Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Everyone is Beautiful at the Ballet

Last night I was enraptured by a show on PBS Great Performances (KQED Channel 9, to be specific, I keep forgetting that with Cable I get all four PBS stations in the Bay Area)... a gorgeous little documentary from the Dance in America series, called Born to be Wild: The Leading Men of the American Ballet Theatre. It was amazingly fascinating to watch, to listen to these great dancers talk about learning to dance and visiting their hometowns and reminiscing about this and that stage of their careers. Interspersed with that was footage of the young men learning a beautifully casual pas de quatre created especially for them by Mark Morris — which was even more fascinating to watch, the document of a work of art in the making (especially as Morris is a great mover and shaker of Modern Dance, and so his choreography for a classical ballet was interesting in and of itself).

Aside from falling ass-over-teakettle in love with the gorgeous Madrileño dancer Angel Corella, I found myself not quite as jealous as I often feel when watching male ballet dancers. Though dancing was something I longed terribly to do when I was a child, and though I would still sell my soul (or at least let it out on a long lease) in order to magically be a great dancer, I have finally it seems come to accept the simple fact that it cannot be.

I mean, not only did I not have parents who understood what sort of sacrifice one has to make to be a dancer, I doubt very seriously if I possessed the physical stamina to undertake dance in the first place. The simple physical facts of my height, my large pelvis and head, and the weakness of my ankles and knees (they creak already, and I've never done anything to them to deserve such treatment) make dance impossible... even if I were able to conquer through vigorous training my inflexibility (I lost the ability to touch my toes when I was twelve) and my lack of physical aptitude (I am and have always been a klutz, for which I overcompensate by moving very slowly and gracefully), it remains inescapable that my head is too big and my torso much too long to dance classical ballet.

Talking to the families of these dedicated and god-touched dancers was something of a revelation to me. They were mostly middle-class people without a great deal of money or artistic aspiration of their own, but they were nevertheless able to make amazing amounts of sacrifice in order to get their sons going in a career that most people might think of as rather queer. I can imagine my stepmother being behind me all the way if I chose to play football or pursue karate, but ballet was something Strictly For Girls... and not a career anyway, just a sort of a hobby; my father would have supported me if I had shown enough initiative to contravene my stepmother, but still would have had to be guided; my mother would simply never have been able to garner the resources to get me to class of a morning, much less help me through training and all that. Grandmother did not get the opportunity, though I imagine she would have moved heaven and earth if it was something I really wanted.

And here's the thing: I am currently re-reading Dorothy L. Sayers Gaudy Night, which is set in Oxford; one of the underlying themes of this novel is the protagonist (Harriet Vane's) inability to give in to the love of her suitor, Lord Peter Wimsey, for a variety of reasons, interwoven with a dawning sense of regret when it comes to her choice of career (having gone into detective fiction instead of remaining in Academia); during a conversation with a fellow scholar about Life and Choices and Relationships, Harriett asks how one is supposed to know which things in one's life are of overmastering importance — to which her correspondent replies "You know when it has overmastered you."

I think I understand now, at this stage in my life, that dancing would not have overmastered me, and that therefore it was not for me to do. If it had been of overmastering importance, I would have pushed beyond my first disappointment that "ballet is for girls" and raised absolute holy hell until I was allowed to take lessons. Perhaps if I had taken the lessons, the spark would have struck... but as it was, I did learn everything my sister learned, as she would always show me what they did in class... which I remember was limited to second-position, pliés, and barre arabesques (it was not long before she and my step-sisters talked their way out of ballet in favor of softball, at which they all three excelled). If the barre arabesque had set a fire in my soul, perhaps it would have been different... but as it was, I couldn't do more than two pirouettes without getting dizzy and falling down, and was incapable of doing the arabesque after twelve anyway (mere physics... you can't lever something heavy at the long end of a plank, even with strength on the fulcrum; and since by twelve my torso was longer than my legs, and my head utterly enormous in scale, an arabesque simply wouldn't work).

But there is still that yearning, that strange envy of dancers and fashion models and that odd sadness of something that could not be. It's something I feel whenever I observe male beauty in motion, I guess. There's something about male beauty and motion that sets me all aglow. Especially when that motion is extreme, when a dancer contorts his body in ways that we mere groundlings can only dream, to express emotion and thought and music through the body. It's wonderful to watch. Strangely, female dancers don't have that effect on me. Perhaps I still resent them for getting to take ballet without stigma attached (though if you think about it, the sheer numbers of female dancers in the world makes their cross rather more difficult to bear than the few men who get into it).

Still, I am left with the question of what, exactly, is my Overmasteringly Important Thing? I suppose it's writing. Though I don't feel a fire when I write (certainly not like the fire when I perform), and I don't become passionate about that which I do write, it just seems very natural for me to write. I feel passionate about watching things, and about imagining things, about enjoying things... my passion is for beauty. And the only natural-feeling outlet for that is to write about it (rather than to draw, or design costumes and sets, which were once an outlet for me; or to sing or dance, which are physically improbable but echoed in my drag). I only wish I had a clearer feeling of what it is that I need to write.

I mean, I wrote here the other day that I can't really understand why I feel compelled to write a murder-mystery. But I am beginning to think that I am seeking a form, a scaffold, on which to practice that which I find important. I don't know what that is, perhaps I have to go ahead and write the damned thing and then figure out what it's all about. But I do think that using a genre format, such as murder-mystery or romantic comedy or what-have-you, gives structure that would otherwise be lacking. It's like writing poems in sonnet form... it's sometimes easier to say what it is you're trying to say if there is some intricate step or meter that you have to work it around, and the very act of making it rhyme forces one to weigh the importance of what each word means.

Well, one of the biggest differences between intellectual passions like writing and physical passions like dancing is the age of practice. Very few dancers can maintain greatness after thirty or so, for ballet is an art of the young and vigorous. But very few writers become great until well after their thirties... it takes longer for the brain to train itself than for the body; and some have posited that one has to live a great deal before one can write about life, that the vigors of youth must cease to exert their powerful fascinations so that one can look at those fascinations from the outside.

I have begun to consider this blog as my writer's training-ground. After all, a writer writes... it doesn't matter so much what he writes or where he writes, so long as he keeps on writing. And so I shall. But not right now... I have to go to work (actually, I should have been at work an hour ago, but the few people who'll be there today know perfectly well that I've been sick for days, so I'm sure they'll understand my tardiness).

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