I know exactly nothing about Buddhism, but my friend Jill does. That’s her beautiful daughter in the photo up there, standing next to former American Ballet Theatre principal ballerina Julie Kent, perhaps a little star struck. Dukkha, she explained, is the Buddhist concept of suffering, with an asterisk: it’s thought to have been mistranslated as actual suffering, when what it really means is thinking you’re suffering when you’re only inconvenienced or slightly unsatisfied. Like getting the grocery cart with the bockety wheel on it, and now you’ll spend the next half hour fighting the grocery cart around the store.
Annoying, perhaps, but suffering? You still have the privilege of browsing well stocked shelves of food which you will buy and then go home and enjoy, a privilege most Americans take for granted, anyway. You probably won’t spend too much time worrying about whether you’ve gotten the nutrients you needed today, while somewhere on the globe there’s no clean water to drink.
The Buddhists, Jill went on, maintain we add ‘extra’ to our dukkha by imagining our lives would finally be perfect if only we could accomplish <missing thing>. We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we?
In fact I’ve honed it to a lustrous sheen over the last five years of transition. There were plenty of sleepless nights at first, and no small amount of hand wringing and nail biting and wondering what would happen if and when the bank account was empty: these are the things that spawn action. There was genuine anguish to be sure, but probably never actual suffering. And my own landscape now is downright pastoral by comparison, a green hill dotted by black-faced sheep, and the occasional bockety wheel to keep me honest.
Seems that beautiful little ballerina up there, my erstwhile Knoxville Ballet School student, is North Carolina bound, finally getting her wish to enroll in full-time residential ballet school. I could not be happier nor prouder. It’s no small thing: Celia sailed over the talent hurdle, clearing it easily, the academic one a mere formality (quoting my beloved mentor: you can’t be dumb and dance). She has leapt into the world of pre-professional ballet training: the rest is up to her.
Hat tip to her devoted parents, who are moving heaven and earth (and experiencing no small amount of dukkha) to make this happen for their daughter, who by all accounts is giddy, as anybody in those pointe shoes would be.
Her mom explained the ‘extra’ she’s added to her own dukkha in all this is wishing she and her family had moved from Tennessee to North Carolina a few years ago, when they were actually considering it. But because this is an exercise in futility, she continued, she’s moving past it. She went on to list all the positives of this exciting new development, bockety wheels be damned.
There is food in the pantry and a dog dreaming on the floor—in Tennessee and in Vermont—and soon a Knoxville girl will enjoy complete classical ballet immersion in North Carolina: that’s close enough to paradise.
Live your life, live your life, live your life.—Maurice Sendak
It’s Mother’s Day, a Hallmark-y holiday. Flowers will be dispensed, brunches eaten, and everywhere priests will stand at the pulpit and spin out sermons on the importance of mothers for the umpteenth time; they’ll repeat them next month but insert the word “fathers.”
I had a call from my twenty-something man-child early, early this morning—a video chat, because that’s how it’s done these days. He couldn’t sleep last night, he said. He is carless at the moment, and so he had spent hours looking at ads on craigslist. He was so tired he could lick the walls, he told me, but still could not fall asleep this morning. I said I had no idea what that expression means and we both giggled. And anyway, he went on, if I fall asleep now I’ll be wide awake at ten tonight. It’s no good. I just need to go find food.
Off you go, then, I told him.
Happy mother’s day—I love you, he said.
We’ll probably chat a couple more times before the day is over, unless he sleeps it away.
We are thick as thieves in spite of some mountains and valleys between us. He has figured out with impressive exactitude the instant I’m likely to pull into the driveway on weekdays—it’s almost like he can sense it somehow, even when my schedule is a little off. The phone on the passenger seat next to me lights up and chirps its familiar chirp, the one that says Hey-from-a-thousand-miles, pick up already.
And we are thick as thieves now in spite of the uncertain landscape five years ago, when I lived alone for a final difficult year in our big, old, Tudor Revival-style house in Knoxville, the house where he grew up, and where our family was coming unglued before our eyes. When the new world order emerged at the start of that year, I explained to my then-teenager he needed to go and live with his dad in a neighborhood just down the road, for so many complicated reasons: I tried to make them clear. It was late, I was tucked into bed (still on my side of it, the other side only recently empty); he was sitting cross-legged at the foot of it practically on my feet, like he might have done when he was five. We had a hard conversation.
During those long, empty nights the Blackberry sometimes chirped on my nightstand and often at odd hours. It was never bad news, just a heads up at an inappropriate moment: hey mom, I’m coming over to the house to get <thing>. <Person> is with me, but he’ll wait in the car so the dog won’t freak out.
Soon the car—his late grandparents’ Caddy that was his for the time being—would idle in the driveway just below the master bedroom window, and not long after I’d smell the stink, the secondhand tobacco smoke he now carried around with him on his clothing and person, and hear the death-rattle cough in a kid too young to sound so old. No telling where he had been nor where he was going in the late-night or pre-dawn hours. There was so much profound sadness wrapped up in these occasions I can still feel it now. (And I will forever associate the Blackberry ringtone with it.)
A few years earlier there was still a palpable tether between us. MOM! came crackling from a high-again low-again adolescent male voice, often followed by Where is my—, more a demand than a question.
