Sometimes Our Heroines Wear Pointe Shoes
[Note: this story was featured on the podcast The Story Voice on July 25, 2021, hosted by Dr. Hank Roubicek. See the Epilogue at the end, to find out how this came about!]
I moved to Houston, Texas in 1988 when I was 30 years old. Suddenly separated from my husband of 10 years and recently graduated with my master’s degree in geology, I landed a job in the oil industry that brought me to a city I’d never lived in before. I was on my own literally for the first time in my life—in a new city, starting a new job, starting a new life, in a place where I didn’t know a soul—all quite high on the stress level! Navigating the fourth largest city in the US on one’s own can be quite intimidating. Because I was at a loss for how to meet people, and was such a nature lover, someone at work encouraged me to get involved in the Sierra Club. I followed his advice and made a lot of friends there, and went on many camping and backpacking trips over the next few years with that group.
Discovering the Houston Ballet
One of the things I learned to do in Houston during those early years was to attend events by myself. For my birthday that first year, I treated myself by buying a ticket to the Houston Ballet. I had never done anything like this before and it took great courage on my part. I really splurged and bought a great seat: Row C in the Orchestra, third seat from the center. For those of you who have never been, this is the third row back from the stage, right smack in the middle; it didn’t get any better than that. I learned something valuable: when you are buying just one seat, it’s easy to get a great seat up front. I think it cost me close to $100, which was a huge amount of money for me at that time. I was so close I remember being able to see the creases in the dancers’ makeup. I’d never seen a ballet in person before and I was mesmerized. It was the most beautiful performance I had ever seen. Not only that, but seeing the Wortham Theater in person, which was quite new at the time and truly magnificent on the inside, took my breath away.
I realized too, that once the lights go down and the curtain rises, watching a performance like the ballet is really a singular experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re there alone or with someone else; you experience it alone. You can’t talk during the performance (it’s way more frowned upon than talking during a movie) so it’s up to you to interpret what’s going on up on the stage, to follow the story, the acting, the music. It was this experience that made me comfortable with aloneness in a crowd. Once I conquered the Houston Ballet, I knew I could do just about anything else by myself. I started going to movies, eating in restaurants, even attending concerts by myself. I learned this much: if I waited until I had a “date” to do some of these things, well, that time may never come and the opportunity could pass me by. So I’d just better get over it.
For the next 8 years I patronized the Houston Ballet. First, I attended individual ballets as my budget allowed, then eventually I bought season tickets. What a luxury! I became particularly enamored with one dancer: prima ballerina Janie Parker. I started trying to attend her specific performances, and bought posters of her stunning poses. I read everything I could find about her, saved all the Playbills that had her profiles in them, and newspaper interviews of her. Her duets with Chinese dancer Li Cunxin took my breath away. I was developing a bulletin board full of cancelled Houston Ballet tickets. When I started dating Bill, whom I would eventually marry, I even talked him into attending a few ballets with me. That was something that was a huge sacrifice for him, having no interest in the ballet whatsoever. This was short-lived, as these things go, however; after we got married, I was back to attending solo.
The Final Performance
After 20 years of dancing with the Houston Ballet (and many years previously elsewhere), Janie Parker decided that the toll her career had taken on her body was finally too great. In 1996, she was 41 years old and announced her retirement. Her final program would be The Sleeping Beauty and her final performance would be held on Saturday, June 15. A few weeks before the final performance date, a big writeup in the Houston Chronicle profiled her career and the upcoming finale. Well, I was determined not only to see “one of” her final performances, by God, I was going to be there for THE final performance! As soon as the tickets went on sale, I bought mine (Bill begged off) and I waited for the 15th to arrive.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the performance, other than I remember distinctly that it was, indeed, The Sleeping Beauty. But I remember everything about what happened afterward. At the end of a ballet, the curtain calls always give you a lift, as the dancers take their bows and the audience shows their appreciation, often with an enthusiastic standing ovation if it is a traditional story ballet. I had a feeling that night might be special because it was Janie’s last night. What I saw that night, however, I will never forget.
The ballet ended and the usual curtain call started, with the corps dancers first taking their bows, then the soloists, then the principal dancers, moving up the hierarchy as they always do. Of course the audience was on their feet, and the place exploded when Janie came out. You thought you were at a rock concert, the applause was deafening! Then came the bouquets of flowers, first from Ben Stevenson, the Artistic Director, then the orchestra conductor,…then, just…everyone. It was a spectacle I have never seen. Someone in the ballet office had quietly ordered what must have been a truckload of flowers so that everyone could present one to Janie. First people started tossing her flowers on stage from the orchestra pit. Then, every single student from the Ballet Academy, all the dancers from that night’s performance, all of the stage crew, each member of the orchestra, the entire ballet administrative staff, and even former ballet colleagues, all lined up with a single long-stemmed rose and handed it to Janie. If I had to guess: 200–300 people made their way onto the stage? At some point the bundle in her arms became so heavy it crashed onto the wooden floor; yet still they came. Because she couldn’t hold any more, they laid the flowers at her feet. All the while, the audience was applauding thunderously. This went on for nearly 30 minutes. We all stood gobsmacked, watching this vision unfold, clapping wildly, hearts bursting, and being ever so grateful that we were there to witness it and to honor this person.
