Various Thoughts About Chicago, and a little On Ballet!
I am fond of Louisville. There’s a fair bit to like about it, excepting its landlocked location in this oft-sweltering cauldron of concentrated air quality problems known as the Ohio Valley. It’s too far from the ocean, but it’s got friendly people and great cycling and a nice ballet company with a good school and some of the most beautiful domestic architecture around. Where parks are concerned, it has few, if any, rivals in the United States.
Seriously. Name another US city this size with nineteen graceful parks bearing the unmistakable stamp of Frederick Law Olmstead’s trail-blazing vision; with this much space set aside to be green and a little wild sometimes and beautiful so the people who live here can get away from the bustle of urban life for a bit any time they so please. I have lived in quiet rural and suburban places and in busy urban places and I have concluded that it’s best to be able to experience both; one makes you appreciate the other more. Here, you can do that without leaving town.
I say this because I don’t want you to think I’m dissing the city where I live. There’s a lot to like, even love, about Louisville.
The thing is, I think I like Chicago even more.
I suppose Chicago has some unfair advantages.
First, Chicago has trains. I love trains. I love trains for themselves, for the feeling of riding them, and for what they mean. In Louisville, people like me, who don’t drive, can escape from the city by riding bicycles or getting on the bus and then riding bicycles or walking. In Chicago, it is possible to get on a train and go. It’s easier. You can take your not-so-athletic friends along. You can even get a ticket on the South Shore Line and ride all the way to Michigan (the first time I visited Chicago, it was by South Shore Line from Michigan City, Indiana, which is practically in Michigan).
Moreover, the trains form the core of a transit system that moves a lot of people. Here, people still mostly seem to regard public transit as a stopgap measure for people who can’t afford to drive — which is, quite frankly, a pretty backwards way of looking at things (this isn’t to say that it’s not getting better, but that’s still the prevailing sentiment). Chicagoans drive more than New Yorkers, but don’t seem to regard public transit as an embarrassment. They cram onto the trains and busses in their legions and go to work, to concerts, to clubs, to the ballet, to restaurants. Many of them don’t drive a whole lot or at all, and because of this Chicago is full of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods where there are people out getting dinner, retrieving groceries, going to bookstores, whatever. The trains, in their way, have helped keep the city operating on a human scale.
I grew up in a small town, but it was (and still is) a small town where you could walk to dinner, to the grocery store, to a good ice-cream place, and so forth. I loved that and had no idea how precious it was.
The thing I dislike about my current neighborhood is that it’s the kind of place the vast majority of people would consider unwalkable. Places you might want to go are a mile away or more. Sidewalks, where they’ve been included, are inadequate. There’s a big, beautiful park practically in my backyard — literally about a block over — but the neighborhood (built long after the park) is designed in such a way that you either have to travel two miles to get there or trespass on private property. Nobody thought to include, for example, a path. If you do choose to get to the park by cutting through people’s yards, you then have to either climb over or tunnel under a big fence, which is (of course) meant to prevent people from cutting through private yards going to and from the park.
It is this way because my current neighborhood was designed for people who drive cars, by people who regarded diving as the wave of the future; as a new convenience that would save us all so much time. They meant well, but these are the people you can thank the next time you’re sitting in a traffic jam, because these are the people who designed so much of America as we know it today. These were not, for the most part, the people who planned and designed the neighborhoods in Chicago.
Second, Chicago is several times the size of Louisville. A few years ago, even a year ago, I wouldn’t have identified that as an advantage. It’s still not something I would automatically point out as an advantage. Like, I enjoy New York and Washington, D.C., immensely, but I wouldn’t describe their sheer size as an advantage, necessarily. In Chicago, though, the scale of the city lets it breathe in a way which neither NY or DC can do, being situated where they are. Yes, downtown Chicago is dominated by giant buildings — but they stand far apart, across broad streets, and you don’t feel like you’re in a cramped, narrow canyon.
Chicago can do this because it’s in the big, flat heart of the Midwest on the shore of a lake so huge that people who know things about bodies of water classify it and its sisters as a series of freshwater inland seas. Perhaps because of the trains, though, Chicago doesn’t seem like a collection of unrelated cities jammed together. Different neighborhoods feel distinctly different, but they’re all connected by the same circulatory system; they’re all part of the same organism.
Third — well, did I mention the lake?
The city of Chicago is sliced up by rivers and canals flowing up towards the lake. Maybe that should be Lake, with a capital “L.”
