They came with the built-in superstitions of their peers and forefathers, but due to the nature of theatre, they created their own.
The origins of superstition is a vast subject and does not warrant a full study here. Walking under ladders–having black cats cross the path are one aspect, but for the theatre a new group appeared. Their origins are as old as the common ones, but are related to the theatrical life and the circumstances surrounding that life.
The theatre was a very special place, one could almost say, sacred for the presenters.
The North American and the European ideas separated after a time.
One aspect which I was made very aware of during the period 46-48 was how one entered the theatre. You went to the dressing room, you did not go on to, nor cross the stage, in your street clothes. If you did, you would break the sacred trust and affect the performance. Stage hands were allowed, because that was their area of work. The performer went to the stage dressed for the occasion, either to rehearse or perform. This was an old idea, and disappeared in time.
Dressing room protocol was filled with superstitious ideas.
To whistle in the dressing, particularly in early times was to curse the performance. Some dancers would not perform if someone had whistled in the theatre or the dressing room.
In the forties it was possible to break that curse. If you whistled in the dressing room, you were to leave, go into the corridor, followed by another dancer to check that procedure took place. You were to turn around three times, spit, then swear. After completing this ritual you could return to the dressing room.
Paul Gnatt of the Royal Danish Ballet, told the story of how he climbed the ladder to principal dancer in that company. The dancer above him was ultra superstitious. Paul would feel that it was time for him to perform, so he would enter the theatre whistling, and go to the dressing room whistling. His superior would not perform if he heard the whistling, so Paul would dance that night.
Mirrors are an important part of the dressing room. Usually a large one in front of you, but also a hand mirror to attend to the eye make up and to check the hair when appropriate.
Breaking a mirror, large or small put the curse of the ages upon you.
The pieces of broken glass, large or small, had to be collected and submersed in water, for a long time. This ritual was for the sake of the perpetrator but also to rest of the people in the dressing room.
In one case, the mirror was not broken, but painted black by some of the dancers. The dancer who sat in that place in the dressing room, was told that they were not there. It had a devastating effect.
No new shoes on the table. This one was from civilian life as well as the theatre. It proved to be quite awkward at times, but had to be adhered too, or again, something would go wrong during the show according to the dancers. If the shoes had been worn they could be placed on the table. This applied to dance shoes and street shoes.
If one was not superstitious, the problems presented by those who were, caused many difficulties. Eventually to keep peace, you went along with their mumbo jumbo. You also did not try to argue the point.
Early days in the theatre and the circus were filled with the belief that other forces governed how performances would happen. You did not prompt the evil forces.
Examples of such things took themselves up to the sixties and seventies.
Rudolf Nureyev for all of his outward manner and flash, was in truth, superstitious. He would not admit to injury. He would deny or change the subject when asked about an injury. In truth, he hurt himself quite seriously during his career, but refused to talk about it, thus having problems which could have been relieved. Calf problems plagued him for years.
As someone who got along with Rudi very well and could have a conversation with him, even I only once asked him about his calf.
Towards the end of his life, I met him in Toronto at a big reception. I greeted him in Russian, and asked how he was. He replied in Russian that he was fine. I returned with PRAVDA?, which translates as the truth. He did not speak, he just made a motion like an bee falling to earth. I then knew what the situation was. He had AIDS. I had broken the spell.
Touching certain objects before each performance was a ritualistic process for many dancers. Some of them were on the dressing room table, some were related to the stage.
I remember observing Makarova going through her pre performance ritual at Covent Garden in London . She was standing behind a flat in the wings. She was crossing herself, Orthodox style, touching her hand to her mouth, then her forehead, then touching the wooden part of the scenery. This was followed by three short fast, spits. In the brief time as I passed by her, she repeated this, six or seven times.
A lot of superstitious belief goes back to the fire and brimstone ideas, such as saying “God Bless You” when someone sneezes. This in fact comes from the belief that when you sneeze, your soul leaves your body, so someone must bless you, or the Devil will get your soul.
That may seem a bit far fetched in this day and age, but it is the basis for superstition. The Devil causing things to happen.
When you consider how fragile and short the active life of a dancer can be, it is no wonder that anything which would shorten that career became important.