Paper Faces

Paper Faces

A dancer at the New York City Ballet has mere minutes between her scenes to change costume. She holds her pose as the orchestra concludes, and the arms of the conductor drop, and the audience applauds. Not until the curtain is flush with the floor does she break her pose, and her once-serene expression settles into a look of determination as she pivots for the exit. Weaving in and among the set pieces, the stagehands, the security, and the other dancers, she at last reaches a heavy, dark door that opens to the stairs. A dancer’s rank determines how many flights she must climb. A member of the corps de ballet, the lowest ranking and most common ballerinas, would have to climb two or three staircases to reach her dressing room. A principal dancer, or prima ballerina, however, would find her dressing room on the lowest level. Figuratively, she has already climbed her stairs through hundreds of hours of lessons, rehearsals, and performances. A prima ballerina has reached the end, the goal, the top. But like the mythical Icarus, she is flying dangerously close to the sun.

For all the sparkle of the city and the prestige of its ballet company, the dressing room is unexpectedly unglamorous. The floor is scuffed linoleum, the walls are discolored cinderblock. The whole room looks worn, as if the scores of ballerinas passing through took a piece of its polish for luck as they left, braiding a bit of its magic back in their hair, tying it in the ribbons on their pink satin pointe shoes. 

Lining the walls are rows of rectangular mirrors framed by spherical yellow lights meant to mimic the intensity of a spotlight on a dancer’s face. Beneath a mirror is a countertop with the contents of a ballerina’s toolbox arrayed across it, jars of foundation and makeup brushes, powder pots, and water bottles. At one station, a red rose sits in a plastic tumbler, as if an afterthought. Taped to a mirror near the door is a face chart for each dancer meant to guide her makeup application. Each has an ink outline of a head and neck with makeup painted on to match her specific contours and complexion.

Shelves nailed to the back wall hold rows of mannequin heads mounted on slim wooden pedestals, each displaying an elaborate hairpiece or glittering headband. Two strips of masking tape are stuck to each head where the mouth and eyes would be. On the upper piece the name of the ballet is scrawled; the lower lists the name of a dancer. Around the corner is a small cinderblock alcove with thick coils of electrical cords hung on one side. Opposite these is an open wall smudged with handprints and scuffmarks where ballerinas bang their pointe shoes to break them in and soften the noise they make onstage.

While the orchestra plays, the dressing room is quiet, calm. But once it stops, the countdown until the next act begins, and the ballerinas bustle in, entourage in tow. As the door opens, air rushes in and lifts the paper faces just slightly off the mirror. The performance is Ratmansky’s “Namouna, a Grand Divertissement,” and at this point, 16 dancers have 35 seconds to change out of leotards and into dresses for the next scene. Color, motion, and sound animate the room and its objects. Seamstresses poke in and out among the tutus and tulle, their needles threaded for quick repairs. Makeup artists with brushes loaded hover around the dancers, for blending and touching up. Stylists have started their steamers to straighten out any crumpled costumes. In this classical machine, the ballerinas are twisted, turned, and stretched. There is no audible beat, but the dancers move as if to rhythm. The scene unfolds in measured time and practiced motions, hairspray here, a button fastened there, as if an extension of the performance, another tableau in the choreography of these women’s lives.

The flurry thickens as the time counts down. More spray, more sweat, last looks, and time is up. The dancers hustle out the door and down the stairs in time for their next mark. The residue of foundation, resin, hairspray and perspiration settles again.