March 12, 2024

Ballet – The Finale

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: March 12, 2024Categories: Ballet

Ballet – The Finale

We are in Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. again. I remember back to the three times I have been at this magnificent building performing. And I recognize how very lucky I have been.
It is spring and the cherry blossoms are blooming and yet, as those beautiful petals fall, I feel the change in the air. To me it feels more like fall than spring.
I have weathered, the horrors of the Cold War in Berlin, the Murder at the Met, leaving the Berlin Ballet, feeling rejected by dancers and Toni Lander, and I realize how much I have changed.
I remember the first-time dancing with Ballet West at Kennedy Center and the excitement of performing the principal role of Allegro Brilliant, and Lark Ascending. I remember, the torture of being left out of Abdallah and Toni Landers death, five days after those momentous performances.
I realize that I have been so very lucky! I recognize the tremendous opportunities that I have had in a field of art that usually has a very short lifespan and that asks everything from each and every dancer.
I am standing backstage for Sleeping Beauty watching the dancers I love so dearly and know more intimately than I know even my own family and I am so very proud of them all.
I see the endless drive of each dancer to find some sort of perfection. I feel their heart and intention. I see the sweat coming off their faces and I can smell the hard work and endless hours of effort.
I reflect on the fact that I am once again on this stage, but the feeling is now nostalgic rather than euphoric.
I reflect on the hard year this has been and I know that the time is coming for me to leave ballet. I know it is the right thing to do but how does one change out of this type of career that has possessed my heart and soul since I was 5 years old? I know that I don’t know how to walk away. I know that I am going to have to walk away. And I know that after this. Life will never be the same.
I see the powerful sacrifice that this artform requires. I see the constant self-criticism and body obsessions of so many of the dancers whether they realize it or not. As dancers we learn to keep certain negative perceptions at bay because they conflict with finding the courage to go out in front of an audience and take the tremendous risks that ballet requires.
Dancers are disciples of internal self-control and focus. It is in our makeup, and it gives us what we need to keep going. We live in a world of constant failures that swirl with the colors of success. We work endlessly for a moment on stage and struggle to pay the bills. Dancers are not in this for the money. We are glorified and put on a pedestal, and we are never given the financial compensation for our offering of love and devotion to our art.
We are warriors that smile and dance through pain and injury and we try to become the embodiment of what a director and choreographer wants in a moment. We are a living extension of their ideals and dreams.
I am backstage watching the ultimate fairytale, Sleeping Beauty. I remember, how much I used to believe in that fairytale.
I remember, being the embodiment of that fairytale.
I can feel the love of that inner child that needed that fairytale to escape the hard reality of my own family traumas.
On stage, I have been countless fairies and I have been the ultimate evil witch.
I stand watching the Sleeping Beauty fairytale again unfold. But now I see the darkness that is also an essential part of the ballet world.
I have become whole through this artform because I was asked to embrace the light and the dark inside my own being. Inside me I am a tremendous light of beauty and grace. Inside me is also a darkness that sees past the superficial world that I wanted to believe was ballet. And I know that because I can see both, that is the path that will lead me into another reality. The bubble has burst and there is no way to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
Truths in ballet are always grueling. The pressures to live up to the expectations of others is nothing compared to the expectations that dancers have on themselves.
I have watched powerful directors act as petty tyrants to manipulate and mold dancers like puppets only to discard them when that puppet will not dance correctly on their strings.
I have watched dancers try to cut those strings to find their freedom only to discover that ballet (for most) is not about independence but about being in an army and following the rules.
Those rules can be the styles and types of movement from the Romantic Age of ballet. Or the predilections of a particular choreographer, ballet mistress, or director.
I have had some of my best moments with great choreographers, and I have tried to fit into the narrow and confining boxes of others. Mr. Hart being the latter.
Backstage watching the beginning of Sleeping Beauty, on one level, I am greatly relieved to be standing in my point shoes and tutu of the Enchanted Fairy. I am jumping up and down keeping my legs warm, shaking my arms, and bending forwards and back, as I wait for my cue to dance.
I have earned the right to be a soloist with Ballet West, but I would not be doing Carbosse here in Kennedy Center.
In all honesty, I did not want to do Carabosse anymore. More importantly, I could not do my Carabosse anymore.
Mr. Hart had eviscerated my character to the point that it had become a cartoon to the powerful depth and complexity that I had manifested opening night in Utah.
He wanted a hag. He needed a man in drag … acting like a witch. That was how it had been done in his generation at the Royal Ballet and that was where he still wanted to be.
I was not from that time or place. I was not that type of Carabosse.
He did not want to see the real emotions of rage and anger that women feel in our lives. He wanted something that was controllable.
And my Carabosse was not that.
He wanted to control me.
And again, that was not who I was … ever.
I smile thinking of Rudi telling me to never let another control my wildness. He said, “Never let another put you in a box and tie you up with a pretty ribbon. Then they will be able to pick you up and put you anywhere they wanted. Never stay in a box! Fight to get out of any boxes! That is what is real art. Art requires freedom and creative expression. Only if you are free can you call yourself a true artist!”
My reminiscing is interrupted by Bene Arnold coming over to me and in her lovingly, competitive manner, says, “Suzanne if you ever get the chance from Mr. Hart to do Carabosse again, I would love to help you with your character. You just do not understand the nature of this character. But I am sure with my help you could see what it is really all about.”

