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Hermes bags, hugs and the occasional stalker: When ballet fans go overboard

(Tug Rice for The Washington Post)
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Isabella Boylston, a principal ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, eats a lot of pasta. Her pasta love has even inspired a New York restaurant to create a noodle dish in her honor. But the ultimate pasta tribute came from one of Boylston’s fans, who was waiting at the Metropolitan Opera House stage door after a performance one night to present her with a silver necklace, strung with a sterling farfalle.

“I opened it and just started laughing, because I thought it was so creative,” Boylston said recently by phone from her dressing room, where she was preparing to rehearse the ballet “Harlequinade.” (She’s slated to lead the opening-night cast of  the ballet during ABT’s run at the Kennedy Center next week.

“It’s a nice lucky charm.”

Receiving gifts from fans is another kind of performance for many dancers, particularly ballet dancers. Ballet incites a specific kind of response from its audience, a drive for a direct, personal connection. You see this during the bows at the end of a show, when the fondest fans might toss flowers to the stage to honor a great star. This tradition started in the early 19th century, when legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni inspired bombardments of roses.

Ballerinas ever since have braced themselves for these fragrant missiles, and the occasional wild pitch. 

Boylston said that when she was a new member of the corps de ballet, she witnessed a flying sunflower smack the celebrated ballerina Nina Ananiashvili in the head during curtain calls after “Swan Lake.” 

“It landed in the dead center of her forehead,” Boylston said. “She just charmingly picked it up and made a laughing gesture. It was very cute.” 

Such are the perils of public excitement for the dancer, who must gracefully navigate between the pros and cons of fame. Occasionally the cons can have more troubling consequences than a floral bruising. A stalker once sent Boylston threatening messages on social media and began waiting for her outside the theater. The police eventually intervened.

“It’s wonderful to see the fans at the stage door, but you can be in a vulnerable position,” she said. “People feel like they know you. And we don’t have the level of security that Beyoncé has.” 

In one case in which a ballerina faced a death threat, her fans came to the rescue. “You will die while dancing ‘Giselle’ in New York in the next few weeks,” read a note to famed ballerina Natalia Makarova in 1976, according to the ballerina’s longtime assistant, Dina Makarova (no relation). Police and the FBI were alerted, and word spread among Makarova devotees, who knew the letter-writer to be a passionate follower of another Russian dancer, the great Rudolf Nureyev.

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Dina Makarova said that during intermission of Makarova’s final “Giselle” of the season, her fans spotted the presumed assailant and trapped her in the ladies’ room. Police arrested the woman, who had a bottle of acid in her purse and a ticket on the aisle near the stage. 

For most dancers, contact with fans is far less dramatic, although many with whom I spoke marveled at some fans’ inclination to get too close. ABT principal dancer Daniil Simkin said he has had to fend off hugs and kisses, when he’d much rather receive a simple compliment. Alessandra Ferri, the Italian ballerina and international star who performs with ABT and the Royal Ballet, wonders why some ballet fans seek physical contact.

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“Some people really want to touch you, to come close and grab you,” Ferri said. “Maybe because we are not totally human onstage, because we fly, you know? And also it’s a physical thing, dance.”

Once, one of Ferri’s fans found out where she lived. “You come out in the morning, and there’s somebody right there,” she said with a laugh. It was odd for a while, but ballet’s demands helpfully intervened. “I went away on tour and came back, and it was over.”

Saying it with flowers

More often, public admiration has its rewards, and some of them are magnificent. One longtime fan in Paris presented Ferri with an Hermes “Kelly” bag, that totem of prestige and patience, with a famous waiting list. Another in Milan gave her an antique gold brooch. She has received paintings of herself; teddy bears dressed to match her costumes; and acres of flowers, particularly on big nights, such as her last “Romeo and Juliet” with ABT, when she temporarily retired in 2007, and when she returned to the stage a few years later at Teatro Alla Scala. 

“I was covered with flowers,” Ferri said. “You feel like some kind of goddess. They wouldn’t even fit in the dressing room; it was like a flower shop.” 

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All of the ballerinas I spoke with really, really appreciate flowers.

They’re “a live gift,” Ferri said. They’re “a symbol of that connection between you and the audience, a symbol of that love,” said former ABT star Michele Wiles. And for San Francisco Ballet principal Sasha De Sola, flowers symbolize the performance itself: Their beauty is “momentary. They don’t last forever,” she said. Both De Sola and fellow SFB principal Dores André receive creative flower gifts from one fan in particular, a man who attends nearly every performance each season and sends the ballerinas flowers to match their costumes.

André is also partial to chocolates, another frequent fan gift. 

“Sadly, I eat them,” she said. “I wish I didn’t, but I do.”

After Maria Calegari retired from New York City Ballet in 1994, she missed the flowers most of all. One fan used to leave her pink peonies at the stage door, anonymously, every spring. “That smell,” Calegari said, wistfully.

One of her most treasured fan gifts was a stuffed lizard, sewn in lavender velvet, handmade by the author and artist Edward Gorey. He sent it with a note, penned in lavender ink: “Your matinee of Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C were unforgettable.”

Gorey, Calegari said, “was a huge fan and basically lived in the first ring of the State Theater” (now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York). Gorey, whose book “The Lavender Leotard” was a tribute to the company, also left Calegari a posthumous gift, an iron pendant he’d crafted, etched with little creatures like the lizard.

And it’s not only ballerinas who are fussed over by their public. 

“This guy comes up to me at the stage door, looking like he’s straight out of a film noir, full trench coat, cap, scarf, all dressed in black,” said San Francisco Ballet principal Joseph Walsh. The man gushed praise in a thick Russian accent, and then pulled a couple of vodka bottles out of his coat and pressed them on Walsh. Night after night, he would show up with more vodka. Walsh doesn’t drink vodka. But what are you going to do? Another fan once gave him bootleg DVDs of Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“He said, ‘You should study these,’ ” Walsh said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to take that as a gift, but maybe it’s not?’ ”

For Paloma Herrera, the Argentine-born former ABT principal, the effusive thanks she would receive from fans left her baffled. “What do you thank me for? I want to say thank you to you,” she said. “I never understood. I had to thank the people who came and watched. I was so grateful for them.”

In the end, that’s what stays with the dancers: gratitude for those who have been with them in darkness, for those to whom the theater is a place of worship, who take the art seriously and who wait patiently, late into the night, simply for the chance to make their bond known.

One night, former ABT principal Susan Jaffe and her dance partner Jose Manuel Carreno left the theater to find a table in the walkway set with chocolate cake and punch, while a crowd of fans in paper hats sang “Happy Birthday.” (The dancers’ birthdays fall in the same month.) Admirers also have given Jaffe paintings, letters and, once, a mink coat.

The gifts were astonishing, Jaffe said, and simply being greeted with appreciation after performances always moved her. But at the final performance of her 22-year career, she made a concerted effort “to open up to the audience,” and this, she said, is when she arrived at a different understanding of those who sought only to give.

Taking bows that night, being showered with applause (and flowers), “was almost a spiritual moment,” she said. “In my whole career, I was so busy worrying about my balances and my performance that I forgot about receiving. I didn’t spend enough time appreciating being the receiver of love.”

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