The Sugarless Plum: A Memoir

The Sugarless Plum
Zippora Karz
The Sugarless Plum

In loving memory of my mother, Ellen, and my grandmother, Gloria

CONTENTS
 

As a child, I had a recurring dream. In my dream I'm a young girl gliding across a smooth, sandy-brown, claylike surface. My eyes are unfocused as I move gracefully in a figure eight on this round space. My feet are bare, yet I move with such fluid grace that it seems as though I'm wearing skates.

My legs are long and gangly like those of a newborn colt or filly, but they have strength. There is a smile on my face as I float in a reverie on this slippery, cool, smooth clay.

Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, I start to move faster, so fast that the clay surface dries, cracks and starts to fly up around me. I'm caught in a tornado of broken clay. The chunks…me…everything…are spinning out of control. I'm about to explode when suddenly the chunks recede, time slows, and I am gliding once more in my reverie.

PART ONE
On and Off My Toes
ONE

I'm twenty-one years old. For the past three years I've been a member of the New York City Ballet, a company revered by audiences, critics and dancers.

Tonight I'm in a brand-new ballet, Les Petits Riens, dancing a leading role, choreographed especially for me by the company's ballet-master-in-chief, Peter Martins. The ballet's premiere performance will be given at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center before an audience of 2,700 people.

For days I've been feeling that special, nervous anticipation that always precedes a premiere. This role is a tremendous step up in my career, an incredible honor.

Even though I'm excited, the truth is, I'm completely exhausted. Burned out. I'm trying not to complain because I figure that the other hundred dancers in the company are equally tired. We're at the end of a grueling four-month season. We've danced eight shows a week, and between performances we're taking class and rehearsing constantly.

I'm starting to wonder what's wrong with me. Lately, I'm always thirsty, I'm dizzy a lot, and I need to pee all the time. I've convinced myself it's because of my exhaustion, but that doesn't explain all these symptoms or account for the awful, oozing sores under my arms. They're getting worse, and the worse they get, the more they freak me out. When I raise my arms, the ripping and burning is almost intolerable, and dancers have to raise their arms a lot. I'm used to having minor irritations under my arms because, as a member of the corps de ballet, I wear a different costume every night and none of them was originally made to fit me. My shoulders are sloped, which means that the bodice is often too long and the stiff material rubs against my armpits as I dance. But the irritations have never developed into sores like the ones I have now.

Two weeks ago, during a break in rehearsals, I ran to the Urgent Care Center on West Seventy-second Street to see what I could do to get rid of the sores. The doctor there gave me a massive shot of antibiotics and sent me on my way. One week later, I had ten times the number of sores. After that, Peter Martins's secretary gave me the phone number of a dermatologist, who put me on a different antibiotic. Neither of the doctors had given me any explanation as to why they'd been getting worse instead of better.

A week later, I phoned the dermatologist to let him know the new antibiotic wasn't working. “Isn't there anything you can do to help me?” I begged. “Next week I'm dancing the most important performance of my life. I have to be able to lift my arms.”

“I'm just a dermatologist,” he said. “If you want more answers, you've got to get some blood work done.” I didn't have time for all these doctors, and I didn't understand what was so difficult about getting those sores to heal. It never occurred to me that this was anything more than a minor—albeit unsightly and painful—problem. But if I was going to dance, I needed to lift my arms. I had to do
something.
So, with the greatest reluctance, I took his advice, went to an internist and had blood work done.

Now another week has gone by and I've put the blood test out of my mind. I've calmed down about the sores. They're still there, but I'm not feeling the pain. I'm actually more concerned with how they look than how they feel, so I've been covering them with thick layers of pancake makeup. The sores make me feel like a fraud. Ballerinas are supposed to be delicate, ethereal creatures, and in some ways I still look the part: I have large dark eyes, a small head on a long neck, a slender, elongated body and expressive feet. But these days I feel more like a toad than a princess.

 

Sitting at my dressing table an hour before my premier performance in
Les Riens,
I look at my hands. It doesn't surprise me that they're shaking. Luckily, the dancer at the dressing table next to mine is my younger sister Romy, who joined the company this year. Even though we look a lot alike, she is now taller than I am. We're best friends, and in a tense situation like this she always knows exactly how I feel. I know how she feels, too; she's even more nervous for me than I am for myself.

We decide that I should wear a pair of her rhinestone earrings
onstage for good luck. That way she'll be with me—in a sense—when I'm dancing. This makes both of us feel better. It's time to put on my costume. It's gorgeous. Yellow silk trimmed in lace and pearls, with a tight, corset-like bodice, sleeves that come to just above the elbows, and a short, starched peplum skirt. Except for the fact that the skirt ends at the top of my thigh, it's made to look like what a lady would have worn in the time of Mozart. The only problem is that it's way too tight. My appetite is driving me crazy. I'm hungry all the time and I can't stop eating. It's got to be nerves. I hope that's all it is.

But now, with the premiere less than an hour away, I have to find a pair of pointe shoes—a perfect pair. The shoes I need tonight have to be soft enough to conform to my feet, but not too soft. I must have a pair like that somewhere, but where? I rifle through the ever-present tangle of items on my dressing room floor: worn-out tights, practice clothes, a mass of pointe shoes, some stiff and new, others danced ragged. Without the right pointe shoes, I won't be able to do the first turn of my solo; it's incredibly difficult and if it isn't perfect, my entire performance will be sunk.

The right shoes can make the difference between a good and bad performance. I put on pair after pair and try them out by rising up on the tips of my toes. At last, a pair I can use. Finally.

I lace up the shoes, crossing their pink-satin ribbons in front of my ankle. I wrap the ribbons one time around, then tie them in a tight knot toward the inside of my ankle. I look in the mirror: hair looks fine, makeup looks good.

I squeeze my false eyelashes between my thumb and index finger to make sure they'll stay glued when the sweat starts pouring.

With less than a half hour to go before the performance, I'm worn out by my own emotions: I'm jittery and excited at one moment, frozen in panic the next. I have to dance better than I've ever danced.
Les Petits Riens
is a great chance for me, but it could be my last chance if I don't keep up with the other dancers.

As a dancer, I've always been passionate and expressive. My challenge is technical strength. I'm more colt than thoroughbred, and my current physical condition is making my footwork shaky. It may be perfectly precise one moment, and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, I fall off my pointes. Dancers need to be in control of every part of their body, from their fingers to the tips of their toes. That connection is essential, and lately, I don't have it. No wonder I've lost the confidence I've struggled so hard to attain.

Confidence can make the difference between just dancing and dancing well. It's what allows a ballerina to weather the vulnerabilities of being barely clothed onstage, of risking falling down or looking ridiculous with every leap or turn. Confidence propels a performance. It allows you to manage the dichotomies that come with ballet: trying to make impossibly difficult moves look easy; having to be the embodiment of femininity as you execute steps that require an athlete's strength and stamina.

The combined loss of confidence and physical ability explains why I've been getting fewer good parts lately. It hurts to be excluded from ballets I love, especially those choreographed by
Jerome Robbins, who has singled me out in the past and given me the honor of dancing leading roles in his works.

 

Outside the ballet world, Robbins is best known as the director and choreographer of hit Broadway musicals like
West Side Story
and
Fiddler on the Roof.
But he would tell you that his most substantive and significant career has been with New York City Ballet. Jerry is NYCB's resident genius, the only person gifted enough to assume the mantle of George Balanchine, who was the co-founder of NYCB and generally recognized as the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century.

When Balanchine was alive, every dancer in the company had the same dream: that Mr. B, as he was known, would choose him or her to dance one of his new works. In the three years since his death, we've all come to dream of being chosen by Jerry. In my view, working with Jerry, being nurtured by his genius, would lead me on the path to realizing my dream of becoming a great dancer. This is the dream I've nurtured since I was fifteen, when I moved to New York to study at the School of American Ballet, the school that Balanchine established as a training ground for his company. It was there that I discovered the world of Balanchine, and came to dream that my dancing might make me a small part of his legacy. If I dreamed bigger, it would be to someday become a soloist, one of the rare and special dancers who are featured in leading roles, an experience that allows the ultimate freedom of expression.

