I’ve never been dropped in a pas de deux, nor hit by collapsing scenery, nor suffered a serious injury onstage—just a strained hamstring in a solo with too many splits; and a contusion of the instep when a stagehand, blinded by strobe light, knocked a chair over my foot. Once, in a rush to make a grand entrance, I almost dislocated my finger, because a ring I’d forgotten to remove got caught on a protruding screw. With the tulle of my tutu bobbing in and out of the wings, I’d freed myself and sprinted into the spotlight, digit throbbing, smile radiating—right on cue.
Ballet creates an artificial, elevated world of beauty and perfection. Acknowledging onstage mishaps is taboo for a dancer—and obfuscation a fundamental skill, as essential as artistry and technique. The ability to exude confidence and execute a majestic pose or segue seamlessly into a new sequence of steps is useful in obscuring a variety of faux pas—like the botched lift that once ended with my body jackknifed over a partner’s shoulder instead of raised above his head. I slid to my feet with feigned grandeur and danced on without missing a beat. Witnessing a moment like this, the audience might doubt their eyes, as attention is redirected in a rush of music and movement, details diluted and flushed away, before anything can be anchored in long-term memory.
Occasionally, a blunder will be so conspicuous that it’s impossible to hide. But under the right circumstances, even a major disaster can appear planned and rehearsed. In the ballet Barbiche, a humorous retelling of Bluebeard, the choreographer Riccardo Duse had cast me in the role of the new bride. At the premiere in the Lucerne Theater, an overenthusiastic extra, ignoring the designated papier-mâché prop, had brought an actual smoked leg of pork onstage and, flourishing it by the thighbone, dropped it. In the following chase scene, I’d slipped on the greasy residue and landed on my back—to spontaneous applause, because the calamity had been perceived as a choreographic device.
An entirely different scenario took place in a cancan, aptly named “Galop Infernal,” in which I was one of eight dancers sprinting in a circle while swishing enormous flounced skirts: one girl tripped, starting a chain reaction, and we all came down in a cascade of ruffled taffeta, feather headpieces, and net stockings. Ahead of the gasps from the audience, we’d untangled our limbs, jumped into a straight line, and commenced a series of high kicks—catching up with the orchestra while showing off our knickers—and were rewarded by the spectators’ rhythmic clapping in time to Offenbach’s sensational theme.
After retiring from the stage, I’d settled in Lucerne, where theater is enjoyed immensely, but the Swiss natives have little affinity for offstage drama. If you collapse on the street, someone will immediately call an ambulance, but anonymously, and most locals won’t slow down unless you’re lying in a pool of blood. The passerby who enquires about your wellbeing is probably a tourist, an immigrant, or an asylum seeker from a part of the world where impartiality isn’t considered a supreme virtue. The humanitarian Swiss, who founded the International Committee of the Red Cross more than a hundred and fifty years ago, harbor refugees from conflict zones and contribute generously to Third World projects, but they expect individuals to solve their own problems—or pay a lawyer to do so. They prefer not to draw public attention to their private adversities, nor to those of their neighbors, and remain detached and discreet—a lesser known aspect of the famed Swiss neutrality that once condoned the unbiased hoarding of Nazi gold.
One of Lucerne’s busiest spaces is Schwanenplatz, where pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and public transportation converge next to the lake; and tourist buses, overlooked by the tall windows of Café de Ville and the impassive facade of Credit Suisse, unload visitors in front of Bucherer and Gübelin, the city’s two largest watch stores. A number of years ago, roadwork created a temporary area of sand and gravel here, and foot traffic was redirected over a walkway of wooden planks—a bottleneck where, one afternoon, observed by shoppers, sightseers, schoolchildren, and elderly citizens gazing down from the tearoom, I’d slipped and fallen. Stretched out on my side, half in and half out of the dirt, I was unhurt—and suddenly invisible. People hurried by with averted eyes; not wanting to embarrass them any further, I’d righted myself—just as an elderly couple, unmistakably German tourists, stopped and offered assistance. I wanted to hug them.
A similar encounter between the street and my body occurred as I walked to my ballet school and lost my balance while opening an umbrella. A dreamlike sense of tipping over, of drifting downward in slow-motion, overcame me. The umbrella’s canopy made contact first, and then my body hit the pavement like a felled tree. Almost immediately, I heard voices—not a hallucination, but real people speaking in what sounded like Tamil. I rolled onto my back and gazed into the worried eyes of a young couple who’d bent over me. Is there blood? In halting Swiss dialect, they assured me there was none. I sat up and took stock of the situation: my umbrella was bent out of shape—but the rain had stopped, and I seemed unhurt. The good Samaritans helped me stand, and I continued to the ballet school, arriving well ahead of the students—damp, disheveled, and shaken, with a crimson scrape under my chin where it had met the sidewalk. My appearance alarmed Irene, the office manager. She made me sit down, brought me a glass of water, clucked over me, and administered herbal tonic from a brown glass dropper bottle. All this concern was better than any applause. I applied makeup to my chin, slapped a smile on my face, and stepped out into the studio, to meet my audience.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.