A Day at the Museum: MASS MoCA

Every small-to-midsize Massachusetts town I’ve had occasion to drive through or visit these last three years seems to possess a seamy industrial underbelly, more often than not in plain view of historic dwellings in varied states of loving restoration or decline, depending. (Second Empire is hands-down my favorite iteration of the Victorian style, and it is everywhere in these parts.) There is palpable evidence of renewed life in some urban centers where the recent past has not been kind, others are not yet there. The decline of American manufacturing and industry echoes in grand industrial buildings where architects once paid exquisite attention to detail: you can see it still, even where windows are replaced by plywood or missing altogether, and rotted foundations are betrayed as far aloft as rooflines.

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Give me gritty nineteenth century industrial buildings and a jaw-dropping collection of modern art any day of the week—is there a better combination of the built environment and our own creative thumbprint? MASS MoCA—the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art—occupies a campus of some 26 of these buildings (not all of them yet renovated), every bit the attraction as the art collections therein. The buildings themselves were home to the Sprague Electric Company from 1942 to 1985 (maker of weapons systems during the war and consumer electronics in peacetime), and Arnold Print Works prior to that, a Civil War-era textiles company whose fingers reached into the modern manufacturing era. A squat building at the entrance to the sprawling campus still bears a rusted sign reminding employees to present identification before entering.

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HCB and I spent an indulgent Saturday there; it was a spiritually and intellectually nourishing day. Standouts for me were Clifford Ross’ Landscape Seen and Imagined photography exhibit (I have not felt so moved by photography since my introduction to the work of Ansel Adams in the early 1980s), and Jim Shaw’s bizarre but evocative collection, Entertaining Doubts, which included an honest portrayal of his own father’s immersion in a 1950s correspondence school to learn how to draw. Knowing that piece of his past somehow made his own art feel more accessible.

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I could not pull my eyes away from the main building itself, a delicious new detail around every corner. You can’t touch the art in a museum; there are no rules about touching walls and windows and doors. My past as a student of historical archaeology urges me to touch everything, and I did. And I was delighted to find tell-tale striations of original, early glass through which the outside world appeared distorted in a pleasing way.

There was music in surprise places: a bluegrass band in a freight elevator followed visitors up and down with a serenade in tight quarters; my camera could not deal with the darkness in the confined black box, but I still loved the unintentional movement in the photos I made. Another appealing Celtic ensemble entertained visitors in the museum café.

It was a beautiful day, bumper to bumper. Hat tip to my friend Margaret for the alert to the free admission.

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All images of artwork in this post are of works currently on exhibit at MASS MoCA.

All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

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This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?

 

 

The Wrong Side of Every Door: Finding Paradise

The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He’s always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he’s at home, then he’d like to get about.—T.S. Eliot

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The oppressive heat of high summer in Memphis, Tennessee reaches its fingers across the flat landscape and foists itself upon every living thing. Nor is rain any relief, for it invokes heat’s accomplice humidity to wreak havoc in its wake. Even when you live your days in air-conditioned comfort, step outside late at night in August and the heavy air defies your lungs to work at all. At least that is how I remember my years growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s. A morning shower will hold you in good stead for a while; by high noon you’d gladly pay somebody for the privilege of another.

I believe this is why a singular Harper Lee sentence always resonated with me so deeply from the moment I first read it: “Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” She was writing about a South deeper still than Memphis, but I knew exactly what she meant in that beloved opus, my favorite story. She makes the heat sound romantic; it is not.

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On a memorable summer day I see the silhouette of my mom on her hands and knees in our upstairs bathroom diligently scraping rubber from the floor’s ceramic tiles with a razor blade. In the days leading up to that moment Memphis and other parts of the country had felt the effects of a dangerous heat wave that had already killed scores of people as it marched across the land. Our air-conditioning and everybody else’s failed; and like most people we had to take a number and get in line for the repairman. When at last the cool air was restored we found the backing on the bathroom rugs upstairs had melted and congealed against the hard porcelain. If you have never experienced high summer in the Deep South you may raise your eyebrows. I speak the truth.

In the seventh grade I attended one of the worst public schools in the city, during the worst of the tumult that was called desegregation. It was built on an anthill, went the local lore; there were ants everywhere. You could see regiments marching across baseboards and up walls; they were even said to have gotten inside classroom clocks and stopped them.

The school was not air conditioned. That meant for a few dreadful weeks in the fall and the spring it would be hot, and I mean hot. The heat inside that building brought with it short tempers during a time that was already supercharged with tension, and it intensified the unmistakable odors that marked poor, unscrubbed adolescent children, children who lacked hygiene at home and abroad. The school was a petri dish for those smells and so much else that should not have been allowed to fester and grow. My tenure there was mercifully short.

