Moon Over Moldova; photo by Leah Sawyer
I Have Been Reading A Lot of Books Lately
There is, among us, a retinue of dancers moving forward in the battalion of dancing life that is ballet. I have been reading blogs, posts, books, and seeing firsthand what it takes to pursue a professional career of dancing. There are many stories of dancers and their personal challenges, sacrifices and this all becomes a part of their artistic achievements. When you read a book, you hold that life in your head. Dancers and their audience are connected by a thread, too, sometimes a tapestry in convolution. They will always say, the ballet world is small, but it is not-it is intimate, a world of the language of ballet or the other dance they share in a convivial spirit of dance. This is true. There seem to be good people all over who have committed their lives to practicing this altruism, passing down what they know and love, and mostly lovingly fostering the development of their students in the dance world. My view and perspective are very limited, and by force, practical. Each step that my own daughter has made has been with focus and direction toward attaining her goal of becoming a professional ballet dancer. This has not been easy for her, unlike Sylvie Guillem, who quips that her dedication and love of the art did not come because she was nurtured in a “ballet environment” from an early age, but because she made the conscious decision that this was something she could do, something that for her there was a place, and that she came to love it- was not the only perspective, but an important one, that I thought about this year.
My daughter, Aingeal, is seventeen, and she has been dancing since she was about eleven. It has certainly not been easy for her and a place has not always been offered, encouraged, or extended. She has consistently pursued a path, that while extremely challenging physically, has been fraught with many difficulties of other sorts, too. It has been a great learning experience that cannot be summed up by me, in a short or simple way. But, she has shown fortitude, and an unflinching spirit to continually learn and improve despite having to take and get what she needed in a not-so-consistent manner, she felt. At the bottom (or the top) of this is that little moon over the coast in Moldova, a giant moon to her, of bright light, shining from possibly a million miles away, and sometimes large enough to warm you in its iridescence. I can tell what guides her and keeps her focused on that wide beam of light which encompasses many contenders and rivals. It is sheer willpower and determination, not because she was a “natural” in the typical regards. Those kinds of descriptors have come to mean less and less to me as I see wide gaps in ability and effort, and motivation, with those who apparently have the sought after assets, but when push comes to shove, can’t really engage the viewer unpredictably, and are far less than “capable” of producing art. That giant moon can warm and also burn you, and ultimately, you have to be able to step very far back from the landscape it offers and reduce it’s magnitude and awesomeness in order to seemingly squeeze it between your fingers, and control it; this is what you must do to achieve anything, and you must be able to do it your own way. This ability enables you to keep on dancing-and that is another part of the journey, and without judgement by others of your path, this might be a lot easier. There might be valid reasons for taking a different, less traveled path, and my experience has been that the person on that path is the object and not some other voice of reason or logic, however insistent it’s dogmatism.
I have never blatantly exposed her to the public, and I am not going to now, not in this little piece or snatch of writing. She is too wonderful and too full of possibilities to post pictures of, although everybody does it. I believe, for one thing, that if you do something right, correctly, perfectly, you ought to be seen doing that thing while performing, and that you should not be an exhibitionist. I think photos are a bad way to experience dance and dancers. It reduces dancers to pin-up girls and boys, and doesn’t connect you with the art. Ballet is about movement and what is achieved in a moment of time, something wonderful and it needs to be done doing it, in a theater, on a stage, in a studio, and it is always a work in progress-all the time- forever changing, growing, never the same, not static, frozen, posed, for that is the antithesis of movement and ballet, really. The opposite. One difference is the dancer is not merely a tool, or a body, but is also an artist, all rolled up into one and this can best be experienced by watching a dancer dance, live, moving, improving, growing, changing, expressing, not just stopping in a pose, but moving through the pose-evolving. Dancers transition constantly, they become artists.
