For the week of November 18 thru November 24, 1998  

Paula Caputo’s curtain call

The New York City Ballet at 50


By MARILYN BAUER
Express Staff Writer

She was only nine years old when invited to join the Ballet Russe.

As a "ballet rat," she was to tour with the company, dancing the various children’s parts. The little girl from Pittsburgh traveling to Paris, Vienna, Rome would dance with the world-renowned company founded by the legendary Sergey Diaghilev.

The dream was not to be; her parents wouldn’t allow it, she was so young.

Only five years later, however, Paula Caputo left home for the big city and became a part of dance history.

"I had made enough money in Pittsburgh to get myself to New York," she remembered. "It was a different New York then. It was the 1950s. I stayed in what was known as a ‘little girl’s club.’ You signed in and out and lived in a lonely little dreadful room."

She worked, dancing any part that came her way, taking class, and "working on funny little television shows, in department stores and funny offices where I told them I could type."

Four years later, she went to an open audition held by the New York City Ballet– a long shot for the young dancer, since routinely the ballet only accepted new dancers enrolled in its school.

"It was hard," she said. "They sit out there in the dark of the theatre and say, ‘Do six pirouettes.’ It’s hard because you’re in a mob. They do 10 at a time and eliminate. All you want to know is where your feet are. You do what you are trained to do, without thinking like an athlete. Finally, it was only me and one other dancer on stage."

Imagine: George Balanchine to direct you, Igor Stravinsky in the corner of the room composing music for "Mr. B’s" next ballet, Jacques d’Amboise, Melissa Hayden, Edward Villella at the barre. Jerome Robbins becomes first choreographer and creates a dance for you.

"It was hard, wonderful, exciting, scary," Caputo said with flashing eyes and smile.

"Balanchine was an easy person to work for. He never raised his voice. You’d look up, and he’d be sweeping the floor or sewing ruffles on a costume-- and he was the director of the New York City Ballet!"

Caputo says by learning Balanchine’s choreography, she assumed a totally different approach to ballet.

"He changed ballet choreography entirely and the way dancer’s danced to the music. With Balanchine, they became the music. ‘Symphony in C’ is the classic. As a dancer, you are part of the orchestra. He took us off center. We did things that ‘weren’t in the book.’ He and Suzanne (Farrell) were the best at it. She would do anything he said, and he loved her for it."

Evidently he loved a lot of ballerinas. Five became his wives.

"There was one class where all five Mrs. Bs were taking class together, and they lined up at the barre in order of precedence," Caputo laughed.

Caputo’s life was a whirlwind with a daily schedule starting at 10 a.m. with class, then up to four hours of rehearsal, back to the theatre to dance two to four ballets, dinner at 11:30 p.m. then home-- only to wake up the next morning to do it all again.

"It was exhausting," she said.

And grueling. At the time, the New York City Ballet performed and practiced at City Center. The dressing rooms were four stories up and infested with rats. The dancers stowed their toe shoes up high to prevent the rats from feasting on the glue. The wooden dance floors were without spring, and one rehearsal studio’s floor was made of cement.

"When you exited stage left, four feet away was a brick wall," Caputo remembered. "We had stage hands there to prevent people from running into it. And, it’s still like that."

Time passed, Caputo danced, improved and loved her life as a company soloist.

Then tragedy struck.

A foot injury of smashed metatarsals led to a doctor’s decision to cut the tendons to remove the shattered bone.

The company held her job for a year while she worked and worked to rehabilitate the foot. She was in a cast for six weeks then worked to get back on point. The damage was too severe, and her foot could not achieve the vertical position.

She would never dance with the company again. At 21, her ballet career was over.

Devastated, she returned to Pittsburgh, cut her flowing waist-length hair, destroyed programs and photographs and all but one pair of toe shoes.

"I always felt if you aren’t a swan, you’re not a dancer," she said.

For some, this would have been the end of the story, the courage it must take to bounce back from a life-long dream denied. But not for Caputo.

She worked in television and taught dance. She married, had three children and moved to Sneeden’s Landing, New York, where Robins and "Misha" Baryshnikov were neighbors. She learned to write grants through Columbia University’s Oceanographic Institute and began to help regional ballet companies apply for and receive much-needed funds.

She was also associate producer of the highly-acclaimed television special "Baryshnikov in Hollywood."

"He’s unlike any dancer I’ve ever seen," she said. "He’s a miracle. Now he’s had five injuries, but then he was like a comet. He had a goofy sense of humor. He loved animals and saved lots of dogs. He was charming and boyish and perfected looking up at you through his lashes, that were this long."

She continued producing, with credits including Bob Hope specials and NBC’s "The Big Show."

In 1984, she moved to Sun Valley and continued to teach. In 1988, she created S.V. Summerdance, an annual festival that graced the valley with world-class dancers for five years.

Today, she’s getting ready to travel back to New York for the 50th anniversary celebration of the New York City Ballet.

Fifty years of dancers on stage and 100 ballets performed during the year under now ballet master Peter Martins.

"I’m very excited about it," she said. "It’s as though I’ve come full circle. Peter Martins is going to have us all on stage for a curtain call."

On opening night, Nov. 24, the ballet will restaged its inaugural program of Balanchine’s "Concerto Barocco," "Orpheus," and "Symphony in C," first performed Oct. 11, 1948. Later there will be a homecoming party for past and current members of the company where Caputo will reune with old friends and inevitably make new ones.

"You know when a painter paints a picture, you can see it," she said. "We can see what Michaelangelo did or Picasso. But when a dancer sits down, she no longer exists."

When Paula Caputo sits down, her beauty and grace, her overwhelming presence, makes it seem as though things are just about to happen. She is an inspiration, a role-model, a liver and lover of life.

With Paula Caputo seated at your side, all things seem possible.

 

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