It's been exactly one year since Jerry chose me to dance the
role he created for the great Gelsey Kirkland in
The Goldberg Variations,
his masterpiece. At NYCB, it is customary to give big chances to young dancers. Balanchine loved to single out future stars from the corps de ballet and thrust them into the limelight. Peter Martins followed suit, and it was he who picked me, during my second year with the company, to be the Sugar Plum Fairy in
The Nutcracker.
Jerry had his eye on me, as well, and a few weeks after I danced Sugar Plum he cast me in Kirkland's role.

I put my entire being into it, and I did well.

For a time.

 

Minutes before the curtain goes up, the phone in the hallway rings. It's the only phone for the thirty-five female corpsdancers who share a huge dressing room on the fourth floor. I don't have time to answer it, but I hear another dancer calling, “It's for you, Zippora.”

Who could be calling me? Reluctantly, I head down the hall. It's the switchboard operator.

“Your doctor called again today,” he says. “She said it was urgent.”

Damn. She's called every day this week, sometimes twice a day. I'm rehearsing all the time and keep forgetting to call her back. What could possibly be so urgent?

 

It's now five minutes before the performance. The eight dancers in
Riens
are onstage. Even as the audience enters the theater we're behind the heavy curtain, still practicing, still trying to perfect intricacies of partnering and footwork. My reviews last year for
The Nutcracker
were nothing less than spec
tacular. In the
New York Times,
Jennifer Dunning wrote that my Sugar Plum was “a smooth blend of regal ballerina manners and the coltish classical purity of a student.” In the
New York Post
, Clive Barnes hailed me as a “potential star.” Now I'm on the stage with seven other potential stars. As in every company, there are more dancers than leading roles, so we're all competing for a slice of a very small pie.

“What's the matter?” one of the dancers asks me.

“I can hardly breathe,” I say. “My costume's too tight.”

Another dancer overhears me. “Oh, really?” she says, “Mine's too loose.”

You bitch,
I think, but say nothing.

Moments before the performance begins, I give my partner, Peter Boal, a quick hug.
“Merde,”
all eight of us call out to one another, our voices overlapping.
Merde
means “shit” in French. Before a show, it's our way of saying “break a leg” or “good luck.”

It's bad luck to say “thank you.” Dancers are nothing if not superstitious. If someone tells you
“Merde,”
you just smile and say
“Merde”
back.

The stage manager calls out, “Dancers, stand by.” The house lights dim. The excited murmuring of the audience gives way to silence. For the next few moments there will be darkness both in the house, where the audience sits waiting, and on the stage, where the dancers are poised to begin. I take my pose. Slowly, inexorably, the heavy curtain rises. Suddenly, the stage is bathed in light. I feel a chill as cold air from the house washes over me. I look at the conductor. He raises his baton. When the baton
sweeps downward the orchestra explodes in sound as the Mozart score begins.

We start to move. I think about how much I love dancing with my peers. Once a performance starts, all feelings of competition are set aside. I love the secret looks we give one another; I love the way we urge one another on with our eyes. The opening section finishes. I'm breathing heavily as I bow to the audience. Six dancers leave the stage. Only Peter and I remain to dance a pas de deux, followed by our solos.

The stage is eerily silent as I walk across it, soundless in my pointe shoes. I take my pose opposite Peter. The audience is hushed, expectant. The music begins softly. It is sweet, loving, innocent. I love this music, I love these steps, I love the way Peter and I play together onstage. Too soon, it ends. We bow; the audience applauds.

I run offstage utterly exhausted. Mercifully, Peter's solo is first.

While he's onstage, I'm supposed to be resting, but that's out of the question. My solo comes next and I'm totally intimidated by the very first step, that incredibly difficult turn—harder than any turn I've ever had to do—that turn for which I needed the perfect pair of shoes. When Peter Martins choreographed that turn, he and I were both shocked at how perfectly I did it the very first time out. But it was a fluke, and every day since then I've had to re-create that fluke in rehearsals. Tonight I have to nail it. I take a practice turn and fall off my toe. Now I'm terrified.

Suddenly Jerome Robbins appears backstage. He steps out of the darkness into the first wing, the very place from which Balan
chine used to watch every performance. I shouldn't notice. I'm supposed to be focused on my steps. But all I can think of is how he replaced me with a younger dancer in
The Goldberg Variations.

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