The premiere performance of Ballet Chicago was a colossal production; it consisted of nine ballets, four of them performed by guest artists who arrived in town only the day before the event. The single rehearsal that preceded it, uniting for the first time all the dancers, costumes, and music, was hardly a graceful undertaking. It was a battle of wits and will between two groups who barely spoke each other’s language: the dancers, cranky and tired, who use an esoteric sign language to indicate the steps that they’re too tired to dance, and the musicians, cranky and tired, much of whose jargon is Italian, the rest odd mathematics. In the background are the directors, huddled in a little knot of nerves, whispering and sputtering as the dilemmas unroll: Would the dancers stay on the music? Would the music follow the dancers? How much would the musicians’ overtime cost? Would the conductor pop a vessel?
The conductor in question, George Daugherty, is clearly king of the rehearsal. A small, boyish, and slightly pudgy man, with a ruddy tan and thick blond hair, he looks like he just dropped in from Malibu. And left his sunny disposition behind.
Janie Parker and Li Cunxin, principal dancers of the Houston Ballet, are rehearsing Ben Stevenson’s Esmeralda. Parker wears a black leotard and wool leggings, hair piled on her head with most of it spilling over her face.
“I’m sorry–I think we should take this adagio just a weensy bit slower,” she drawls. Daugherty nods, cries “Mezzo forte!” and the music begins again. Again Parker stops. “I don’t know why I can’t seem to get more out of this,” she whines.
“This is taking too much time,” Daugherty mutters to Daniel Duell, the artistic director, who is seated behind him. But they play it again.
“A little editorial decision,” Daugherty announces to the pit. “We’ll break before the triplets–bum . . . ba bum . . . ba da dada bum.” The musicians nod and mark their scores.
“Could we pick it up but then pull it back out at the end like we did–is that weird?” Parker squeaks. “Can I have another little teeny-weeny breath?”
They repeat her variation and launch into the coda. Parker executes a series of fouette turns, banging a tambourine each time she whips around. “When in doubt, you have that tambourine,” Daugherty shouts to her above the orchestra. “If I’m off, just go for it. I’ll be right with you.” He looks at the pit and shrugs, “Ah, ballet!”
The curtain refuses to rise for the next piece. “Oh, jeez Louise,” cries Patricia Blair, Duell’s assistant, as she leaps up. “The curtain didn’t open, the dancers can’t dance, what the hell is going on?” She runs up the aisle to the lighting booth.
The curtain finally rises. The Ballet Chicago dancers prance on, in Joseph Duell’s Jubilee! Two girls in the corps bump into each other; the two principals are out of sync. One stops, frustrated; the other dances on, oblivious.
“Dancers,” the soft-spoken Duell says, waving his arms to get their attention. “A very clear rhythm. We need to know that you know.”
Daugherty is carrying on a running conversation with the first violinist as he pumps his baton.
“Could we have an extra bar happening there?” he says. “There’s a half note after the violin, or a quarter note. Are you holding?” he asks, like a mother trying to potty-train her child.
“I’m not holding anything!” the violinist retorts.
“Take the last seven bars again,” Daugherty announces. “Hopefully we’ll go on, if we don’t crash and burn.”
Duell waves his arms again and says, “Uh, dancers, really charge in on that piece.”
Jubilee! is finally dispatched, and the next dance is Le corsaire, a pas de deux featuring Argentinean guest performer Maximiliano Guerra. He is bare chested, small boned like a matador. He enters grandly, standing high on the balls of his feet. He strides to the opposite corner, carrying his arms aloft as if he were leaping, then runs downstage and poses. He stops, waving his hands desperately at Duell.
“The very beegeening,” he says in a whisper. “Leetle slower.”
“Where?” asks Duell.
“The very beegeening,” Guerra repeats. “Leetle slower.” He shows his pose from the entrance.
Duell and Daugherty are still confused. They begin to sing.
“Ba ba bum?” sings Duell. “Dee dee dum?” sings Daugherty. Guerra sings back, they all nod, and begin the piece over again. From the very beginning.
“This piece has to be played with multo conviction!” Daugherty announces to his musicians. “Andante expressimo!” The musicians launch into the music with vivid passion.
As Guerra stretches out in his final kneeling pose, Daugherty turns to Duell and bellows, as if his engines were going to blow: “You can’t wait any longer than that! There’s no more music there!” Guerra stands up, hands on hips, and curls his lip. He walks off the stage.
“He really leaves the stage?” asks Daugherty. “He really leaves the stage,” sighs Blair.
“If he takes this long, the audience is going to be going out the door,” Daugherty snickers.
Guerra finally returns, and walks through the steps of his solo, crooking his fingers and waving his arms with deep concentration.
“I get my cues from him dancing,” Daugherty sputters to Duell. “And I’ve never seen it.” Duell says nothing. Guerra finishes his charade and strolls off.
Sherry Moray enters for her solo. She dances full out, whipping into fouette turns like a power drill. Guerra joins her for the coda, still only tracing his movements. Daugherty looks at Duell and sneers. Duell shrugs. As the two dancers come together for their finale, in which Guerra spins Moray into a series of pirouettes, Daugherty shouts, “Whoa–we’ve never settled this! I gotta know how many they do!” Duell sputters, tongue-tied. Daugherty wags a finger at the dancers. “Show me with them,” he says to Duell. “Out, and pose. That’s how it’s always been. It’s more important to be on the music than to get an extra five pirouettes in.”
The dancers repeat their finish, editing the pirouettes, and their ending is right on the music. Moray sniffles and limps off. Guerra is bent over double, chest heaving. Daugherty seems mollified. He wipes his face with the back of his hand and runs it through his hair
Three more ballets are rehearsed: Balanchine’s Apollo, danced by Moray and Steven Majewicz; James Kudelka’s Alliances, danced by Katia Breton and Nicholas Minns of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; and Lento, a tempo e apassionato by Vincente Nebrada, danced by Deborah Hadley and Benjamin Houk of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Daugherty becomes increasingly red and very damp, while Duell gets cooler and quieter. Dancers whose ballets have already passed scrutiny begin to fill the seats around me, propping their feet up, clapping wearily for their fellows.
Li and Parker come out for a last run through Esmeralda. Parker still is not satisfied with the timing.
“Sorry, George, can we just do the end one more time?” she says. Daugherty turns to Duell and says, “We’ve got to go very quickly. We’ve got to go. Dan, we’ve got to go or we’re going to be in a third overtime.” Duell nods and mumbles, and the music repeats. A faint clapping is heard at the end of Parker’s solo. It is Duell, smiling bravely.
Parker beams, and says, looking down at the pit: “I have to applaud y’all–it’s been a long day, hasn’t it?”