changed into a sport jacket and pants. I would have worn a suit for opening night, but I felt it was inhospitable to look that formally and carefully dressed when the audience had to brave a hurricane and would be feeling wet and bedraggled.

A crowd of about 20 people wound up seeing the opening night performance, mostly press, hardy friends and one or two stalwart audience members who had reserved or purchased tickets in advance. I made a speech before the curtain to thank them for their fortitude, and we began.

Scherzo looked marvelous. Matt had blown in about 5 p.m. and hurriedly added extra wood and gold trim dripping off the frames to bring the backdrop to the proper amplitude. As is his nature, it was finished at the very last minute, but it was also very effective. The dancers looked wonderful in the ballet, David had brought in their costumes yesterday, but he also had obviously been working overnight, they had all been secured and hemmed and fitted so they flattered each dancer. This night’s run may have been the ballet’s best. Aubade also went well, and the audience clapped loudly enough to seem like a real crowd. There was a certain festive intimacy to the occasion; press, friends and audience members all braved the storm together.

was more nerve wracking. It was danced well, but Jeff had never called the ballet from the stage right wing, rather he called cues for the lighting and sound operators from out in the audience on dress rehearsal. Armature, with its silences and erasures in the sound track, and similar and repeated steps was treacherous from a technical standpoint. There were some miscalls of sound and light, but the ballet was fragmented enough in structure that such things, unnerving as they were to the dancers, Jeff and myself, would not be taken as abnormal by the audience.

Horizon also had an unintended silence in it, but was danced solidly by the cast. After calming down a frayed nerve or so (and occasionally putting my foot down, telling one dancer that there was a rehearsal tomorrow and she would be there) we plan to use the scheduled rehearsal time for tomorrow to go over the cues in Armature. It’s been a soggy, long day, but we opened, and all told, did a good performance. There may have been 20 people in the house, but among them were the New York Times, the Village Voice and WQXR. And the show went on.

September 17, 1999

Day 38 - Second performance

As in the final week of rehearsals, tempers are short and some of the dancers are obstinate, not understanding why they have to rehearse if the problem with Armature is technical. I don’t even bother wasting the time to explain, I just run the rehearsal, and we go over the questionable cues in Armature twice. It pays off. The ballet becomes visible tonight and has its best performance of the run. It was a pleasure to get to see it. I find it sly and witty, but also beautiful at the same time, and I like the idea that it is open to so many interpretations. (Is it a spoof or a love song? Yes.) Scherzo is a bit more disjointed at its opening than the night before, but I still like watching it. It’s a great opening ballet, both for the audience and the dancers. The fact that it’s in soft slippers lets the dancers find themselves on the stage, and the audience loves the atmosphere. What I am struck by while watching it is how gay it is. Not because it’s camp (it isn’t) but because of its iconography and portrayal of the women. A straight man wouldn’t have made them look like that, as a larger than life iconic heroine, a Vivian Leigh in Streetcar or Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Aubade goes well although Chuck accidentally edits about 16 counts of the ballet out at one point and has to resort to emergency mime. Horizon, however, looks as if it had been rehearsed in separate rooms. The videographer is shooting emergency footage in case there’s a major slip up in the performance tomorrow, when a two-camera shoot is scheduled, but I think precious little of the footage tonight would be usable, there is that little synchrony among the dancers. I make it clear that this ballet will be rehearsed tomorrow before we leave for the evening.

September 18, 1999

Day 39 - Third performance

I don’t believe in detailed notes or rehearsals before a performance, the dancers’ brains are overloaded already. I deal with Horizon by putting on the music and simply telling them to walk through it and watch each other, then we go upstairs to prepare. The ballet is videotaped tonight and we have our largest audience, where I have to ask a few of my friends to give up seats so that a reviewer can have a clear view of the stage. Many dear friends are in the audience, and I’m pleased that the dancers give the all around best performance of the run. Morgan comes into focus tonight, her past two performances were diffuse, but she gives delicate and beautiful performances tonight, and on Sunday as well. Chuck gives a strong, accurate performance of Aubade, and Horizon again looks properly rehearsed. My only regret was that Armature peaked the previous night, and while it was performed well on Saturday, there was a certain magic to it on Friday evening. Still, it is precisely that evanescent magic, the indefinable tension and energy among the dancers that never quite makes it to video. When I look at the tapes of the two evenings, my guess is that they will look exactly alike.

