February 3, 2023

Berlin to Ballet West – The Whole Story – Part Two

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: February 3, 2023Categories: Ballet, Blog Daily

Berlin to Ballet West – The Whole Story – Part Two


The 1980-1981 season had been an amazing year in Berlin. Much had changed, but what really had changed was me. Sometimes, certain shifts sneak up on us. They evolve so slowly over time that we do not quite detect what is happening until much later.

I guess the shift that was happening was that I was feeling more certain and powerful in my place in the world.
New routines had been established. I felt much more confident in my ability to speak German and communicate with humor and strength.

German is a language that is direct, often unbending, and reflects the powerful mindset of its ancestors.

I am half Irish and about half Austrian. An interesting combination that can give me a temper that when it emerges can make most want to crawl into a corner and hide. I have a quick comeback when a certain level of absurdity are reached.

The Irish part of me is an amazing storyteller. It is in the blood. It carries a part of me that has a very dark sense of humor mixed with a resilience that will not back down if another decides to pick a fight.

The Austrian/German side of me can be forceful with words and observes the world meticulously and knows the weaknesses of everyone it encounters. Nothing escapes her purview. The Austrian/German part of me is a perfectionist and knows that there are only correct and incorrect ways to do things. Effective and ineffective strategies. There are ways that support the greater good of many … and there are those out there in the world that intend to drink all the wine and not share any with anyone.
Being in Germany had given me an even stronger backbone than I had naturally.

I remember, my sister hearing me yelling across a square at someone that was hurting others (a particular pet peeve of mine), and she knew how I was! She had lived with me. She knew that one did not want to pick a fight with me because I had secret weapons that would come out if anyone decided to test me … and I could and would (when provoked) effortlessly flay people with my words.

My mind was sharp like a sword and my tongue could (in the right circumstances) stop the blade of another.
German taught me to be direct and to the point. German taught me to speak from a place deep in my core and to feel things before I spoke.
Many things happened that previous year in Berlin that almost took me down but were not intended to harm me in any way.

My friends, Marina Hotchkiss, Lea Havas, and Jennifer Stanfield decided to return home and/or leave the Berlin Ballet.

The moment I heard the news, it was all I could do to not collapse. There are those souls that save your sanity. All of them … were that for me.

I knew it was their time to go but it was a deep loss that I knew would be felt for a long time.

Certain souls cannot be replaced. Ever …

At moments in life, when big shifts happen, it changes the energy within a company. It is as if a part of the soul of a ballet company leaves and some of the joy and wonder goes with it.

Marina Hotchkiss, was a person who I had danced with at SAB my first year. Then the universe magically manifested her to already be in Berlin … when I got there. It was a relief to not be completely alone in a new city in the center of the East Block.
And that really mattered.
She invited me to my first nude and co-ed spa for the day with other dancers. A magical adventure that was completely new to me. I learned to let go and relax even in a room with lots of others … naked. I learned to let go of a lot of my Catholic prejudices and recognize that there were other ways of living that were still wholesome and safe.
I am sure all of these beautiful ballet bodies walking through a spa in Berlin were quite a site to see. She was amazingly talented in so many ways. I still have a painting that she gave me, and she was one of those people who could artistically do almost anything. I marvel at such souls that have so much talent in so many areas that it is probably difficult for them to decide where to focus their interests.
Lea Havas was a Brazilian born woman from Hungarian roots. She spoke (to my knowledge) Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Hungarian (for her grandparents), German, and some Italian.

When I asked her what was her favorite language? She said she loved to read in French. It was more descriptive and beautiful. She said after the 3rd language they all became easy to learn.

Her mother would send Brazilian Coffee over and I would go to her house, and she would make fresh squeezed orange juice and expresso that was beyond good. She was playful, open, engaging, and one of those dancers that just cannot help but catch your eye. There was something always different about her. She was an exotic through and through. You could see it when she went on a stage or if she was walking across the street. Her authenticity taught me that there are many more layers towards openness that I had yet to experience. She taught me by showing me and just being.
Jennifer Stanfield was Australian and had one of those accents that make you instantly fall in love with her. She had those perfect lips that seem to purse in the perfect position to express what she was feeling. How she used words were so fun, playful, and allowed everyone to relax and flow with the lilt of her voice and the twinkle in her eyes.
And she was an amazing cook. I still make her Onion Quiche from the recipe she gave me. I have many others that I treasure and use consistently to this day. Jennifer was a powerful treasure that was filled with potential because she could also do so many more things than were being utilized in the Berlin Ballet.

