People | Phantoms

Down the Rabbit Hole

“Our teacher would fuss at Alice, but the Caterpillar? Flawless.”

The Queen of Hearts was an adult professional dancer; his skirt, red and black, swirled around his pointe shoes. I was a Card in the deck. We fell backward in sequence, and the White Rabbit pulled us up again. My costume was a long strip of white wallpaper-like stuff with a neck hole and, painted on both sides, my suit and rank—three of clubs. The Card-robe covered the torso. Each Card also wore a hood and collar, a long-sleeved black leotard, white tights with black slippers, rouge face paint, and short white gloves, held straight upside the head, palms in, to form an arm bracket that accentuated her rectangular shape.

It was quite a year for the fifth graders: We had been Swans in the children’s ballet, Carnival of the Animals; we had gone on pointe; and, for the first time, we could audition for the dance academy’s company production of Alice in Wonderland. Five years earlier, we’d been Elephants in Carnival while “the Older Dancers” were Swans. We were not even allowed to touch the barres in the dance studio. But in 1996, I was a company Card.

A step up, you might say, but to be honest the casting disappointed me. With the exceptions of Tweedledee (or Tweedledum), who did a duet with her sister, the Cheshire Cat, and one other full-time Card, all the others in my dance class were both Teardrops and Cards: They had two parts. The Teardrops wore blue leotards with flowing chiffon overdresses and went “step pi-QUÉ run run run je-TÉ step step soute-NU” from wing to wing. The Cards went “second second fifth. Second second fifth. One two three four coupé assem-BLÉ” and knocked each other down. (Listen to the “Card music” here.

To warm up before a show, we did barre exercises in the high school auditorium where we would soon perform. The Older Dancers—Alice, the Caterpillar, the Duchess, and the White Rabbit—could hold onto the wings and scenery onstage; we Cards and Teardrops had to come down and hold onto the edge of the stage. We got older, but never Older.

What I remember best is how much I admired the Caterpillar, “the sinuous Caterpillar,” as a caption in a newspaper profile described her. I remember because I had the article, “Amazing Grace,” along with any and all other dance-related clippings, tacked up on the wall beside my bed and looked at them one by one before I closed my eyes on this wish: “Pirouette in your sleep.” The Caterpillar, who was two years ahead of me in school, just had “it.” Our teacher would fuss at Alice, but the Caterpillar? Flawless. She was quiet and soft and graceful but also strong and articulate. “Yes, please,” she said in ballet class, when the teacher asked if we wanted to mark a combination, a question we considered to be rhetorical; we warily made our way toward the corner and listened for the music. What I wanted, really, was to know the combination better, or at least to remember how it started . . . marking would do that . After visiting the local high school on break from the prep school she attended—this was a few years after Alice—she commented to me that the students didn’t ask very many questions in class.

A coincidental connection between me and the Caterpillar, and one that I would have edited out if life worked that way, was that as a toddler, I had gone to occupational therapy with her mother. I didn’t like the idea that this dancer I so admired might know that I had visited her mom’s office to practice sucking on single strands of spaghetti. That I’d needed therapy to help me develop as well as possible given some congenital neurological problems increased the distance in my mind between me and the Caterpillar on her pedestal.

In Alice, the pedestal was literal: a toadstool throne where, during six of eight bars of musical introduction, the Caterpillar sat and gestured with what I remember as a long cigarette, more likely a hookah. Then at the last second, she pattered down the mushroom tops to poise herself in fifth en pointe. She was a line of green chiffon segmented by sequined, garter-like bands of elastic, with pipe-cleaner antennae atop her bun. And so she began her routine: four tiny, side-to-side steps forward, then a deep plié en pointe in which the verticality of her feet contrasted with her nearly horizontal bent legs. Then Alice danced as the Caterpillar stood in B+, the waiting position that precedes a curtsy, and considered the human visitor. The Caterpillar piquéd, bourréed, and soutenued, and she and Alice exited together. The Caterpillar’s movements were just so, precise; the music was staccato and not too fast.

“What song do you have stuck in your head?” Tweedledee (or Tweedledum) asked me at school one day as the performance approached. I don’t remember which song it was, but Tweedle-somebody was right: My mind was playing Shostakovich.


