I worked in New York for Jo, a woman who had the reputation of being the nastiest woman in the business. In an industry rampant with enormous egos and temper tantrums, that was saying a lot. Now why would anyone agree to work for such a nasty human being? The woman was brilliant. Unfortunately, the price you paid for working with brilliance was days filled with grueling rehearsals, sarcasm, humiliation and fear. Jo liked to make the people cry and she was particularly fond of public humiliation. I mean why go after a dancer’s delicate ego in private when you can inflict more pain on them by doing it in front of an audience? I truly cannot remember a single week going by without Jo giving someone a nervous breakdown. She really loved going after the men in the company. There’s something oddly disturbing about watching a man sink to his knees in tears – a repeating scene in our lives. I was also one of Jo’s targets…but only once. I fought back. She had beaten me down and as she was coming in for the kill something clicked in my brain. I straightened my back and glared back at her – letting her know right then and there that this was the last time we were going to do this little tango. I wasn’t going to cry and I wasn’t going to break down. Not a word was spoken but she knew our relationship had shifted at that moment. Ours was a tumultuous relationship…but then so was everyone’s relationship with Jo. On one hand, I do understand her tactics. The New York dance scene was a tough business. It was almost impossible to get a job and it was hard to keep a job because if you screwed up – there were a couple of hundred eager dancers waiting to take your place. In her own warped way – she was trying to toughen us up. Unfortunately – somewhere along the way, Jo’s drill sergeant tactics took over every aspect of her personality. There wasn’t a warm and fuzzy bone in her body. The plus side to working for Jo was that it was easy to get another job once you left her company. Other directors found the survivors of “Boot Camp Jo” to be strong, reliable performers who could easily handle a multitude of tough situations.
My best friend Pamela worked in Jo’s administrative office and served as one of the company’s tour managers. Pamela introduced me to the company. Soon after Jo hired me, she demanded that I either cut all my hair off or get fired. Having just come from the monarchy world of ballet where the director is king, I didn’t question her demand. I promptly walked across the street to a hair salon and had them hack off all of my long locks – and then cried about it for a couple of hours. Only later did I discover that Jo was way out of line. According to union rules (we were a union company) – she was not allowed to ask me to cut my hair. Oh well – live and learn. After a few months of working for the company, I became the company rehearsal mistress or “Dance Captain”. For Jo – this meant that she owned us. She had no problem with calling any of us in the middle of the night to do some stupid errand. What can I say? The woman was a gem.
When you work for someone like Jo, you know that it is inevitable that somebody is going to get fired. Considering Jo’s temperament, I was always surprised that more people weren’t fired. Those of us in the core group were not immune. We did get fired – temporarily and we usually got hired back in a day or so. I got fired twice. The first time I was fired because of the guy that I was dating. I didn’t know that Jo was pursuing him. Good grief – the kid was half her age! Anyway – I was fired for “conspiring with the enemy.” I was fired mid-morning so I left the office, went to our local hangout bar with Pamela, drank the afternoon away and got rehired that evening. The second firing was a bit more dramatic. But first some background.
The company was composed of dancers who sang and singers who danced. About two-thirds of the group was specifically dancers, each with a technical specialty (tap, lyrical, speed, etc.). A few of the dancers were fabulous singers. A few (including myself) could barely carry a tune. The singers could move pretty well and were competent as long as they weren’t called upon to do any of the heavy technical tricks. Surprisingly, it was a really good mix of people. All of us were put into numbers that best suited our abilities and again – surprisingly – this gave everyone an equal share in the workload. The company was beginning a three-month tour of Japan in Tokyo. Jo was with us for the first week to install the show. Once the show opened, she was heading back to New York, leaving Pamela and I to run things. On the night of the first show, Jo announced that she was conducting the pre-show warm-up. This was really unusual. In the five months that I had been working for Jo, she had NEVER given a pre-show warm-up which was always ballet class. In New York, she taught jazz. Her ballet warm-up that night was a good one and everything was going smoothly – until the last exercise. It was a turning jump that landed on one leg from which you pushed up onto the ball of your foot and balanced – a pretty standard maneuver for competent dancers. It was however close to impossible for the singers to manage. Jo screamed at the top of her lungs for the class to stop. From the theatre seats where she had been conducting the class, she slowly walked onto the stage. With her arms crossed over her chest, she moved her head along the cast, glaring. “And you call yourselves dancers.” She sighed dramatically and dropped her head into her hand. “I could just cry.” With that, she turned around, stepped off the stage and walked into the encompassing blackness of the theatre. All of us stood frozen in shock. Matt started to clap. Slowly. Clap…clap…clap. His message was clear. Jo turned around with her fists at her sides, “You’re fired!” While Matt calmly sat in his dressing room and removed his makeup, I was called to Jo’s dressing room. “I want you to rehearse the opening trio boys in ‘Rain’ right now.” “Jo,” I said carefully, “The curtain goes up in fifteen minutes and it’s against union rules to rehearse anyone after the half hour call.” “I don’t care,” Jo retorted, “Do it.” “Look Jo,” I said, “If those three idiots can’t walk out on stage, say Thursday, Friday, Saturday – then we’re all screwed and no amount of rehearsal is going to help them and it is STILL after the half hour call.” Jo’s face turned red. “When I tell you to do something – you jump! Got it?” “Yes,” I pleaded, “But I still can’t break the rules.” “You’re fired!” Now both Matt and I were removing our makeup. Well, not really. We were just going through the motions. Finding a replacement for either of us – in less than fifteen minutes? – in Tokyo? We sat in our shared dressing room and waited. Jo sent Pamela four minutes later, to inform us that we had our jobs back. We did the show and no one ever said another word about the entire incident.
Jo returned to New York the next day but still managed to keep a close eye on all of us. Case in point was the issue with the shrine. The protocol backstage in the Japanese theatre was pretty rigid. Actually – Japanese society at the time was pretty rigid. Everything was regulated – how to say hello, how to say goodbye, whether to present a gift or not, etc. In the dressing room hallway was a Shinto shrine. Before the opening night performance, our Japanese hosts conducted a solemn ceremony complete with priest, bowing and a lot of single clapping. All of us were required to attend. It was interesting though I think the significance of the ceremony went over most of our heads. After Jo left, we found some her belongings: a pair of old sneakers, her ever-present lip balm and her correction notes. We made our own little shrine. The sneakers were tied up with a bright orange bow and tucked into the laces were the notes and lip balm. Before each performance, everyone stood solemnly before the shrine, clapped once, clapped twice and bowed. It kept us amused. A week later, we received a telegram from Jo, “Take the shrine down.” I’ve always wondered who the snitch was. I know it wasn’t Pamela because she’s the one who put the shrine together for us in the first place.