Drooling on the Pillow

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Ballerinas and Cowboys 

Can't sleep. Haven't been able to for three or four nights, now. The girls are in the city for the week and everything goes all wonky.

I was laying there thinking about ballerinas.

It's interesting, to me, that they go through a selection process more rigorous and demanding than a pope, a prize-winning orchid and a Nobel physics winner combined. I think that holds up even if, like me, you've dated a few dancers, known a bunch and are aware that they're not necessarily intelligent, modest or saintly.

First, they're selected by body type. A ballet master or teacher can look at a group of 100 little girls and eliminate all of them, and the next group of 100 and probably a few more before they see someone interesting. All of the proportions have to be perfect. All of them. The width of the hips, the projection of the buttocks, the carriage of the neck, the length of the arms, the curve of the back. Hips to knees, knees to ankle, all in proportion to the height.

From the tiny group of survivors they are selected for talent. Athletic talent. Flexibility, agility, coordination, strength, grace, balance. Also fearlessness. And it requires the aggression of a wolverine and Lance Armstrong's imperviousness to pain.

We've got a very small group, now, and they are going to be selected on artistic merit. Sensitivity to music, imagination, acting skills. And, finally, you're either a performer or you aren't. You can either take all your preparation and skill and your intentions for a particular piece and throw it out there across the footlights so that thousands of people know instantly, intimately and thoroughly what you are trying to do -- or you can't. That's true of a polka band, a standup or a ballerina.

And it doesn't hurt if you're pretty.

All of these qualities (except being pretty) are quite rare in the amounts required for a great ballerina. That there are several of these creatures who combine all of them almost every generation I think is remarkable.

Hold on, now, we're going to be going around a curve.

One of the first jobs I had when I came to New York out of college was in a warehouse on West 14th. We provided furniture and set decoration for the soaps. Also commercials and features, but mostly soaps. If you wanted a bathroom for a 1920s farmhouse, we had the tub, the sink, the mirror, the towels, the toothbrush. We had the wall hangings for a Wild West saloon or a medieval chapel. If your pain-in-the-ass designer insists on a caribou head over the Italian Renaissance fireplace we had a wide selection of both. There are similar facilities for costumes, but ours was a tiny office, three floors and a loading dock.

There was a guy named Carter who had worked there forever and knew where everything was and I was taken on as his assistant in the fond and deluded hope that they would come back in forty years and I would be passing on the torch to another nitwit.

A designer, or more likely a set decorator, would blow through, picking out items. Carter and I would mark them, load them on the elevator and wait for the truck.

I started doing shows right away, though, mostly showcases, and when I went away for six weeks to do a show in Virginia they knew they'd have to make other plans. That's when they hired The Cowboy.

I don't remember his name, but it was a Western cliche -- Buck or Bo or Tex or something like that. A good looking guy, in a rough hewn kind of way, with a great rodeo-style body. Hard, ropey, slender. Very funny and quick witted, he was a guy with a lot of natural charm and a calmness that drew people in. Even better, he was tiny. I mean Robert Redford tiny. He had the perfect physique for movies, large head, wee tiny body. For some reason, the cameras love that.

He got to town one day, had this job and an acting coach the next day and was doing a commercial in less than a week. I thought, man, if they're looking for long term help they better keep looking because this guy is going somewhere.

After a couple of months, though, something started happening. He stopped being funny. He stopped being charming. Without the twinkle he wasn't even that good looking.

He would spend hours at the warehouse staring out of the window facing the Hudson River. Every once in awhile he'd shake his head and mutter "This town is too big."

He was going somewhere, all right. Right back home.

If you're missing one of the ingredients you can still have a career as a dancer. In the corps or downtown on Broadway. Or you can go home and teach. The same is true for actors. There's always a few rungs below where you want to be. You can slide down there and people will be amazed by you and wonder why you're not a star.

At the highest levels, though, the one thing you can't do without is toughness. Resilience. Without that the business will chew you up and the city will spit you out.
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