Rear View Mirror: Photo Essay

Knoxville Ballet School students at Knoxville Museum of Art, February 2012
Knoxville Ballet School students on stage at Knoxville Museum of Art, February 2012

The young director at the ballet school in Vermont’s Upper Valley, where I now hang my hat professionally, is enjoying her long-delayed move into a new building which continues as I write this.  On Saturday we will hold our first classes there.  This new chapter in the life of her fledgling school has opened with nail biting and hand wringing, joy, chaos, dirt, angst, impatience, jubilation, weariness, exhilaration–everything you’d expect at a time like this.  I know she is excited; we all are.  For the first time the three of us on the teaching staff will be working under the same roof, and significantly, at the same time, instead of on separate campuses as we have done while we wait.  Now we can operate in a creative petri dish of sorts, and that has been an important missing element in the life of this growing ballet school.

I admit I am jealous.  A couple of years ago I was in pretty much the exact same place my boss now finds herself, with a couple of notable exceptions.  First, I was unaware of the destruction that was about to be unleashed on me, on my family, and ultimately, on my young business at the hands of an errant spouse.  And second, I had been painfully aware for some time leading up to then that not only had I lost my emotional support, except for what I had in the guise of my devoted ballet school friends and families, but also I was losing the last shred of financial support that had been critical to keep the school going.  A slow local economy was the final nail in the school’s coffin.

I have had plenty of time to consider what happened to me, to us, to our family.  Some fleeting piece of it makes sense, but I doubt I will ever understand what would drive a person to become so reckless that in almost an instant he could wipe out so much of importance, assault-weapon style.  I feel the lingering effects of that still, every single day. But every single day I also think about what I built up, how good I was able to make it with the support of many, many people, how much hard work was poured into it.  And how some were hurt when I had to walk away–damage with lingering effects that I know never occurred to my ex.

Still, the school flourished during its brief tenure and left palpable signs of significant achievement in just six years’ time.  I am wistful, I am sad.  I am glad to have left my thumbprint in Knoxville, Tennessee.  And I am happy for the school being built here in beautiful Vermont.

A class in the early history of Knoxville Ballet School
A class in Knoxville Ballet School’s early history
Summer school friends
Summer school friends
A wax on, wax off kind of day in the ballet classroom
A wax on, wax off kind of day in the ballet classroom
Young dancers at one of the school's many screening parties over the years
Young dancers at one of the school’s many screening parties over the years
Frequent friend and guest artist Ryan Carroll corrects a student in class
Frequent guest artist and friend Ryan Carroll corrects a student in class
Louisville Ballet School Director Elena Fillmore Diehl gives an audition class at Knoxville Ballet School
Louisville Ballet School Director Elena Fillmore Diehl gives an audition class at KBS
Nutmeg Conservatory's Joan Kunsch, friend and guest artist, works with a Level 2B student in class
Nutmeg Conservatory’s Joan Kunsch, friend and guest artist, works with a Level 2B student
In fall of 2009 the school began using American Ballet Theatre's National Training Curriculum in its classes, and in spring of 2010 presented several young candidates for the ABT Affiliate exams.
In fall of 2009 the school began using American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum in its classes, and in spring of 2010 presented several young candidates in four levels for the ABT Affiliate exams
A big change in fall of 2010 was live piano accompaniment in many classes.  Here jazz pianist and technician Matt Coker disembowels and breathes new life into my late Uncle Stan's piano.
A big change in fall of 2010 was live piano accompaniment in many classes. Here jazz pianist and technician Matt Coker disembowels and breathes new life into my late Uncle Stan’s piano.
ABT's JKO Principal Franco De Vita, and myself, and a handful of the 2011 exam candidates
ABT’s JKO Principal Franco De Vita, and myself, and a handful of the 2011 exam candidates
In fall of 2011 students returned to ballet school in American Ballet Theatre's new uniforms; here three levels of Primaries appear in one makeup class.
In fall of 2011 students returned to ballet school in American Ballet Theatre’s new uniforms; here three levels of Primaries appear in one makeup class.
The Level 1A students in class with Ryan Carroll in their new aquamarine uniforms
The Level 1A students in class with Ryan Carroll
Some who have been at the school since they were quite young start to look like dancers.
Some who had been at the school since they were quite young really began to look like dancers by fall of 2011.
And in 2010 Pilates mat classes with Jay Apking became required cross-training  young KBS students.
And in 2011 Pilates mat classes with Jay Apking became required cross-training for many young KBS students.
Some of the older girls had their first pointe and pre-pointe training.  And plenty of silliness.
Some of the older girls had their first pointe and pre-pointe training. And plenty of silliness.
Mom, a master teacher and former ballerina, also worked some at the school when her busy schedule permitted.  Here she is seen working with one of her students who now dances professionally, and one of mine.
My own mom, a gifted ballet teacher and former ballerina, made occasional appearances at the school when her busy schedule permitted. Here she is seen working with one of her students who now dances professionally, and with one of mine.
In December of 2011 the school hosted what would be its fifth and final Nutcracker Tea party.
In December of 2011 the school hosted what would be its fifth and final Nutcracker Tea.
Kingdom of sweets
Kingdom of sweets
In February of 2012 every level at the school participated in its first formal performance, a lecture demonstration of American Ballet Theatre's National Training Curriculum.  The performance was open to the public, in the auditorium at the Knoxville Museum of Art.
In February of 2012 every level participated in the school’s first-ever formal performance, mounted as a lecture demonstration of American Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum. The performance was open to the public, in the auditorium at the Knoxville Museum of Art. KBS students danced to a standing-room-only crowd.