When finally the last person crossed the stage, someone handed Janie a microphone. Amazingly, after all that, she was still standing and was able to speak! Amidst a sea of flowers that now covered the entire dance floor, she took the microphone and started by saying, “I realize it’s quite unusual for a ballerina to address audiences in this way.” She thanked the Houston audiences for coming back year after year, the Houston company, and her Houston ballet colleagues, some of whom had been with the company as long as she had. She then read a special tribute to Ben Stevenson, whom she called “the most important person in my life for the past 20 years.”
It was hard to file out of the Wortham Theater that night and drive home in a cloud; after something like that, you didn’t want the night to end. It was hard to imagine the Houston Ballet without her, or to realize we would never see her on stage again. When I finally arrived home, I raced into the house and ran into the bedroom, woke Bill up and said, “You are not going to believe what you missed tonight!” and tried to recount what I saw with enough detail and passion to get the impact of Janie’s “sending off” across. I felt certain that the finale was going to be big news in the Houston Chronicle the next day.
I am a BIG newspaper reader; I have been my whole life. So the next day being Sunday, I tore open the paper and searched for news of the event the night before. I realized that with press deadlines being what they are, it may have gone too late for a full-fledged article, but they should have been able to slip at least a photo in there of that spectacle on the stage. Front-page section: nothing. Lifestyle/arts section: nothing. Not even a mention. What was on the front-page section of the Chronicle was a large photo and article about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who were currently in the NBA finals, playing the Seattle Sonics and facing a Game Six.
Well. That was deflating. But again, I thought about deadlines, so surely there would be something Monday.
Monday’s paper came. Front-page section: nothing. Lifestyle/arts section: nothing.
Tuesday’s paper came. Front-page section: nothing. Lifestyle/arts section: one small, zoomed-in photo of Janie on stage, with the first bouquet she received from Ben Stevenson, her taking a curtsy, a caption of “Ballerina’s Farewell” and a single sentence underneath it. That was it. I flipped through the rest of the paper and found nothing else. I was stunned.
Then I got mad. That very afternoon I put aside my work and sat down to write a letter to the Houston Chronicle editors.
“June 18, 1996
PO Box 4260
Houston, TX 77210
Dear Houston Chronicle Editors,
I was one of the lucky ones privileged to attend Janie Parker’s final performance for the Houston Ballet on Saturday evening, June 15. The production of Sleeping Beauty itself was outstanding, as was Janie’s performance. The honors she received at the end were something I have never seen before—it was completely overwhelming. The obvious respect, love, and admiration that the entire ballet company has for her was unmistakable, and the ceremony they planned for her touched the entire audience.
Which is why I am writing. I was very disappointed that the Houston Chronicle did not see fit to publish something about this event on the front page of Sunday’s paper. It would have been most fitting to have a large-scale photo of her on that stage, absolutely buried in a sea of flowers, with 150+ admirers behind her. Instead she received a small photo two days later in the Houston section, and the close-up shot did not do justice to the spectacle I witnessed on the stage that night. Surely she is at least as important, in a local sense, as the Chicago Bulls!
I think it was insulting that one of the most visible and respected public figures in Houston, who has devoted 20 YEARS of her career here, received such perfunctory treatment. I would be willing to bet that if it had been Hakeem Olajuwon’s retirement party, it would have received front-page billing.
Wake up and appreciate what you have here in Houston—a highly respected artist that has brought nothing but glory and honor to our fair city.
Ms. Gail R. Bergan”
OK! Well, I told them, didn’t I! I faxed that to the Chronicle office, got it off my chest, and went back to work.
Imagine my surprise to open the Thursday paper and see my letter to the editor, printed almost in its entirety! Other than cutting a few sentences for brevity, they didn’t change a word. (That headline, on the other hand, made me groan. How many dancers had they used that one on?) I called my husband and a few friends immediately and told them the surprising news; never did I expect that they would print my letter! That gave me a real shot in the arm, and I was pretty happy for the next few hours.
The Phone Call
Then the phone rang. I picked it up: “Hello, this is Gail.”
“Um, is this Gail Bergan?”
“Yes, who is this please?”
“Gail, this is Janie Parker.”
I about fell out of my chair. “No it is NOT!”
“Yes, this is Janie Parker. Gail, my sister has just shown me the letter you wrote to the Chronicle, and I just had to call you to thank you so much for such a heartfelt letter of support. I can’t tell you what this means to me, that a member of the community would do something like this.
“We have been scrambling all morning, trying to find out who you are. Is she a member of the board? One of our trustees? One of our big donors? Who is this person? And when we couldn’t find your name on any of those lists, we did a search on the Internet, and your web site immediately came up. You have a small business of your own? You’re a technical person of some sort? An editor or writer or something? Well, clearly you’re a writer!” And she laughed.
