Biographies & Memoirs


Chapter 12

So Close

“Take this,” the young woman at the desk said, handing me an index card with the number sixty-seven on it. She looked bored and tired. I couldn’t blame her. It was well after seven p.m., and judging from the roomful of people around us, she’d been working nonstop.

“Put it on,” she continued without looking up from the paper in front of her. I couldn’t read the sheet upside down, but it was obviously a list of names. She checked off what was probably mine (there weren’t a lot of two-letter entries on the list) and looked up. She seemed surprised to see I was still there.

“This is my first time,” I said, looking at the index card. “What do I do with this?”

“The teachers use them to identify you for scoring purposes,” she said. “Put it on like this.”

She grabbed the card back from me.

“Oops,” she said. “Sorry, I see the problem now. This fell off.”

She held up a silver safety pin. With two quick pokes, she put the pin through the card and attached the card to my unitard.

“Good luck.” She smiled at me.

It was the last smile I saw all night.

I was at the studio of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, auditioning for the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., which is an extremely prestigious school affiliated with the Kirov Ballet in Russia. It was exciting just to be standing on the same floor that so many famous dancers had trained on, sweated on, and (if their feet were anything like mine) bled on.

Exciting, and a little intimidating. This was my first time auditioning for a big ballet school. In fact, aside from when I “auditioned” at Nolte for a part in The Nutcracker, it was my first real ballet audition ever.

Eloy had spent a lot of time prepping me for it.

“This is the season of ballet auditions,” he told those of us in the Dance Forum. “You might go on five or ten auditions for some of the most prestigious companies in the country. They’re only going to take thirty or forty or fifty dancers, total, so you’ve got to stand out. Be prepared, be happy, be amazing.”

Because we were in Iowa, the closest place to audition was Chicago, which was a few hours’ drive away. I tried to schedule my auditions so that I could do two or three in one day, because it cost money every single time we went. I desperately wanted to attend a summer program, because that’s how you eventually get invited to join a company, the goal of most professional ballet dancers. But we were going to have to save a lot of money to make that happen. Tuition alone was close to two thousand dollars at most of them, and that didn’t include housing, food, transportation, etc. It could end up being four, five, or six thousand dollars total for just a few weeks of training. I had as much chance of getting that much cash together as I did of growing wings.

I shook my head, trying to drive away thoughts about money. I looked around the lobby, which was full of other kids my age. There were probably fifty of us crowded into the room, and this was only one of the Kirov’s many audition times. There must have been hundreds of us trying out in Chicago alone, not to mention all the other applicants in other cities. The competition was going to be tough. Not only did I need to get into a program, I needed to get a scholarship—scholarships are unicorn rare. I needed to be my best, which was a lot to ask after only a few months of training. So to have decent odds, I tried out for a dozen different schools. Surely, I figured, one of them would give me a scholarship.

“Everyone!” a man at the front of the room barked. He had a clipboard in one hand, and it was obvious he was a trained dancer. He had a rough Russian accent (which made everything he said that much more intimidating), and he wore a black unitard.

“Come with me,” he said.

He ushered all of us into a beautiful studio and had us line up in rows with our numbers facing forward. For the first time in my dance career, I was in a room with a bunch of other boy ballet dancers. It was strange to see so many other guys like me, and it made me both excited and nervous. Excited, because there were never guys to talk to in any of my classes, and nervous, because each of them was my competition.

“We’re going to run you through a normal class,” the dance captain told us. I could feel myself starting to sweat with worry. Why did I have to pick the Kirov, one of the top companies in the world, for my first audition? Couldn’t I have picked an easier company, or at least one that was less . . . Russian? Russian-style ballet is known for being very strict, and of all my auditions, this would probably be the toughest.

“Just do your best to follow,” he continued. “If you are accepted into our summer program, this is what it will be like. Now let’s begin.”

Quickly, he began to lead us through our paces, showing us simple moves and combinations. We started at the barre for about forty-five minutes, where we went through pliés, tendus, and fondus (not the melty-cheese thing, but a ballet move where you lower yourself by bending one knee). Then we moved to the center of the room, where we did more adagios and tendus, but focused on jumping and turning. A few company members sat at a table in the front of the room holding clipboards. They took notes on our performance, and I could see them occasionally conferring or pointing out a specific dancer. They stared at us so intensely, it was hard not to be intimidated.

“Do your best,” Eloy had said, over and over again. “Don’t worry about the rest.”

