Zippora Karz

The former dancer pens a memoir: The Sugarless Plum.

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  • ASSUME THE POSITION Karz performs in The Nutcracker

  • ASSUME THE POSITION Karz performs in Les Petits Riens

  • ASSUME THE POSITION Karz performs in Four Gnossiennes

ASSUME THE POSITION Karz performs in The Nutcracker

When Zippora Karz was diagnosed with diabetes, she was a promising member of the New York City Ballet. It’s not the sort of news a 21-year-old dancer is ready to hear. In her new memoir, The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina’s Triumph Over Diabetes, Karz chronicles her struggle with the disease while she tried to balance a demanding career. Despite many difficulties, including an initial misdiagnosis—she originally thought she had type 2 diabetes but really had type 1, which requires daily insulin injections—she went on to become a soloist with NYCB where she danced until 1999. Now living in Los Angeles, Karz, 44, is a diabetes spokesperson as well as a ballet teacher and a rptiteur for the Balanchine Trust. She spoke from her home in L.A.

I’m so glad that you wrote this book because, like a lot of people, I wondered what had happened to you after you left NYCB.
I wrote the book because the work I do now is as a motivator, and I wanted to reach more people. It was very difficult to write in a way; I didn’t want this to be about gossip. It was important to me that I not disrepute anybody.

I got the sense that when you write about the company there is a certain resistance.
I struggled with that. I knew it would be interesting because of all of the things that I know and saw. I had to make a decision about what I felt comfortable with and how I would feel about myself if I exposed things about people for sensationalism. I thought, You know what? That’s not important to me. And if the book doesn’t do as well because of it? I’d rather have a good relationship with people. I work for the Balanchine Trust. When I started teaching ballet, it helped reinvigorate the magic of dance for me. In all the ways that I was tarnished by that world, I now have a new love and respect for it. I feel it’s more productive to get people in touch with the good parts of it because we all know what’s going on in the bad parts of it. [Laughs]

Were you planning on writing a memoir, or did you start with a journal?
First of all, you never think when you’re going through something that you have a story. At the time, I was more hating my own experience and wishing that life wasn’t unfolding that way. I really resisted anybody knowing about it—I didn’t want to be identified as a person with diabetes.

You wanted to be thought of as normal in the company.
Exactly. I didn’t want to be somebody who had a disease. When I stopped dancing, I started teaching and working with the Balanchine Trust and also started doing more and more work with diabetes organizations; it was that thing of what happened to me when I first fell in love with dance and when I staged my first Balanchine ballet—that sense of purpose and connectedness. It was something about my ability to articulate some of my struggles that I felt people connecting, not just to me, but with their own sense of being able to feel like they could have more motivation to take care of themselves. It was such an immediate sense of, Oh my goodness-—I just found a new purpose and meaning in my life. That was about ten years ago, and since then, people have said, “You’ve got to write your story.” But I didn’t think of myself as a writer and I was always busy working. What happened was my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and that’s when I stopped traveling so much; I had to become her caregiver and we went through the same pitfalls: She was misdiagnosed. There was the shock and the denial—everything I saw her going through, it showed me how universal this is. It wasn’t just a “me” thing. I knew this had to be happening to so many other people. I said, “That’s it—I’m writing my story.”

Was it a memoir?
Not originally. One of the women that I teach ballet to used to be a literary agent for William Morris. She had been dancing her whole life and she had never had a teacher who really helped her connect with her body in the way that I was able to teach. She kept saying that I needed to write my book, but she wanted it to be more of a movement- and health-oriented book. My first idea was a how-to book that incorporated ways of getting in touch with the body and the breath and stress-reduction techniques. Finally through a connection with one of my diabetes doctors, I found an agent who said, “I can’t sell this as a self-help, but I could sell it as a memoir.” [Laughs] I’m still hoping to write the next book.

What section of your story did you start with?
I played around a lot with how to start this book. The first thing I wrote was the experience of being in that [first] doctor’s office and told that I had diabetes.