I was just flabbergasted, trying to process that I was talking to Janie herself—that someone in her family had seen my letter in the paper and in this quick reaction, just a few hours later, found my number and called me up and here I am speaking to her in person. I tried to explain as quickly as I could how I’d followed her career for so many years and I’d been there that night and was so mad that she didn’t get her due, and felt compelled to have my say in the matter, so I wrote that letter. But I never dreamed they would print it, so it was all a big surprise to me.
Then came the biggest shocker of all. She said, “Well, I really want to thank you for this in a special way. I’m getting married this Saturday, and I want to invite you to the wedding.”
I said “No way!” Shock waves were going through me at this point.
She said, “Yes, I really want to do this. I want to meet you, and I feel this is the best way. If you’ll give me your address, my sister will come over there with an invitation so you won’t feel like a gate crasher, and I really hope you can make it. Are you married? If so, please bring your husband. It would be my honor to have you both attend.”
After that, I honestly don’t remember the rest of the conversation. My head was spinning. After we got off the phone another series of phone calls ensued, first to my husband and then to the same friends, followed by a shell-shocked series of Oh My Gods and Can You Believe Its and She Really Is That Nice! I must have given her my address because the next day, her sister Millie Sue did indeed come by and hand me an invitation, as well as a sweet thank-you note from Janie, both of which I still have in a scrap book. Millie Sue said that even though Janie has been on stage for more than 30 years, this wedding “will be the performance of her life.”
Meeting Janie Parker
Two nights later, Bill and I got dressed in our finest and made our way to the First United Methodist Church in downtown Houston to attend the wedding. It was surreal to think that just a week before I was attending the ballet, a fairly normal event for me, and the very next week we were attending the wedding of someone in that ballet, and someone I hadn’t even met yet.
The wedding itself was beautiful, and of course we were also invited to the reception, which was where my only hope of meeting Janie in person was. When we arrived at the reception, I was quite surprised to see someone I recognized: a woman I had volunteered with in the Sierra Club a few years before on a fund raiser. We spotted each other and moved together to say hello, and how do you know Janie and Dennis? When I told her, “Um, well, I don’t know them actually,” and told her the story of how and why I was there, she was dumbfounded. She invited us to sit with her and her husband at their table and spend the reception together, which I was quite grateful for.
When she realized Janie and I hadn’t met yet, she said, “Come on, I’ll introduce you.” So we got up and went across the dance floor to where Janie was talking to a group of people. She touched Janie on the arm and said, “Janie, I’ve got someone here you need to meet.” Janie turned around and my friend said, “Janie, this is Gail Bergan.” Her eyes lit up and she gave me the biggest hug, and dragged me over to her sister and mother and new husband and introduced me around like I was the celebrity. We laughed and talked for a bit, and she quoted me, “Yeah, and I bet if this had been Hakeem Olajuwon’s retirement party, it would have been on the front page. Damn right!!”
Our interactions didn’t last too long, because the bride’s time at a wedding reception is always at a premium. But she made me feel honored on that day. Once again it struck me that the grace she showed to a total stranger on a day that was meant to be her special day was extraordinary. True character comes through in times like these. Brides have been conditioned from time immemorial to be totally selfish: this is your day, this is your moment, you can have whatever you want, and nothing and no one else matters. That she could step outside that paradigm and honor someone else who would have been quite easy to ignore, showed me a depth of character that was so admirable and so humbling, and made me regret not a single moment nor a single dime I’d spent watching her dance.
The band fired up and the dancing started, interspersed with all the silly things you see at wedding receptions—throwing of the bride’s garter, throwing the bride’s bouquet, feeding each other cake, and all the rest. Bill and I danced a few times, but mostly we enjoyed watching the ballet company let their hair down at a casual event—getting crazy on the dance floor, and laughing and drinking and talking and just having a great time. Bill asked me at one point: “How do you know which ladies are the dancers?” I replied, “Just look for the ones who have baseballs where their calves should be.”
We left early, but I came away with a new definition of “class.” As I write this 25 years later, I still remember.
[Epilogue: This story has truly developed a life of its own!
Fast-forward to the year 2000: I moved into a townhouse complex near downtown Houston, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of my next-door neighbors just so happened to be a flute player for the Houston Ballet orchestra. How great—something in common with a new neighbor! A year later, as I was writing this story, I took a chance and sent an early draft of it to her, just to make sure I was describing the “curtain call” part of the story accurately, nothing more. Because it happened so long ago, I didn’t think there was any chance that she had been playing in the orchestra way back then. She emailed me otherwise:
“Gail —not only was I there—and threw roses up on stage with the rest of the orchestra—I was asked to play some flute music before her wedding. Her mother was a piano teacher and frequently accompanied young flute players for their contests, and Janie loved this flute piece, “Concertino for Flute and Piano” by Cecile Chaminade, which was played by many high school flutists. She asked me if I could play it for her wedding and I was so honored! I have been in the orchestra since 1984.”
I ask you, what are the chances of that?! I was blown away, to say the least. And it gets better. Her husband was the broadcaster for the famous short-story hour (“So, What’s Your Story?”) on Houston’s local Pacifica (KPFT) radio station. He loved the story, and asked permission to use it for his radio hour. He has since moved to The Story Voice, but this is how this particular story was acquired for the podcast listed at the beginning of this story! Shaking my head…]