And before that: Mommy! I need—, always delivered with a sense of urgency. I could not have imagined a time would come when I’d simply have to give in to worry and grief about the life choices this child was making; I could feel my bones beginning to age.
A day many years earlier found me sitting comfortably cross-legged on the floor with a toddler in my lap, in a playroom loft that would delight any child—a long, narrow, cocoon-like room with sloping cornmeal yellow walls meeting its flat ceiling, walls that follow the contours of the steeply pitched roof on the other side of it, a room warmed by the radiant heat in the slate roof tiles, a Hobbit-like space proportioned and cheerfully outfitted for a little person. The toddler surveys the raised highway we’ve built from an exquisite wood block set my Uncle Stan sent us, Matchbox cars in mid-commute, a few highway tragedies piled below it, while across town some cars are parked in front of the ice cream parlor, blissfully unaware of the carnage.
Our minuscule village is awash in the dappled sunlight filtering through tall trees just outside the big window on the gable end of the house. The toddler has a pacifier in his mouth—a “binky,” which he’s sucking furiously—loudly—deep in thought with furrowed brow, clutching a second binky in his tiny toddler hand which is lifted to rub against the tip of his nose. It is an endearing habit he will retain for a long time. If one of three big dogs happens to saunter through the room and upset the highway, the toddler will bellow gleefully at the calamity.
Meanwhile he tumbles out of my lap to improve some bit of highway infrastructure, muttering an observation through the binky still held tightly in his teeth in language sometimes only I can understand. Standing in the checkout line of a big box retailer a cheeky old woman will soon lecture me about allowing the little boy on my hip to suck on one of those things, they’re terrible for teeth, she should know, her husband’s a dentist. For once words will not escape me: I’ll square my shoulders and quip, Well you and he should be thankful for ignorant moms like me who send generations of business your way.
My child is clean-scrubbed; I’ve plunked him into a soapy bath for a half-hour of calming water play after his sticky, spinach-y lunch, which he was wearing on his face and in his hair a little earlier. Freshly dressed in a stretchy cotton outfit that smells of Dreft, he’ll sit in my lap again while I rock him in the sunny yellow bedroom three steps down from the Matchbox highway loft. Town improvements must wait until we’ve gone exploring with the Wild Things, supplying words for wordless pages—howling at the moon, swinging through the trees, tromping through the woods. There might be a nap set to sweet Celtic lullabies, but I know this child: he will fight sleep and probably win.
The irony of this does not escape me after our earlier conversation today. I was not “finished” with this young man when I left Tennessee for good. But I was also weary—nay, exhausted—and ineffective as a parent near the end: there were not enough restorative naps, for him or for me, to fix our big problems. I was powerless to put him in the tub, or to wash the stale cigarette smoke out of his skin and hair, or scrub the filth under his nails: he had to do it for himself, or not.
Parenting never ends. And sometimes I think I’ve been most effective as a long-distance mom: being available only at the end of an electronic device is a game changer, after all, and underscores the reality that I’m more than a door mat, or a lunch fixer, a changer of diapers, or a supplier of spare change, even though I have been all of those things and continue to be some of them. For too long these things defined most of me while I allowed what remained of me to languish. The day I opened the doors of my small ballet school in Knoxville a wise friend observed, Not a moment too soon. But really, that day actually came several years too late—putting my life on the back burner helped nobody.
The only piece of advice I ever give any new mom is simply this: being a good parent to your child is profoundly important, but never more important than being a good steward to yourself. We finally do what we can for our children, and sometimes that has to be enough.
Nothing like a good ballet school audition to remind you you’re not at the center of the universe.
This is not a bad thing. It had already dawned on you years earlier in a classroom full of young ballet hopefuls when you did not get the instructor’s attention you so felt you deserved one afternoon. And later when the short-tempered Armenian-born artistic director of the ballet school and company blew his lid around 9 p.m. when you and your third-grader colleagues were being mindless and silly instead of focused, when he was running the same Nutcracker scene for the umpteenth time in rehearsal. (You could not help yourself at that hour past your bedtime, nor could he.)
Film director Robert Altman tried to illustrate this ballet condition in The Company, a plotless 2003 indie drama that trudges on unrelentingly to its final unsatisfying scene. It owes whatever wider appeal it might have enjoyed (if any) to headliners James Franco and Neve Campbell. The Company at least gifts the balletomanes among us a few lovely Joffrey Ballet performances in classes, rehearsals, and on the stage (hence the title) between its other tiresome and self-indulgent scenes.
And it does shine a light, however dim, on an irksome problem that persists in the ballet world, a thing that raises hackles and occasionally inspires serious discussion: the antiquated directorial practice of addressing company personnel as boys and girls, instead of men and women (or ladies and gentlemen), or occasionally more endearingly but still too childlike, “babies” and “dears.” The tone is not always sweet: you can discern the meaning in its delivery, like when a rude sibling blurts out something inappropriate at the holiday dinner table and a savvy aunt responds, “Well, bless your heart.” Makes you feel “dear” right down to your socks, doesn’t it?
