Ballerinas, tigers, and trouble
As I rewrite Voice of Authority for its Edinburgh run, I’ve had to cut some of my favorite Zachary stories so I’m sharing them here. Zachary was my mentor, a Balanchine dancer, and the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. He’s also a character in my show.
For the past several months of working on my video series Big Trouble, I’ve learned that a lot of my friends have never been in trouble. They’re either too good, or too good at getting away with it.
I am not one of those people. Neither was Zachary
But there are different ways of getting into big trouble. Sometimes it happens for all the wrong reasons, like my $19 million lawsuit with the US government. I quit everything I cared about to make money instead, and I learned how fast that money can go away.
Sometimes you get into big trouble for all the right reasons. Pick any number of martyrs from history who stood up for what they believed in.
And sometimes, you get in trouble for both. This story is one of those times.
The Army is trouble from the day Zachary arrives. Or maybe Zachary, a 20-year-old ballet dancer who never stopped smiling, was the trouble. He’d just been drafted the same week that Agnes de Mille cast him in Oklahoma!, which kills me. Original cast for one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history and suddenly your drafted? Although as Zachary would point out, he didn’t know it would be a success at the time.
“I only ever wanted to be a dancer and that’s all I ever was,” he’d say to me. Often. He felt the need to drive that home because I can be very slow to process imparted wisdom.
When Zachary gets to basic training in 1943, he discovers quickly that smiling is frowned upon, a lesson he learns through peeling potatoes and cleaning toilets with a toothbrush. He also learns that doing your barre work every morning doesn’t go over so well.
“You have to do it or you lose the muscle,” he’d say. “They’d all be screaming, ‘What the hell is this sissy doing?’”
For his first six months Zachary has no friends. Then he meets his people, starts performing in shows, and all that focus on his barre work, on always being a dancer, pays off. He gets transferred to Special Services and Major Melvyn Douglas’ troop in Calcutta, India.
If you’re not familiar with Oscar-winning actor Melvyn Douglas, neither was I when Zachary said his name. He starred opposite Garbo in Ninotchka, a film I’ve never seen but I’m still impressed.
Zachary, now a sergeant, continues to do his barre work every morning, at the white picket fence outside the compound where he lives.
“One day I’m doing my barre and a servant hands me a note. It says, ‘I see you are a trained ballet dancer. So am I. Please meet me for tea.’”
That’s how he meets Kira, a former star with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was the Who’s Who of the dance world in the 1930s. If you were a big deal, you danced or choreographed there. Kira’s husband Boris had also danced with the company, although in Calcutta he was better known as a tiger hunter and the founder of the 300 Club, the first integrated club in India. It was based on London’s famed 400 Club, although more exclusive.
By 100 people.
Kira is living dance history and still in her mid-30s. She and Zachary pick up a cabaret slot at the 300 Club, and she starts teaching him classic steps from the Ballet Russe.
Now maybe you’re asking yourself, where’s the trouble? It looked like it was going to happen in basic, but this sounds great.
The trouble happens in Kashmir, but if I’d started there, you’d be lacking context now.
It’s at this point that Kira goes to Kashmir for monsoon season – “As all the best people do,” Zachary says – and tells him he has to see it so he should get a weekend pass.
“I arrive and Boris isn’t there,” Zachary says. “I wasn’t expecting that. Then Kira goes and gets us a job dancing cabaret at one of the fanciest hotels.”
That got so complicated so quickly. On the one hand, this is a dream come true. On the other, this is your worst nightmare.
Let’s say you’re a single, 22-year-old from a poor family in Philadelphia and you’ve only ever wanted to be a dancer. Suddenly, you find yourself with the opportunity to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world, working at a luxury hotel, and learning ballet from someone who danced with the world’s greatest company.
Are you true to yourself as an artist? You’ve only ever wanted to be a dancer. Or are you true to yourself as a soldier?
What would you do?
And just to make this easier for you, a strikingly beautiful ballerina is inviting you into her bed while she’s away from her husband. Remember, you’re a 22-year-old boy.
“I go AWOL. Big time AWOL. Four months,” says Zachary.
It’s a scenario that fills me with envy and dread all at once, the fear of getting into trouble going head on with the fear of missing out.
I hate to admit it, but I’d hightail it back to Calcutta and miss out on the one thing I cared about, although probably not until after I’d slept with the married woman. And I’m mad at myself for that choice right now, even though I never actually made it.
“Kira had worked with all of the greats in Paris, but she wasn’t just teaching me the great Russian ballets,” he tells me. “She’d been studying Indian dance so I was learning that too,” Zachary says. “Every so often I’d see someone I knew and they’d say, ‘Shouldn’t you be in Calcutta with Major Douglas?’ I’d say something like, oh I have dysentery, I couldn’t possibly go back.”
He defies the Army and he’s true to himself, and what he learns influences his life as a dancer in New York and as the choreographer of the Met. But it shapes his life in India first.
“We stayed on a houseboat called the Star, and every morning the servants would wake us with fruit and hot coffee and sprinkle lotus petals over our heads,” he continues.
That’s something that only happens in movies.
When he gets back to Calcutta, Boris points a tiger rifle at his chest and says, “I never want to see you again.”
Also, something that only happens in movies.
And Major Douglas says, “Not a word, Private Solov. You’re losing all of your stripes.”
Again, feels like a movie, but it’s Melvyn Douglas this time so that makes sense.
You know that feeling when you just want to get out of town? For Zachary it happens just when he’s got back into town. So he says to Douglas, “I want to see China, I want to see Burma. I’m putting together a touring show!”
“Good riddance,” says Douglas.
Zachary’s tour does fifty shows in fifty nights for soldiers who are away from home, living in a tropical jungle with bugs, and storms, and bombs dropping out of the sky. And now, they don’t mind so much that he does his barre work in the morning. They’re grateful to have the chance to relax, maybe even to laugh instead of fear for their lives. This is what Zachary can do for people and will continue to do for people for the rest of his life.
And everything he’s learned, from Kira, from Special Services, from touring, all of that serves as part of his foundation when he choreographs for the Met, then his own company, then the companies in Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, San Francisco, and a list that goes on.
When Zachary returns to Calcutta from his tour, Major Douglas says, “Great job, Zach,” and gives him his stripes back. That is the right kind of trouble. But he doesn’t see Boris or Kira in India again, and that’s the kind of trouble that breaks your heart.
Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story
about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved
by his mentor Zachary Solov, will be at the Phoenicia Playhouse Jul 5, 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at theSpace@ Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa