Last week we wrapped up a three-week summer intensive at ballet school; on Saturday the high-intermediate-level students showcased their work in a studio demonstration for their families, something that usually happens at the end of intensives. Each of us on staff was asked to set something on them. I chose Cygnets (“young swans”), the dance of the four little swans from Swan Lake Act II. It’s a fun but challenging allegro variation I decided was well within reach of the kids I was teaching. In the end they danced it in two sets of three, as we had odd numbers and a couple of kids missing. They did an admirable job given the amount of time they had to learn the choreography and (start to) refine it.
Something that sets Cygnets apart from other variations we might have used is the connectedness of the dancers, and I mean that literally. The four girls are physically joined by hands for the entire two-minute or so piece, separating only at the very end. (If that sounds short to you, try jumping rope for two minutes without stopping. With outward rotation in the legs. And pointy feet. And fully stretched knees. And a nice, straight back. With shoulders relaxed. Attached to three other people. Moving in perfect unison with the music.)
Teaching in a summer intensive dredges up all kinds of memories of attending them myself, way back in the day when we just called it “summer school.” A highlight was learning from stellar faculty to whom many of us did not have access during the academic year, a few of them iconic. I am not sure whether I recognized when I was in the presence of greatness as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, but my ballerina mama tried to impress it upon me as best she could.
Aside from being steeped in all that amazing training–as much as a year compressed into a few weeks–the thing I remember is the friendships formed between girls (and boys! in tights!) from all over the country, and a stray overseas dancer or two. It was the closest I ever came to attending sleep-away camp, something my pals outside the ballet world did most summers.
In the days following the end of summer school we kept our friendships alive as pen pals but most of those connections languished over time as we went our separate ways and embarked on adult lives. Now a few cherished friendships have been rekindled after long silences, courtesy of social media (which we never could have imagined), and that is a truly wonderful thing, I believe.
All this has me thinking a lot lately about friendships in the context of what has happened in my life over the last two years–an unimaginably horrible divorce, a thousand-mile move to a place where I knew (practically) nobody, disconnection from family and friends, a midlife reinvention. I have never been the kind of person you knew in high school who somehow maintained relationships with everybody, gathering up friends like wildflowers. I was the kid with only a couple of cherished friendships. I think I learned early that important relationships are not to be taken lightly, and require effort to maintain. How can you do that with so many people? I am sure some can; I am not one of them.
At the start of each new school year my mom urged me to find the person who looked like they needed a friend, and then to be a friend to that person. Some years I managed this more successfully than others–that is a tall order for a third-grader. But once in a while, when the plan really worked well, I discovered some amazing kid I’d never have known about otherwise.
Life during a huge transition, though, has posed a great many challenges to forming new friendships. First and foremost, when you arrive at a particular place in your life, at a particular time, it is exceedingly difficult (and maybe even unfair) to invoke a new friendship. It is really asking a lot of someone, strange as that may sound. And for the time being, anyway, I am still in survival mode–I no longer possess the luxury of time for weekly phone chats or lunches out, as I did only a couple of years ago, because my circumstances are radically different now.
But using the be-a-friend paradigm, it occurs to me as an adult that there is another issue: the person who appears to really need a friend is often a Difficult Person. And I will submit to you that adults are way less forgiving of difficult personalities than kids. I think about this all the time, and of the occasions where it was I who was difficult, and of the people who reached out to me when I needed a friend. Doing this as an adult feels risky, and more challenging than inviting a shy girl who is ridiculed for bizarre fashion sense to sit with you in the lunchroom because you know nobody else will.
And yet this is precisely how I came to know a legend–Vitale Fokine–a ballet giant whose father Michel had a generation before him created enduring Romantic-era ballets. Vitale was on the guest faculty at a summer school I attended around 1977. He was ancient by the time our paths crossed; he spoke with a heavy accent (Russian, and his voice was shot), and gave technique classes that felt oh-so-foreign to me. On the first morning of summer school I scanned the the dorm cafeteria for a place to sit and spied him (you guessed it) alone at a table. The paradigm kicked in. I grabbed my roommate by the elbow for support and led her behind me to sit with him. For two weeks Mr. Fokine was our breakfast friend. He ate peaches and burnt toast, insisting the carbon black was good “for the digestion.” The ballet world lost him a very short time later, that same year.
I look at the kids I teach and hope they are forming happy alliances with each other at a time when friendships between difficult girls can daily hang in the balance. I also hope they will someday reflect on these friendships, which had a chance to congeal during intensives. When I was coaching them in Cygnets I tried to impress upon them how very important it was for them to be together, to move as a single unit. And as they banged knees in bouts of comically miscalculated timing during the learning process, they laughed like crazy and collapsed on the floor in giggles at the end of two minutes of togetherness, more than once. I am taking this as a good sign. My mantra as always is, We take our work seriously, but not ourselves.
I leave you with the version of Cygnets that we used for the intensives, danced here by students at Canada’s National Ballet School as part of a year-end performance.