We would all go to the parks and strip naked to sunbathe in the parks of Berlin on the rare moments when the sun was out.
We would get together at Jenny’s apartment for Sunday gatherings for food and fun. We had a larger group of us that were a mix of people from all different nationalities but as the “Auslanders” … when we were together … we were family.
These three women kept me sane. They kept me laughing. They held me in ways that I am sure they did not realize how important they were to me.

I remember the day that it came out at the park that they were all leaving at the end of that year.

I almost collapsed in that moment.

It was like the floor began to fall away from my feet.

The base that kept me going was … leaving.

It was going to be up to me.

On many levels I understood.

Lea had a great opportunity in Switzerland.

Jennifer was homesick and wanted to go back to her amazing land and culture. (Who could blame her?)
And Marina had been attacked by a (probably) Turkish man that was angry at the Germans. Because Marina looked very German with blonde hair and blue eyes, he targeted her. But when she spoke for him to let her go, the man detected that she was not German and directly asked if she was German. When she said “No!” It literally knocked her out.

After that event, I would have gone home too.
Their announcement made me question if I too should shift.
It started me thinking of other options as I did not ever really like Berlin. I too … was homesick and wanting something more.
I could never stop hearing the bombs going off in the astral plane in Berlin. I would hear the sirens and the buildings collapsing at times from the Second World War. I knew this was not my spot.

Even later … in the study of Astrocartography, I discovered that I had probably died somewhere east of Berlin in Poland during the war.
That did not surprise me in the least.
I knew I had gone there to complete something from a past life. Later on, I would realize it was multiple past lives.

So, as the Berlin Ballets yearly six-week paid vacation loomed, I put together a plan. One that could bring me also back to the US, and to a place that perhaps would feel more like home.

My sister was getting married … that was very exciting! I had these auditions looming … and that was opening a doorway of courage for me to step out of one reality and into another.

I was excited. I was ready. I was willing … and I believed I was very able.
I had the audition with San Francisco planned and all the steps were in place. I felt strong and confident.

I had been clear with Richard Cammack and thought that such a person would respect my resume, talent, schooling, and honest character.

But that would remain to be seen.
I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, but that was going to prove worthless shortly.
I am getting things ready for my sister’s wedding. The dress was fitted, and it was my mother’s original wedding dress. A beautiful custom and expensive dress at that time. Tastefully understated with lace capped (just barely off the shoulder) sleeves.

The wedding was going to be at the Catholic Church and there were many steps required for her and her husband to be allowed that honor.
I did all I could before the wedding and I then took the flight to San Francisco, where my uncle met me and I was whisked away to his house on Clipper Street.
The next day, I was nervously off to the School for the San Francisco Ballet.

I walked in, proud, strong, confident, and well put together. I was escorted to Richard Cammack’s office to be introduced and to figure out where they wanted me first.
Sitting behind his desk is Richard Cammick.
He (at first) refuses to look up and acknowledge my presence.
He does not offer a chair.
So, I stand and wait.
Dancers are used to waiting but usually it is for something more important than for him to finish what he is writing.
I wait for at least a few minutes. It was so long that I wondered if I should go ahead and sit down. But I know first impressions matter and self-discipline is important in the ballet world.
While I was waiting, I decided to assess him … because he was not assessing me.

He was a small man. (That is always a problem.) I probably was taller than him. (Not good in my book.)
How his hands were … while writing … was impatient, irritated, scribbling, and lacked a certain type of elegance.
He finally looks up and passively smirks at me still standing there. Then with irritation … gestures for me to sit.
I calmly and gracefully sit, trying to see if he is remotely watching.
He is not.

I think to myself. I does not care if I am here or not. He is not really open. He is thinking before seeing me that I am probably not worth his time.
This was not going as planned.

