Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring in I’m Old-Fashioned (NYCB)
Rebecca Krohn and Adrian Danchig-Waring in I’m Old-Fashioned (NYCB)
Alice Cao in Trinette Singleton’s Dreams Interrupted (American Repertory Ballet, 2014)
“While only 5’2”, she fills a room like symphony orchestra music,“
Delman writes of Copeland. "Her beauty is matched by her enthusiasm,
elegance, polish, and dedication to her art. With every step she
Photos by Gregg Delman
“Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” featuring Oliver
Beres of Carolina Ballet and a sculpture designed by Guy Solie (photo by Nigel Armes
Sea nymphs frolic in “Neptune, the Mystic” (photo by Nigel Armes Photography)
Photo by Rick Guest
“Doctor, I want my hip bone.”
Doctor Padgett did a double take.
“I want my bone, you know, what you’ll be taking out.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, “you’ll have to talk to pathology about that.”
Down the hall, the pathologist said sure. A couple of weeks after
surgery you can have it. (First they would have to conduct the routine
tests on any newly removed body part.)They both asked me the same question: “Why?” I wasn’t sure, I just
knew I wanted it. Perhaps I didn’t want to part with the part of me that
had caused me the most pain without having a final word.
So I got the OK. That and the promise of a small—well,
smallish—incision, and I agreed after more than two decades of delay to
go under the knife with the hope of trading more pain for less. Though
being a ballet dancer, it really wasn’t to lessen the physical pain that
I finally decided to have my hip replaced. It was because of the
increasing loss of mobility. Life was getting smaller, and my hip was
starting to rule.
At the age of twenty-three when I was dancing for Balanchine in the
New York City Ballet, I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my right
hip while on tour in Europe. It all began when I couldn’t swoop my right
leg up to the side during the opening minutes of Serenade one
night at Tivoli. After many exams and X-rays I got one of those “Honey,
sit down, it’s all over, your career is finished” talks from the company
orthopedist. Needless to say I did not obey, though I did have to go to
bed for three months to allow the inflammation to subside. A year
later, with the help of Indocin and daily physical therapy, I got back
on stage and danced for another eighteen months. But then other
injuries, the body’s compensation, started adding up and I knew the time
I stopped dancing, but refused to give up my hip. It was my battle
wound, proof of having attained victory over that great defiant physical
act upon which all classical ballet is delicately perched: turn-out.
(Contrary to common belief, true turn-out—the outward rotation of the
legs so that the knees are pointing in 180-degree opposition—is a
pivoting in the hip socket, not in the knees or feet.) One of the many
ironies is that I lost the ability to turn-in: I was trapped turned-out.
Ha! I suppose I thought that in keeping the bone after it was removed I
was losing less somehow.
Not a very appropriate fear for a ballerina, for whom dancing is, by
definition, a conscious act of loss. A ballet dancer goes onstage on a
given night, in a specific theater, in a specific ballet and executes,
in a specific fraction of musical time a movement that is already past
just as it appears. And it takes far more than 10,000 hours of practice
and repetition to make this movement exquisite, worthy. A dancer’s
entire career consists of these moments of non-existence; they are not
even fleeting, they are, somehow, never there at all, a shadow in
someone else’s mind at best.
I first realized this at age seventeen, having already focused
thirteen years on the pursuit of this particular kind of beauty. I had
just been chosen by Balanchine to join his company, and when finally
dancing his ballets on his stage, the real task at hand became apparent.
I feared not having the courage to endure this kind of transience—this
was spiritual work of a very high order; the physical work paled beside
it. Terror sent me into a kind of scribbling frenzy in an attempt to
salvage myself from what felt like complete extinction. (Surely dancing
is the saddest of the arts in its fragility—for architects, sculptures,
painters, writers, composers, musicians, actors, their work resides
legitimately outside themselves. Not so dancers. And don’t talk to me
about the two-dimensional horrors of video and DVDs!)
So now, decades later, I envisioned a parched white Georgia O’Keefe
bone, my eroded femur head, on a shelf in my house, a fossil, evidence
of those millions of lost moments dancing, now solid, externalized.
Proof. (Of what? God knows.)
Two weeks after surgery, as promised, Mrs. Wong, my doctor’s office
manager, called to say my bone was back from pathology and ready for
pick up. Well, the Georgia O’Keefe fantasy quickly vanished. Sitting on
Mrs. Wong’s desk in an opaque quart-sized Tupperware container with a
crooked orange hand-written label were pieces of something floating in
formaldehyde. She handed it to me, and suggested that if I was taking it
on the airplane to California I should put it in my checked luggage so
as to not concern security with the “What is THAT?” question, not to
mention the liquid it was in.