Scatter followed that recital. The dance teacher moved away with her childrenthe White Rabbit, Tweedledee, and Tweedledumand the dance academy closed. The Caterpillar and Alice went to private high schools in other states, the Caterpillar in order to dance more than was possible locally (even with some private ballet lessons with the Queen of Hearts). My family also moved.

I reencountered Alice during a college internship in New York. On my 21st birthday, those who might have taken me out drinking were either working on final presentations or not of drinking age. Instead I celebrated, that night or soon thereafter, with a rush ticket to the ballet, a fabulous and cheap student seat. It was “The Bright Stream,” a silly story set on a Soviet collective farm, music by Shostakovich. The music had the sinister undercurrent of all of Shostakovich’s work, the sense that had he moved one step further into dissonance, Stalin might have taken him out. In that red plush seat, I had a sudden thrill: It was the Alice in Wonderland music. I knew in fifth grade that the music was Shostakovich, but not that it also belonged to another ballet.

A few years later, in an “open class,” the kind where professional dancers, teachers, retirees, and other people with free mornings dance together, a ballet-class pianist played something else I recognized from Alice, maybe as the Card music. Curious, I downloaded the Shostakovich Ballet Suites from iTunes. I learned then that much of the music in the Alice in Wonderland ballet was from The Bright Stream  (also known as The Limpid Stream) but that some of it was from other works by Shostakovich; the Caterpillar music was from another Shostakovich work, The Human Comedy.  While listening to the music, I attempted many double pirouettes and adagios, focusing my eyes on the palm tree, the corner, the TV, the window in hopes of remaining upright, against the odds.

I remembered, as I tried to balance on one leg, how at beginning of the ballet, Alice lay on her stomach in front of the curtain, paging through a book and swinging her crossed ankles and pointe-shoed feet up and down to an innocent melody beneath which accidentals lurked. After this opening, she followed the White Rabbit down the hole.

At the end of the ballet, Alice was back in front of the curtain, remembering. Accompanying her was the sort of tune suited to a fond memory, full of fifths, but alongside it ran the resistance of a not-altogether-major scale, or so I remember it. Alice approached the edge of the stage, hand outstretched, then went to the other corner, and returned to her book. As I listen again, I can’t find the dissonance I remember; I may have imagined it, extending scales in chromatic directions they led to but didn’t actually go. In any case,  Alice’s memories would have been wondrous and strange.

The Shostakovich seems to me a fitting score for Alice in Wonderland, because both have a pinafore front and a dark, bewildering interior. In Alice, that interior is one of disappearing cats, Mad Hatters, executioner queens, and scholarly allusions. The obscurity surrounding Alice was deeper for me because of all I didn’t understand in fifth grade. I didn’t yet see the potential implications of a male Queen of Hearts, and I couldn’t fathom that the young male dancer in my class, who also played the flute, might pursue ballet for reasons other than to annoy the girls. My body had begun to stink of puberty; backstage, my mother told me that I had to remember to use that deodorant she’d given me. I didn’t know that Shostakovich composed that music for a 1935 ballet reflecting on a government that oppressed him.

The Caterpillar kept dancing. She got a position in the corps de ballet of a professional company, a position that entailed being one of many identical dancers in a line and following instructions by rote. She also became the dancers’ union rep, and then she lost that job. In the corps, as in Communism, the group trumps the individual, and the Caterpillar’s tendency to speak up for herself and ask questions, about choreography, about the running of the company, was not appreciated by the management. Unlike her student days, when she stood out and was cast in solo roles where her thinking and feeling shone through every movement, in the corps, standing out was considered a bad thing. Like every corps member, she was dispensable, so the company dispensed with her. But she didn’t wind up in Siberia; she came to New York.

The personal significance that Alice holds for me shifts with time, but it’s always a portal to an imaginary world, of memory and associations. I never made it all the way through the book, though; for me, it was always a ballet. When in 2011, I had an unexpected surgery and couldn’t dance for a while, I listened to the ballet music as a way of clinging to my former life. In 2012, I read a historical novel in which Charles Dodgson, the man behind the pen name Lewis Carroll, took nude photos of Alice Liddell, the muse for the Alice story, and I concluded that the classic book, with its meta-story and meta-rumors, was potentially stranger than it seemed. Definitely dissonance-worthy. On the Tuesday of this “Alice150 week” in New York, I ran around a Brooklyn park with Shostakovich playing on my iPod, and once again imagined that I was dancing; that, instead of running in a straight line I was waltzing, spinning, and taking big traveling jumps.