That was easy for him to say—he wasn’t being stared down by a group of judges! Still, I knew he was right. I made sure that my number was pinned prominently on my chest so they wouldn’t miss it. After that, I tried to forget they were there and focus on the dancing. One of my biggest worries was that the Kirov taught Vaganova, or Russian-style ballet, which focused on strength and endurance. People call it a very “masculine” style. I’d never studied Russian ballet. Tad had taught Bournonville, which was a French-Russian hybrid that was more delicate and had smaller movements than Vaganova. At the Dance Forum, we focused on Balanchine, which had a lot more drama and flair. I know a lot of teachers don’t approve of a student being taught two different methods at the same time, but I liked it. I got to do things in new ways. The differences were subtle but interesting. In the long run, being trained in many styles would help me, but I worried that it might be confusing at first. There was nothing I could do about it now, so I just trusted that the teachers could see my skill, regardless of my method.

The worst part about the audition wasn’t the difference in style, or the stone-faced judges, or having to spend all Saturday driving to and from Chicago. The worst part was that you didn’t get the results for weeks. When my audition at the Kirov finished, they thanked us all for coming and told us they would be in touch . . . eventually. Over the next week, I repeated the audition process eleven more times with different companies. I thought it would get easier, but it was always intimidating. I wanted to get in so badly. But if auditioning was bad, waiting for the results was worse. I felt like I would never find out.

Sadly, this is normal. Whether it’s for a ballet school or a Broadway show, professional-level auditions can drag on and on. The worry and the wonder are always in the back of my mind. I think it’s because I know that someone somewhere is judging me. When I’m in the audition, I can do better, try harder, change my form. But once it’s over, I’m powerless to change anything.

Luckily, I had a lot to distract me. I loved being in classes at the university. For the first time, I wasn’t the only kid who was crazy-dedicated to ballet. Everyone at the Dance Forum was there because they wanted to make it, and were willing to put in the time. It felt nice being around a group of similar kids my age.

At home, we’d settled into a routine. I’d taken on more of the chores around the house. When I really needed a distraction, I had my dog, Ming Ming, who was always excited to play fetch or go for a walk. And yeah, sure, maybe I checked the mailbox every single time I took Ming Ming out, but often I was able to forget about my auditions for hours at a time.

Applying to a summer intensive is a lot like applying to college. If you get in, you get a thick package in the mail. If you don’t, it’s just a thin envelope. When I found the first heavy package waiting for me—from the Kirov, actually—I thought my heart was going to explode. The Kirov was my first choice. They were one of the best, most competitive schools in the world, and I had promised Dad that I’d study from the best.

When I handed the envelope to Mom, I was beaming.

“Alex!” she almost yelled. “This is wonderful!”

She gave me a huge hug.

“You really deserve this,” she said. “Now, the moment of truth.”

Mom opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of papers. She scanned the welcome letter.

“Congratulations . . . great skill . . . accepted . . . ,” she mumbled under her breath as she speed-read. Then she paused.

“Did they give me a scholarship?”

“Yes!” She actually did yell this time. And I did too. I jumped up and down with excitement. I’d gotten into one of the best programs in the country. Eloy told me that thousands of kids probably tried out. I felt honored.

“But it’s only fifty percent of the tuition,” she continued. “That means we’ll have to come up with the rest.”

She bit her lip, a sure sign that she was nervous about something. “Alex, will you excuse me for a second? I’m going to call Grandma and Grandpa.”

I knew what that meant. She was going to ask her parents for money. I felt bad having to borrow from our grandparents, but we’d already talked about it weeks before. They’d said it would be my birthday and Christmas presents all rolled up in one, and they were happy to do it. Still, I knew it was hard on my mom, and I hated making her ask them. But there didn’t seem to be any other option.

Over the next few weeks, I was accepted into not one, not two, but all of the schools I applied to. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. I think a lot of other kids who are trained in ballet technique programs have a hard time with auditions and being judged. The fact that I’d spent so long doing competition dancing definitely helped me. But sadly, most of the programs didn’t give me scholarships, which meant that even though I got into a lot of schools, I couldn’t consider most of them.

“So I can go to the Kirov in Washington, the School of American Ballet in New York City, or Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle,” I told my dad late one night after saying my prayers. Those were the three schools at which I’d gotten scholarships.

“What do you think, Dad?”

No answer came, but I didn’t expect one. Praying isn’t like that, not for me. It’s more about finding the answer in myself. I knew my dad loved water, and PNB was right on Puget Sound in Seattle. If he’d been alive, Dad would have wanted me to go there. Also, they were the only ones who’d given me a full-tuition scholarship. The other two had offered only half scholarships, which meant my mom and grandparents would be on the hook for the other half and everything else, like housing and food. Also, PNB taught Balanchine, so it would be the most like what I was already learning from Eloy at the Dance Forum.