I’m an ocean junkie. I grew up on the Sound and the Cape and the Atlantic. The first time I felt the thrill of real, mortal fear, it was in the waves of the Atlantic on the windward shore of Block Island. The first time I felt the unspeakable power of the numinous, it was watching the moon rise over the ocean from the peak of Mount Desert Island. My people have never lived far from the ocean. I joke that you’ll find members of my family everywhere, but in truth I don’t think very many of us can be found very far from the coast, or not for long. I miss the ocean keenly and powerfully, and that particular flavor of homesickness never seems to fade.
So the lake isn’t an ocean. But it’s still pretty good. It’s a proper inland sea — it’s Big Water. It has moods and waves and a bit of the terrifying power that makes the ocean so compelling. It has sandy beaches and a far, blank horizon. I can look at that horizon and feel something of the same thrill that I feel when I gaze out over the Atlantic.
So it seems inevitable that I, who so love trains and variety and, above all, Big Water, should like Chicago an awful lot. Don’t think I’m some kind of rosy-glassed pushover about it — I know it has its own problems; its own quirks I would probably come to resent if I lived there, the same way I resent the highways here that cut entire swathes of the city off from each-other and disrupt the flow of what could be a pretty cool urban lifescape, so to speak. Nonetheless, I really like Chicago. I think I could be really happy there.
Now for the ballet part. On Saturday, we got up and ate breakfast and made our way up to the Joffrey Tower for class. The Joffrey’s adult open division Ballet Basics class is 1.5 hours long. I wasn’t 100% sure Denis would make it all the way through. I didn’t know what to expect (one never knows what to expect when one starts a new class, though).
What we got as an awesome and really pretty enormous class. I think there were about sixteen of us; about half of us were men (our teacher, Lynne, exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, there are never this many men! We’re doing pas de deux today! …Just kidding.”). The barre work was athletic and demanding (for what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve ever done attitude en cloche at the barre before), which I definitely appreciated.
I found that after exercising my brain trying to memorize long combinations at the barre, it was surprisingly easy to memorize the combinations when we worked in the center … though also surprisingly easy to get mesmerized while doing changements and forget to move on to the next sequence. This, however, is not a problem that is specific to ballet. When counting repetitions, I tend to forget to stop. The effect wears off once I know the pattern and stop counting (in this case, on the first repeat, when we reversed the direction of the combination).
Lynne did a brilliant job explaining how to stop your circular port de bras from looking like some kind of fit or an attempt to deflect a missile (though she didn’t put it quite that way). She also sorted our promenades, which I deeply appreciated, as I think promenades look a wee bit silly to begin with much of the time, and look even sillier when I’m sort of f(l)ailing my way through them. By which I mean that she sorted my promenade. Everyone else’s looked pretty okay. I feel like mine is uniformly terrible, though once in a while on Saturday I caught sight of myself in the mirror and realized I looked better than I expected to look.
We did a nice reverence, though I tangled my legs a couple of times.
So that was class at the Joffrey. It was excellent. I would say “Excellent, as expected,” but I didn’t know what to expect.
I’ve found that what people say is true: it’s good to take classes from different teachers, as long as they’re good teachers, because every teacher explains things a little differently, focuses on different refinements, and so forth. Just as Claire’s correction for my back has really helped me get my turns and stuff sorted, Lynne’s explanation of circular port de bras and a number of other things clarified stuff I’ve probably been doing wrong for a while now, if not since, like, first grade.
It’s weird how you can take this long, long journey of digression in your life, go wandering about in the wilderness, and then find your way back to the track you started out on, and realize it was the right one in the first place. I sort of stumbled out of ballet class in middle school — not because I didn’t love ballet, but because my life was pretty crushingly depressing and I stopped doing almost everything. In high school I did modern dance for a couple of years (as a non-major) at an arts magnet, and I loved it, but I lost the thread again after I graduated. Then for a few years I entered a kind of wilderness in my own life. I don’t quite understand why it took me so long to find this shimmering thread again.
I guess clarity just comes when it’s ready to come. We don’t have the privilege of divine insight, so we make mistakes and discard things we should keep and sometimes don’t get back to where we should be for a long, long time.
I feel like I’m finally returning to the self I was intended from the beginning to be: ballet, in a sense, is an expression of that. I suppose I had to learn how to identify and to be that self. I am sure there are still plenty of things I’m missing.
It is very much like re-learning ballet. You attempt some bit of technique you once had down cold years ago and it doesn’t come, and doesn’t come, though you can sort of see it, if you will, “as through a glass, darkly.”
Then, as if from nowhere, you hit it, and it’s like the fire of memory enlivens every nerve.
P.S. If you happen to be in Chicago and you’ve always wanted to dance, give the Joffrey’s adult open division a try. You won’t regret it.
P.P.S. Denis survived and then went on to also survive a walk and a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago and another walk (to the bus). He is coming to class this evening, the first time he has done a Saturday and a Monday class in the same week.