That scene is so vivid—you’ve rushed to the doctor’s office before a performance, and she’s telling you that it’s all right to have a little piece of cake. You write: “What is she talking about? I’m a dancer. I’m disciplined. I wouldn’t eat a bite of cake if I’m not supposed to.”
Oh, it was ridiculous. She actually talked to me like this: [In a little girl’s voice] “It’s okay to eat that little piece of cake, because we don’t want to eat the whole cake.” I was like, Oh my God, she’s got to be kidding me. I thought, I have got to get out of this office right now. I actually think that one of the big problems of getting people motivated to take care of themselves is the lack of a good patient-doctor relationship. They are in the parental role, and if you’ve already got parental issues it just spells disaster, which goes back to what happens in a ballet company. I think there are lots of areas where we’ve got these directors playing out parental roles. That’s why I was always afraid to go to Peter [Martins] and talk about what was wrong with me. I didn’t want to be a specialty case.

Why did you have problems with authority figures?
One of the experiences that I write about in the book was being physically hit by my mother’s boyfriend. I grew up feeling like I was a bad kid, so I already had that feeling that I didn’t want to be a pain. In a ballet company, you never want to be seen as somebody who has problems. You don’t want to be on the injured list; you want to be usable. You can be the most talented dancer in the world, and if you’re injured all the time, forget it. Also, I was more colt than thoroughbred as a dancer, I wasn’t the athletic one. I created the athleticism in my body. Did you ever see me dance?

Of course!
I hope it wasn’t toward the end of the career because I wasn’t so good at the end. [Laughs] The last two years were not good at all. I think by that point my body was ready to leave the stage and I was hanging on because I just wanted one more performance. Anyhow, it was really important to me to have strength; that was my weak area. [Ballet mistress] Rosemary [Dunleavy] told me: “You’ll get more leads—you just have to get stronger.” That became my mantra: “I gotta get strong, I gotta get strong.” There really was never a question about my talent; it was more, Can my body find that level of athleticism? That’s why, when the diabetes hit and my body started to fall apart, I was up against this huge thing that just felt insurmountable.

At that point you were being given prominent roles, like Sugar Plum Fairy.
Right. And because I had already tasted it, I was so unwilling to not do everything that I could. It’s that feeling of, How can you live with yourself if you didn’t do everything you could to fulfill your own potential? If you don’t make it, it’s your fault. So my whole quest was trying to live up to my own potential; I never blamed anybody else—I certainly had problems when I felt like Peter wasn’t helping me out or Jerry [Robbins] wasn’t casting me. But I had so much blame for myself. I said, “Of course they’re not casting me. I look terrible. I wouldn’t cast me either.” I wished that I had had more support and help, but I was also realistic, thinking, Well, look at the world I’m living in. They don’t spoon-feed us.

What do you think would have happened if you had been honest with Martins?
He always liked me, so he would have been very supportive and he probably would have said, “However we can help you.” [Laughs] But would that have translated into giving me a role? I highly doubt it. I think it might have helped me feel like I had more communication with him, because one of the things that was difficult for me was that I isolated myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so nervous when he was coming to a rehearsal or a performance. I put myself through quite a bit of anxiety.

I know.
[Laughs] Which I’m happy to say I don’t have anymore. Teaching is such a different experience for me. Even if I’ve staged a ballet and I’m in the audience, I’m not nervous. I’m a really different person as a teacher and as a speaker than I was as a dancer. The dancing was all about my body. Of course my body’s much healthier today because I’m not pushing it in a crazy way.

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Were you really stressed out as a dancer before the diagnosis?
The insomnia and the muscle pain and my extreme anxiety before performances was after. I certainly was nervous and before my first Sugar Plum, but it was never to the point where I was completely overwhelmed. It was just normal. The nerves were part of the excitement.

Everybody had that.
Exactly. It was a nice thing and I didn’t mind losing a little bit of sleep—I was so excited for the next day. It was more after the diagnosis that there was a desperation in my anxiety. I was desperate to hold on to this world, so the anxiety created do-or-die situations.