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Parting images; the school's lobby, and Clarence-the-canine
Parting images; the school’s lobby, and Clarence-the-canine
Parting images; a view of the classroom
Parting images; a view of the classroom
Parting images; the long hallway
Parting images; the long hallway

And then it was all over.  I packed up my things and left.  But about the same time I was preparing for my move to Vermont, three of my young students who had earlier in the year successfully auditioned for American Ballet Theatre’s Young Dancer Summer Workshop were heading to the Big Apple for their first, big, away-from-home ballet school experience, at the epicenter of the ballet world.  I arrived to see them in their final classes and studio performance on my fiftieth birthday.  It was bittersweet for me, but I could not imagine being anywhere else on that day.

With all three of my students on the sidewalk at 890 Broadway
With all three of my students on the sidewalk at 890 Broadway
With one of my students just before class at ABT
Just before technique class at ABT
Technique class at ABT; the instructor was Erica Mero.
Technique class at ABT; the instructor was Erica Mero. From Knoxville Ballet School to American Ballet Theatre: a dream come true.
Another one of mine, front and center
Another one of mine, front and center
Two weeks earlier my girls were in placement classes on their first morning at ABT.
A couple of weeks earlier my girls were in placement classes on their first morning at ABT; here are two of the threesome.
And during their time at ABT they got to meet one of their favorite ABT/JKO students, Catherine Hurlin.  How very exciting.
And during their time at ABT they got to meet one of their favorite ABT/JKO School advanced ballerinas, Catherine Hurlin, who has helped out at the YDSW for several years. How very exciting.

It has been quite some journey.  But it is not how the story ends.

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House Wine of the South

Iced Tea

It is a balmy 37 degrees outside today, day four of my miserable head cold.  The inside of my little house is toasty–all the heat is shut off save the pellet stove and I am happily barefoot and wearing a tank top. I made my first pitcher of iced tea in many weeks; could not stand another foul-tasting cup of hot echinacea tea.  Blech.  But I am an expert at making iced tea and it is just about perfect; inside this tall glass I have found a bit of nirvana.  We are supposed to be hammered by another winter storm today–this one is called “Q”–but so far it has not amounted to much. Jon Katz, who is one of my very favorite writers, posted a thoughtful commentary about fear mongering forecasts earlier today; go here to read, while you sip some iced tea and think warm weather thoughts..

Vermont Barbie has dirt under her nails.

Princess Mug

I am not sure how long it has been there, nor when it happened.  And I swear I practice excellent personal hygiene, truly.  But lately I have been enough pressed for time that I am content to find a moment just to snip my nails with clippers, much less file them, or—God forbid—give myself a full manicure.  (If you are thinking, Just go to the dang salon, please note:  this is both time consuming and an overt violation of the frugality ethic I am diligently practicing these days.)  I hate having longish fingernails, though, because they can harbor unspeakable things like, say, germs.  And also dirt—a nice medium for germs—which brings me back to my own Vermont Barbie dirty nails.  I think possibly my wood pellet stove could be the source of the filth, as it is a relic from the 1970s and has been giving me fits lately, requiring a lot of maintenance.  You gotta push up your proverbial sleeves and get your hands dirty, literally, when messing with a temperamental pellet stove.  Handsome Chef Boyfriend—who supplied me the lovely princess mug seen above—has generously stepped in on several occasions to take care of this tedious chore.  But the rest of the time it’s on me.  Oh, and add to the sexy dirt under my nails, scaly winter skin.  Bet you’re jealous.