I am not saying that ballet photos are not beautiful to look at (and tutus), pointe shoes are shiny, muscles and contortions imply strength, but not necessarily good dancing; they just do not speak volumes to me, as they might to parents or fans of children or certain dancers, about that singular person-not a dancer, and only in a stark and cold way about that imagery, like the little doll on the music box that goes around and around and around, they are commercial. They only represent or remind one of of ballet, or gymnastics, or pole-dancing, or the circus-which also is changing and moving all the time, just not identifiable as “ballet”. They are like a totem pole, trussed up in the colors of a tribe with the stock faces or photos of what a tree looks like, or a pose, much like those art programs where an artist closed inside a room is drawing a landscape or a body and it is sort of by the book-they suggest that this is HOW you do it. It is not. It begins with seeing. Hearing. Feeling. Learning. Moving. Practicing and performing. So many things, thousands and thousands of variables, skills, and this is what makes it an art, all of the assimilation and expression, eventually, of this. It is not liked seeing an individual tree, or a particular body, moving and swaying in the breeze, to the music, or in any kind of “live” action, which you are a part of, when you draw a tree-you are “in drawing.” It is like this when your are dancing-you are removed and yet, in it, and the viewer is up-close and involved in that moment, too.
So, photos are without any real expression or feeling, it is not unique, or individual, though the “art”of photography may be. I do not think “ballet” is a series of flat photos depicting a pose. I think this is why people have come to work on their calisthenics more than their dancing and other aspects important in theater, like a text is less rich than a face-to-face discussion. These are more like reminders of what it is like “to talk”, such as those little twirling dolls, and even more limited. I think ballet is art, and the components of the ballet, starting with a dancer, a musical note, costume, light, libretto, choreography, scenery, and audience, all together create an individual moment in time, or a series of moments, and cannot be distilled into one flat moment, though some beautiful imagery using body parts, lighting and color are created; it is NOT ballet. So, I have waited for her to dance, and have watched her in class and in performances and am surprised when that feeling hits me but not why I did not capture it in a picture. In art 99 percent of what you do gets thrown out, or becomes meaningless extracted from it’s whole. When I watch ballet, I am looking for something else, something a picture cannot ever convey-that is why I go to the ballet.
I am looking for an artist, a masterpiece, and sometimes I can catch this through her, so I know she is an artist, that’s all. If I could convey my own meaning simply, and effortlessly, maybe, then I would be a writer, and I am not a great writer. I am not trying to be, though. But, I do know about the pursuit of art, and I have pursued it in one way or another all of my life, mine, and that of others, by which I am more frequently satisfied, though less often than I hope to be. Great art rises to the top, and really great art remains there forever, or for as long as it is relevant to people. All I could say for many years is how hard she worked, whether she was on the music, how she looked in a costume, that she was pretty, whether she was able to dance, and various other things like that-topical things-the ones on the surface. Now I see a few more of the deeper things, such as certain muscles, a precision, an air, attitude, a glance, a pose, and much movement, precision, and she is engaging, but some of the more important basic elements were there when she just danced or moved with the music, for that is what the eye and mind do, they look to relate. They find line, symmetry, patterns, fluidity, and other things, and they note when they are missing or not there. These things would not be apparent at all in a photo, and only a little more is visible in a video. The theater is the arena for dance.
While I was watching, and when I wasn’t, she grew into a young lady, and the dancer in her grew also, so that they became one being together, and while I love her very much, I cannot fawn on pictures, but it is her spiritual self which has changed into a dancer, and she has this beautiful way about her when she is dancing, and that is what I am so so happy and thankful for; that she is able to enjoy dancing and explore herself through the medium of dance. I would not want to capture this in a photo or a video because I do not need to. She has grown stronger and more appealing to others everyday because of her ability, but more because of something else which I do not think anyone can put their finger on exactly, and photos are not the best conduit for this. It is her, and this is her own intimate form of expression and course, and not mine to post on social media or to exploit. Hopefully, it is in part, what people would pay to see, or not, one day; and that may be the one harmful aspect of posting too much about oneself, or anyone on social media, as it results in oversaturation of one aspect of her abilities. Ballet is in her imagination and you can only see that while she is dancing.
