Monday, February 22, 2010

The ballet

Catherine and Grace attended the ballet for the first time on a January night at the local university, to see a Russian dance company perform Swan Lake. It was Catherine’s idea. The university’s theater guild had sent out advertising brochures about it to the local libraries as well as to their own subscribers, and Catherine had seen a copy on the circulation desk as she checked out books. The brochure claimed the Russians were much renowned, and it included quotes from reputable big-city newspapers' rave reviews. And this was the only ballet, Catherine frankly reasoned, she was ever likely to bother to go see.

So she bought a ticket for herself and her mother, and they wound their way to Matteson, past the neat small suburban houses amid their stiff, bristle-brush, brown winter trees, along the acutely angled darkening winter streets whose layout probably reflected haphazard pioneer trails of a century and a half before. They wound their way around that new supermarket with its parking lot and the nearby, newer houses plunked just in the middle of the old trail-streets but otherwise nowhere in particular, and then they drove up and over small rises and hollows in the old farmlands until they reached the big, open, prairie campus. Once on the school's premises, the road turned broad and beautifully paved. They passed the obligatory large, ugly public art sculptures, giant copper two-by-fours assembled any which way and left standing -- after the honor of their being chosen, when, twenty, thirty years before? -- in pointless anonymity. When they pulled into the parking lot the night was fully black, and cold. The school buildings stood all around them, large, floodlit brown brick boxes. Inside them was the hush of scholarship perhaps, but also the hush of emptiness and money.

The theater was small, and so Catherine and Grace and everyone else had excellent seats. Catherine looked carefully at the stage. There was no orchestra pit. Where was the music to come from? She looked around at the audience, and remarked in a whisper to Grace at all the well dressed Oriental people taking their seats. She was accustomed to a most “diverse” world filled with blacks, whites, Mexicans, a new influx of Poles and Lithuanians, the occasional Arab, but not to soignee, suddenly mysteriously abundant Chinese or Japanese. She settled back, glad she had worn her lime green silk sweater, and her brightest green sparkling earrings.

The lights dimmed and the audience listened to a tedious speech given at center stage by the director of the theater’s board, an excited lady who wanted to acknowledge the family whose generous donation had made this performance possible. Everyone applauded. Then a hissing spurted from two large black speakers embedded in the walls high up at either side of the stage. So the music was to be canned, and the dancers would have to dance to that. Did they suffer this as amateurish, needlessly difficult, un-Russian? The curtains parted, and the ballet began.

As Catherine watched she had the new experience of understanding an artwork slowly, grasping a story slowly, without words. Words came to her sometimes, but when they did they surprised her by their presence and their aptness. It was as if someone else really was speaking inside her head. The main male dancer was lost in one scene, for example, amid the women’s tutus dipping and fluttering, amid a running flurry of white swans. Catherine thought, or the observing voice spoke: she’s there somewhere, but he can’t find her. At other scenes she thought: she’s lost, or he’s tired. She thought, I must love ballet.

About halfway through the production, during a long crowd scene with many dancers onstage, one particular ballerina came to the front and danced. She began to turn about on one pointed foot over and over again. Catherine concentrated on this, and as the ballerina turned, and turned, and seemed never to stop turning but finally stopped, she thought: that must have been over thirty turns. She said as much, in a tiny whisper, to Grace, who agreed.

Later she would do some hunting at the library and find out, in books on ballet, that these were the famous fouettes en tournant which all ballerinas dancing Odile must do, because Pierina Legnani did them at the 1895 premiere choreographed by Petipa, where they caused such a sensation. Indeed there are thirty-two of them.

For the moment, she relaxed in her seat while the applause died down. She watched the rest of the ballet. More words came to her head. The nation happened to be at war. And there had been a documentary on television the week before, full of horrible film clips of old suffering, in fact of Russian suffering. Imprisoned men fighting over bread. She watched the silent dance, watched its fluttering costumes and colors on the golden-lit stage, remembered the ballerina turning. And she thought, or the observant voice spoke: this is why God permits the world to go on existing.

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