It's 4 PM on Sunday, and some two dozen men are standing around the fringes of the Civic Opera House stage. It's chilly and dark, and they keep their coats on as they hang around near the bare brick wall along the side of the stage. This is "the wings"--but there's nothing to mark off the wings from the rest of the bare, sprawling room. The opera house's 4,000 seats are blocked from view by a fire curtain, and the space looks like a loft.
In a couple of days the stage will have been transformed into a mythical Indian palace for American Ballet Theatre's La Bayadere. It's for that ballet these men have turned out to audition--not as dancers, but as "supers": supernumeraries, or spear-carriers as they're routinely called in the opera world. The supers in La Bayadere won't be carrying spears; they will, however, be carrying peacock feathers, dead tigers, and other Indian exotica.
Shirley Stanley moves among the men, taking their names down in a blue plastic binder labeled Decatur Memorial Hospital Diet Manual. A slim, energetic, blond woman of 49, Stanley is ABT's Chicago super recruiter. A lifelong Decatur resident, she comes to the city annually during ABT's engagements to oversee the auditions.
"Like all little girls I took dancing lessons," Stanley says. "In grade school you can do it all. In high school I knew if I was going to be serious I needed to go somewhere else. So I gave it up"--and became a dietician instead. She's the godmother of ABT dancer Roger Van Fleteren, the son of an old friend of hers, and through him has become very close to ABT principal dancer Wes Chapman. She was excited to learn that Chapman and Van Fleteren would be dancing together in this season's Romeo and Juliet--until she found out they were cast respectively as Romeo and his rival Paris: "I was so thrilled to be seeing them both in the same ballet till I found out Wes was going to kill Roger!"
Stanley attracts supers through notices sent to dance studios and colleges, as well as by word of mouth through a network she's developed over the years. The biggest response doesn't come from dancers, she says, but from fans who are lured by her ad, which proclaims: "Being onstage in the performance, in costume, with the dancers is definitely the best seat in the house!" They certainly aren't drawn by the wages: $5 for rehearsals (which can last four or five hours) and $10 per show. "We call it travel reimbursement," says ABT stage manager Lori Rosecrans.
A super cattle call is "a nightmare," Stanley says. "You don't know until the minute they walk in if you've got 3 or 3,000." Today's turnout is a disappointment; 30 supers are needed, and she'd hoped for at least 50 applicants so that ballet masters David Richardson and Wendy Walker would have a lot to choose from. "I put the information on the Dancers Hotline but evidently we got no call from that," Stanley says. "One dancer called and said he'd do it if we raised the price 50 percent"; she told him no. Another woman wanted to know if her kids could take class with the company if she would super; another caller wanted to know if Michael Owen was married--if not, could Stanley fix her up with him? "I've fielded a lot of calls."
Stanley is very protective of her regular supers: "The pedestrians," she calls them. "They're supportive, enthusiastic, and this gives them a chance to see the performance from the best seat in the house.ÉI don't want a bunch of actor-slash-waiters to come in and take all the jobs away. Some of these people are such faithfuls."
Roger Weir is one of these. A tall, thin redhead in his 30s, he works as a computer analyst by day and spends many evenings and weekends supering at the Lyric Opera and for dance troupes. The reason is simple: "I enjoy dance so much," he says. "I'm just greedy to watch as much dance as I can.ÉIf you're lucky enough to be in the right scene and the right part you can be onstage a long time."
Richardson and Walker sit on folding chairs downstage center, eyeing the recruits. What kinds of things are they looking for in their supers? "First of all, a certain height," says Walker in a light Australian accent. Dark-skinned men are especially useful in La Bayadere--"but we're easy," says Richardson. As for physiques, "Although we like men who look like they're part of the company, sort of slender, we can camouflage a little bit," says Richardson. "We have priests in La Bayadere, and priests wear robes." The most important thing, both agree, is that the supers look like they belong onstage: "They have to blend in with the scenery and with the dancers. The audience shouldn't be able to tell the difference between who's in the company and who's not."