I take a calming breath and suddenly I see the writing on the wall. It is once again clear that I am not the type of dancer or the character that Mr. Hart wants. Nor am I willing to fit into this tiny box for him. Even with the soloist ribbon he has placed around my neck, because I do not respect him!
That is when it hits me! That was what was different this time. I did respect Gert Reinholm though he put me through the ringer. I did greatly respect Bruce Marks and because of that I would bend over backwards for him in any way that I could. He gave me the artistic freedom. He gave me the enthusiasm and excitement that was a part of my American spirit. He inspired me when I was 5 years old and he did once again as a full-grown artist. I will always love him for that.
But with Mr. Hart, I always felt and knew in my core that his style and flow did not organically work with my own energy. He wanted to make all of us into the Royal Ballet. That was something that I could not do, nor did I want to do.
Regardless of the soloist contract that I had earned the hard way, As I stood in the shadows and bright lights of the wings of the theater, I saw that I needed to be done.
My attention came back to Bene Arnold, as she was still talking about how much better she was at this character than myself and I recognize that I have not even fully been listening. When anyone speaks from their ego, the conversation is instantly boring to me, and it makes me space out.
I know that Bene is (in her way) being kind and so I smile and compliment her on being such a historically accurate Carabosse and that I appreciate her kind offer more than she knows.
I watch her walk away triumphantly as I know that she needs to feel special much more than myself.

I recognize that there is no point in trying to change her mind. It is clear that she could not see past her own bubble and her illusions of this character.
But I think, that is to be expected! Mr. Hart and Bene are from the same generation. They are in that same bubble from the past and they are both trying to relive their glory days once again.
I cannot fault them for wanting those precious moments.
Rudi taught me that there are those that can ever quit ballet. After all, he was one of them. There are dancers that can never retire. And I knew that I was not one of them.
I could feel that I was different and that I was not going to be one of those dancers that lingers in the shadows grasping for the dwindling limelight and never really wanting to leave. I knew inside me that there was something else that was more important to me that needed to be done. And while I would forever be a ballerina, the stages would have to change … and me with it.
Ballet is a type of perfectionism that constantly changes with the people, the choreography and the direction that the company is taking. In this moment, the company was changing in a direction that I did not want to follow.
I go out for my solo and dance the Enchanted Forest Fairy without fanfare but with eloquence and grace.
As I go off stage after the 1st Act of Sleeping Beauty, I am pondering how the fact that Bene came up to speak to me right before my entrance for my solo and how that was a level of subtle sabotage that only another dancer really understands. Fortunately, I was not flustered by her timing but it only made me more observational and contemplative.
As I was heading backstage to the dressing rooms, I am accosted by a furious Mr. Hart, grabbing my arm, and twisting me around to face him.
I think to myself, “Now what?”
Mr. Hart is flushed, red-faced, outraged, and livid. He says to me in a commanding tone, “You need to go into all the dressing rooms and tell those dancers to get their “Shit” together. They are embarrassing me out there. They are making me into a laughingstock. I won’t have it! You go in there and tell them that I expect more from them than this flimsy excuse for a performance. Where is the elegance? Where is the pristine footwork? Honestly, I don’t know why I trusted them to be good enough to showcase this ballet! Go on! Get in there and make them shape up before it is too late!”
At this point, I have had just about enough. In fact, I am sure I have had enough. Why is he choosing me to do this? This is not my job! I am not an administrator in this company. I am a dancer!
That is when I realize once again, that he wants me as an administrator, and this is a test. Clearly, Denise Schultz and Louis Godfrey were not willing to do it. Sondra Sugai was not willing to do it. So, it now falls to me.
Stunned, I see more writing on the wall. Mr. Hart is going to push me into administration and as far as he is concerned my dancing days are numbered.
There is nothing to do when someone is so triggered, and they feel the need to protect their own reputation. When an ego is this involved, there is no correct answer that will suffice. The only answer I give is a nod of my head. Then I turn and walk into the corps dressing room.
Taking a deep breath in the door, I preface what I am about to say. “Okay, everyone I need your attention. Mr. Hart asked me to come in here and lay down the law. I am completely uncomfortable being put in this position and know that what I am about to say it not what I feel in any way. Is everyone with me on this? I am only a messenger, and I am not happy about it in any way!”
That is when I hear dancers groan and say, “Okay Suzanne, we get it! What does his “highness” need to say!”