In her opinion, it is for the stage only, in class, to practice, and for a lifetime of dancing, and those many thousands of moments cannot be encapsulated into one photo. But there is a feeling of memory which a photo can relate, but it is not plastic or alive, so I am not going to post accompanying photos to this post, or any other, as long as I can help it. Her journey began to be difficult at birth, and during delivery she had her arm broken in several places, and her shoulder, due to a poor medical plan on the part of my doctors. She should have been a cesarean delivery, and had she been, I might not be here, and she might not be there. But, for several months after birth, she wore a little sling and the arm healed, with no manipulation or encouragement of the bones except naturally. She was able to see no doctor about it after it occurred, such is the medical practice, as long as she gave her real name, and even now, until those doctors were convinced it was too late for us to sue, so there has been no further x-ray of it, or investigation or cures proposed. Only ballet and normal childhood activity.
When you have a child, and you worry about possible disfigurement at birth, crippling effects, and their health and happiness, the last thing, I think, that a normal parent worries about is suing anyone-you think, “I hope she is able to do all the things she normally would; pole vault, etc” and not, “How much can I get?” Or maybe that is just me. I watched her grow and remarked, when the sling was off for daily changings of her undershirt, which held it in position, pinned to her lapel, how the arm didn’t move very much, and how she tried to move it, and how freely the other one moved and worked normally. It was just that, that perceptible difference which marked her path, maybe, and what was required each day in order to do the things she desired to do, reach, play, and grab, but also hug, use fine motor skills and it was that added effort she applied which made it better each day, and not the talking about it or recording each daily change for posterity’s sake. She was perfect otherwise, beautiful, and would stand on the bench, inside and looking out into the yard, and I swear the little birds and animals would come right up to the window when she did, and had no fear of her. She sang, and rolled and lolled and when she could finally hold a pen, she wrote, and she wrote reams and reams and reams, just in one year, of scribbles across the pages, approximating something she was compelled to say, or do, or achieve, and daily the patterns became more clear, more intricate, and finally words emerged, then speech, and description and communication, which then became more and more perfect, organized and immaculately contained in stapled pages, then in journals, then notebooks, and diaries, and larger notebooks and she has continued writing, and progressing to a purpose of greater communication or ability, fluency, or possibly for many other purposes unfathomable to me.
This is what happened in dance, too. She endured a lot of pain then, at birth, and for her, pain was not something which daunted her or repelled her in dance, and she moved toward it, rather than away from it, to achieve literacy, what was on the other side. Perhaps from memory, too, she was not going to let a little pain stop her. I remember when she first went to ballet class, and I really had no plan, no design, none at all. I took her because my grandmother wanted to pay for her to take lessons, and because she was attending a little school with her friends in our town of Laguna Beach, CA. I had danced, and had a proper respect for the pedagogy and was going to instill it in her, too, because that is what some parents do. I had to find her a good teacher, I knew, of ballet only, and that was all. But, her perspective was likely much different. For one thing, she was skeptical, and did not know if she would like “ballet”-had never even seen ballet really, and though she always liked dressing up and dancing around the house with her brother, beyond that satisfactory experience, and her obsession with carry-alls and passports, as opposed to dolls and toys, I did not think she understood it at all, but she moved and liked to move, most. But we went to a class and they were at a more or less primary level, each in their little white leotards and white demi-skirts and she joined in, rather late in the year, looking perfectly suited, graceful and beautiful. I thought it more of a beginning to becoming a young lady, a rite of feminine passage, what people DO naturally, a way to develop poise, confidence, agility, but she immediately saw it as a means to an end of something she was in pursuit of and which I clearly knew nothing about.