By the end of high school I’d had enough of Memphis. It was not all about the heat, although it impressed me. There was also a healthy dose of nest-soiling, the need to thumb my nose at my silly childhood and move on. My future was uncertain, except for this one thing: it would not unfold there. Ninny that I was, I believed with every stitch of my being that life would get underway soon in earnest, that my Avalon might have been out of sight for the time being but was certainly attainable. I had but to arrive there.

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I was wrong, of course.

I did not think the culture of the American South had anything to do with me. I did not acknowledge that Memphis had birthed the Blues, had no cause to walk Beale Street. I did not care about the Sun Record Company. (And everybody knew Elvis was a hayseed—all you had to do was look at his fans.) I did not pay much attention to the city’s difficult history, palpable evidence of it everywhere. I forgot about the institutions I once held dear: Brooks Museum of Art, Ellis Auditorium, the Orpheum Theatre, the exquisite Memphis Botanic Garden, the beloved Pink Palace—none of them mattered to me anymore.

All those things were somebody else’s Avalon.

Too bad for me: I missed it all when I’d gone, the second I sprouted a lick of sense. I waxed poetic about these things to anybody who would listen after I moved out west to Colorado for a few years, much to the chagrin of people around me, I am sure. And on the eve of last summer’s homecoming to Knoxville, Tennessee—the city that was mine for three decades and my ancestors’ far longer—I am sure my wistfulness about the South I left behind invoked more than one eyeroll in the people around me here in Vermont.

Vermont, where I am struggling once again to come to terms with impossible (to me) winters even though this one has been mild thus far, observing others doing the same. I often think in my heart of hearts life should not have to be so difficult for a population who often struggle to make ends meet. Where is their Avalon?

There is no paradise, said a wise person: this is the truth. Avalon is everywhere and anywhere we live, and a smart person can find it. I am no ninny, nor am I wise. Winter in Vermont pushes hard, like summer in Tennessee. I will feel it tomorrow when I drive to work on a sketchy road that may or may not have been plowed to my satisfaction after a little squall comes through tonight. I’ll have white knuckles and will keep a close watch in the mirror for more seasoned winter drivers who wish I’d go a little faster. I will not appreciate the beauty of the landscape as I should. But I will try to find Avalon in this still-strange landscape.

And I will try like heck not to be a terrible bore.

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Shut Up and Listen

Some people change the very demeanor of a space simply by stepping into it. Franco De Vita is one of them. So is his colleague and partner in life, Raymond Lukens. And for a beautiful and golden chapter in my own life I had the great privilege of learning from these two wise men how to commute the art of classical ballet to a new generation of children.

Wise guys is also a fitting moniker: anyone who has been in the same room with Franco and Raymond will tell you there is no quicker witted pair, nor anyone in recent memory to possess the encyclopedic knowledge of these two when it comes to ballet and ballet pedagogy, its language, and its history. It was that wit and wisdom to lure me to American Ballet Theatre in 2009 to soak up as much knowledge as I could, nudged by a former ballet school roommate who suggested I would not regret it. It proved to be an excellent decision.

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Franco De Vita sets an exercise in centre floor during a demonstration class at a National Training Curriculum session at American Ballet Theatre in July, 2009. The consummate teacher, Franco also has gorgeous lines himself, which is why I included this grainy photo of him.
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Raymond Lukens prepares for a day of teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in July 2009 with Kate Lydon, ABT JKO faculty and former dancer with ABT and San Francisco Ballet.

But there is also this: Franco and Raymond share their knowledge unselfishly and their humor with civility, never vulgarity. The two of them possess a refined elegance that is almost out of step with time, rare in a world smitten with Kardashians. It flows naturally from immersion in the art form to be sure, but also from being men of the world, speakers of many languages and students of cultures far and wide. There is some kernel of it that is difficult to explain or to quantify, except to say that Franco and Raymond are exceptional men.

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In this photo and the following Raymond teaches a Level 5 pointe class for teachers at a training session at ABT in July 2010.

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When I undertook the training at ABT I did not expect to perform well on my own teacher exams, nor to present my own students to an ABT adjudicator for scrutiny. My only goal was to go there, to the epicenter of the ballet world, and learn as much as I could, and then to bring it back home with me. Turns out I really had much bigger plans for myself than I knew at the time.

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The second year we undertook the ABT Affiliate Exams at Knoxville Ballet School; that’s me on the left, with my accompanist Eva Holder, and Franco De Vita, who adjudicated our exams both years we did them. This was in the spring of 2011. Pictured here is a Primary Level C class, and below is a Level 1A class.