The tone of the delivery was something else slowly dawning on your third grade self in ballet class, especially since your mom danced in the company and you watched rehearsals all the time: you had a full frontal dose of it—ballet directors could be brutal. The beauty of this arrangement, perhaps its salvation, was that ballet directors could also make you pee yourself laughing, because they often muted the decorum filter, to everyone’s amusement. Many still do; it takes a “big” personality to fill those shoes.
After the filming of that movie Robert Altman observed he’d never directed a group of people so pliant and obedient (I’m paraphrasing). He went on, You’re on set and say to nobody in particular, where are the dancers? And all of a sudden fifty of ‘em are right there—actors are nothing like that.
Sounds like a compliment, unless he was suggesting dancers are all a bunch of lemmings; I have known a few lemmings in the ballet world, only they’re called bunheads.
Michael Maule died last week at 95: he was one of the first people to help me understand I was not at the center of the universe, in a most polite and humane way. Anything but a lemming himself, Mr. Maule possessed an impressive pedigree on Broadway and in ballet, but by the mid-to-late-1970s when I knew him he was the distinguished director of the National Academy of Arts: it was an unlikely school with a star-studded faculty in Champaign, Illinois, operating in the 1970s, limping along financially towards the end of its life before it finally folded for good around 1978.
I would meet Michael Maule at a school audition when I was 12. But because I attended the school only in the summers and he occasionally took time away from his teaching post then, I remember him mainly as the man who gave the audition classes, together with his colleague and school administrator Mary Moore, a woman who possessed exotic red fingernails and wore the best costume jewelry ever: Ms. Moore was the antithesis of the gauzy, pastel ballet world I knew, a quality that demanded one’s full attention. The pair toured the country recruiting kids to the school; when they announced a stop in Memphis my ballerina mom informed me I would be there.
And so I was, neat as a pin in my plain black leotard with a number pinned to the front, my hair shellacked into a perfect ballerina bun—a veritable bunhead. It would be my first residential performing arts school audition, for the only residential school I ever attended, but by no means my last audition class.
However well my mom prepared me for that experience, I could not have been fully prepared for the scrutiny to which these two kind people were about to subject the young auditionees in that classroom, a space long familiar to me but now commandeered by aliens: Mr. Maule with his exotic accent (South African born, of Scottish lineage), and Mary Moore with her distinctly metropolitan demeanor. They called us in one by one to stand in front of them. Please take first arabesque à terre, Ms. German. (Snap, went the Polaroid.) Thank you. Please stand in first. Thank you. Please give us battement tendu à la seconde, thank you, arms in seconde. (Snap, snap, whisper whisper.) Thank you. Please lie on your back in “frog”—place the soles of the feet together. (What the hell? Somebody is manipulating my legs and hips, there is more discussion.) Thank you, Ms. German. Please take your place at the barre.
A few weeks later came the acceptance letter together with the audition evaluation in multiple pages, an “x” marking the spot in one of three columns (excellent, fair, or undeveloped/needs improvement) next to every movement under scrutiny. Sometimes the “x” was typed a little clumsily between the two columns, a reminder that a scoring rubric can’t tell the whole story. But the best part was Mr. Maule’s thoughtful essay in which he shone a light—the brightest one—on every inch of me: who among us does not relish a story written with us as its main character? I remember the best and the worst of it: tightness in the hips, extension of the legs not where it should be for my age, weak pirouette on the left. But then: “a lovely arch was noted in the feet,” pointe work was “stronger than average” for my age.
So it was true: I could go on living with myself, warts and all. Mainly, I was one dancer of many with some gifts, but much work still to do. As always it remained up to me to determine my own destiny, however lemming-like my behavior at 12 or 13. Mr. Maule helped me understand that lesson through his kind smile that day, and on a few more occasions before everything was said and done.
But Michael Maule also unknowingly prepared me for an especially brutal audition in Toronto, Ontario, before the legendary Betty Oliphant at my mom’s own alma mater, Canada’s National Ballet School (in a weirdly ironic plot twist, it would be Neve Campbell’s alma mater, too). That audition was for the academic year ahead and did not go as I hoped: the school had room to take only two girls in my audition class of about 15 or 20. Ms. Oliphant was an observer that day, one of many adjudicators who sat at a long table watching the class; candidates were eliminated in rounds.
I made it through to the final round of cuts, but was let go just before pointe work, something I was keen to demonstrate, shored up as I was by Mr. Maule’s words; afterwards I tried hard to fight back tears, but Ms. Oliphant sprinted over to speak to me and my mom, the woman she’d taught ballet as a girl, and who in turn was now teaching me. She placed her arm around my shoulder, looked me square in the eyes and said, Continue your studies and please come back to us.
Without hesitating I quipped, Thank you, I am going to the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois.
My mom could not have been prouder of me that day: most assuredly not at the center of the universe, I was undeniably in command of my own destiny. Thank you, Mr. Maule, wherever you are.
Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.
However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.
In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.
At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.
More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.
Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.
One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”
Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.
Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.
In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.
Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.
Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:
I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)
There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:
Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.
I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.
I’ve been off the grid for some weekend travel, but want to share an update about young Celia Adlin, my former student who has just finished her first American Ballet Theatre summer intensive at North Carolina School of the Arts. She is shown here at the end of last week after her technique class with former ABT principal Julie Kent (artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives programs, recently named artistic director of Washington Ballet). Celia is giddy I am told, wearing stage makup in the photo because she was about to dance in the end of intensive performance. Her mom reports she is more than ever smitten with her ballet training; that is a synthesis of the message, and also an enormous understatement.
