Essays - Winter 2008

Balanchine’s Cabinet

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A young woman wins a drawing and learns to give and to receive

By Ann Hagman Cardinal

December 1, 2007


 

My fingertips run over the cabinet’s coffee bean–colored finish. The carvings—gods, devils, and angels dancing along the edge in high relief—­suggest a Hieronymus Bosch painting. My hand stops before reaching the cabinet’s center, the spot where the finish has worn off the mahogany. His head had rested here. Balanchine’s. The greatest choreographer of the 20th century. I step back to take in the imposing cabinet we have just moved into the living room of our small, 100-year-old farmhouse in Vermont.

Balanchine’s armoire came into my life 15 years ago, the last year I worked for the New York City Ballet. Back then I spent my days performing public relations duties and most of my evenings standing in the wings of the New York State Theater. The ballerinas—their eyes festooned with impossibly long false lashes and their costumes of tulle and sequins glittering like cotton candy—greeted me by name before launching themselves onto the stage. During my first few years with the company, I was an undergraduate and constantly amazed to have landed in such a glamorous world. But with time the glamour became ordinary, the dancers just people. It was not unusual to see them smile and glide offstage only to crumble in the wings, grimace, grasp their sore calves, and mutter the choicest of expletives.


One Monday morning I walked down the backstage corridor on the fourth floor, industrial-gray tiles retreating under my feet. I hated Mondays, when the theater was dark. It felt like a house with all the children gone. I happened to be drained that morning after staying up late listening to my boyfriend rant about his need for space in our relationship. I hustled past Peter Martins’s office, though I was sure he wasn’t there. Even after several years with the company and countless interactions with our tall, blond, Danish director, I was still intimidated by him and the authority that surged from even his empty office. Approaching the office of the Balanchine Trust, I stopped short to avoid colliding with a large, dark piece of furniture that half blocked the hallway, its top and bottom pieces placed next to each other.

“Gaudy, isn’t it?” said Martins’s assistant, Debbie Koolish, her thin frame leaning against the doorway. Even retired dancers have an ethereal air. I crouched down to get a better look, my fingers playing over a grape-encircled Bacchus, his mouth agape in menacing laughter.

“Actually, I think it’s rather beautiful,” I said.

Debbie shrugged. “Well then, you should put your name in the raffle. We want it out of the office. It’s way too big for a space for two people.” She walked over to the top half of the armoire that was closest to me and pointed to a worn spot near the bottom. “This was where Mr. B. used to lean back in his chair and rest his head.”

“This belonged to George Balanchine?” I gasped. Debbie smiled in the patient way people who had worked with Mr. B. always did. We who arrived after the ballet master’s death had for him a godlike reverence. Those who had experienced his genius firsthand seemed to belong to a secret society of understanding. I imagined Balanchine leaning back in his chair, the legs teetering just before his head and shoulders came to rest on the dark wood, and the thought comforted me. It seemed a reckless and, dare I say, vulnerable image of the man.

Debbie grabbed the raffle envelope and answered the question I’d forgotten having asked. “Well, it was in his office. It was right behind his desk against the wall. Nobody’s sure where it came from originally, and most people think it’s a bit big and overdramatic. Sounds like you’re one of the few who appreciate it.” She held out the envelope as I scribbled my name on a piece of paper and dropped it in. “The only condition is that if you win it, you have to get it out of the theater by the weekend.” I thanked Debbie and continued on my way down the hall, trying to imagine the eight-foot-tall cabinet in the cramped Manhattan apartment I shared with my boyfriend.

The next afternoon I was inundated by press clippings to file and desperately yet delicately trying to convince a shy corps member to do an interview with a women’s magazine. I wanted to grab her bony shoulders and tell her that the only way she would ever advance her promising career and her life was to stop being so damn passive, but I stayed silent, a strained smile on my face. That was when Debbie called.

“You won the cabinet, Ann. Congratulations! Better you than me!” She chuckled. “Remember, you have to pick it up by the weekend.” The bun-head in front of me used the opportunity to murmur polite apologies and escape through the office door. That night I measured my apartment. There was no way it would fit. I had just gotten to the office the next morning and was about to call my mother and beg her to allow me to store it in her house in Vermont when my friend Julio, who worked in the gift shop, entered and made a beeline for my desk.

“Ann, I hear you won Balanchine’s cabinet. Congratulations!” He lingered, and I could tell that he had something else to say. “But I wanted to ask . . . it’s okay to say no . . . but I wondered . . . if you would be willing to sell it to me?” His dark eyebrows were knit together and his mouth was a flat, tense line. I knew this wasn’t easy; he rarely asked anything of others.