“You should visit,” Eloy said. “That’s the only way you’ll know if it’s the school for you.”

“I wish,” I told him. We could barely afford to send me for the summer—there was no way we could afford a visit.

Or so I thought. . . .

Even without getting to visit, I decided that PNB was the right choice. Partly, it was about the money. We just couldn’t afford to have me go anywhere else. But it was also about the city, and the program. Seattle wasn’t as big as Washington or New York, and for a kid from Iowa, it felt manageable. I was going to be alone there all summer, and Mom felt safer imagining me in Seattle than in Manhattan. And the more I read about the school, the more I felt it would be the best match for what Eloy was already teaching me. Still, I wished I could go visit, just to be certain.

Right after I finally decided on PNB, the strangest thing happened. Mom’s job made a sudden announcement: they needed her to go to Seattle—immediately.

“Do you want to go?” she asked me. “I think we can make it work, if I trade in my ticket for two cheaper ones.”

Did I want to go? She’d have had to lock me in the garage to keep me home! I think I might have screamed aloud before I got ahold of myself.

I pretty much went right up to my room and started packing. When I’m excited or nervous, I get really bad and pack my whole wardrobe. I don’t know why, but I always do. Every. Single. Time. It’s like a disease. Some sort of packing disorder. I packed all the journals Dad had given me, and all of the framed pictures of both of us. But Mom reminded me that we could bring only what fit in a carry-on bag because it costs money to check a suitcase, so I only took one photo: a picture of Dad out in California, near the water, which always made him happy. He was smiling at the camera, looking over his shoulder, and I always felt like he was looking back at me from some moment in the far future when we would be together again. Even at my darkest moments, the photo gave me hope and made me smile. I take it with me every time I travel.

From the moment we landed, I loved Seattle. Being near water made me feel like Dad was there with us. I could almost pretend that the last year hadn’t happened, and we were on a family vacation. Then there was the school. PNB was beautiful. It had big windows that let the light stream in, and these giant cool pillars outside the building. Mom arranged for me to take a master class with them, to see how I liked it. The teacher was none other than Peter Boal. He was a dancer with the New York City Ballet and artistic director of PNB. In the ballet world, he was famous.

The woman behind the desk at PNB asked if I needed dance clothes, but I’d brought mine with me.

“Thanks!” I said, my smile beaming. I couldn’t believe it: everything was working out.

That class turned out to be one of the best I’d ever taken. The studio was beautiful. The students were talented and focused. Peter was amazing. The moment that I stepped out of that classroom, I was filled with pure joy. I remember Peter telling me that he was looking forward to having me come and train at the school.

Too bad it never happened.

Mom was waiting for me in the lobby when the class let out. She looked upset but wouldn’t say why. My stomach flip-flopped inside me. We left the studio and went to a mall nearby to get lunch. After futzing with her chopsticks, Mom finally looked at me.

“Alex,” she said, “I have to tell you something.”

She took a deep breath, and I waited.

“I don’t know how else to do this, so I’m just going to say it. Grandma and Grandpa don’t have the money right now. I’m afraid we can’t afford to send you to PNB. I’m so, so sorry.”

I felt like I was in a horror movie. How was that possible? How could I be here, in Seattle, at PNB, taking classes, and not be able to go? Maybe I’d misheard her somehow.

“But . . . they said they would! They promised.” I could feel my face growing hot as I spoke. Not only did I feel awful, I was embarrassed too. I hate being emotional in public.

“I know, and they feel terrible. I feel terrible. And I can’t imagine how you feel. But we don’t have the money, Alex. We can’t change that. If I could, I would.”

She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it gently, but I was numb.

“Why? Mom, they promised!” I knew I was repeating myself, but it just didn’t make any sense. Why was this happening, just when it seemed like things were finally working out? I could feel tears welling up, and I forced them back down.

“I don’t know, honey.” She sniffed. She was near crying too. “I just got off the phone with them. They can’t afford it right now, and we can’t either.”

This isn’t fair! Part of me wanted to scream. I wanted to run back to the studio and beg them to take me. I’d live in the lobby. I’d clean the bathrooms! I’d do anything if they would just let me stay.

But the bigger part of me knew that Mom was right. Even with the scholarship, we couldn’t afford it, not without help. And there was no one else we could ask. My plan was falling apart. How would I live up to the promise I had given Dad? If we couldn’t afford teachers, how could I become a great ballet dancer? Suddenly everything was up in the air.

Thankfully, God had plans I didn’t know about.

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