“I’m getting better,” Teuscher says, laughing about the difficulty of completely letting go of this long-held good-luck superstition. And it’s not her only one.
On Tuesday, the Kennedy Center Opera House audience will get to see Teuscher, one of ABT’s most exciting and imaginative young stars, as Myrta, the commanding queen of the ghostly sisterhood of Wilis in “Giselle,” when ABT opens its six-day run of the ballet. Before her entrance, Teuscher will head to the bathroom backstage and bang her brand-new pointe shoes against the wall. She won’t know how many times she’ll have to bang them until that moment, when she hears them soften up.
But one thing is certain: Teuscher will pound the shoes an even number of times, the same number for each shoe.
Just as tennis ace Rafael Nadal has his strict water-bottle setup and other rituals, and Serena Williams always brings her shower sandals to the court, and Shaquille O’Neal would chew four pieces of gum before each basketball game and stick the wad under the bench — dancers, too, are steeped in superstitions about the mystery of success.
They already obsess over the finest details of technique and artistic nuance, and years of devotion go into preparing for performances, but, still, fate is awfully powerful. Many go to great lengths not to tempt it. Ballet dancers immerse themselves in magic for most of their careers, bringing to life such stories as the Romantic-era “Giselle,” with its bad omens and spectral virgins. In this and other works, dancers have to commit themselves wholeheartedly to fantasy worlds ruled by spirits and spells, and some of that rubs off.
How a good performance comes together is all so mysterious, even to those who help create it — it’s in the hands of countless people onstage and off, as well as pesky laws of physics, and no matter how many precautions are taken, a crown can fly off, or a tendon can snap, or a pointe shoe can break down and cause a misstep. Dancers’ beliefs, however mystical, help them exert a little control over the uncontrollable. (Fingers crossed.)
Of course, dancers aren’t the only performing artists with quirky beliefs. Actors brought “break a leg” into popular parlance as a good-luck wish, to name just one example. Its disputed origins may include a kind of counter-curse or a blessing for high energy.
But ballet dancers are especially prone to using rituals and habits of the mind and spirit in trying to ensure success. From their first days as young students, they’re immersed in strict, quasi-religious traditions. Their art is all about ritual: which part of the body gets warmed up first in ballet class, whether the dancer is 6 or 36, and what gestures of arm and leg come next, drawing on centuries-old customs. For the span of their lives as dancers, daily class means that everyone is executing the same moves at the same time, breathing together in a rhythmic, communal experience that is spiritual as much as physical.
Rituals go well beyond the classroom. In Paris, Pittsburgh or St. Petersburg, every hour of a professional ballet dancer’s day is ordered much the same way, from morning class to afternoon rehearsal to evening performance. The dancer’s life revolves around sequence and order.
So is it any surprise that recently, just before the National Ballet of Canada’s Rebekah Rimsay left her dressing room at the Kennedy Center to charge onstage as the villain Carabosse in “The Sleeping Beauty,” she followed her own strict rule and took careful stock of what she calls her “old friends”?
Hairbrush, tackle box, tiny toy car: Rimsay made sure they were all in their spots on her table. The childhood brush she’s used throughout her 30-year career; the decades-old tackle box that holds her makeup, with every lipstick and eyeliner carefully sorted; and the wee plastic car she found in a candy Kinder Egg maybe 25 years ago — organizing these sentimental treasures is just the finishing touch to an hours-long pre-show routine.
Rimsay also slips off her wedding and engagement rings, loops them onto a strip of elastic and ties it around her waist. She tucks the rings into her tights.
“If I didn’t have them,” Rimsay says of all her keepsakes, “what would that do to me?”
ABT soloist Zhong-Jing Fang always takes a shower before a show “to clean my mind and my thoughts.”
“In ancient times in the Chinese opera, singers took a bath before going onstage,” she says, “to cleanse their souls, so they can put on the character. So it’s no longer you.”
She also kisses her hand, touches the stage and says a silent prayer: “May tonight be a great show for everyone, with no injuries.”
The Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu also prays to the stage, carrying on a tradition from his native South Africa.