I looked at my friend with his spare, black outfit and imagined a retro-Bauhaus apartment. “But Julio, that cabinet is not exactly your style. You really want it?”

“Oh, it’s not for me,” he said. “It’s for Wolfie. He was really hoping he would win it.”

Just the mention of Wolf’s name made me smile. He was the head of our gift shop, a German with a razor sense of humor and a healthy appetite for life. Short, wiry, and very fit, he walked in a gait as spry as any dancer’s. His blond hair was always well groomed and his blue eyes sparkled beneath wire-framed glasses. Wolfie was one of my favorite people in the organization because unlike many people in the arts, and especially ballet, he pulled no punches. If he was disappointed with a new work, he would tell the choreographer. If anyone tried to drag him into some little political struggle, he’d say he wanted no part in it. If he didn’t like you, God help you; if he did, he was supportive but honest, as likely to take me aside and say, “Annie, honey, those vintage pants just do not suit your figure!” as “Oh, chica, those jeans make your ass look divine!” In a world of backhanded power plays and air kisses from rich patrons, he came at you straight. Given my struggle to assert myself in my relationship with my boyfriend, I particularly respected him for that.

Julio jolted me from my thoughts. “I don’t have much money,” he said, “but I would give you $50 for it so I can give it to him.”

“Julio, I don’t want your money.” I thought about it for a moment. The idea of the piece stored in some attic in Vermont seemed ridiculous when someone who knew and loved Mr. B. could really appreciate it. “If Wolfie really wants it, I’ll just give it to him.” I asked Julio to tell Wolfie, because, although I love giving thanks, I’m not very good at receiving it.

Wolf soon came down to my office. Not saying a word, he walked around my desk and hugged me. I was grateful for the silence and for a hug that held no resistance, a full body hug that was like the man who gave it: all heart and no apologies. “Annie, I’m going to will the cabinet to you,” he said. “One day you will have it back.”

I smiled, playfully pushing him away. “Sure, right. You’re in better shape than half of the dancers! Honey, you might be 10 years older, but I’ll be going before you will!”

We spoke of the cabinet one more time, the afternoon I visited Wolf’s rent-controlled-but-nevertheless-penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side. As I walked into the sunny living room, I saw Balanchine’s cabinet near the door to the balcony. It looked glorious among the other ornate, dark wood pieces. Wolf noticed my eyes on the cabinet and said, “I want you to know that it has a home where it is appreciated.” I had to agree.

That afternoon over coffee, comforted by the warmth of his living room, I told Wolf about my relationship dilemma, something I hadn’t shared with anyone. My boyfriend had finally confessed the preceding night that he didn’t ever want to marry or have children. I had sobbed when he told me, and now I was starting again. I still loved my boyfriend, I said, but at 30 I was ready to settle down. Wolf stood up and paced back and forth. I deserved more, he said, his voice getting louder and his German accent thicker. He stopped in front of Balanchine’s cabinet and leaned against the front, his palms straddling the worn area. He was still talking and his movements were unstudied, but I knew that he took care never to touch that spot. He wrapped his arms around me, and I breathed deeply for the first time that day.

It was a few months before I chose the next course for my life, but Wolfie had gotten through to me: I grew tired of sacrificing my life’s goals for someone else’s. My mother’s health was not good, so I decided to leave my boyfriend and move to Vermont for the summer to be closer to her. I packed up my half of the apartment and arranged for a leave of absence from work. I talked to my mother on the phone every night and planned my summer. I got advice from one of the dancers about in-line skates and imagined skating along the recreation path in Stowe, horse farms on one side, forest on the other. And despite not knowing what I would do when the summer ended, with each day I grew more certain that I was making the right choice. But as I ran into the dancers and they expressed their sorrow at my leaving, I felt a pull in my stomach. Meanwhile, I attended as many performances as I could, trying to memorize each note, every arabesque, the way particular dancers carried their arms.

On my last day as I walked toward the elevator, the long hallway lined with racks of costumes for the night’s repertory, I ran my hands along the costumes for Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, the stiff tulle skirts puffing out pale yellow satin, like jewel-encrusted mushroom caps. The elevator door opened and I saw Wolf grinning. He put his arm around me as we rode down and asked about my mother’s town. As he walked me out the stage door, I told him about the green mountains that surrounded the village, the bright white snow in the winter, and the fact that you can leave your car idling while you run into a store. By the time we said our goodbyes and I made my way to the subway, my breathing was steadier. I gazed up at the familiar buildings and noticed certain window patterns and cornices for the first time.