Unrelenting questions, lobbed one after another by a well-intentioned ballet school dad, my back inches from an icy cooler packed with pricey frozen concoctions in one of Knoxville’s fancy new grocery stores. Did I think there was something special in his young daughter Celia? Did she possess a gift for classical ballet? And what about the summer program for young dancers at American Ballet Theatre, still in its infancy at that moment?
The questions were intelligent and purposeful, put to me in earnest by someone still wrapping his head around what ballet training might entail for his child. His wife had already answered them, an erstwhile ballerina herself; now he was merely getting backup from one more trusted source, proof positive that the planets in the squirrelly ballet universe might possibly align for his daughter.
I was emphatically unprepared for the inquisition, almost done with my errand, aimed for the door; moments earlier I had recognized his familiar face and waved hello. We stood there and chatted for a long while. Yes, I said, I believe Celia is special. And I believe the workshop at ABT is worth your consideration if you can make it work logistically. That’s the distilled version of what I told him, anyway.
It was true: in my opinion Celia possessed what the former director of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne—a renowned international ballet competition—once referred to as “that elusive thing called talent.” She was maybe seven at the time, possibly on the cusp of eight. Possibly. But the idea of sending her (and some of her other talented young colleagues at my fledgling ballet school) to the epicenter of the ballet world for training with stellar faculty was admittedly so alluring. That opportunity certainly did not exist for me at the tender age of seven or eight, nor was I prepared for such a monumental undertaking. But the ABT curriculum in place for only a short time at my small school was already proving its worth in the development of the young children who were learning it.
Making a case to this smart and invested dad was a walk in the park: his daughter was growing up in a ballet family and he was already committed to giving her whatever tools she needed, even if the entirety of that had not quite come into crystalline focus. But explaining the importance of superior training to uninitiated parents—why tuition can seem so costly, why there are school uniforms, why a child should undertake ballet exams, to say nothing of the necessity of travel to far-off destinations for summer training (and perhaps ultimately full-time residential school) and all it entails—is difficult at best, hopeless at worst. (And in truth, that level of commitment is not appropriate for everybody.)
Educating parents of young dancers to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet training is a piece of the small private ballet school experience so often missing, I think. You can’t drop the ball: moms and dads need answers to questions, they need to hear them often, and by way of multiple platforms—a shotgun approach, if you will. With any luck, some of your answers will hit the bull’s eye and “stick.” And with each incoming crop of little ballerina wannabes every fall semester, you must start explaining and answering questions from the beginning, painstakingly, and with patience. For me, that moment in the fall always demonstrated so poignantly just how far we—my ballet school community and I—had traveled together over the last calendar year.
Very few dancers from small ballet schools in the hinterlands make it to the professional stage—hardly any of them, as a matter of fact. There are statistics floating around to support this truth, but the bigger point is this: classical ballet training for young children must be worth more than the possibility of enjoying professional life as a dancer. It must be worth more.
So what exactly is the payoff for your child, after you’ve thrown years of your own life and buckets of resources at her so she can pursue something quite possibly beyond her reach? There are enough answers to that single question to fill volumes. But I would say simply, to prepare her for the rest of her life, however that looks. The sum total of her experiences in the classroom and on the stage will follow her wherever she goes, and serve her in ways unimagined when you were writing her ballet school tuition checks or sending her off to residential school or buying her hundredth pair of new pointe shoes. The day she is met with some seemingly insurmountable life challenge as an adult it will have been a difficult message imparted to her once upon a time when she stood at the ballet barre, or in a packed audition class, or in a girls’ locker room, hot tears of frustration possibly welling up in her eyes, to finally help see her through it.
As for Celia, her ballet journey continues. Unbelievably she’ll be a ninth grader this fall. Her parents have figured out a way to obtain superior training for her in the absence of our beautiful ballet school in Knoxville where she had her first few years of formal ballet training, and from which she did indeed travel to NYC to study at ABT with two of her young classmates in the summer of 2012. It’s not easy: she must commute to Atlanta for classes and private coaching from Ashleyanne Hensley, another ABT/NTC teacher who has taken up the mantle where I left it and continued nurturing along a special girl who is now looking for all the world like a young woman. This summer she is studying ballet away from home at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the planets appear to be in alignment as they should be.
Last summer when I was in Knoxville visiting friends and families I sat down with Celia and her mom over a late dinner. We talked for hours, and not just about ballet: Celia has wide-ranging interests, one of them writing. Working as I do now as a professional writer I had the chance to weigh in on the satisfaction that comes from being paid to write, but also its realities, how difficult it is to find work or be published. In some ways it sounded so strangely aligned with some of the challenges of working as a professional dancer. For her part, Celia is excited about embracing her freshman year experiences in the fall at a school much larger than the one she has known ‘til now; ballet is but one piece of her life, albeit a big one, “beloved,” as her mom says.
Celia’s deportment and aplomb impressed me deeply; it’s abundantly clear classical ballet has left its indelible thumbprint on her. This young dancer has had a beautiful foundation indeed; the world is hers for the taking.
