Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ballet Arts at City Center: A Haven in Midtown

Ballet Arts occupies the sixth floor of an art deco building on W56th St. To enter, you walk through a nondescript door across the street from the backside of Carnegie Hall. Beside the door, a plackard reads "City Center stage entrance only", and you feel like one of the privileged few allowed entrance to the theatre’s inner sanctum. Then you wait for the elevator, watching the 1930's needle tick down the floors as it traces a slow semi-circle to ground floor. You step into the wood elevator, musty with the scent of decades of dancers.  You slowly rise past the floors of administrative offices, until you finally arrive at the safe haven of Ballet Arts.

At Ballet Arts there is no computer system, no minute plastic cards that are easily lost in your handbag and that reduce your identity to a bar code. Here, though the lounge where dancers stretch before class is small, the studio is one of the largest in NYC, a vast art-deco space where one can really move. Here, a German woman, quiet and gentle, sits at a small wooden table. She collects class fees (cash only), places them in a metal box, and writes your name with a pencil in a college-ruled, spiral bound notebook. She quickly gets to know you. Here, the man who runs the place greets you in a Russian accent. He re-stocks the coffee table with oreos, apples, grapes, and potato chips, free to dancers for snacking before class (who says dancers don't eat?) Here on the cozy couches lining the walls, you are not pushed aside by the crowds in the glitzier NYC dance studios. From the roughly sketched paintings of dancers (you suspect they were crafted by a friend), to the teddy bears comfortably slouching on the sofas, to the red roses sitting beside the drinking fountain, to the goldfish tucked away on a shelf, to the Nutcracker that has recently appeared, there is a friendliness that has welcomed me back into the fold.

The teachers at Ballet Arts have trained at famed institutions like St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy and the School of American Ballet. They have danced, some as principals, with the Bolshoi Ballet, the Joffrey, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. They have worked with Rudolph Nureyev, Anthony Tudor, George Balanchine, and Alvin Ailey. Though they have reason to act otherwise, they are patient. It's that kind of place, one that inspires and nurtures art.

I discovered Ballet Arts two years ago, while trying to summon the courage to dance again. In my mid-thirties, I had berated myself (what are you thinking, ballet is for little girls, not for grown women). But I had danced in childhood, the dance had never left me, and the pull was too strong. It was not that I wanted to wear a tiara and prance around in a tutu (I wear a simple black leotard and lime green tights that have snagged and run beyond repair, and that are cut off above the ankle because my legs are too long for normal tights). But one day two winters ago, without second guessing myself, I secretly bought a pair of pink ballet flats. Without telling anyone, I stepped back into the studio. I was sore for three days. But my body remembered those old moves, though my brain strained to remember their names, and my childhood addiction for dance returned in full force.

When I saw a pair of pointe shoes on sale at Sansha for $20, I nabbed them (though my legs were not yet strong enough). Then I began looking for a studio that felt like home. That's when I found Ballet Arts. It reminded me of the old, cavernous studio in which I danced as a child, and which to me was a cathedral. Ballet Arts has that grungy feel that all dance studios should have, and the waiting room that invites communing with other dancers. Many of the teachers at Ballet Arts teach classical Russian technique, which is the style I learned as a child and which my body remembers best.

Most dancers are quiet people. It's the expression through movement that allows us to come alive. When I enter the dance studio, I leave the outer layers of myself behind: life's petty jealousies, the insignificant (in retrospect) slights, the confusions and worries, the occasional belly aches. All that falls away, and I am simply myself. I love the concentration of ballet, the body consciousness, the attention to every muscle (even those tiny foot muscles, usually ignored and abused), the obsessive attention to body position, the emphasis on height and lengthening, the opening of oneself to the audience (apparent in the dancer's forward stance-- one cannot balance without an open heart). Ballet has been called the "science of behavior toward others" and "the body divined". Perhaps that's why some think ballet is an inner club: most cannot understand divinity and steer clear rather than risk failing.