In the last chapter of my life I often posited, sometimes loudly, that I was pretty sure I’d been switched at birth, was never meant to do laundry, and in actuality was born a princess.  I recall a conversation several years ago with a dear friend—who completely “got” the whole princess thing—during which I predicted she would not likely want to do something or other she had been considering because she was too much of a princess.  Oh, you’re WAY more of a princess than I am, she insisted.

That is possible.  More recently, when the director of the ballet school where I teach spent countless hours driving me all over creation to find a place to live in my new home state, I think I surprised her some when I insisted that this new place must have a washer and dryer, or hookups at least.  She is a youngster (comparatively) and I could feel her rolling her eyes, a little.  Please.  I am getting *old* for chrissakes.  My going-to-the-laundromat days are over.  As a footnote to this housing prerequisite, I will add that the universe was listening and evidently has a sense of humor.  I did ultimately settle on a place with a washer and dryer, but to get to it I’ve got to go out the back door and around the side of the house, where I climb through what I can only describe as a hole into the crawl space, affectionately known as Zombieland.  You’ll know the zombies who live down there finally got me when I stop blogging (cue the staticky white noise…).

I’m not really a princess of course, even figuratively.  I actually enjoy doing laundry (except when there’s measurable snow on the ground and I’ve got a head cold, like now).  I also enjoy chores in general, which I find meditative in the same way I find morning ballet class meditative.  Order is restored from chaos—whether it is the chaos of living, or the chaos of a musculo-skeletal system that is disorganized after a sleep cycle.  At least, that is how I see it.

I think the whole “princess” concept was a survival tool I devised for my life over the last decade, during which time I found myself trying to keep my head above water in a fraternity house of sorts.  No amount of effort can restore order to that kind of chaos, at least not for long.  Still, I managed to carve out a little bit of sacred space for myself.  (And for anyone who might wonder for even an instant whether this characterization is an exaggeration of things, I’ve got a handful of close friends and family who can corroborate it.)

Now, though, I am once again the captain of my own ship.  I do not wear a tiara, but I do have dirt under my nails, and boy is it beautiful.

Greetings from Vermont

Photo: Greetings from Vermont

Wintry chores, indoors.

Ballet classes, reading glasses.

Ice skate, bread bake.

Lake run, too much fun.

Work-play, lazy day.

Valentines, canines.

Pot-au-feu, boyfriend, too.

Crossword puzzle, doggy muzzle.

Foot rubs, lots of snug-gles.

Heavy sighs, long goodbyes.

Greetings from Vermont.

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Happy Valentine’s Day

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This came from the bakery where Handsome Chef Boyfriend works, rejected because of its imperfections.  Looks like somebody was coloring outside the lines; makes it a little more interesting, a little less predictable, kinda messy.  Go and find some sweetness and love today, even if it is imperfect–you know, a little less cookie cutter.  Color outside the lines and enjoy the journey.

Rolling Around in the Snow, in the Buff

Yes, I really did this last night underneath a sky that was so incredibly dark and brilliant with stars and planets I am not sure my words can do it justice.  My small digital Canon PowerShot simply can’t capture what I saw, so I had to grab something that approximates the nighttime sky in rural Vermont.  And while this image still does not describe last night’s sky exactly it does give you some idea of how minuscule and inconsequential I felt looking skyward and seeing that.

Sunday evening my colleagues and I had a rare girls’ night together at the beautiful home of the one of us who is a famous former American Ballet Theatre ballerina and will not admit it.  Three ballet divas, a bottle of wine, yummy apetizers in front of a roaring library fireplace, and then…and then…we were invited into the hot tub, completely nekkid (which is how we say it in the South).  ONE of us objected to this plan—I will not say which one—but caved in when the OTHERS of us chided her for being too modest.  Peer pressure is a powerful thing.

Honestly, after skating four and a half miles with Handsome Chef Boyfriend on Friday, and then running five miles over difficult terrain and in occasionally strong headwinds with him on Saturday, some old running injuries were talking to me and I did not care one jot how nekkid I was, nor who saw me that way.  I just wanted those dang jets on my ageing ballerina joints.  The night sky was a bonus, and I can report that I also saw a shooting star; my colleagues sadly missed it.

After a relatively short time, and being chided by our famous ballerina hostess for continuing to talk shop—which was verboten—we started sweating.  Without any warning at all, she jumped out pretty effortlessly and began rolling around in the fresh snow, squealing all the while like a kid.  Then she dove back in.  The other two of us sat there, mouths agape.