A note about the following video: young Celia competed in the Atlanta leg of the Youth America Grand Prix this past winter, her first time to participate in a classical ballet competition. This is rehearsal footage of the Aurora variation she danced from Sleeping Beauty Act III. A rogue snowstorm had just hit the city and threatened to cancel the competition; Celia was sleep-deprived, dancing on vapors, but determined, wearing one of her mom’s revived tutus from ballet days gone by. Her mom graciously granted permission to post the video.
Note: the photos in this post belong to Knoxville Ballet School, Xavier Battle, and Jill Adlin; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.
A ballet friend and colleague recently asked whether I’ve been “itching” to teach again. I had to think about that. These days I’m not sure I would describe my desire to teach as an itch, but maybe—it felt like something more profound when I took the colossal and risky leap of faith to open a small ballet school in 2006. Any kind of business startup demands your full commitment, and I mean full, to say nothing of a healthy bank account—double what you think it will take and then some, buckets of your time, unrelenting nail biting, more time, all your waking hours, and a few sleepless nights thrown in for good measure—did I mention time?
When you start a school there are exactly no guarantees the thing will fly; mine ultimately did not, although had I been willing to leave behind some of my stubbornly held ideas about maintaining a certain artistic “pureness” in my business practices, I believe it would have: when my marriage failed and everything came unglued I was already teetering on the threshold of fiscal success. But teetering falls short of paying the light bill and the rent.
Other benchmarks at the school—teaching standards, community engagement, relationship building—undeniably painted a picture of success. I submit that during its brief life the ballet school purveyed a product of a quality unmatched anywhere in my home town and beyond. What I could bring to the table was complete immersion in classical ballet by way of the pedigree handed me by my own ballerina mom and each of her friends and colleagues, who nurtured along my intense love for the form for most of two decades. We often speak of teaching ballet as commuting the art form to a new generation, our tacit obligation to keep it alive but also to leave our own thumbprint on it, part and parcel of its natural evolution; I saw the school as my chance to do that.
But in 2009 I also made an important business and artistic decision to develop a professional relationship with American Ballet Theatre, which served my community back home in more ways than can be quantified on a spreadsheet; the school’s population—its young enrollees and their families—were the beneficiaries of the collective wisdom of scores of professionals thanks to ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Friendships and professional ties forged at ABT persist; whether they will be called again into “active service” at some point is anybody’s guess, which is the thing I find so enticing about the future to begin with, a kind of counter weight to the uncertainty that can be so disquieting.
The question is, does a ballet school, or any other business, really, deserve to be there in the first place if it can’t self-sustain? Does every struggling business (or ill-conceived business plan or idea) deserve a Kickstarter campaign? I never even thought of going down that road with my own small ballet school.
Instead I sized up my desperate situation and ultimately took a job in the corporate world after a brief teaching stint elsewhere, a “selling out” frowned on in some circles. Even the word itself—corporate—has negative connotations (greed comes to mind), some deserved to be sure. It derives from the Latin word for body, but its implicit meaning now is “all” versus “one.” The corps de ballet, for example, is the main body of the company, apart from its soloists, but without whom there is no ballet. We often think of the corporate entity, though, as antithetical to the individual, and therefore antithetical to creativity.
Working in the corporate world is not a universally wretched condition: I’m privileged to make a living doing the one other thing I love, which is writing, even if it is not always in my own voice. (Is there creativity in my work? In spades.) But when you dance in the corps de ballet, you are part of something bigger, as I am now.
Were I still at the helm of a ballet school, my approach now would almost certainly be broader, making use of the classroom space to generate revenue for as many moments as the day allowed, to reach a wider audience, to tap into the bigger desires of the community—to be more corporate minded, if you will; this is not about greed, but survival. In those days I eschewed these opportunities in the name of artistic purity, of being only the one thing, the best ballet school. Even the school’s slogan spelled it out: excellent instruction in correct classical ballet technique. But it would have been entirely possible to reach beyond the confines of classical ballet instruction and still maintain that slogan, and the highest standards for ballet training. (And in hindsight, the school’s one exceptional product really demanded a higher price tag than I put on it.) I embraced the paradigm of the diva soloist instead of being a team player in the corps de ballet, and it finally cost me my school. Without the corps, there is no ballet.
So I answered my friend’s question yes, with an asterisk: some day in the future, I would enjoy standing at the front of the classroom again, at a time when I don’t absolutely need the income from an unwieldy teaching load to (barely) make ends meet. Teaching ballet really is a luxury; working as I do now is a necessity, but is honorable, I believe, and satisfying, a pleasure for which being vilified by some folks out there in the ether feels misguided. These days I pay the light bill and the rent as a member of the corps, no Kickstarter campaign required.
With one of my young Knoxville Ballet School students at ABT in 2012
I wish I could rewind a particular winter night about a dozen years ago at the Kennedy Center. I wish I could find all the people who were sitting in the right section of the orchestra at the opera house there, people who thought they were about to enjoy a memorable performance of Swan Lake, and tell each of them I’m sorry. I wish I could apologize to the camera man operating the large-ish equipment poised just over my right shoulder, one of several in the house filming a performance by American Ballet Theatre that would soon air on PBS. I wish I could say sorry to ABT’s Director, Kevin McKenzie, too, and to the cast. I would apologize to them all for the incessant squeaking of a particular chair in about the fourth row, for the slobbery gnawing on a rubber “cause” bracelet by its distracted young wearer, and for the unabated crinkling of a ballet programme’s pages, its inserts snatched up from the floor a thousand times over the course of a couple of hours.