Once back from the hospital I gingerly opened the container: nothing
in there looked remotely like anything from an anatomy book. Now, Mrs.
Wong had also told me that if I wanted to preserve my “souvenir” on dry
land I needed to have a taxidermist extract the fatty tissues from the
bone so it wouldn’t go rancid. One hundred thousand dollars of medical
bills and I still needed a taxidermist.
Back in Los Angeles I let the Tupperware sit in its cocoon of
bubblewrap in the corner of my dining room bureau for several weeks.
Finally I Googled “taxidermists Los Angeles” and came up with several
places. Game Master Taxidermy was the one closest to me. It was already
10 p.m. but I thought I’d call and see what information the recording
would give me about hours and parking.
“Hello,” a man’s voice said.
“Oh, er, ah, sorry, ah—is this the taxidermist? I thought you’d be closed…”
“Yeah, this is the taxidermist and yeah we’re closed.” Images of him
in some dark workshop drying out the dead late into the night came to
mind. I explained that I needed my recently removed hip bone “treated”
in some fashion. He warmed up a little. It was illegal, he explained,
for him to have human bones on his premises—at least the kind that are
free-floating. “But I can tell you what to do. It’s very easy,” he said
Here’s the recipe he gave me:
- Boil bones on the stove in plenty of water for one hour.
- Drain and soak in cold water for 30 minutes.
- Soak in a solution of 50 percent bleach, 50 percent water for twenty minutes.
- Let dry outside in the sun
Well, I’d come this far and I wasn’t going to stop now. But, what if,
as they came to a boil, there was a smell? By now I had realized that
step one was the same as making chicken broth and I wondered if I should
have added a carrot and celery stick, a bay leaf and some whole
peppercorns like my mother did. Human broth. What if my cats started
yowling like they do when they smell chicken broth? But, I reasoned, I
am not a chicken—and I wasn’t going to avoid smelling it. It was a rare
opportunity. I stuck my nose into the pot like Julia Child and inhaled
deeply. The aroma was mild and, well, not so bad.
As directed, I drained the pot into a colander observing, I’m proud
to report, very little fat on the surface of the liquid. Less than with a
chicken. And no, I didn’t save the broth. I’m not crazy.
There on the bottom of my red plastic colander that had held so many
strands of pasta was my hip. Sort of. This was the first time I had
really seen the pieces not submerged in liquid. I had to look in brief
flashes to get used to it. There was me, the inside on the outside, and
it sure didn’t look pretty. I had hoped to see the arthritis that had
caused the end of my dance career at an age young even for a dancer. I
wanted to confront the enemy and see that it was real. Even now, all
these years later, I still think I should have been able to cure my
injury, alleviate the pain and increase my motion with enough sleep,
steak, cod liver oil, time, acupuncture, physical therapy, and Pilates.
Like a child, I thought my bad hip was my fault. I wanted to face it
now, to confirm somehow that I could not, with all the will in the
world, have overcome it and danced again.
So there it was, the femur head in two halves (pathology had cut it
in half). But there were numerous other pieces, bits, God knows what.
Yuck. Maybe the bleach would, at least, turn everything white, purify
it. It didn’t. And neither did the sun.
I have since brought my bones inside. I’m no longer scared of them,
just curious. They simply don’t make any sense. I can look at my X-ray
and see what got taken out but there are many rough, asymmetrical,
curved, chunky, twisted, strange pieces that don’t fit. When I showed
them to Dr. Padgett during a check-up back in New York (yes, I packed
them up and took them on the plane back East again) he wrinkled his nose
and drew back—not exactly how you want your surgeon to react to your
insides, especially the parts he removed himself. He shrugged and said
he had no idea what they were. Jeez. Then he explained that the smooth,
mottled, marble-colored side of the femur head, the only part of the
bone that was beautiful to me, was the “arthritis,” meaning the place
where the cartilage was gone entirely: arthritis is an absence—pure,
smoothed-down bone surface. Inside the sliced bone it looked like
honeycomb.Maybe I’ll glue the femur head back together so at least it looks
more like a femur head. For now an elastic band holds the two sides as
one. But the truth is that all the pieces do not fit together and they
never will. I guess they didn’t inside me either. That was the trouble.
They sit now in a wooden box that belonged to Balanchine, that he
painted himself, that I was given by Father Adrian who buried him. Next
to the box, I keep the last pair of pointe shoes I ever wore on stage.
The coffin of my career.
Tanaquil Le Clercq’s technique was so before her time.
Maria Tallchief, first principal ballerina of Native American orgin, speaks in admiration of Tanaquil.