“If they wanted abundance on the farm, they would touch the ground and pray that their crops would be healthy,” he says. “I put my hands on the floor and pray it will be safe, that I don’t have to worry about slipperiness. If it’s a long show with a lot of acts, you need to be able to trust that energy.”
San Francisco Ballet corps member Bianca Teixeira, from Brazil, drapes a long necklace of yellow African beads on her dressing-room mirror and applies a sweet perfume to her wrists from a bottle that contains a Greek evil eye charm, to ward off the evil eye curse. For good measure, she recites a prayer in her native Portuguese that her mother wrote down for her, which offers extra protection against the curse.
ABT principal Hee Seo, who will take on the title role in “Giselle” on Tuesday, is superstitious enough outside the theater that she walks only on the white painted lines in a crosswalk, not on the unmarked pavement. But her good-luck omens in the theater involve people, rather than things. Before making her stage entrance, she always hugs and kisses her dance partner. As for a lucky charm, it’s her coach, Irina Kolpakova, Seo says. Kolpakova always pops into the ballerina’s dressing room between acts.
“She hasn’t missed a single performance,” Seo says. “When I see her, she just lights up my mood.”
The fact is, much of the backstage activity just before the curtain opens has as much to do with cooling down nerves as warming up muscles. Thousands of people and untold possible mishaps wait for dancers once they rush onstage. As they stand by, they know they’re only moments away from a good night or, perhaps, a fumbled lift, a slippery spot on the stage, a pirouette that whirls off course — all in public view.
That’s why you’ll find ABT principal Sarah Lane meditating backstage with headphones on, listening to the Christian worship music she was raised on. Heather Ogden, a National Ballet of Canada principal, finds calm by closing her eyes and balancing on one leg, then the other. Her husband, fellow principal dancer Guillaume Côté, quiets jitters by standing in full costume for one minute and staring at the wall. But he makes sure to do that — and everything else — at a different time each night.
“I used to get superstitious about everything, but it’s not sustainable,” Côté says. “Now my superstition is not to do anything at the same time. If I put my makeup on at 6:20 one day, I wait till 6:21 the next day, or 6:19.”
“Anything to avoid the thought of the 3,000 people,” says Joseph Walsh, a San Francisco Ballet principal. “You try to trust that the universe is on your side, then you have to put the universe on your side by not breaking any of your superstitions.”
Walsh’s New Year’s resolution was to get rid of them. It isn’t going well. He still panics if he hears someone whistling backstage. He also refuses to open “merde” gifts before a show, the tokens and cards that dancers give one another for good luck, and named for, to put it politely, “manure” in French. No one knows exactly why merde became the dancers’ form of “break a leg. Possibly it has to do with a full house having a discernibly bad smell, back in pre-plumbing days.
Walsh saves all his gifts for later, even if they’re from his wife, a fellow dancer. She tried to get around his superstition by writing him notes on a postcard, so he didn’t have to open anything. Still, he won’t take any chances. He’ll glance at the picture but won’t read her words until after the bows.
Then there are the shoe fixations — a black hole into which so much time is poured.
Both Rimsay and her National Ballet of Canada colleague Greta Hodgkinson, a principal ballerina, believe it’s bad luck to put their pointe shoes on the dressing-room table, even when they’re new.
“I’m just not going to test that out,” Hodgkinson says. “Ever. I’ll put them on a chair but never on the table.” She prepares three or four pairs of shoes for each show, sewing on the ribbons, breaking them in, deciding on her favorites. Then she warms up, gets into costume and goes through the whole decision-making process again.
“I rehearse every day, and I’m not that obsessed about my shoes,” she says with a sigh. “But somehow for a performance, it’s a whole ritual thing I have to do.”
Ogden obsesses about her pointe-shoe ribbons, tying and untying them compulsively as she’s waiting in the wings, moments before her entrance. But she has given up on the good-luck charms she used to kiss before every performance, after she forgot them one time. Despite her anxiety about tempting fate, the show went just fine.
Now, Ogden says, “I believe in my own mental and physical strength to bring me a good show.”
“And,” says Côté, thinking about his wife’s ribbon ritual, “good shoes.”
“Good shoes don’t hurt.”
American Ballet Theatre performs “Giselle” Tuesday through Feb. 16 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. kennedy-center.org.