In my mind, I am a dancer from SAB, (one of the best schools in the world at that time), I have worked for three years in Berlin. I have danced huge roles with famous people. I have a resume that most dancers would dream of choking on, I am gorgeous, long-legged, thin, talented, and an asset to any company.
But I could see that this was paper pusher. Not a Director of a Ballet company.
There was no passion beating his heart … nor music in his blood. He was a status seeker. A position flunky. A hollow husk of a wan-a-bee dancer that had never really reached his goals and now … had decided … (in unconscious retribution) … that he was going to be the one to lord over those reaching beyond his small success.
He had no intention of helping … he had every intention to do great harm.
He had decided my fate before I got there. He had a plan, but it was going to be to mold me to his reality, to bend to his will, and to kiss his invisible ring.
And he did not care if I would play his game or not. He had his kingdom, and it was this school and he was lord and master over all.

I had met too many of these egomaniacs in my short career that had too much power and too little … real ability.

But I was young, and I knew that I could see him. He had made a grave miscalculation with me.

His mistake was putting me in a box with all the rest of those baby-bun headed ballerinas.

I was not one of them. I never was one of them. And I was not about to start now … to be one of them.

If Rudolf Nureyev taught me anything, he taught me that the wildness inside should never be tamed by another. He taught me to never give up my autonomy to anyone. And that true art lived at the edges of those that believed in conformity as a principle of great art.
Finally he looks up and my one satisfaction was to watch him squirm, as he noticed me surveying him and sizing him up.
I was a lion looking at a rodent, deciding if it was worth the effort to eat.
My inner Lion knew what was ahead and had instantly decided to not play.

Richard Cammack says, “Here is the class schedule, your first class is ballet at 10 am, then at 1 pm you are to do a character class, at 3 pm you will do a modern class.

Tomorrow you will do Ballet class at the same time, then a Pas de Deux Class at 1 pm followed by a Point Class at 3 pm.

I politely stopped him there, with a slight cough to get his attention and to interrupt his tirade.
I said, “I didn’t come here to be a part of your school. I came here to audition for San Francisco Ballet.”
He said with a sneer, that I was to do what he required of me if I wanted to really do an audition.

I smiled and leaned forward to say, “I believe that my resume shows you that I can do Pas De Deux and highly skilled point work. But perhaps you did not have time … in your busy schedule to look at everything I sent you and all the videos.”
He coughed uncomfortably and would not meet my gaze.

He clearly was not used to a dancer speaking up for themselves or speaking back to him.

He thought he was the king of his world. But a lion from the jungle had arrived and now he was not sure how to proceed.

I told him that he was willing to come see me in the ballet classes, and I would wear point shoes for the whole class. He could determine my skill or lack of it from that.
I had confidence in my ability because the Russian training in Berlin was difficult and Gudrun Leben had made me do the sequences of Myrtha in Giselle till my legs collapsed under me and I found myself on the floor.

If I did not break then; I would not break now.

This buffoon was clearly an obstacle, but his arrogance made me want to teach him a lesson … not placate his terrible behavior.
I did not let him respond. I got up and left his office and went to the class that I had agreed to.

I was going to be there for 5 days. I would wear point shoes for the whole hour and a half class each day. I did all turns on point, I did all jumps with the men including the double tour en l’airs, and double saut de basques.
Even if you are not proficient in ballet lingo, just know that what I was doing was hard. Very hard. And more difficult in point shoes.
After class, every day I left and went touring San Francisco with my uncle. We were looking at apartments, costs of living there, locations for apartments, cost of public transportation etc.

I even went over to the San Francisco Ballet and talked to dancers coming out of the rehearsals about how things worked and what they thought of the company.

I quickly realized that not going to just be happy with what they were showing me. I needed to know how it would be to really live and dance here.

I learned that most of the corps dancers at that time had to all live together in an apartment. They were not getting paid much and life was tough. No corps dancer (that was not independently wealthy) could afford to have their own apartment … alone in San Francisco.

That took me by surprise.

I had lived alone in Berlin and never needed a roommate.

Thing were not looking good, and I could feel the desire fading to be here in this city.

There are moments that one realizes that we cannot go back that far. It would require me to be back at Swiss townhouse (in New York City) with a roommate.
That was not what I wanted.
I finished my 5 days of audition. I went to Richard Cammack’s office and this time he was more ready for me.
Clearly his attitude had been slightly altered.

