Nothing like a good ballet school audition to remind you you’re not at the center of the universe.
This is not a bad thing. It had already dawned on you years earlier in a classroom full of young ballet hopefuls when you did not get the instructor’s attention you so felt you deserved one afternoon. And later when the short-tempered Armenian-born artistic director of the ballet school and company blew his lid around 9 p.m. when you and your third-grader colleagues were being mindless and silly instead of focused, when he was running the same Nutcracker scene for the umpteenth time in rehearsal. (You could not help yourself at that hour past your bedtime, nor could he.)
Film director Robert Altman tried to illustrate this ballet condition in The Company, a plotless 2003 indie drama that trudges on unrelentingly to its final unsatisfying scene. It owes whatever wider appeal it might have enjoyed (if any) to headliners James Franco and Neve Campbell. The Company at least gifts the balletomanes among us a few lovely Joffrey Ballet performances in classes, rehearsals, and on the stage (hence the title) between its other tiresome and self-indulgent scenes.
And it does shine a light, however dim, on an irksome problem that persists in the ballet world, a thing that raises hackles and occasionally inspires serious discussion: the antiquated directorial practice of addressing company personnel as boys and girls, instead of men and women (or ladies and gentlemen), or occasionally more endearingly but still too childlike, “babies” and “dears.” The tone is not always sweet: you can discern the meaning in its delivery, like when a rude sibling blurts out something inappropriate at the holiday dinner table and a savvy aunt responds, “Well, bless your heart.” Makes you feel “dear” right down to your socks, doesn’t it?
The tone of the delivery was something else slowly dawning on your third grade self in ballet class, especially since your mom danced in the company and you watched rehearsals all the time: you had a full frontal dose of it—ballet directors could be brutal. The beauty of this arrangement, perhaps its salvation, was that ballet directors could also make you pee yourself laughing, because they often muted the decorum filter, to everyone’s amusement. Many still do; it takes a “big” personality to fill those shoes.
After the filming of that movie Robert Altman observed he’d never directed a group of people so pliant and obedient (I’m paraphrasing). He went on, You’re on set and say to nobody in particular, where are the dancers? And all of a sudden fifty of ‘em are right there—actors are nothing like that.
Sounds like a compliment, unless he was suggesting dancers are all a bunch of lemmings; I have known a few lemmings in the ballet world, only they’re called bunheads.
Michael Maule died last week at 95: he was one of the first people to help me understand I was not at the center of the universe, in a most polite and humane way. Anything but a lemming himself, Mr. Maule possessed an impressive pedigree on Broadway and in ballet, but by the mid-to-late-1970s when I knew him he was the distinguished director of the National Academy of Arts: it was an unlikely school with a star-studded faculty in Champaign, Illinois, operating in the 1970s, limping along financially towards the end of its life before it finally folded for good around 1978.
I would meet Michael Maule at a school audition when I was 12. But because I attended the school only in the summers and he occasionally took time away from his teaching post then, I remember him mainly as the man who gave the audition classes, together with his colleague and school administrator Mary Moore, a woman who possessed exotic red fingernails and wore the best costume jewelry ever: Ms. Moore was the antithesis of the gauzy, pastel ballet world I knew, a quality that demanded one’s full attention. The pair toured the country recruiting kids to the school; when they announced a stop in Memphis my ballerina mom informed me I would be there.
And so I was, neat as a pin in my plain black leotard with a number pinned to the front, my hair shellacked into a perfect ballerina bun—a veritable bunhead. It would be my first residential performing arts school audition, for the only residential school I ever attended, but by no means my last audition class.
However well my mom prepared me for that experience, I could not have been fully prepared for the scrutiny to which these two kind people were about to subject the young auditionees in that classroom, a space long familiar to me but now commandeered by aliens: Mr. Maule with his exotic accent (South African born, of Scottish lineage), and Mary Moore with her distinctly metropolitan demeanor. They called us in one by one to stand in front of them. Please take first arabesque à terre, Ms. German. (Snap, went the Polaroid.) Thank you. Please stand in first. Thank you. Please give us battement tendu à la seconde, thank you, arms in seconde. (Snap, snap, whisper whisper.) Thank you. Please lie on your back in “frog”—place the soles of the feet together. (What the hell? Somebody is manipulating my legs and hips, there is more discussion.) Thank you, Ms. German. Please take your place at the barre.
A few weeks later came the acceptance letter together with the audition evaluation in multiple pages, an “x” marking the spot in one of three columns (excellent, fair, or undeveloped/needs improvement) next to every movement under scrutiny. Sometimes the “x” was typed a little clumsily between the two columns, a reminder that a scoring rubric can’t tell the whole story. But the best part was Mr. Maule’s thoughtful essay in which he shone a light—the brightest one—on every inch of me: who among us does not relish a story written with us as its main character? I remember the best and the worst of it: tightness in the hips, extension of the legs not where it should be for my age, weak pirouette on the left. But then: “a lovely arch was noted in the feet,” pointe work was “stronger than average” for my age.
So it was true: I could go on living with myself, warts and all. Mainly, I was one dancer of many with some gifts, but much work still to do. As always it remained up to me to determine my own destiny, however lemming-like my behavior at 12 or 13. Mr. Maule helped me understand that lesson through his kind smile that day, and on a few more occasions before everything was said and done.
But Michael Maule also unknowingly prepared me for an especially brutal audition in Toronto, Ontario, before the legendary Betty Oliphant at my mom’s own alma mater, Canada’s National Ballet School (in a weirdly ironic plot twist, it would be Neve Campbell’s alma mater, too). That audition was for the academic year ahead and did not go as I hoped: the school had room to take only two girls in my audition class of about 15 or 20. Ms. Oliphant was an observer that day, one of many adjudicators who sat at a long table watching the class; candidates were eliminated in rounds.
I made it through to the final round of cuts, but was let go just before pointe work, something I was keen to demonstrate, shored up as I was by Mr. Maule’s words; afterwards I tried hard to fight back tears, but Ms. Oliphant sprinted over to speak to me and my mom, the woman she’d taught ballet as a girl, and who in turn was now teaching me. She placed her arm around my shoulder, looked me square in the eyes and said, Continue your studies and please come back to us.
Without hesitating I quipped, Thank you, I am going to the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois.
My mom could not have been prouder of me that day: most assuredly not at the center of the universe, I was undeniably in command of my own destiny. Thank you, Mr. Maule, wherever you are.