My First Career
Some people take a gap year before college. I took seven.

 

Mar|Apr 09 Contents
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By Sean Whiteman | When Boston’s Wang Theater is packed it holds 3,500 people, and I’ve just realized what that means. Up to this point, I’d danced in local recitals, done The Nutcracker in high school auditoriums. Once, I performed in the corner of a bookstore. Now, standing invisibly in the wings, I feel the weight of the crowd pressing against the other side of the curtain, filling in the space. When the conductor enters they swell into a roar of applause like a dam breaking, or a distant stampede. I’m 18 years old, about to step onstage for the first time as a member of the Boston Ballet Company.

The whole theater quiets to a vault-like hush. The conductor taps his wand and the orchestra starts pounding out the overture to Sleeping Beauty. The sonic force of Tchaikovsky’s big, bright textures kicks old dust out of the folds in the velvet curtain I’m hiding behind. The kettledrum thuds up through the old wooden floor planks, and through the thin soles of my canvas ballet shoes it feels like the noise is coming from somewhere in the earth. Across the stage, almost blotted out by the glare from the opposite wings, the soloist tilts his head upward, lips moving, and crosses himself. My nerves sharpen. I can feel my pulse all throughout my chest. I focus on the dust motes springing from the curtain just a few inches from my face. They drift, then pop into view at the boundary of the stage—almost invisible until they catch in the ferocious glare, swirling in the hot updraft of the lights.

When my friends packed up for college, I packed up for this. When people heard I wasn’t university-bound, they assumed I was taking a year off, and asked what my plans were, flashing me bright, expectant smiles. Perhaps I was going to travel, or work for some charitable endeavor? A few of those smiles froze when I explained that I’d gone on an audition tour, not a college tour. I was slipping off the academic timetable altogether.

As senior year ticked down, everyone around me started preparing for their next stage in life. They visited Ikea and Target, bought beanbag chairs and plastic picture frames. They obtained, seemingly in unison, those plastic storage containers designed to slide under a dorm room bed.

I packed my warm-ups, dance shoes, and tights (yes, tights), and headed to New York for the American Ballet Theater’s “summer intensive,” a program that brings 200 aspiring classical ballet dancers to Manhattan for six weeks. I’d spent my summers this way since I was 13.  

This time the stakes were different. At 13, I’d been small enough to hide in the back of the room during partnering classes, lost in a thicket of legs. Now I was pushing six feet. This summer would be the tipping point. It was time to find a job—on stage, or waiting tables.

Each year, our high school bulletin enjoyed advertising that 100 percent of the senior class was college-bound. The year I graduated, they were forced to amend this language, scaling the figure down to an infinitely less satisfying 99 percent. I was only 1/82nd of the class, but I qualified for my own asterisk. “Sean Whiteman,” it noted dryly, “is pursuing a career in professional dance.”

“Pursuing” turned out to be optimistic. My six weeks in Manhattan ended, and I wasn’t asked to stay on as an apprentice. I woke up the next morning without a 10 o’clock ballet class to attend—unmoored, cut loose. The only thing holding me in place was the two-week term remaining on my lease. When I talked to my friends, it was hard to stay casual as I explained, “No, I haven’t found anything yet. But I’m sure it will come together.” They offered reassurances, and awkward jokes about starving artists.

At night I stared at the apartment ceiling, wondering how failure had overtaken me at the tender age of 18. I pictured my old classmates arriving at stately, well-manicured campuses—decorous affairs involving ivy and marble. I imagined them settling into four years of structure and certainty. I knew it wasn’t that simple, but my time was running out.

The closest I came to catching a break was when a teacher at one of the open classes I’d been attending called a friend at Boston Ballet for me, bypassing their impenetrable automated phone system. Soon I was scheduled to try out. I had train tickets, an itinerary, and the feeling of momentum. The audition with the corps de ballet seemed to go well; I don’t recall knocking anyone over. But after the exchange of my résumé, headshot, and a round of handshakes, I returned to New York, packed my things, and headed home. The summer had expired, and I was waiting for a phone call.

Back home everything was deeply quiet. The college exodus had vacuumed all my friends from the suburbs. My younger brother and sister had gone back to school. Each morning my dad left for work, the way adults are supposed to, and the sound of his car backing down the driveway was a sort of alarm clock. I’d roll downstairs and plant myself on the back porch in a purposeless haze. Through the windows I could hear my mom moving around the house, getting things done. I sipped lemonade and spied on our back neighbors while the humidity crept up, like some minor character lost in a Tennessee Williams play.

Every three or four days I would call the receptionist at Boston Ballet, to see if there was any “news.” But after three long, long weeks, I began to suspect she’d learned to recognize my voice, and by then I’d had enough. That evening I decided to go back to New York. I would stay with a friend, and couch-surf if necessary. It was September 10, 2001.

The next morning my mom and I were 20 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel when my dad called us and told us to turn on the radio. The first plane had hit, and no one was getting on or off the island. We made a U-turn on the New Jersey Turnpike, and drove home slowly, under the speed limit, while the frightened newscaster on KYW tried to explain what was happening.

Back home, we switched off the car. The suburban quiet was pierced by a military jet screeching high above—a sharp, tiny shape in the sky. Before I reached the back door my dad stopped me on the porch, holding the phone, telling me I had a call. It was the director of the Boston Ballet. They were offering me a position. Could I start rehearsal by the end of that week? It was Tuesday.

I can’t say how I felt. The memory has been blurred, like an overexposed photograph. Recalling that afternoon is like watching a silent movie: the sequence is intact, but the feelings are oddly muted.

The next day we were back in the car, this time to Boston. We spent hours in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, staring out the window at the column of dust that hung over lower Manhattan. My mom drove. I operated the cellphone, working my way down a list of rental property agents. Each one answered the phone with smooth, professional assurance, but their script was derailed when they asked me when I planned to move in, and I replied, “Tonight.”

But I made it to Boston, made it to rehearsal by the end of that week, and a couple weeks later I made it onto the big stage at the Wang Theater. After the dust motes, I don’t remember another moment of that first performance. I think it went well. I don’t recall knocking anyone over.

Last January, I woke up early on a cold Wednesday morning in Philadelphia. I packed up my laptop, notepad, and favorite pen, and coasted down Baltimore Avenue on my old steel bike towards Economics 001, my first 9 o’clock class of the new semester. Dancers have short careers, and seven colorful years after my Boston debut I’d hung up my canvas shoes and enrolled at Penn.

It was my first time in a big lecture hall. I admired the rows of plush seats sprawled out in front of me. No one noticed when I made my entrance, and no spotlight picked me up on my way down the aisle. I slid into my seat, cupped my hands around my morning coffee, and watched my fellow audience members trickle in—nervous freshmen, sleepy and terrified. As the auditorium filled, the room began to buzz and murmur.

I opened my notebook, and waited for the show to start.

Sean Whiteman is a sophomore majoring in English.


 


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Last modified 3/03/09