Berlin Ballet – John Skripek – The Company Clown
There are those precious souls in a ballet company that help all of us keep our sanity.
While the Ballet Company Clown will dart from one individual to another, there are always those we can count on to make us smile.
John Skripek was one of them in the Berlin Ballet.
My fondest memory was of him running into the classroom … diving for the ballet barre in the center of the room, grabbing it with his hands, swinging under it like a monkey, sliding his legs out in funny and interesting positions, and sliding on the wood floor into some stylish and seductive pose … as he stopped.
John was one of those that would make a joke and make something funny happen when things got too serious.
And that was often in a ballet company.
On so many levels he unknowingly saved my sanity, day after day, time after time.
My generation was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and it is shocking how many fabulous artists we lost in the 1980’s and early 1990’s because of the HIV virus.
When I got to Berlin in 1978, we were all in the dark around this illness. It began to hit in 1981 and became a very serious conversation in the mid 1980’s.
Berlin was considered the Gay Capital of Europe at that time. It was the only German city that woke up at night and stayed awake.
There were many late-night clubs, bars, cabarets, and transvestite clubs. And they were open into the early morning hours in Berlin.
But anywhere else in Germany, things shut down around 10 pm. That was also because the U-Bahn shut down at that time as well.
John was American through and through, but he spoke German very well (with somewhat of an American accent).
He was smart, quick, quirky, and proud to be a flamboyant gay man. On so many levels, he seemed more of an emotional girl to me … than a guy. He was on the short side and that gave him roles that were more the jester, or the sidekick in certain things.
And he was a great friend.
His partner at that time was Misha and they lived a ways away from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He took the subway each morning to get into the theater.
I could always count on him to have a particular way of seeing things that would help me understand and cope.
There was a new, very modern, very Berlin-ish, ballet we were doing, and he got one of the leading roles in it.
As a corps dancer, suddenly being picked for a principal role is very exciting and he leaped at the chance to prove himself in the role.
I have to say here that in Berlin, the modern dance scene was very strong, and it was not uncommon for the Berlin Ballet to cater to such unusual ballets that promoted complicated and convoluted images and the turmoil of the German mindset.
These things were popular, I believe because of the trauma of the war, the darkness of the winters, and the gloominess of the weather.
I was not in this ballet, as it used only a few dancers and was part of a mixed evening program.
In this ballet, there was a scene where he has lots of very thin, silk shirts on, layered one underneath the other.
In this particular scene, he is to take off one shirt only to find another and another, symbolizing the layers of the psyche within the mind.
The partner he is dancing with … is also pulling on those shirts trying to get to the truth, and discover the underlying essence within the barriers of the mind.
To create an interesting effect, the stage we were using was one of the rotating opera stages.
These things are amazing!
In Berlin there are various floors used for different shows. It makes sense that dancers need a perfectly flat floor with no holes, screws, or bumps on it. Such things will tear up point shoes and cause dancers to stick, slip, and fall.
The opera stages are not so perfect. Partially because they have these huge sets built upon them and those sets have to be b0lted into the floors. Opera singers are usually wearing regular shoes and so the bumps are not as critical to them.
But there are also stages for the unusual.
This stage rotated 360 degrees. So, you could have four scenes set up and it would rotate to reveal each in turn. The trick is that to make it rotate, it had a metal edge for a smooth glide.
In this ballet … they were using the stage and rotating it around as the dancers are dancing on it. It creates a sensation of more chaos, and it allows the audience to see many positions and perspectives of what is happening.
John is doing an amazing job in this role, and I am super excited for him.
On the dress rehearsal, they are doing the shirt scene. There is a part where his partner is pulling on one of the shirts and trying to take it off John, when the shirt suddenly slips, and John falls headfirst into the floor.
The lights in this scene are very dark and I cannot totally see what is happening, but my intuitive side is on high alert, and I feel that the fall is a bad fall. He seemed to hit the floor with his head but in the flurry of the shirts, I was not certain.
In the dark, moody light, I begin to see this stain flowing down John’s face.
I am in the audience watching and no one else is seeming to notice.
I stand up and say, “Stop! Turn on the lights!”
But no one is listening to me, and I am not on the intercom system.
I go running backstage and am grabbing paper towels and telling them to call the doctor or emergency people, when John’s partner says, “Can we stop for a minute, John is bleeding all over the shirts!”
Suddenly the lights come up and sure enough, there is John covered in blood and it looks like a river coming off his forehead.
By the time that moment happened, I have wet paper towels and I am running towards him with them.
He seems a bit dazed and not sure exactly how bad he looks.
I press the wet paper towels to the large cut on his forehead, when he says, “I tripped and fell against that metal edge of the rotating floor and there was a piece of metal that was bent up.”
We take the rest of the shirts off him. They are all clearly ruined, and I can see the costume ladies in a hurry to see if they can save any shirts or if they have to completely start over.