By the end of the summer I knew I would never move back. I spent almost every day outdoors, biking beside fast rivers and green fields spotted with black-and-white cows. The women at the bank knew my name and asked about my mother’s health. The florists left their potted plants outside overnight with the certainty that no one would take them. And I met the man who would become my husband, a handsome man who could survive in the woods with nothing but the clothes on his back, a good pair of boots, and his wits. Vermont life agreed with me as if I had been born to it. I called my boss and broke the news. She didn’t seem surprised.


I returned to the New York State Theater once, a few months after I had moved away. I had been invited to “Dinner with Balanchine,” the closing event of a festival marking the 10th anniversary of his death. My Vermont wardrobe was much more casual, so I had to rifle through my old gala wear to find something appropriate. I crashed at a friend’s apartment. Walking through my old neighborhood felt like returning home and finding the furniture moved around. At the theater, I was overwhelmed by familiarity, but also by distance. I met Wolfie at the stage door during the final curtain calls, and he dragged me onstage for the last bow as the entire company, past and present, shared a vodka toast to Mr. B.’s memory with the audience. Surrounded by dancers, stagehands, choreographers, and staff, I stood on that stage next to my friend. Faces in the audience filtered through the blinding stage lights and the applause thundered around us. I was intoxicated. If I wondered whether leaving for good had been a mistake, on some level I also knew that I was ready to go. That evening, I was just a face in a crowd pouring into Lincoln Center Plaza, and I didn’t look back.

It took moving to Vermont to embrace my Puerto Rican heritage. When I lived in New York, I took diversity for granted, but in Vermont Latinos search each other out, together bringing a bit of sabor to the cold climate. I spent a wonderful last year with my mother. And in the quiet of the northern winters I discovered my love of writing. I gradually lost touch with my friends at the ballet and raised a family. A year or two after I had left, I heard that Wolf had also left the company and had moved to his house upstate because of his health. He too preferred the slower pace of the country, where he always said he would retire. I suspected there was something really wrong with Wolf, something more than I was being told, but I knew that he would not want to be coddled or pitied. He must have had his reasons. We spoke once on the phone, catching up mostly on my life because of his reluctance to talk about his. When we hung up I promised myself I would drive down and visit him, but I never did. A year later he was gone.

One day in early winter I got a call from the executor of Wolf’s will.

“Wolf left you a piece of furniture, a cabinet.” There was silence, and I pictured him staring at it in Wolf’s half-empty house. “A rather large sort of imposing cabinet.” Clearly he didn’t know the story and was more than a little curious about my connection with the dramatic piece of furniture. I suddenly remembered Wolf telling me he would leave it to me, but I had assumed he was joking. That man always had to have the last word.


Yesterday my husband, our son, and I took our truck down to Wolf’s house in Chatham, New York. We arrived during an estate sale being run by his friends Harry and Juan. I was unhappy to see strangers pawing over Wolf’s possessions, but I liked looking around at all the eclectic things that represented his complicated personality. The grotesquely squishy yellow figure of an obese naked man standing on a rubber scale that read “260.” The Sonja Henie paper doll set. The German nutcracker whose interest lay in where it was located: shoved deep behind canning equipment in the cellar. Anyone who’s worked a few years of The Nutcracker soon grows tired of the music and its trappings.

With Juan’s help we loaded the cabinet into the truck, along with a few decorative plates and the nutcracker that my son had purchased with his own $5. It wasn’t until today, when we unloaded the armoire and set it up in our living room, that I was able to admire its power.

I continue to avoid touching the area where the 20th century’s greatest choreographer had rested his head, leaning his chair back precariously as he . . . what? Choreographed Chaconne in his head? Cast new ballets? Changed the face of dance forever? I open wide the upper doors and glance over the bare shelves, but I know it isn’t really empty. I close the doors, and as I lean in to the cabinet, I think of its most recent owner, my friend Wolfgang Buchner. For Wolf, the cabinet’s significance was in its relationship with Balanchine. But as I place my palms on either side of the worn area, gazing at the grinning Bacchus but hearing Wolfie’s laugh in my head, I realize that for me the armoire is less about connection to a famous past and more about my friendship with a feisty German who knew how to give and to receive.


Ann Hagman Cardinal lives in Morrisville, Vermont.


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