What was it like to relive some of those harrowing scenes—like in Copenhagen, when your blood-sugar levels were out of control and you didn’t think you’d be able to dance?
I always hold dear to myself how much I loved performing. In reliving it, I have a tremendous amount of compassion for the stress and the anxiety I was experiencing. I look back and think, Wow—how did I get through it? I don’t know that I would have it in me today to do that.

You hung on for a long time!
Sixteen years. [Laughs] That’s how much I loved it. I’m from Peter’s first group; when I moved to New York, Balanchine was very much creating and alive and I was swept up in that world. I get chills talking about it. I think it lives in you—when you’re touched by something that great, and you’re around that kind of energy, it pulls you into the higher part of who you are. I think it’s a spark that will never die. It will always be a part of who I am and for that, I am so grateful.

What made that time so electric?
When I talk to people who don’t know anything about this world, one phrase I use is, “Genius is like a magnet.” I think Balanchine was a magnet. The air was thick with something so rich. The story I tell is, “Imagine that I’m a painter and I grew up in a little town and all I’ve learned from is my teacher and one day the teacher says, 'It’s time for you to go to the city and learn with other teachers,’ and I go to the city and I walk into this room and there’s Renoir and Manet and Monet and Degas. And they’re all painting their masterpieces and they hand me a paintbrush and say, 'Would you like to join us?’ ” That’s how I felt.

You were a protg of Alexandra Danilova, weren’t you?
Well, protg’s a nice word. I was asked to be in her documentary. It’s a funny thing; even using the word ballerina on the cover of my book—it’s a term for only the greatest dancers. I’m a little self-conscious about that. What I would say was that Danilova liked me very much and in her classes she certainly paid a lot of attention to me. She picked me to dance a solo in her documentary. She coached me.

What was that like?
Well, this was my first year at the School of American Ballet. I grew up in Los Angeles and we didn’t have a company there; I saw American Ballet Theatre once, and I remember we were so high up. I didn’t have binoculars. It was a story ballet, and I didn’t really take to it. It was okay, but it wasn’t anything that really grabbed me. It was really the experience in my studio with my teacher [Shelia Rozann] that made me fall in love with ballet. She loved Stanley Williams and would go every year to watch him teach and she had followed Balanchine with all of his lectures. She had always wanted to dance Balanchine, so this was how she modeled her whole school—it was all about pure movement. Nothing was about telling a story. It was about the expression of the body to the music in the most pure and honest way and I loved it. She was the one who was pushing me to get to New York. All of a sudden, I’m seeing these ballets and I’m learning from these teachers and the dancers are all walking the halls and taking class with us. Suzanne Farrell taught our class and the whole experience was like being born anew.

What is your memory of Danilova?
She was one of the great teachers. One of the things I loved about her classes was that she performed every step. She was constantly dancing and showing us things. It was a treat just to watch her; you knew you were watching history, and it was lovely because she just loved it so much. She was such a woman of a time in history. I’m a valley girl—I came from the I’m sures and oh my Gods. Everybody had class and style. They were the Europeans. You pictured the way they would hold their fork and knife and the way they would eat and the conversations they would have—it was so different from the world that I came from and I felt like every day was this education in how to live life with richness—it was beyond ballet. I miss it.

Tell me about the day you were diagnosed with diabetes.
I had been ignoring the doctor’s messages, and I had a bad dream and I knew something was wrong. I was nervous. The doctor said I had to see her right away and there was no time to see her; I was in the middle of rehearsals that day and I was in the last ballet that night. I knew that if I could skip the last rehearsal that would give me enough time. So I lied to Rosemary and told her that I wasn’t feeling well; that scared the you-know-what out of me to tell her that I wasn’t feeling well. But there was no way I was going tell her that I had to go to the doctor. I hopped a cab. I’m waiting, waiting in the office and I’m incredibly frustrated. I’ve got to get ready for the performance! This is ridiculous. Why can’t she tell me what is wrong? So when she tells me what’s going on and she spoke to me like that, I just kept thinking, I’ve just got to get out of here. There’s no way this can be happening to me. This is just a lab error. This isn’t true. Or I’m exhausted. I was having a lot of anxiety for [Martins’s ballet] Les Petit Riens. I had sores underneath my arms that wouldn’t heal. I wasn’t doing well. My cast was Wendy Whelan and Margaret Tracey and Kelly Cass and Peter Boal—we were all the young up-and-comers, and I felt I wasn’t hanging in there. Wendy and Margaret had just gotten into the company—they were younger than me, and I felt this pressure of, I’ve got to stay in the game, and I was feeling like I just wasn’t doing it. That night, I just wanted to get back to the theater. It was complete and utter denial. Basically she said, “You have to make another appointment,” and I was like, Give me a break. I’m not coming back here.