I know that when dancers are in the middle of a performance that sudden upsets are unwelcome, and many things can make dancers feel worse … not better. All dancers want to please but all of us have spent the last year, trying to be something that we were not and bend into fitting Mr. Harts boxes and no one was having a good time. It had been a rough year.
So, I modify his atrocious language and soften the message saying, “Mr. Hart says that our footwork and precision are lacking. We need to tighten things up. Be more elegant and gracious in all areas from the steps to the pantomime. He wants the next act to come together, and he feels as if we are not working in unison with the flow of this ballet!”
That is when a dancer chimes in, “Why doesn’t he have the courage to come in a tell us himself?”
That is when I smile and say, “You don’t want him in here at the moment. His is really upset and let me say that his wording would be way more upsetting than the way I just offered up to you!”
I added a caveat. “He made me do this. I did not want to. He is quite upset. So, let’s go out there, and just do the best we can and at the end of this show, we can be proud of what we have accomplished. Whether he likes it or not! Agreed?”

The dancers groan in unison with a few smatterings of some choice expletives. Dancers can be mouthy when they are angry. After all, we are temperamental artists!
I walk out and then have to go into the men’s dressing room for the cosmic repeat, after knocking and asking for admittance with a message from Mr. Hart.
The reception was much the same, but the men are more direct in saying, “Who the Hell does he think he is?”
My answer, “He thinks he is the director (in absentia) of the Royal Ballet!”
That is when they all laughed.
We tried to rally after that, but it really makes is so much more difficult with that degree of negativity and expectation being directed at us.
I thought we all were troopers that night! Everyone had put up with a level of discord and discomfort that impacted everyone to a greater or lesser degree throughout that year.
All dancers attempt to ignore the emotional and physical costs of our art. What was clear in that moment was that each dancer was trying to keep that tenuous equilibrium between their inner perfectionism and our inner critic.
The love of the art is the fuel that keeps dancers going. Dancing with others and creating magic on stage is the fuel for our childhood dreams. We are all reaching to be the best that we can be in each moment when we dance.
Dancers pay a high price for doing what they love! And for a time … it is worth it … for all of us. Until it is not!
Only the truly dedicated manage to make it to these few positions in professional companies. Even fewer will have a body that can take the punishment day in and day out. Fewer still have the emotional matrix to be able to endure the level of constant internal and external criticism.
To be a ballet dancer is to be a soul that loves the art more than they fear the pain and sacrifice that it will require.
Even as a young dancer I could see the cost that my dream would require from me. And I did not care.
The feeling that ballet gave my soul was a feeling of fleeting freedom that most will never experience in a lifetime. I know the feeling of flying and being suspended in the air by an energy from deep inside my core that could for moments touch something beyond this realm completely. It is a precious expression of the human potential and worth almost anything. Almost!

