Variations on a Theme
When I was fourteen, I read Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story for the first time. His potent image of all later loves as an elaboration on the theme of the first love; a “crab canon,” stuck with me—not so much because I agreed with it (I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything about it), but because the language was so powerfully evocative.
Anyway, I still don’t know if I agree with White’s narrator about the nature of first love (honestly, it’s been a while since I last read A Boy’s Own Story; I’m due for a re-read). I can, however, say that it’s a pretty good description of ballet.
BW and I talked about this last night (while I walked in circles with my hands on my head, attempting to catch my breath, after the second round of the second petit allegro). As dancers, everything we do do is essentially an elaboration on one of a handful of basic themes.
I look at my ballet notes from a year ago, and sometimes they literally say exactly the same thing I wrote down the day before yesterday. The literal content doesn’t necessarily change much, but the meaning changes immensely.
Something you’ve been working on for a year can feel like a revelation when your brain suddenly fires up a proliferation of shiny, new synapses in just the right pattern. So you write it down—lift and rotate from under the hip—only to realize later that you had already written it down a million classes ago.
But back then, it didn’t bear the same freight. You hadn’t yet learned to feel the individual muscles of your deep rotators. You didn’t yet know how to isolate and activate your adductors to the same extent you can now. Rond de jambe en l’air meant, simultaneously, exactly what it means now and something completely different.
Which is to say that the goal never changes. The goal, always, is the perfect execution of technique; mastery coupled with musicality, with expression.
The image in your head remains the same, but your sense of how to achieve it evolves.
What was conscious a year ago is automatic now, 15o or so classes (and countless repetitions) down the line. What is conscious today, presumably, will be automatic a year (200 classes or more, because you take class more often now) from now.
I find myself returning to the idea that the bodies of dancers are supremely educated bodies: just as years of (good) academic schooling hones our abilities to analyze and reason and helps us learn to activate the fibers of our minds in powerful and subtle ways, years in the studio help us find muscles most people never notice and use them to create beauty.
Dancer’s bodies (and minds) become fluent in movement the way the minds of mathematicians are fluent in math. Just like mathematicians, we achieve our fluency through repetition; through exercises that awaken capacities latent within us until, suddenly, we achieve new understanding.
So we continue: nearly three years (and G-d alone knows how many tendus and pliés and ronds des jambes) into this adventure in rediscovery, I continue to discover anew the things that I thought I already understood.
This might be the most powerful ballet lesson of all: we never achieve perfection. The goalposts will always recede.
No matter how much we have learned, there’s still learning to be done. Ballet forces us to be honest and keeps us humble (well, sort of). When I’m 80, and I’ve done more tendus than there are particles of dust in the desert of the Great Basin, I still won’t know everything. I still won’t be perfect.
That’s a powerful thought for someone who is, by nature, a bit of an overconfident know-it-all and a relentless perfectionist.
Lastly: right now, this body of mine is still gaining ground. Ballet tells me that. I am stronger and fitter and faster and more flexible than I was a year ago.
Someday that will change. Ballet forces us to acknowledge that reality, too, and either to evolve with it or run from it.
I’m a jumper. For me, the ability to simply get off the ground is a G-d-given gift (though also the reason it’s bleeding hard to find trousers that fit). Age can be hard on jumpers: a day will come for every one of us in which we begin to feel our power slipping away.
I hope that day is still far off for me—but also that when it comes I’ll accept the lesson that comes with it: that there are subtler arts that age invites us to master; that the power and brilliance of youth are not the only or even the greatest power and brilliance.
These, too, are variations on a theme: one has little choice in the matter of aging (in short: we can age or we can die), but one can choose how to execute the movement that is age.
I hope that when I’m older, instead of being consumed by mourning for the loss of this power, this particular gift of flight, I’ll be able to be glad that I had it once and content to explore other, subtler gifts.
Either way, my ballet notes will probably still read, “Lift and rotate from under the hip*.”
*Or, if I’m really honest, “Litt und ritoti frim uder tte hip”