I think that over the years, the one person who really helped you was NYCB ballet mistress Susie Hendl.
Oh yes. Susie gave me a scholarship to SAB, so I think she always had an eye out for me. I never felt like I could talk to her in those early years because everybody was an authority figure and someone to impress. You never wanted to overstep that boundary; it wasn’t until we had been working together for almost ten years that she was the person I started to feel I could talk to about what I was going through. She’s a real nurturer and she’s a very special teacher, technically and artistically. It’s one thing to recognize talent; it’s another to recognize potential, to help nurture someone to achieve it. And Susie Hendl is somebody who can achieve that. It’s rare. She allowed me that process in working with her and I felt a sense of safety and trust. I first went to Susie and confided in her—this is hard to talk about in a way because I wasn’t well and I shouldn’t have been working with the doctor I was working with. This was the second time I was misdiagnosed and I was taken off the insulin. I was very skinny and I was in a dangerous predicament where something terrible could have happened to me. I was thinking about quitting and that’s when I told Susie that I just didn’t know if I could hang in anymore, and she went to Peter, and he said I could learn the Four Gnossiennes; Susie would work on it with me and then I would audition it for him. I worked with Susie for many weeks.

That’s not common, right?
Usually at City Ballet, you have a week or two to learn a part, but for Susie to actually take about five or six weeks to rehearse me almost every single day in an effort to try to get myself back—that doesn’t happen for people. Moments like that are what helped me hang in the game. That’s what gave me the courage to keep going because Susie did make a huge difference: she believed in me and I was so far from what I had been once as a dancer. I looked terrible. Susie cared enough and had that belief in me that I could do it. That belief is what really helped me hold that vision for myself, and I think that is an important point, too—sometimes, as much as you want it, if you don’t have some sort of support, it’s really hard. She was really a pivotal person at a very crucial time.

You did perform the ballet.
Once that happened it was clear to me that there was no way I was going to quit, because it reaffirmed to me how much I loved it. It gave me that moment. After the performance, I remember sitting in my apartment. I don’t know if I actually cried, but it was just that feeling of, you do have this. You do have that talent. It’s not a fantasy. Throughout this whole struggle, I constantly asked myself, Am I crazy? Why can’t I let go? Why can’t I admit that this didn’t work out for me? And that was my big struggle. I didn’t know, honestly, what the truth was.

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What did you think after Jerome Robbins, who used you as a dancer when you were younger, watched you perform later and told you, “Don’t think so much about the audience. Get more into your body”?
I had a lot of shame about it. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a performer that you think is just trying a little bit too hard?

Oh yeah.
So they’re smiling and giving all this energy and the body isn’t quite doing it! I felt embarrassed that I had become one of those performers. I was holding onto this love and enthusiasm and I was giving everything I had and then the body—I’m falling off pointe. Basically, that’s the thing about classical ballet: You can have all the enthusiasm and musicality in the world and if you don’t have the athleticism...our dream is to be perfectly matched, and that’s where you get the great ballerinas. I had the potential to be matched, so I had shame that I had become that. I had no idea Jerry was out there watching me; I just thought he’d given up on me and was annoyed and repulsed by me. It meant so much that he was actually watching me, but then I was so embarrassed.