Richardson and Walker call the men to the center of the stage, where Richardson efficiently divides them into four groups. He doesn't explain his thinking, and he and Walker do little verbal consulting; years of shared experience have forged a bond of consent between them: they both know what they're looking for. They direct four slim, smallish men to the left side of the stage; these will be "tiger men," who enter carrying a dead tiger on a pole. Ten taller men are lined up opposite the four; these will be priests. Richardson arranges the ten into two parallel lines of five, speaking quickly and quietly as he works: "You're temple priestsÉyou'll be wearing long robesÉa little dark makeup--you'll be very ethnic-looking....You're not the first thing onstage but you're very near to it. Don't break ranks....It doesn't have to be German. Just walk.... Follow along like--who were the ones who dropped the crumbs? Hansel and Gretel?--follow along in a line."
He walks them in a long, circuitous procession around the stage, singing the Bayadere score for accompaniment: "Dum-da-dum-dum...I have a flat--voice--but it sounds like that..."
Meanwhile, Walker claps the beat. "I'd like to use the same--foot," Richardson sings, adjusting one man's out-of-sync pace.
As the "priests" rehearse, the other supers stand and watch, waiting for their turn. One is a tall, gray-haired man in his 50s named Tony Goodall; this is his first outing as an ABT super, but not for lack of trying. "I've tried a couple of times before, but was rejected--or not chosen, depending on how you want to put it," laughs Goodall, who drove in from Clarendon Hills with his wife Nancy for the occasion. "I'm one of the ostrich holders."
Goodall became acquainted with ballet when his daughter Jane started studying classical dance. She's now studying with the Cleveland Ballet. One year the Goodalls brought Jane to try out for an ABT super job; the company didn't need any young girls, but they liked Nancy and put her to work. This year it's Tony's turn; meanwhile, Nancy sits off to the side reading and watching. "I've been waiting for this to come around," says Nancy. "It's really neat to be part of it."
Meanwhile Stanley is in the doorman's office on the phone, leaving messages on answering machines: "Hi. Shirley Stanley. Help! I'm on the 40th floor on a window ledge. We need more men for Bayadere..." Later, she reflects: "There are times you feel like you're in a high school play, it's that seat-of-the-pantsish. Then you realize the immensity of it--4,000 people sitting in the theater, the millions of dollars that go in and out..."
The priests line up, and Richardson explains what's going to be happening around them when ABT dancers come on as beautiful ladies and "nasty gargoyle people." Then Richardson beckons to one boy, who apparently has just happened to wind up in the farthest downstage position. This boy, dark-skinned with a little gold ring in his left ear, is given a brief but important solo spot: at the bidding of a Brahmin lord played by one of the dancers, he must walk center stage, bow, go offstage, and return to herald the arrival of the lead dancer. "Not too fast and not too slow," Richardson says over his shoulder as he leads the boy through his paces. "That's too slow." But when the boy repeats the sequence, Richardson is obviously pleased with his pace and posture--it's solemn but not sluggish, elegant but not affected.
The priests are given a few minutes off and they head offstage, where nine of them hang around together, talking quietly; but the boy stands off by himself, still and self-contained; every so often a little movement indicates that he's mentally rehearsing his part. "I'm just trying to get myself into the scene," he explains. His name is John Landeroz; he's a student at Mather High School and an aspiring dancer, and this is his first stint as an ABT super. He's known he wanted to dance since he was 12, and has danced for the past two years in the annual Nutcracker at Arie Crown. He's seen ABT a lot over the years. What does he like best about the company? He gasps a little laugh of awe and excitement --like how could anyone ask such a question? "Their choreography: it's amazing," he says, keeping his eye on the rehearsal onstage. Then he goes off by himself to silently rehearse his little bow.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Beth Silverman.