That day at Kennedy Center was the day I knew that I was complete with this incredible journey to be a ballet dancer.
While I was not a person that many will remember, it does not matter because the only thing that mattered was the dance.
I did not dance for others. I danced because ballet expressed a part of my heart that could not find an expression any other way. I danced to show others that they were so much more if they found their passion and courage to try. I danced to remind everyone in the audience that all their emotional expressions are divine if we just fully embrace them. I danced to create a space of permission for everyone to embrace their light but to also reclaim their own shadow.
I hope there are dancers out there that read my book and I hope that you take away the amazing flights of fantasy that are possible through this amazing artform. I hope my journey inspired you and showed you the truths hidden in the shadows of the theater.
I write my story to remind all the young and hopeful dancers out there that the dance is what matters and how your heart feels when dancing is what each of us hang onto. I remind you that you should never let the wildness inside be tamed by anyone. Never let a director, ballet mistress, or choreographer determine your value. In the end of all rehearsals, it is only you there on the stage dancing with the other dancers. That is where you are truly free.
Remember that technique is only the beginning. Technique builds up the strength in the body to be able to handle more complex expressions of movement, mood, and spirit.
But technique is not what makes an artist.
You are an artist when you use the skills to open yourself to the next level of awareness that is beyond mental control and beyond caring about what others think. Dance and especially ballet is a deeply personal soul journey into what lies hidden beneath the perfectionism.
Do not dance to be known … but to know yourself. Once you have that, you are truly free. Once you allow life to become the dance you will see that while dancing on the great stages in the world is glorious, know that the greater quest is to know how to dance throughout your life.
Life is a stage, and we are all just actors or dancers on that stage. What would happen if you could connect to and reclaim that you are a unique rhythm of sound and light in this reality? Who would you become if you finally embraced the grace of your true self and realize that just that alone lifts not just you … but all those you touch?
Remember that fame shines on only a very few. But that does not mean that your gifts are not amazing and beautiful. That does not mean that your light does not shine brightly.
Some lights shine into the darkness and allow others to see.
Some lights shine privately and move from places of compassion and a deep care for life.
Some lights inspire the next generation of hope that just might change the world.
My story is to get each dancer out there to see that much will be asked of you and you will endure endless criticism. You will experience a lack of appreciation, a lack of financial compensation, and a lack of consideration, over and over again. You will wake up every morning stiff and sore. You will be breaking point shoes in late at night when you are nervous and can’t sleep. You will feel as if you are starving most of the time even when you are eating. You will look at yourself in the mirror and not see how amazingly beautiful you are inside and out. You will endure the criticism from critics who were discouraged dancers in their day that now want to show their pretended expertise by criticizing others. And I know that you will see your faults more than your uniqueness.
But I want you to know that I know how strong your hearts are. I know how indomitable your spirits are. I know that you have been working probably lifetimes for this moment. I know that you are a warrior in a world of rabbits. And I see you!
Regardless of your age or ability, know that I am not looking at the imperfections, but I am looking to see if you will show me your heart. If you can do that, you are an artist regardless of skill, age, or acclaim.
Your body is a tool to enable you to express your heart in this reality and dimension. Your body should be cherished and protected. You will ask a lot from it, and it will do its best to oblige. But there will be a moment when the dance must change. The curtains will close on one series of shows, and you will have to go back to the studio to work on the next thing.
You will learn that the true stage is not in the theater but inside your own heart. That stage will have to expand out into the world and the dance, music, and costumes will drastically change.
I know that you will continue to seek the ways of grace and elegance. I know that you have chosen to be a light into your own darkness and in doing that you will become the light that will shine for others.
You see … The dance never really ends. The curtain never really goes down on a true artist. The heart that inspired me to dance continues to inspire me to touch your hearts now this way.
My words have become my music. My art has become one with my soul. And my love is the skill that I continue to hone each day as I wake up and begin to stretch to loosen up so that I can allow my body to become one with the tempestuous emotions that are this life.
Now, it is your turn to show me your dance, your passion, your heart, and who is really inside.
I await with bated breath to experience your magnificence.
~Suzanne Wagner~

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