I knew for me what it meant, had meant, and my own perspective was all I saw, but I did reason that others had different motivation, so I accepted hers as hers, that’s all, but even then, I did not recognize hers as greater than mine, more impassioned, more necessary possibly, and that would have been hard to imagine even if I had been more sensitive or smart. That was it, first class, hooked. A new language, something she had not mastered, like the fine motor skills with her hand, and use of her arm, and she began a journey that took her each day, week, month, and year, toward her own very personal goal. She approached it pretty much the same way she had everything else and it was a suitable endeavor for a lifetime it seems. But now I only see this looking back.
I will cut out the many (now) years in between and note that she led me where she wanted to or needed to go and I followed, not always the perfect accompaniment (myself): driver, mouthpiece, personal factotum, sounding board, bank, beggar, and loving mother, but she surpassed my knowledge in some regards very quickly and is now far beyond me. I no longer even service her needs really, because she is strong in her path and my advice, contrary to her own best instinct, perhaps, might lead her astray. It must be what she wants it to be, and so to blame no one else, I am not there to pressure or help her, except as I can, because this is never the path to greatness in art. Art is an individual path. Only great teachers or artists, may contribute to another hopeful; only they understand one another. I did not think to make my daughter an alien to me, far from it-my children are my only and greatest friends, and only they truly love me, know me, forgive me. But there is also a remoteness in the serious study of ballet which eludes me-I am not an artist of it. They have their own levels of personal achievement and placement, a pecking order, support and encouragement, things that we rarely learned about and she now occasionally experiences; they each have a place that is known to only that dancer, and is shared only by dancers with each other. It is truly passed down. That is her world- this is mine.
She has remained sweet, honest and nice to others, as she was on the bench in the window, but she has grown to fill that space inside completely and has a depth that I cannot fathom. She is stronger than I give her credit for, stronger than anyone will probably ever know and only the best will appreciate her fully, give her what she needs. She is an artist. She is a dancer. She has sought to express with her body, and to communicate in a language, though basic enough to all of us, is for her a special language to express, with that body of hers, feelings and emotions, patterns, and paragraphs, sentences and pictures, which to the artist and audience, have mutual conveyance and understanding, but it is an art-not a pose. There is more in a gesture, truly felt, and understood by all, seemingly simple and yet so complex, that we immediately understand. There is so much to it though, and it is continually challenging and demanding, that I cannot begin to be a part of it, nor do I understand from a distance that other side of it,which cannot be expressed in words, just how and why it is so completely different a place for dancers, an inner sanctum, but it is. So, in some sense, she is very quiet about it, and the more quiet she is, the more I know she is content, and happily working toward a proficiency in another language, which only little bubbles of excitement escape to share it’s life and depth, or apparent deep thought, open disappointment or frustration, even depression is all communicated physically, and anger might be the cause of other action. Elated, joyful, cat-like behavior and physical snuggles, resembling purring, but not a lot of talk. I hope it is a phase-it is so difficult, because I cannot share her spectrum of feelings, cannot communicate back-ward in this way to her, and only know it by a sort of recognition now, and begin to know that it is communication by its repeated appearance as such. In my house, people speak English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, French, art, and ballet. It is great and you learn wondrous things from them about their culture, but that does not mean you become proficient in the language by watching (as critics and parents think)it yourself. But we try to understand, see another point of view. It means you are exposed to it, just like any other language, but you are not necessarily fluent, capable, or necessary. Being able to order in Chinese is a long, long way from writing a classic in it, or reading a classic with the deep understanding of a proficient. She and I have a long way to go, I much further and may never really fully understand. I am not fluent. I am really blind, deaf and dumb. She is becoming fluent in ballet and to some extent I am mute. I think this is wonderful for her and increasingly difficult for me to understand even. But when I watch her dance, then I am convinced once again, that this is her place, where she belongs, some place she can do something. What makes dancers dance?
