verybody's got a teacher or two locked in memory as a profound influence. My first was an expatriate who did his stint in the Canadian army during World War II and then followed his dream to San Francisco to dance with the fledgling ballet company run by the Christensen brothers, Harold, William and Lew. By the time I arrived to start working on my turnout, he'd gone out on his own with a space out in the suburbs that he rented from the Japanese Cultural Center. It must have been a tenuous lease—if they wanted the room, his classes were unceremoniously cancelled—but it was not a problem for me, only for a man making a living.
I remember everything about those days: the winding road my daddy took to drive me to lessons, the faux grandeur of the building way back from the road, surrounded by walnut orchards, the gleaming mirrors inside and the smooth old wooden floor. Of course my mother interrogated my teacher about books that I might read to study ballet—a concept he seemed amused by. We ended up getting two: 'the Ballet Student's Primer' and 'My Picture Book of Ballet'. I memorized both—not literally, but by familiarity. I can still leaf through those books in my mind.
He had a pianist up on the stage at the far end of the room and he beat time with a sturdy cane. Our class began with typical plies and as it progressed, he drifted into a zone. Standing quietly, he bowed his head and whistled a few bars softly to himself; then raising his eyes to us, explained what combination we would do next. He held a cigarette in his lips, (before the doctor finally forbade him,) squinting at the smoke and went about the rows bending or stooping beside us to adjust our feet and arms and shoulders and backs. In this meditative state, we learned the basics, including all the terms in French. Out in the center, I couldn't get the pas de bourrée and felt my face turning red. He stood in front of me and took my hands in his elegant strong ones: ('and two, three, ONE, and ONE, and ONE'). The rhythm slipped into place, my feet and arms found themselves, and he let go.
His voice was reedy and nervous, and he giggled and stuttered when pressed into speech by the various parents coming and going. He seemed a shy fellow, but not with his boys. They were there at the barre with the rest of us: Frank--serious & artful, Willie--doofy & funny, and Greg--handsome & annoying. Each received a blistering rebuke at the sign of horseplay. Their reward for this Saturday morning toil was the tumbling class which followed, in which they built pyramids and rolled on the big blue mats with other boys not there for ballet. They even achieved the ultimate feat of standing on each other's shoulders, dad on the ground and Greg at the very top. Whoa!
Here is where I first experienced confidence in my ability on stage, a bit of a chicken & egg proposition, I suppose, since I have no idea if I would have bullied through with no encouragement. But he did more than hearten me: he gave to me in particular, as though he could see something I couldn't, and I responded as if it were the most natural thing in the world to step forward in front. And I spent so many years under his eye that I finally came to be the target of his wrath. I never asked him about that; we didn't talk: he just yelled if he was displeased. The last time I saw him was long after I had gone off in another direction than ballet and he was drinking a beer and looking lost and glum.
And who should it be but two well-dressed strangers in the lobby of a local theater to stop me after a matinee a couple of years ago, and tell me that they recognized the fellow I had tucked in my resume under 'Education' as the old gentleman they had hired to tend their garden for years. Such a sweet old man, they said, didn't say much, but loved puttering in their yard, they were so sorry when he died. I don't have the mention in my resume anymore. I left him in until at some point the list of productions got long enough to nudge him off the page.