Ballet is freedom through movement. I have expressed myself through movement since childhood, when I put on the Mary Poppins record, rolled up the rugs in the sitting room (the better to spin and slide on the wooden floor), and danced until I fell down with joy. I'm not alone among women in this feeling. In her recent history of ballet, Jennifer Homans (dance critique for the New Republic, and former dancer for the San Francisco Ballet), speaks of Marie Taglioni's fame. Born into a family of Italian dancers in 1804, Taglioni is widely recognized as the first truly successful ballerina. Homans refers to Taglioni as a "woman's dancer", and links this to the mores of the time, when "'Decent' women had to settle for a subdued and controlled life, but underneath they were desperate to abandon their ‘soft and calm existence' for 'storms of passion' and 'dangerous emotions'. Taglioni lived what they could only dream: a fully expressed life." In ballet, women are the stars of the show, one in which the overarching aim is emotional expression within the constructs of the story.  Is this why some are still uncomfortable with this art form?

Ballet demands patience and sacrifice. Last summer I went back en pointe. I did one impatient releve and now have a black toenail that is still healing four months later. Since then, I’ve worked on proper form and developing my leg strength. In the last month my hamstrings have grown progressively tighter. Yesterday, while stretching before class, I said to my teacher, the more classes I take, the stiffer I become. He smiled and said, that's good, that means you're getting stronger and you're training correctly. Have you ever seen how NYC Ballet dancers walk? They're stiff. That means they're strong. But, I said, what about my flexibility? Splits and backbends? Well, you have to stretch, he said.

Ballet is constant challenge and self competition. What keeps me hooked is when my body works as it should: when I do a pirouette with correct form (and sometimes a double, and soon a triple); when, while doing pique turns, I am able to keep my eye on the spot and traverse the entire dance floor without becoming dizzy; and when I can get my leg just that much higher in an arabesque. That’s when I feel most connected to myself, to the music, to the imaginative audience for whom I am dancing, to the mystery of expressing myself through dance. In a world whose sharp edges stifle creativity, and whose brash assertions of self subvert beauty, in ballet I am finally allowed to express myself through a form that glorifies the feminine. I have great admiration for the masculine, but today’s world is over-balanced with it. Ballet turns that order on its head. In explaining its popularity with women, it seems to me that Balanchine correctly said: “Ballet is woman...Woman is the world and man lives in it."

That might explain the facial expression of the quiet Korean woman who I met a year ago. Now in her mid-twenties, she is learning ballet for the first time. Late on a Tuesday evening, after class at Ballet Arts, she sat on the floor of the lounge and, bending over to sew the ribbons on her pointe shoes, looked at me with pure and radiant joy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Bakery Tango

On Tuesday, Tango appeared unexpectedly. The sky had drizzled all day, I needed to be in a better mood, and so I headed for Gideon's, the neighborhood bakery where pastries are half price after 4:30.  From the 1950's sign, to the round formica tables, and the types of pastries (cherry danishes, chocolate rugelach, rainbow sprinkle sugar cookies), Gideon's is old-fashioned. Which suits the elderly neighborhood socialites. That day, there were two long-time girlfriends flirting with a tall white-haired man smartly dressed in a wool jacket and navy trousers. You keep getting better looking all the time, one of the women said. The man looked embarrassed, but pleased.  He smiled, absorbing the compliment. In a corner opposite them sat Tango, looking nonchalant and dipping a French cruller in his afternoon pick-me-up coffee. I stopped dead and blurted, Tango, what are you doing here?! Nice to see you, too, Tango replied. It's been awhile, I said dumbly, trying to disguise the truth: Tango was a sight for sore eyes. From the low tech sound system (the boom box behind the counter) played a fancied-up Julio Iglesias version of an old Carlos Gardel tango: El Dia Que Me Quieras (The Day When You Will Love Me). Tango and I looked at each other with unspoken understanding, that song weaving our thoughts together. Are we back on? Tango asked.  I nodded.