When she is a great artist, if she reaches a point where she is competent, powerful, profound, famous, markedly different and you can’t take your eyes off her, ever (and I am sure even great artists are boring sometimes), then will that be truly something special for me to witness? Assuredly, it will be the same experience of art, and fame or validity of a public kind will not take that away or change it for me, or make less artistic or moving, that which I have always been privileged to see and have already witnessed, all those many thousands of moments, I remember. It begins to make more and more sense and I re-accept her commitment and dedication, and unswerving devotion and sacrifice to achieve and continue doing something she really loves and must do. A picture might trigger a certain memory, or stage of here continuum, but I would not be able to gain that from a photo, posed, poised to dance, but not dancing what I have in my head. That is where the picture, as her mother, comes to life. I could only see this from watching her dance, seeing her move, experiencing all of her, and seeing her voice, feeling it while she is performing on a stage. Then she is another person, a dancer, an artist, and I am moved the same way I am moved by any other great artist-this is how I know and how I have always known that it is not about competition, or praise, or photographs or fame. It is about art and the pursuit of it and a level of true artistry, performance, and imagination, but most importantly, it is about being able to communicate and being driven by the passion to do so.
It is a long journey to be a great artist, if that is what you want to be. It is as fleeting for a writer to find the perfect phrase, or for an artist to know in his own heart that indeed this work is a masterpiece, as it is for a ballet dancer to have that moment when there is catharsis, and the moment is perfection; like those few bars of music playing when we recognize perfection, and that tune has it’s lasting reverie and effect upon us once again. This is the singular power of art. It is like water to life-just that very instant, when life is summed up by something created and communicated by art, and even some people agree, that this hits the magical spot, even for a brief moment, a split second, but long enough to want to isolate that part and play it over and over again, until we tire of it, have our fill, and to feel that moment, or to see that vision, to feel that pathos, or to repeat that expression, and in ballet, too, or in dancing, that begins in the artist and they must have control over it to some extent to be able to perpetuate it, without set music, pat variations, recognizable scenery, for that is, in a way copying another moment of art, or just decoration, superfluous to the art of ballet itself-but it is not possible in a picture to capture, or a film any of that moment at all. But it is in that moment, for a dancer when it feels perfectly expressed and like fire, it catches everyone’s attention, and for the dancer, the journey to that split second, maybe, it was all simply worth it. They might wonder if anyone saw it, if anyone else shared that moment with them, but it does not decrease that moment if they did not. This is an artist.
But in some smaller ways, they must feel this all the time, or maybe more often and finally, very often, to continue. This is not to be confused with a student in class, who appears to be teachable, or who can afford to pay for privates, or does performance after performance by rote, dresses up, wears a costume, does a competition, photographs themselves, etc. It is how that artist alone floats in the water, survives, learns to paddle, and then weathers the elements and the storms to continue to dance originally, before they become recognizable, and how they can move you, communicate with you personally, and this requires you, as the audience, and the artist, as expressor to complete the circle. It isn’t static. Sure, you can say, viewing it again, it is right THERE, at 2:21 when you felt chills run down your spine and you practically leap out of your seat, moved to dance, but it is not the same as the actual moment when someone’s dancing really struck you, as different and unique on a live stage or the impact in context of the entire ballet or performance. There is no real magic otherwise, only perceived. It can never be the same for you, not the same as dancing, as it is for the person doing it, either, but it seems possible, and moves the paraplegic, the autistic, and others to do the same and to express themselves by using the language of ballet and movement. So, we all think we know about it, but the perspective for the dancer, what truly motivates them, aside from obsession, is not necessarily apparent. It is not meant to be. But in all great dancers, and those who continue to dance, it is there.