In my mind … it should have been.

It feels ridiculous to be in a school with young dancers, 15, 16, 17 years of age that are not professionals and to be compared to their level of dancing.
This time I sat down without him offering me a seat.


He looks at me directly and say, Well, we have decided that now you can go tomorrow to take company class with the San Francisco Ballet and do an official audition.

I look at him in irritation and frustration.

I had asked him how long he needed me. He said 5 days. Today was the 5th day and he knew my sister’s wedding was the next day. I was leaving on a plane that afternoon to go home.

He did all this on purpose. He wanted me to “cow tow” to his power and destroy my sister’s wedding in my longing for a position with San Francisco Ballet. He wanted to make me squirm and to throw me a curve.

I politely explained that I had told him the schedule and that he told me that he made the decisions not the San Francisco Ballet.
I again said my sister is getting married tomorrow and I am unable to do company class tomorrow.

He said that this was the way things were done here.

He said that at this time they were only willing to consider giving me an apprentice contract and that after a year they would consider if I was good enough to be in San Francisco Ballet.

He continued to say that they required every dancer in the company to come from their school and I would have to be an apprentice to show that I had belonged to his school. And that the salary for being an apprentice was $330 a week.
I sat back in the chair and said calmly, looking him right in the eyes, “You fail to realize, Mr. Cammack, that the best dancers in the world have not come from your school.”
“I came from SAB one of the best schools in the world. I already did this “student” dance. And I am not remotely interested in playing the game again. You clearly do not know who you are dealing with and that is clearly not your fault. You have never been outside California and do not understand the demands and levels of excellence that are in other countries and companies. It is not your fault that your awareness is so limited and narrow.
You think you sit on a throne, but it is a soap box that you painted gold. Besides one cannot live in San Francisco making only $330 a week. I am used to making much more money than that. The least I would take from San Francisco Ballet would be a corps contract because you have not seen me dance on stage here. But even that level is paid so poorly that I could not afford my own apartment in most places close to the theater.”
At this point, I clearly have his attention. I can see by the look in his eyes that no dancer has ever spoken back to him in this fashion. He is not sure what he is dealing with. There is a wild thing in his office, and he is not sure what to do next.

That is when the Lion in me consciously decided to burn the bridge to the ground. I knew what I was going to say next was the truth but that the truth was a fire that was going to explode out my mouth and that it would annihilate all things in its path. And the Lion in me did not care. She would not bow her head to a pretend king. She would not kiss a tin ring.

San Francisco was not my place. These were not my people. I would not waste another moment on this petty tyrant. He could keep his imitation crown and his counterfeit throne. I would follow my heart and there would be something else out there for me if that was my destiny.
If not, I would stay in Berlin.
I was looking for a feeling and this was not it.

I was looking for connection and spiritual family and he was not remotely in that category, nor would I want him in my spiritual group.
I understood now the financial challenges of American Ballet Companies and how the lack of respect and support helped to create such tyrants.
I respect those that show respect.
I offer kindness to those that are sincere.
I offer support to those that are willing to try.

But I do not break to please someone’s ego.
I do not allow the powers of others to control my wildness.
And I would rather die that give up everything that I had worked so hard to manifest.

For the right choreographer, I would give every drop of blood.
For the right director I would move past my comfort zone and reach for the stars.
For the right ballet coach, I would become the dream student that deeply listened to each and every nuance.

I knew I was searching for a place that those from my past were waiting. I knew we agreed to help and support each other on this continuing journey into the mysteries of the ballet world.
And I knew they were out there … somewhere.
Either I would find them, or they would find me.

And hopefully it would be a little bit of both.
A place like that did exist. And I would give up much to be there.

In the end it would all be worth it.

But things never go as planned and great growth always comes at a great cost. Powerful connections are molded in an intense fire of co-mingled passions.

People asks what it takes to be a ballet dancer.
My answer is that it costs everything you hold precious and dear. It is a cost that is not about money but a cost that is a hefty toll on the soul.

Greatness is a brand that is marked deep within.
It never stops burning. It never cools.
It only continues to ignite something that actively seeks the flames, the fire, and to burn through the human condition to become a light that transfers an intangible essence that awakens those ready to seek the fire for themselves.
~Suzanne Wagner~




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