Then she urged us to do the same.  After some careful reflection—and hearing her benign-sounding rationale, like, You can’t believe how good it feels, and, It will make you tingle all over, I decided to be brave; I am not one to walk away from a challenge.  So after I rolled around for about a nanosecond, I jumped right back into the water, which now felt COLD, and my skin a little like how I imagine self-immolation feels.  Doesn’t it feel great? she asked me.  When I mentioned I felt like I had spontaneously combusted, she waved that off impatiently and said, No, not that—just wait a second—you’ll feel it.

I did feel it, in fact.  After the water began to warm again, some mean little troll started poking needles into me.  Everywhere.  A day later I can still summon the sensation.  It certainly leaves a lasting impression, but I am thinking may be an acquired taste, possibly.  Give me a few points at least for trying it.

Once again inside we had a positively delightful dinner, more shop talk, lots more talk about all kinds of other things, and in general a jolly good time.  My ballet diva colleagues did not want to be photographed, silly girls, which is why the one picture I made of them is all blurry.  But Koko-the-Poodle was happy to pose for the camera.

Nice start to the work week.  Thanks, ladies.

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The lake has spoken.

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Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I skated around the lake again day before yesterday (no, that is not us in the photo–that woman does not have a death grip on her friend); this time we went for the entire circuit, about four and a half miles.  The wind was rough at times and on occasion the path all but disappeared because of blowing snow heralding the arrival of winter storm Nemo.  We were the only skaters besides a mother and her young daughter, who stopped intermittently to play in the snow.  (Oh, to be a child again and feel no cold.)

As before, I was chiefly focused on staying upright.  But I was far more confident and competent this time than a couple weeks ago.  HCB still tried to make me go much faster than I was comfortable going from time to time, I think mainly because—like most sixth-grade boys—he evidently enjoys hearing girls squeal.  QUEEEEEiiittttt!!!!  I am not in conTROLLLLLLLL!!!!

But aside from this wintry workout, my purpose in taking to the lake was also to demonstrate to HCB that the eerie sounds I had been hearing for a period of a week or so really existed and were coming from the lake itself (endless fodder for mockery from him about the lake monster with a taste for Southern girls).  But no, really.  Turns out frozen lakes do make noises, some of them spectacular and other-worldly.  And the noises are most likely to happen during periods of rapid changes in temperature.  (And of course HCB was aware of this but knows an easy target when he sees one.)

Several days earlier we had unseasonably warm weather here, with daytime temperatures climbing into the lower fifties.  I wondered what kind of effect that would have on the winter sports the lake supports.  After a couple of balmy days you could see waves on the lake’s surface; in fact, it did not look frozen at all anymore.

Shortly after this, when the temperatures began to plummet once more, the lake mounted quite a performance.  One very cold evening when I walked outside with Clarence, in the stillness of the night we heard a collision of two spectacular sounds:  the groaning lake, which I can only describe as somewhat like the sound a transformer makes when it blows, and the amazing and very LOUD sound of cracking ice.  This noise was in fact so spectacular that Clarence began a throaty growl that in no time escalated into full throttle ferocious barking.  I sure felt safe from the, er, frozen lake.

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After doing a little poking around I found a few examples of frozen lake sounds.  None of them is quite like what I hear on my lake, but a few come pretty close.  This recording by sound artist Andreas Bick is interesting and the “cracking” sound is similar to what I have heard.  The “laser gun” sounds that many others have described and that occur in this recording I have not heard here; what comes off the lake is much lower and more guttural.

So many Vermonters have suggested to me that the best way to weather the long winter is to get outside and enjoy it.  Because I am a runner, getting outside has never really been a problem for me.  But I can say they are correct about enjoying the outdoors in the winter.  It lifts the spirits and makes that warm cup of soup awaiting you in front of the fire oh-so-satisfying.

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Today there has been much grooming of the skating trail; I just grabbed the above photo of the plowman working on cleaning and widening it, which Clarence found enchanting.  Next weekend the resort on the lake’s south end hosts a three-day-long annual outdoor festival with races, sleigh rides, horse drawn wagon rides, snow shoe treks, ice fishing demonstrations, marshmallow roasts, and a culinary feast right on the skating trail.  The lake has spoken; it says, Bring on the Vermont winter.  My wobbly skating legs and I will be right there.

Zzzzzzz….