Did you do something about it?
I was trying desperately to get in touch with my body. But my body wasn’t accessible to me. I was dealing with all those things—muscle stiffness. When you have diabetes, you have more lactic acid in your body and you can imagine dancers have a tremendous amount of lactic acid; before my diabetes, I was more fluid and had the ability to feel more lush in my body. But after, it felt very stiff and I was in a tremendous amount of pain. I never had a really deep pli as it was and so my pli was really short. I was a different dancer. I couldn’t get into my muscles, so that’s part of why I was always very into trying to figure out ways that I could eat, what holistic doctors I could be working with. Of course, I wasn’t on the right insulin regime many times and that affected my muscles also. And when you overdo your shot and you go into a hypoglycemic reaction, you can imagine the stress it takes out on the body. My body was in a state of trauma, almost, and I felt like I was knocking on a door that wouldn’t open. I think a lot of my career was my voice telling me body what to do and not quite getting in there to the muscles. So a lot of my performances were sheer determination and visualization and because I was a trained dancer, it’s the muscle memory that got me through so much of that. In the corps de ballet, I was out there for almost every single performance but it was very hard to recover. I was in a tremendous amount of stress in that poor little body of mine. [Laughs] But I was very determined to figure it out and thank God I got on the right regime before I was promoted. Those last seven years of my career—beside the two years when I was injured a lot—I figured out how to maintain that level. That was always my biggest goal. Even when I had a great performance, the next day I was thinking, Okay, I had one great performance, but what’s today? I knew I could pull out a good performance here and there—the question was, Can I do that consistently?

You learned Sugar Plum fairly early on while Suzanne Farrell, as you write, was silently watching you from the wings. Did you have a sense about what she was thinking?
Suzanne liked me very early on, from those days that she taught me at SAB, and when I got into the company she would watch me as a snowflake in the Nutcracker and tell me if it was nice or not. She was my Balanchine. When she stood in the wings, she was there to support me and to be that presence that she knew Mr. B would have been. That’s what it felt like to me. She was sitting on a stool, not in the wing that he used to sit in, but in the second wing. Her presence evoked a calmness and a desire for you to give all of who you are from a place of love. When I was getting so lost in all the technical details it was really Suzanne’s wisdom—that technique is a part of the musicality. You don’t get lost to the technique; it all becomes one—and just having her presence there was an unspoken understanding of what art is. She embodies art in the truest sense and having her there put me in touch with the place in me, because I think she saw my own potential and how I could be that kind of a dancer even though I wasn’t there yet.

How did you deal with her decision to leave the company? How did that affect you?
That was very hard for me. She was in class everyday. She wasn’t a coach for us, unfortunately. She taught company class once in a blue moon. But I never missed a performance of hers. I used to feel that in watching Suzanne, I was dancing myself. When I moved to New York, I remember sitting in the audience and having moments where I’d actually lose a sense of time and space; I’d be in the performance. I remember watching Suzanne doing second movement Bizet once [Balanchine’s Symphony in C] and time literally stopped for the whole audience. You just looked around and thought, What just happened? She had the ability to take us on a drug trip; that’s really what it was. And I had that all the time watching City Ballet. In quantum physics they talk about the morphic field—that groups of people can create something that becomes this field of energy, and that’s what it felt like. It felt like the NYCB created this field of energy and in the audience you were brought into it and it took you someplace so that you entered this world. That’s why people go to see art or go to live performances, and if we’re talking about Suzanne Farrell, every time she danced, she brought me there. Just being around her, she took me to a different place in myself. I felt a tremendous loss from not having her around.

You were injured the last two years of your career. What was the problem?
It was a combination. I had a bad hip that would aggravate from time to time. My knees started to go. I had the infections in my toes. I had this chronic corn in one of my pinky toes that from time to time would get so infected that I would actually have to miss performances. I had a third-degree sprain on my right ankle and the doctor didn’t want to operate because of my diabetes, so I just had to be out for six months. It just seemed like injury after injury, and I think that, psychologically, it was time for me to go. I was holding on and then it had become more of, Why can’t I let go? So I stayed a little longer than my body wanted me to, but then when I left, it was such the right time. I miss what it was, but my world isn’t there anymore. I miss a memory, but I don’t miss a reality.

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