In class, people will say her upper body is beautiful, without realizing just how much work it takes to keep that shoulder down, or how much pain it causes one to dance, to hold one’s arms, and how when you are dancing, you forget that pain, and that in some way this is God’s blessing to you, that he enabled you to feel no pain in your feet, not wear even a toe pad, and how you have your teachers to thank for saying “all right, remove the wool-here we go!” and how you never looked back and just kept moving forward despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles and when you thought no one was interested-they were. It’s ironic that she should have such beautiful expression to me, that I can see her mastery and control of this instrument growing daily, and how long it has taken to perfect something more difficult than what she already has had to achieve, for her, and how much eternal joy can be gotten from moving at all, and being able to dance, and how that alone can be enough to propel you, and that you are unstoppable really, because nothing could hurt or be more difficult to overcome than those initial obstacles, and you achieved those. How those ballet muscles must literally be holding that little body together and without it, though I had never even contemplated it, how she might have suffered and been deformed, or had limitations, when now she has so few. How it has molded and shaped her, and helped her to overcome some things that might have seemed impossible had she stopped to actually think about it, or took cures, or dwelled on it, listened to any other voice than her own and the music, and how incredibly strong she is and has become, and how this strength suits her, and yet how she is also capable of expressing such vulnerability and how this, too, looks good on her.
If I took her to class and this was the result, only, I could find no fault with it, or our journey, only gratitude in it, from a mother’s perspective-ever. What could have been was far worse? So, she has always had to work hard, but not for the same reasons other people have, or the same ways, and maybe that is why I will never be able to fully speak her language, why it will always be a little alien to me, hers alone, really, because I took those things for granted, and I was not born with that same stick-to-it-tiveness, or determination, and I did not get up in the morning and say, “I have to dance!” But she does. I look at her, and I am so proud and happy for her, but I do not want to see pictures. They just do not communicate well enough the infinitesimal detail which she strives for, the expression which she ultimately seeks, or any of what I see or feel. So, I owe it to her to keep that journey private in a way, and to not interfere with her perception of herself, and to let her try to become what she wants, evidently, more than anything else, to do. I do not want her to look back too often and say,” that is what I was,” but instead, “this is what I am and will be.”
It isn’t what people think of your pictures, it is what they think of you in class, that you catch their imagination and hold onto it, hear your voice in your dancing, and are riveted by your performance, are inspired by your effort, see your very soul shining forth, your strength, your differences, and not your similarities-what you do differently from other people, and how that is unique. This is important, that you say something in a way that is distinctly you. People all communicate differently, and she is developing a way of speaking of her own, that comes with hard work and practice. Maybe something more, too, and maybe that is in all of us to some degree, but that is what makes ballet art, and never sport.
It is how you do something wonderful with the same pair of old shoes you draw, and how you make each performance and each step meaningful and vitally necessary. Art has an epitome, a reachable point of perfection. It is in our perception of it, not only others. There is a way to grab it between your fingers and control it, roll it around and ponder it, and then let go, stand back, and let it’s wide light engulf you. When she is comfortable in her ability to communicate, she soars, and I think that is what is important, and that journey is different for everyone, uniquely so. I do not believe that anyone who wants to do something, no matter their age, their ability, background, or their income level should matter-if they have a strong enough will, and an opportunity, I have found, they will find a way to accomplish it-despite all the advice, opinions, naysayers, competitors, dream-killers, and sad-sacks. It is the joy you seek, and some intangible reward, and that I know, which is the momentum for continuing. She is living proof of that many times over, and she literally needs to continue, no matter what. To continue is always a fight financially, and costly to keep moving ahead and progressing in level, it requires deftness and intelligence, too, but it has to be done somehow, and we have continued on, despite deadly setbacks, ridiculous politics, and other reasons which really have no place in ballet education, the arts, therapy, or communication. It shouldn’t be so difficult to pay for when someone really needs it, or wants it, to get the right education for you to continually get the extra help, encouragement, or opportunities that you need to go on and try, and each day is happier and happier still the closer you get to all of your goals, and to that place when you are better, and it’s reaching all of those little muscles, deployable now, and in your control, so you can speak ballet fluently, but it is very difficult and expensive just the same-part of the challenge. But, you have never shrunk from a challenge. I pray you get more!