Mainly I wish I could apologize to a particular boy, age twelve: I am sorry for dragging you into this venue, grand as it is, for a silly story ballet that’s a stretch for grown ups, too: you should be back in the hotel room watching a Harry Potter movie. Or doing something cool with your dad. I am guilty of cultural proselytizing, and I am deeply sorry. (But I still secretly hope some of it rubs off on you.)
Swan Lake was the first in Tchaikovsky’s famous Russian ballet trifecta, followed by Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. If you had never been to a ballet and then watched those three sequentially, you’d see something emerge that feels awfully close to a formula that includes (among other things) national dances and what I like to call the Tchaikovsky Schmaltzy Waltz. Everybody on the planet is at least familiar with Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker if only from the music looped through any mall’s PA system during the holidays: it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.
Swan Lake mercifully gets it over with quickly, right at the beginning of Act I. Music evokes powerful memories, and that waltz is no exception. My Aunt Jane taught ballet technique on Saturday mornings when I was about thirteen at my mom’s small school in Memphis. She routinely dropped the needle on the first track of a Swan Lake LP and just let it play while she took us through a solid half hour or so of conditioning on the floor before we did the first demi-plié at the barre. Cross training for dancers was not talked about much in those days: it’s exactly what this ritual was, though, our core musculature protesting to the strains of Tchaikovsky. I have an involuntary response in my gut to the Act I waltz every single time I hear it, dammit.
It’s the closest thing I can think of to synchronized swimming. Acts II and IV are also called the “white acts,” for reasons abundantly clear when you see the ballet. In my youth I failed to appreciate the immense job set before the corps de ballet in a single performance of Swan Lake; nowadays I find this work exquisite, and that is all. If you’ve never seen this ballet but someday have the opportunity, do yourself a favor: sit somewhere higher than the orchestra so you can observe the geometry unfold in the white acts. Forget the story: a prince falls in love with a swan queen? C’mon. There is a tad more to the plot than that, but still. Instead, let the ballet wash over you. Like, say, a lake. A swan lake. Or, le lac des cygnes, if you prefer.
In spite of the truly breathtaking moments in the ballet’s second act, it always inspires a few giggles. There is another waltz, but it is far more sublime than the big one in the first act (in my opinion). I can never listen to it, though, without hearing my mom singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” because the first line of melody in the waltz is exactly the same. It was something mom and her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School routinely sang as a bit of a roast when they were learning the ballet’s choreography. They also practiced the very stylized head movements of the famous foursome of baby swans in Act II, or the cygnettes, on the Toronto subway, so she said. It’s a fun piece of choreography I’ve taught before. A nineteenth century pop song and baby swans—you get them both in the second act. And a beautiful pas de deux, and a wicked difficult swan queen variation, and more of the hard-to-swallow plot.
This is where classical ballet draws from the canon of character dancing that is so much fun. In fact, I have never heard a ballet student or professional dancer complain about taking a character class or doing one of these dances. (Go here to see an excerpt from a Vaganova Academy character class, where the music happens to be from Swan Lake Act III; you’ll see what I mean.) There is character dance in spades in Act III. And the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux, with all those dang fouettés danced by the Swan Queen Odette’s evil lookalike, Odile. By the end of Swan Lake’s third act you know unequivocally things will end badly.
And this is why I would never recommend this ballet for a young child. (Or a twelve-year-old boy.) It still ain’t over. The music in the fourth act is worth the wait—if it is not trimmed in the interest of time, as it was the night I saw ABT’s version at the Kennedy Center. And you get more of that exquisite precision work from the corps de ballet. And a tragic double suicide. And the bad guy at last is finished. It’s classic Russian choreography, but there’s the rub: no two versions of the ballet are the same—it’s not like ordering a Big Mac anywhere in the world, where you can rest assured you’ll get a consistent product every single time (even if it’s meh). There are wide-ranging versions of the ballet with choreography that honors the original by Ivanov and Petipa, and others that take their leave of it. It’s a big ballet and some companies are hard-pressed to pull it off well.
Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I watched American Ballet Theatre’s version last night on our Blu-ray; we made it through the third act before calling it quits at the end of a long work week. But I wanted to prepare him for an upcoming performance we get to see at Providence Festival Ballet in a couple of weeks. If he’ll consent to it, I might throw another completely different version at him before we go, one by Royal Swedish Ballet that has a decidedly darker and more Gothic feel.
It has been a while for me and I am pretty excited to be in the theatre for live classical ballet, and to see my young friend Gwynn who dances in the company, after we missed her last summer when we visited the rest of her family. We shall be on our very best behavior, no rattling of programmes, or chewing anything, or bouncing in seats, I promise.
But I don’t promise I will remain perfectly silent. Sweet Rosie O’ Grady, laaaaah, la, la, la, la-la!
Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson, taken from my copy of Tales from the Ballet, a childhood favorite.
Robbins was more immediately successful than Balanchine, but the two together…when I think that we had them both! What a combination! We were incredibly lucky.
