Ballet as a Reality Show
On a wintry Wednesday afternoon, thousands discovered that New York City Ballet principal dancer Maria Kowroski wears flared purple legwarmers.
These 2,500 ballet fans were the fortunate percentage of the rumored 10,000 who had, two weeks earlier, swamped a special ticketing Web page that New York City Ballet had set up for fans to attend two open dress rehearsals of Susan Stroman’s Double Feature, a Broadway-style romp of a ballet. Another 2,500 would attend a second act rehearsal the following day. The site had opened for business at 9:00 a.m. It crashed at 9:01, unable to cope with the traffic, and after some adjustments by the City Ballet’s tech team, re-opened at 11:30 a.m. Minutes later, both shows sold out.
Surely, this “overwhelming response” (according to the letter of apology that appeared on the ticketing page between 9:01 and 11:30) was due in part to the fact that these were free tickets. New Yorkers have a healthy appetite for anything free, and a world-class ballet company’s performance of a singularly appealing production is certainly no exception.
But a little eavesdropping on Wednesday revealed another motive for those thousands of ticket-seekers: the idea of Ballet As Reality Show. These were not formal performances but regularly scheduled rehearsals that happened to occur in front of an audience. And the thought of seeing the usually impeccable City Ballet dancers in a (relatively speaking) unpolished state—as humans, rather than superhumans—was apparently as titillating to the average dancegoer as it was to me, the dance freak.
“I would have paid good money for these tickets, anyways. Susan Stroman in action!” one lady-who-lunches said to a friend as they settled into their seats, surveying the unfamiliar chaos onstage. “Is that Maria Kowroski—with the legwarmers?”
It was Kowroski, who had accessorized her tutu with those purple legwarmers, practicing a series of pirouettes midstage.
She was periodically interrupted by stagehands carting pieces of painted plywood scenery, and ultimately ceded midstage to a group of corps de ballet girls in glittery black tutus and bobbed wigs. A ballet mistress arranged the girls in a semicircle.
“Mark?” she said, squinting out into the audience. “Mark? This is where the center spot should be, in the middle of the chorus girls.”
The stage quieted when a bespectacled Peter Martins, City Ballet’s artistic director, stepped out of a downstage wing. He cleared his throat into a handheld microphone.
“This open rehearsal was not Susan’s favorite idea,” he said. Everyone chuckled appreciatively. “It won’t be perfect today, but it will be by tomorrow night.”
As choreographers go, Stroman, who directed the movie version of “The Producers” and created Broadway’s “Contact,” is famous. And the audience collectively leaned forward as she clicked onstage in red-soled boots.
“Hi, I’m Susan Stroman,” she said, unnecessarily. She was brief and apologetic. “I’m sorry if we have to start and stop, or talk over the dancing.” A woman in front of me licked her chops.
The rehearsal began a little stiffly. The subtraction of the legwarmers and stagehands and the addition of the full City Ballet orchestra kicked the dancers into performance mode; everything was professional, deliberate, poised. The strange energy that had hummed in the audience as we watched that pre-rehearsal tableau faded, and became something simpler, more familiar: an appreciation of exceptional talent.
But then the orchestra took a break. The rehearsal piano, which was wheeled into a downstage right wing, signaled a return to informality; the dancers relaxed, and the electricity returned. Corps de ballet members re-tied their shoes, stretched, and flirted with each other—guys with girls, guys with guys. Stroman worked with a child dancer, trying to figure out how to make a dinner roll prop fall out of her basket at exactly center stage, and then demonstrated a jazzy, hippy move—“Roll through your body, less ballet”—for a young man dressed as a newsboy. Ashley Bouder, a brilliant spitfire of a dancer, discussed the tempo for one of her solos with the conductor, her baby gymnast voice carrying above the onstage chatter. Kowroski, now in a white fur-collared wrap, marked through a dance passage. Displeased with her performance, she frowned and pulled her mouth into a long “O.”
It was all so perfectly imperfect.
Margaret Fuhrer is a dancer, choreographer, and graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.