September 19, 1999

Day 40 - Final performance

We all arrive late and a bit stunned for the matinee. The celebratory atmosphere of the night before felt like a closure, I have to reassure the dancers that there is still one performance left, and that it matters. They give a very strong performance, to a decent house for a matinee. All the ballets are strong, Scherzo is danced the best since the first performance. Chuck gives easily his best performance of Aubade, I only wish it had been videotaped, especially the I-stopped-counting-at-five pirouettes ending in perfect fifth position on relevé. Armature and Horizon are both solid and suddenly it’s all over.

It’s done.

We did a good job and there’s nothing more that can go wrong. I don’t need to be on alert anymore. I’ve guided them all through it all, through every potential hazard. I get a gold star.

I go to the dressing room in a haze, having packed the auction items and left them in boxes at the loading dock. The men’s dressing room is eerily clean; there’s not even a trace of Ted and Barry there. Chuck left after the final intermission; he had to pack and go to Toronto the following day to dance Swan Lake with the National Ballet of Canada. I don’t really want to say good bye to anyone though. I hate the sense of closure, as if the moment can never be retrieved. The tiny voice inside of me as people praised the performance kept asking, “But what if this is the best thing I ever do? What if this is the top?” But I think the best thing I ever do will be the thing that I am doing now, today. I didn’t watch Horizon with much interest even though it was many other people’s favorite ballet. I made it six years ago; in some ways it feels like a stranger. And yet, I also got to revisit the past and re-write it. I re-made a ballet I was dissatisfied with in 1995 and I got it right this time. I felt the 1998 concert was nearly crippled by personnel issues. This year I felt I managed the production with efficiency and mastery - almost like a zen warrior. I learned how to work; I learned to be sure to do what was necessary and to not do the unnecessary. Seemingly unrelated, but crucially, I was able to care for myself through the concert, there was always something for me to eat and clean clothing to wear. My apartment was navigable; I was able to even accomplish things other than the concert (knitting, some writing, even this diary.) When one lives alone, there’s no one to care for you if you can’t. And if you can’t, depression follows soon after.

At the end of the 1996 concert, I nearly quit choreographing. I had done a good job, but couldn’t see how that possibly mattered, I was making no headway towards a career as a choreographer, managing only to throw myself further into debt. I took what I said was a year’s hiatus, but I didn’t know whether it wasn’t actually forever. The time when I knew I needed to start the 1998 concert kept approaching nearer and I was paralyzed with indecision and fear as to whether to go on and risk the pain or just give up. But if I didn’t choreograph, no matter what else I did, I wasn’t sure who I was. So I went back, thinking, “Better a flawed personality than none at all.” And I did give up. I didn’t give up trying to choreograph well, I just decided to give up trying to get what I thought was somehow my recognition due from others. If the only person in the audience was me, I still had made the ballet and that was what mattered. When I looked at the ballets during the performances this year, I realized finally that I what I wanted most was simply to see them, to watch them. I made them because I wanted them to be made. And even though their existence is as evanescent as all of dance is, they still constitute a map of my life. It may be written in mist or sand, but there is still something indelible in the writing, something that makes sense of the fact that I exist. It may be a whisper, and no one may be there to hear it, but it still persists, “I am here, I am here, I am here. . .”

About the Author

A 2001 Guggenheim fellow in choreography and the creator of more than fifty ballets, Mr. Witchel is the founder of Dance as Ever. In addition to his choreography, Mr. Witchel has regularly written on dance for Ballet Review, Dance Now, Dance View, Danceview Times and Dance International. He is available to your organization for choreography, teaching, speaking or writing. Contact him at .
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