In fall of 1969 Memphis Ballet School and its company had not long occupied the second floor of a mainly spent Depression-era building at the at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street; before that a fire had destroyed the company’s home and in the interim classes and rehearsals were held in the National Guard Armory; my family had only just moved to Memphis from Knoxville. The Armory was where I had my first pre-ballet classes at age five, but what I recall most about that time were long hours sprawled in a corner with my books and crayons waiting for mom’s classes and rehearsals to end.
I started ballet classes in earnest when I was seven or eight at the school on Summer Avenue. You could blast through the street level door of that ramshackle building and explode noisily up the dark, narrow stairwell without disturbing a soul. The sound of live piano accompaniment spilling from two separate ballet studios collided in a familiar dissonance and met you at the top, along with the air, fragrant with sweat and rosin and the smell of old building. Patches of duct tape fought hard to push back the innards of orange vinyl sofas in the hallway, worn out furniture of unknown provenance.
There was a proper office to the right where a receptionist sat at an old desk whacking out correspondence on a loud typewriter. To the left a hallway led you to changing rooms and toilets around a corner, and finally to an antiquated Coke machine where you could drop a quarter in the slot and open a skinny door to wrestle out a Coke or a Tab, or an Orange or Grape Nehi; sometimes you had to put up a fight ’til it surrendered your drink, else trudge back down the hall to the receptionist to report your lost change. I chipped my tooth on one of those bottles when I was eight, and got in trouble for horsing around in the girls’ changing room to boot.
The school’s new directors were young Soviet-era immigrants, Balanchine disciples to the core, and as such lifted the School of American Ballet paradigm out of NYC and plugged it in on that seamy Memphis street corner, right down to the class level designations (Children I, Chidren II, and so on) and color-coded school uniforms. I am absolutely certain this did not impress me at age eight. But as the years unfolded my eyes were opened to a minuscule ballet world where everybody knew everybody, and because of our connection to SAB and Mr. Balanchine himself, NYCB company artists were but a phone call away: they visited us often and carried the principal roles of most of the ballets the company mounted in those days. It was not unusual to see the likes of Edward Villella or Gelsey Kirkland or Helgi Tomasson or Patricia McBride (and many others of their ilk) wandering around those creaky hallways. And because mom danced in the company, I experienced complete and early immersion in that tiny world, whose New York City epicenter it seemed had landed right on our doorstep.
We also sat on the precipice of what would soon emerge as ballet’s golden era, where one Rudolph Nureyev had already paved the way for others to follow and to foist classical ballet upon American pop culture. It would not be long before we tuned in to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing Twyla Tharp on our living room televisions, names that would ultimately come into common parlance everywhere. Though I am certain I took some of it for granted, my ballerina mom worked hard to impress upon me how lucky I was to share the company of these ballet greats.
In the old ballet school building on Summer Avenue there was a musty storage room next to the office where sets were lain on the floor in heavy, carpet-like rolls; it was narrow and dark and most ballet school parents probably did not notice it in their comings and goings. The only occasion I had to go inside it was for costume fittings, when a seamstress came in and set up her supplies near the doorway during Nutcracker season; she made you hold still to avoid being stuck while she pinned and tucked material, then asked you to turn around, and tugged at your waist, made you turn around again, and raise and lower your arms. A few more pins and you were dismissed.
But if you were to climb carefully over the yards and yards of rolled sets in that big closet you’d finally reach the other end, where you could peer through a crack in a locked wood door to see everything that was going on in the main studio. It was where my mom positioned herself one January day in the mid-1970s to observe me in my first audition for residential ballet school when I was twelve. Mom had long left the company and started teaching at her own school in the suburbs where I was now her student; we had not been inside that creaky old building in a while. And unbeknownst to me at the time, I was about to cross a much bigger threshold into the land of ballet giants.
My mom is a force to be reckoned with. We had discussions about the faculty at the residential school in Illinois where I would attend summer classes for three consecutive years; they centered around duly reverential behavior and good deportment in general. I was warned of consequences for behaving badly, as gangs of adolescent girls are wont to do on occasion. I am sure I rolled my eyes, but I did hear this message: you are privileged to be taught by the likes of these people. There were many of them: Gwynne Ashton, Alexander Bennett, Natalia Krassovska, Buzz Miller, Vitale Fokine, Birute Barodicaite, and so many others. Most of them are gone now.
Last week ballet lost another one, the delightful and inimitable Violette Verdy, a Balanchine ballerina of French extraction who left an indelible mark on generations of young dancers. Her absence leaves another great void, a hole that will be filled by others only in the fullness of time. A friend and colleague mused, Does every generation feel the losses like we do?
I can only speculate on the answer to that question. For my part, I do know it took me some time to fully comprehend and appreciate the moment of that microcosm of ballet greatness at the corner of Summer Avenue and National Street in Memphis, and I had help; I know there were probably many who did not get it at all. And I took that awareness with me when I went away to school. And I most assuredly took it with me when I had the great privilege to attend teacher training at American Ballet Theatre in 2009 and for a few years thereafter.
