San Francisco Ballet had their school and studios on 18th Avenue between Geary Blvd. and Clement, facing the glorious Alexandria Theater, and only a few skips in ballet slippers across Geary from the equally important landmark, Joe's Ice Cream, where, if I was lucky, a thin-mint ice cream cone would soften the sting of humiliation after my Saturday morning class. The school was home for me first one, then two, then three days a week. No matter that my body was not the right kind for ballet, it was nonetheless for many years my Aladdin's cave where boxes of worn-out toe-shoes and jeweled costumes hung in the dressing room and jaw-dropping leaps and heroic feats to soaring symphonic passages seeped into my pores and assured me that my life would always be connected to the mysteries of constructing fantasies, a process that hummed through its halls like the whirring wheels of a magical machine.
When my class was finished I would peek around the black curtain used as a door to the studio at the far end of the hallway, the studio where the Director, Harold Christensen, sat on his stool with his long stick and banged out the rhythm of the steps for the rows of what appeared to be other-worldly beings, young goddesses who had leapt out of the pages of a fairy tale, performing impossible feats of balance and precision, as if they had invisible wings that liberated them from gravity and kept them from falling over.
When they were done rehearsing what I later would recognize as the corps de ballet sections of The Nutcracker – which every Christmas my mother would take us to see at the Opera House though I was never given a part in it, as many of my friends were – the soloists would have their turn. Sneaking into the studio when Mr. Christensen was too focused on the dancers to notice, I would make myself invisible, slinking down between the curtain and the wall, trying not to make a sound. Selfishly, if other girls had the same idea and peeked around the curtain, I would sometimes give them a discouraging wrinkle of the brow, for fear their crashing my party would break the choreographer's attention and he would shoo us all out and pull shut the real door. In my own defence, there were just as many occasions when a breath-holding gaggle of us would crowd in together hoping our silence rendered us invisible, and once or twice Mr. Christensen even tossed us a conspiratorial smile, which felt like the Mighty Wizard of Oz stepping out from behind his curtain to show his soft side to Dorothy. As we'd sit, hugging our pink-tighted knees to our chest, our eyes would be open wide in amazement, some of us thinking, "That'll be me one day..." and others, "I could never..."
The two steps you had to climb to enter the studio added to the feeling that it was itself a stage, or kind of altar, the Holy of Holies. But it bothered me to see such beauty happening in a room nobody seemed to care about. It was an attic, its blackened burlap-covered walls sloping as they met the ceiling. Its metal-latticed windows were filled with dirty, textured panes letting in a milky light but no glimpse of the sky. Here and there bare wall-studs stood exposed where the half-hearted burlap attempt to cover them had come untacked, and clumps of old pink insulation poked out like dirty cotton candy.
Alongside the big mirror – with its diagonal crack like a lightning bolt – that covered the wall behind Mr. Christensen's stool, hung yellowing posters of previous years' Nutcrackers, which San Francisco Ballet had brought to America. It was what we were famous for. The Christensen brothers, Harold, William and Lew, had been the most dazzling male dancers in America, and William had choreographed a new version of it after talking with their old teacher, George Balanchine, who had been in it as a teenager in Russia. Over dinner at William's house in San Francisco, Balanchine described the scenes, saying, 'But you should choreograph it yourself.' San Francisco fell head over heels in love with the result when it opened in 1944, and everyone, like my mother, made sure to get tickets no matter how hard a time she had paying the rent. Almost 20 years later, I would sometimes see William instead of Harold rehearsing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, or Dew Drop and her Prince, and never knew why one brother and not the other was directing on any given day. All three of them were like old eagles in my eyes, majestic beings with a fierceness that kept their eyes sharp and their wings wide, who occupied the lofty layers of the world, looking down on the rest of us, teaching some of us to fly. They clearly wanted something very special to happen and they had some special knowledge of how to get it. On very rare occasions one of them would laugh or demonstrate a larking move from one of the funny dances, and I would catch a glimpse of an eternal boy living inside an old man – who still loved to dance.
But the name Mr. Christensen to me always meant Harold, the one with the wide-set eyes, long neck, and the slightly sunken cheeks that models always have. He reminded me of my father, who was also born to Danish immigrants – tall with elegant posture, a square jaw, broad forehead and eyebrows that jutted straight out over his eyes, as if protecting them from flying so close to the sun. The air around him – for I only ever saw him in the rehearsal studio – was dense with sweat and dust, and filled with the sound of heavy breathing as male and female dancers pushed past their exhaustion to obey his command to try that grand jeté again: higher, longer, chest lifted, fingers aiming up like this. The looks that flashed across the dancers' faces – wide-eyed with doubt as to whether or not they had another leap in them – were clearly pleas for mercy, but they carefully aimed them at the floor or at each other as they circled back to the starting point in the far corner, careful not to aim their gaze at Mr. Christensen, or the walls would suddenly reverberate with his voice raised into strange tones I had only heard in church or movies, about what you have to be willing to do to reach the heights you dream of, and I could not tell if those heights were how high you could leap, or something else altogether.
And then, if I was very lucky, the dancing bear would appear from behind the torn curtain at the back of the studio. I was shocked the first time I saw him: a beautiful black-haired young man wearing the body of the dancing bear I loved, held up by suspenders, leaping like he was weightless, sweat flying through the air like holy water blessing the worshippers. The old woman playing the piano in the corner under the windows, clumps of dust around its wheels, always knew by some telepathic connection exactly what part of the music to come back to over and over and over again while the bear perfected his leaps. And the way Mr. Christensen's face lit up, raising his bushy eyebrows with such love and approval, his eyes crinkling at the edges as he lifted his chin and let a small smile escape, made me suddenly want to cry, though I had no idea why.