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Here is the truth about being in the presence of greatness: your job is to shut up and listen. Some people really do not understand this simple rule; it shows in their behavior, in their professional lives and beyond, and that is their loss. But Franco’s and Raymond’s contributions to the ballet world are of epic proportions: it is very important to pay attention to these two men.

Epic. That is a big, overused word, entirely appropriate here. Co-creators of a curriculum that is the first of its kind in the United States—training to merge the best of the French, Russian, and Italian schools in a paradigm that includes the health of the child and the training of the whole dancer—Franco and Raymond will be remembered in ballet’s annals shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Enrico Cecchetti and Agrippina Vaganova, whose ideas about ballet helped shape and form it into what we recognize as ballet today. But it is the concern for the well-being of the dancer, I think, that will elevate this curriculum above its historical antecedents.

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Raymond addresses a group of teacher trainees at ABT in July of 2011.
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Raymond and Franco look on while teacher trainees demonstrate Primary Level exercises at ABT in July of 2011.

Franco De Vita will soon pass on the torch, stepping aside as Principal of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, embarking on the next chapter in his life. I’ve already started the next chapter in mine of necessity, firmly rooted outside the ballet world, but in another realm as comfortable to me. The lessons I learned from Raymond and Franco have transcended ballet and reach into my professional life as a writer. They also saw me through the darkest chapter of my life to date, just as the discipline of classical ballet saw me through the rigors of my academic life and beyond when I was much younger.

Thank you Raymond and Franco: you may never know how much you helped me, and the young enrollees of a small school in Knoxville, Tennessee, during its too-short life. I wish you both all the best. ‘Til we meet again~Deb

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Full circle: Knoxville Ballet School students outside 890 Broadway, ready for their final day of Young Dancer Summer Workshop at American Ballet Theatre, August 10, 2012.

Howdy, 2016. I already miss you, 2015.

New Year’s Eve 2015, a street corner in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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My boy Bentley and his friend Billy have been with us for a week, headed back to their respective homes in Tennessee at an obscene hour tomorrow morning. We’ve had a great time together. I am always amazed how you can blink and it’s gone: eight days, just like that. I tried to arrange at least one Fun Thing for them each day they were here. Road warriors, those two: a thousand miles in two days to get here, and then run-outs near and far pretty much every day, to Londonderry, Manchester, and Bennington, and also Cambridge and Saratoga, NY. In short order they both figured out the singular truth about life in rural Vermont (Bentley already knew it): the correct answer to the question, Where is <fill in the blank>? is always, far, far away. Or maybe more appropriately: in a galaxy far, far away. Yep, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens in one of the teeny local theatres a couple of days ago; the two of them have already hatched plans to see it in 3D when they return home.

Some things never change, to wit:

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At any given moment during the past week the two of them could be observed with one of several electronic devices that followed them here. It cracks me up to observe them sitting in such close proximity whilst texting each other. Or me. At first blush, it’s ridiculous. But the conversation most likely includes things people nearby (including the patrons at our favorite fish and chips joint in downtown Bennington) may not want to hear anyway.

Saratoga was about as far afield as we ventured during our week together. In the process of searching for parking in a very crowded downtown on New Year’s Eve I came across this for the first time:

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Hathorn Spring Historic Marker

It smelled strongly of sulphur and looked like something out of a Harry Potter tome, one of our favorites, the boy’s and mine. Not so sure about the purported “digestive curative” properties. We much preferred these, at the Boca Burger around the corner and down the street:

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I am still getting used to the idea that it is okay to buy my kid a cocktail—something decidedly more potent than butter beer. Yes, he looks fifteen. He is many years older and quite “legal,” although the waiter took some convincing. When he was finally satisfied the boy is more than 21 he quipped, Whatever you’re doing, keep on doing it. (We’ll never tell.)

I’ve loved having my son glued to me for eight glorious days. Little boy smell was once replaced by middle school smell, thence adventure boarding school smell (requiring windows rolled down on trips home, even in winter), heavy smoker smell (an especially bad chapter for a much-too-young kid), and now a heavily perfumed smell <cough cough>, preferable to all the rest. He is downstairs snoozing, ready for the road tomorrow, a long haul home, part of which he’ll drive alone. I miss him and he is still here. I will be weepy when he is gone. And I will lament the things that are still not right, and I will worry about the future. I’ll probably chew my nails.

Sometimes it is hard to let go of the past, even when parts of it were truly terrible. There is still so much uncertainty and turmoil.

So, 2016, what’s it gonna be? Will you be pleasant and affable, or a royal pain in the ass? Will you cozy up and offer a warming glass of something nourishing, or a bitter drink that promised much but lost its fizz? Fair weather friend or a keeper of promises? Better be good.

So long, 2015: you played nice, mainly. And godspeed, dear Bentley. I love you more than you’ll ever know.~Mum

Christmas 2016