I hesitate to speak to an entire generation of young people who do not seem duly impressed when they find themselves in the presence of giants, or do not miss them enough when they’re gone, but I think it is the case sometimes, symptomatic of decades of feel-good teaching, celebrations of mediocrity, and shored up self esteems. At the risk of sounding tiresome, I submit there is a price tag on it; we’re already paying for it collectively well beyond the reaches of the ballet classroom.
Miraculously, the building on Summer and National is still there, derelict, boarded up, graffiti’d, just about forgotten. Nor has the rest of the neighborhood fared well; it was never a good neighborhood to begin with, but across the street from the school once stood an old, diner-style Krystal and a corner Rexall drug store. My young colleagues and I patronized those businesses every single week; they’re gone now, along with the ballet greats who flew up and down that dark stairwell so many times. In its stead looms a neighborhood that knows nothing of any of that.
One of life’s great thrills is finding yourself in the presence of giants; the important thing is to learn humility and recognize the moment. Ms. Verdy certainly did.
About the photos: the first is of a rare history book in my possession, written by Boris Kochno and containing numerous heliogravure and photogravure illustrations by Picasso and others. It is teeming with so many of the antecedents of ballet giants I have known. The other photo is of me around age thirteen warming up before a spring demonstration performance, on the eve of another summer at ballet school in Illinois. Many thanks to the wonders of Google for the image of Memphis Ballet School in the here and now.
In the intervening decades since I was a young dancer the ballet competition has emerged as part and parcel of the classical ballet landscape. It is not the stuff of controversial choreography and revealing costumes on little people and trophies handed out willy-nilly, but a serious contest to vie for the attention of movers and shakers in the ballet world, maybe earn a free ride to a stellar ballet school or a spot in a coveted ballet company. The usefulness of ballet competitions is still debated in ballet circles, but by and large—if you wish one day to dance professionally—at some point in your training years you’ll find yourself there, dancing a two-minute variation you chose from a sanctioned list weeks or months before, showcasing what you’ve got in front of a panel of esteemed judges.
The judges have a difficult job. They observe many young dancers over the course of a weekend (or longer), most of them already highly accomplished, and some dancing the same variations back to back on the stage. They are looking for “this elusive thing called talent,” as the former director of a competition once said. It is one thing to be a big fish in the small pond whence you came, quite another to take class in a roomful of big fish, to say nothing of competing with them in performance.
The benefits of competition reach beyond finishing well, or “placing”: competitors have the opportunity to dance in master classes given by members of the panel (sometimes many classes depending on the competition, and even one-on-one coaching with notable dance mentors). They chalk up a little more stage experience. And they receive a written evaluation, a mandate to improve technique where it needs it, but there is also praise where it is deserved (we hope).
Those of us who’ve spent time in the ballet trenches teaching youngsters to dance especially like that last bit: any seasoned ballet teacher knows you can tell a student to pull up the supporting knee or stop lifting the chin or to fully stretch the knee in arabesque, ’til you’re blue in the face, maybe for an entire semester. And then a judge says it, et voilà! The problem is fixed. We roll our eyes and go on, glad that somebody finally drilled the message effectively through a young person’s thick skull.
I still have a proprietary interest in my former students, even in the absence of my small school in Tennessee, and even though I’ve left the teaching world for the time being. The percentage of kids in a ballet school like the one I founded who go on to enjoy a professional life as a classical ballet dancer is minuscule. Some teachers hang on the hope that one (or more) of their students will enjoy professional success. I did not. There are plenty of worthy reasons to learn ballet that have nothing to do with life on the stage. But one of my former students appears to have set her sights on it, and I could not be more thrilled she has found quality instruction that promises to help get her there.
She attended her first big competition a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, and as fate would have it, plowed through a number of obstacles to arrive at her two minutes on the stage. Not least of all was the weather, a rogue Southern snowstorm that first threatened and finally succeeded in calling off an afternoon of competition while event organizers hustled to reconfigure schedules at the last minute so every competitor could participate.
There was that: the storm and the cancellations. Then there were two back-to-back nights of sleep deprivation. And when this young dancer’s number was finally, finally called, officials announced they could not find her music, news that was delivered unceremoniously to her backstage and which left her beyond distraught.
In the end the problems were resolved and she danced beautifully in spite of nerves and everything else, and emerged with honorable scores from the judges, along with honest evaluations echoing things she’s heard before. She was pleased with the outcome, and in the end more determined than ever to keep moving down the road that ultimately leads to the stage.
The more she dances, the more she wants to dance, her mom told me when we were doing the competition postmortem through a series of emails. The ballet competition is a contrived stage experience, not a true reflection of ballet performance in the “real” ballet world. But this one was indeed a true learning experience for this girl. I am not sure I’d have emerged from a weekend like that so undaunted and fiercely resolute about dancing at the tender age of fourteen.
But that is what it takes: self-possession and self-assuredness early on, for a career that happens early in life and ends sooner than most. There is also the so-called “elusive talent,” and this girl has it in spades: I recognized it the day she came to me at age six.
A parent once told me she was enjoying watching her young daughter “settle into her gifts.” That is a beautiful way to describe allowing a child to figure it out. Sometimes you have to nudge them a little. There will be difficult days and decisions ahead, but I know one young dancer who seems to have settled into her gifts quite comfortably. The rest will be up to her.
Photos courtesy of Jill Adlin and used by permission; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.