We get John to the hospital, they put some stitches in his head, stop the bleeding, and give him a huge shot of antibiotics.
And the next day, the premier when on and he was fabulous in that role. After all, as I have said, “The show must go on!”
Many months after that, I was at John and Misha’s house for dinner, and it was getting late.
Before we knew it, it was past 10 pm. The subways closed down at that time, but Misha said that there was a taxi stand not far away. He had the number and called down to the stand and told the driver his address.
Nonchalantly they walked me down the stairs and out onto the street to wait for the cab.
We see the cab, wave, and the cab drives right past us. Turns around and we wave again, only to have the driver pass us again.
The driver seemed to want to ignore us.
Now I have to say here that John again, was an obviously, flamboyant gay man and we were laughing and being highly animated in our conversations.
Misha presented as the guy, but John was unmistakably … different.
After the cab driver passed us twice, it went back to the taxi stand.
John and Misha said, we are going to walk you to the stand. And they did, still having fun, laughing and having a good time.
We get to the cab, and I open the door to the cab, say my goodbyes, and get in.
The cab driver has a shaved head and seems in a bad mood. I smile and ask him how his evening is going. At that point, he turns around and says to me, “Can I ask you a question?”
Startled, I say, “Sure!”
Then the driver, says, “Are your friends Gay!”
I have to say here that there is a terrible slang word for “gay” in Berliner German and it is not a nice word.
I am shocked that the driver is using that particular word because it is designed to be disgusting and condescending.
The word is “Schwul”. It is designed to be derogatory and condescending. A close translation is something around; effeminate, fruity, queer, or swishy.
I learned about this word because if you put in umlaut in it, it means sultry, hot, and humid.
I know because I made a mistake practicing my German on the street corner waiting for a light to change.
I intended to say to an old lady, “Today is very humid!” But I left out the umlaut and I instead said, “Today is a very effeminate day.”
Needless, to say, the woman straightened her spine, refused to look at me, and stopped breathing.
I did not know what I said but once I got to the theater and told the dancers, John was literally rolling on the ground in glee. He thought it was hysterical. He finally explained what I had done and what it meant.
I wanted to say, “Heute ist es sehr schwül” (Today is very humid) but instead I had said, “Heute ist es sehr schwul” (Today it’s very gay).
But back to the taxi driver….
My response to the driver was that yes, they were but I did not know why that mattered to him?
He then went off on how terrible the gay people were and how they were destroying our society. Then he went off on the Allied Forces that were in Berlin. He hated the French, German, but especially Americans.
I realized in that moment that I was in the cab with a Neo-Nazi!
Everything got very dangerous in that moment.
In Berlin at that time, any Nazi organizations were outlawed and illegal.
By this point the cab is moving and I can’t jump out.
I also realize that I am an American and because of my decent German, he does not yet … detect that I am a foreigner.
I realize that I cannot make a grammar mistake or drop into an American accent. I have to use my Berliner dialect to keep in a safe position in this conversation.
I try to not talk too much. I am careful with my words.
Then he asks me where I am going?
I realize that I do not want him to know my address. So, I give him an address close to one of my friends’ houses, that is not far from my house.
The whole drive home I am sitting on pins and needles.
I get to the address, and I pay him and get out of the cab. I pretend to go to the door and be looking for my key as he is driving away. Once he turns the corner, I literally ran home, closed the door and called John and Misha immediately.
Misha is pissed! He knew the laws and said, “What is this guy’s name and badge number?”
But I had realized early on that this guy was using someone’s cab because the picture on the badge did not match the person driving.
I explained all that and I said, besides I did not want this guy coming after me or them.
I do not understand this type of hate. I have never understood those that pick sides and determine that their side is the side of righteousness and so the preferences and beliefs of others are immediately wrong and evil.
I know that we have all been male and female in many lifetimes. I know that some prefer one over the other. But I also know that to seek balance we have to learn that we are (right now) both male and female.
When I am dealing with my job I am coming from a more masculine perspective. When I am cooking, I am more in my feminine. One is not better than another.
Those that judge others have not integrated both parts of their own nature.
Those that hate will blame others for their own misfortunes or inadequacies.
Those that want to divide our world only continue the toxicity of the karmic process.
Karma means – If you hurt someone … then at another time … someone will hurt you in the same way. And we will do it over and over again, back and forth … until we finally come to a middle ground and see the folly of our actions.
That is how the karmic suffering ends.
But it requires us to recognize that hate, anger, hurt, and loss are the way this dualistic world will remain divided.
It is up to us to learn to laugh, love, and play together in this sandbox called earth.
May we find a way to speak from our heart.
May we learn to call out those whose intention is to break apart.
May we see past our fears and shame.
May we stop those that hate and just want to blame.
Life knows better what we need, if we are willing to learn.
It tries to offer up all those things that we so deeply yearn.
But to find peace we must see past our thoughts.
Otherwise, all this effort will be for naught.