I’m Sorry. I Can’t Hear You Over The Sound Of How Bad Ass I Am.

I hear the sound of my own voice at home only when I am talking to myself (c’mon—you know you do it, too), or when I address the other life unit here—Clarence-the-Canine:  Do you need to pee?  Are you hungry?  Wag, wag, wag.  But when I want to hear the sound of another human my only choice at the moment—unless I am talking to Handsome Chef Boyfriend—is the radio, because I am too parsimonious to pay for cable or satelite television.  Funny how it is possible to have it on and still tune it out, until you hear something of consequence.

This was the case a few days ago when I was packing away the last of Christmas and restoring order to my living room (yes, I know).  These timely words from jazz great Wayne Shorter yanked me back:  Boring is a trademark of being arrogant and complacent.  I dropped what I was doing to get this on paper because I recognized its immediacy and relevance.

Please, universe, let me never be a bore.

Had I grown arrogant or complacent about anything in my life in the last decade or so, I was certainly peremptorily extracted from that condition a year ago last October, and still feel the aftershocks if not daily, then weekly at least.  I had an especially rude awakening recently that required immediate action on my part with dire consequences had I not taken it; I owe the alert to two kind employees in an insurance office who took it upon themselves to apprise me of the potential train wreck before it was too late.

With each aftershock comes another subtle shift, another small change in the landscape.  Taken as a whole the small changes can seem huge, and in no time flat I am able to work myself into a rapid-pulse-hyperventilating-pacing-the-hallway dither.  I have learned to stop and take some deep breaths and reconsider strategies.

The challenge is avoiding bitterness, and that is huge.  Stories of excess from particular people in the last chapter of my life, whose fingers continue to reach into its current chapter, make their way back to me and infuriate me, not because I want to drive (yet another) BMW, or own a trendy business, or surround myself with people fawning over me for my opinion about something because (I think) I am an expert—a huge rock star in the slightly over-the-hill firmament—but because I want to put gas in my car and go to the grocery store without wiping the sweat from my brow, every. single. time.  I want legally binding promises made to me, promises that affect the quality of my life, to be honored.

I submit that people who think the rules the rest of us must observe, the ones we in our free society agreed on before we made them, somehow do not apply to them, are dangerous people.  Yes, really.  This includes people who go careening down the Interstate because their agenda is more important than yours, and it also includes anti-government militants, and every point along the continuum between these extremes.  If this does not infuriate you, it certainly should.  Even if your immediate life is not touched by one of these complacent, arrogant, Teflon-coated bores.  To those arrogant and complacent people I say this:  you are the droid we’re looking for.  The storm troopers have arrived to bust you for being boring.

Hang around.  This could get interesting.

My house smells like kishke.

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I have long used Steven Mitchell’s ballet classroom music when I teach; he is a NYC-based classical ballet accompanist and musician who, along with a couple others of his ilk, was kind enough to help me develop a program for live ballet class accompaniment at my small school in Knoxville in 2010.  A track on one of my favorites in Steven’s recorded collections is a polka called Who Stole the Kishke?; this sweet little piece has always given me pause to consider the meaning of that word.  What is a kishke?  And furthermore why would anybody want to steal it?

And then I stumbled across this post by my new bloggy friend, Rebecca.  Mystery solved:  the kishke is an Old-World-peasant-pantry-cleaning kind of food that nourishes body and soul.  And it plays right into the ethic of frugality that is part and parcel of my new life in Vermont.  What could be more simple and appealing than blending very basic vegetables with flour, some wet ingredients for “glue,” and a few seasonings, and then baking them into a loaf?

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Handsome Chef Boyfriend—who is also practiced at frugality—was waiting for me at home after the end of a pretty busy ballet teaching day during the week and had not only completed a bunch of manly chores in my absence, but then offered to make dinner—whose composition was alarmingly similar to kishke, except the medium for the vegetables was brown rice instead of flour, the seasoning of choice was curry, and he added some souffléd egg for a shot of protein.  It was perfect nourishment after my teaching day.  (Yes, he is pretty amazing.)

I finally had enough unfettered hours this afternoon to try Rebecca’s vegetarian recipe.  And while my kishke looks exactly nothing like her rather more artfully prepared version, it is every bit as delightful as I imagined it would be.  Tonight I will brown a few slices to accompany the chicken and corn chowder I am making for dinner.  Sustaining and simple.

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Now I know unequivocally why somebody would want to steal the kishke. No need to do that, but do go steal Rebecca’s recipe, and check out her lovely photos while you’re there.