I carried that song with me for more than a day.  I found the lyrics on the Argentine Ministry of Education website. Written in the future tense, the lyrics are tinged with sadness and longing, but ultimately full of hope: the day when you will love me, the roses will dress up in celebration (will that day ever arrive?), the day when you will love me, there will only be harmony (yes, I'm sure that day will come), the day when you will love me there will be no more pain (I have hope, that day will arrive sometime soon...) However others might complicate matters by saying that tango is life, love, relationship, art, Argentine national identity, whatever, I read those lyrics and thought it was something easier. Some say that tango is also (and simply) a language, a dialogue, a conversation of connection between two people.  Though I am still a tango novice, I tend to agree with this view, and venture to add that tango is also poetry (dear to my heart). Below is a link to the song and the lyrics in Spanish (without accents, as I can't figure out how to insert them in this dag-blasted blogger program), with my own English translation (hopefully not too terribly flawed):

El Dia Que Me Quieras-- Tango by Carlos Gardel

El Dia Que Me Quieras (1935)             The Day When You Will Love Me

Musica Carlos Gardel                           Music Carlos Gardel

Letra Alfredo Le Pera                           Lyrics Alfredo Le Pera

Acaricia me ensueno                             The soft murmur of your breath

el suave murmullo                                  Caresses my dreams.

de tu suspirar.                                        How life is full of laughter

Como rie la vida                                    When your black eyes
                                                                       desire to look on me.
si tus ojos negros                                   When it is mine
                                                                       the shelter of your laughter
me quieren mirar.                                   lifts me up like a song.

Y si es mio el amparo                            It heals my wounds,
    de tu risa leve
que es como un cantar,                            Everything, everything
                                                                    is forgotten.
ella aquieta mi herida,

todo, todo se olvida.

El dia que me quieras                                The day when you
                                                                        will love me
la rosa que engalana                                  The rose that beautifies all

se vestira de fiesta                                     will dress in its finest
                                                                        for the celebration.
con su mejor color.                                   And the church bells will ring

Y al viento las campanas                           Saying that you
                                                                     are already mine
diran que ya eres mia                                And the fountains will
                                                                     sing madly about our love.
y locas las fontanas                             

se contaran su amor.

La noche que me quieras                      The night when you
                                                                   will love me
desde el azul del cielo,                          The jealous stars

las estrellas celosas                                From the blue sky above

nos miraran pasar.                                  Will watch us pass by.

Y un rayo mysterioso                              And a mysterious moonbeam

hara nido en tu pelo,                               Will nest in your hair,

luciernaga curiosa que veras                    Like a curious glow-worm
                                                                      who will see
que eres mi consuelo                              That you console me.

El dia que me quieras                              The day when you
                                                                     will love me
no habra mas                                          There will be
    que armonia                                             nothing but harmony               
sera clara la aurora                                   The dawn will be clear

y alegre el manantial.                                And the spring will
                                                                       bubble happily.
Traera quieta la brisa                               The quiet breeze will

rumor de melodia.                                     murmur with melody.

Y nos daran las fuentes                             And the fountains
                                                                      will sing for us
su canto de crystal                                    in their crystalline voices.

El dia que me quieras                                The day when you
                                                                        will love me
endulzaran sus cuerdas                              The singing birds

el pajaro cantor.                                        Will sweeten their chords.

Florecera la vida,                                      Life will bloom,

no existira el dolor.                                    Pain will not exist.

La noche que me quieras                          The night when you
                                                                          will love me
desde el azul del cielo,                               The jealous stars

las estrellas celosas                                    From the blue sky above

nos miraran pasar.                                     Will watch us pass by.

Y un rayo mysterioso                                And a mysterious moonbeam

hara nido en tu pelo.                                  will nest in your hair.

Luciernaga curiosa que veras                     Like a curious glow-worm
                                                                          who will see
que eres mi consuelo.                                That you console me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Consulting the Oracle

I approached cautiously but with reverence.  There on a throne of marble sat Dance, flanked by Song and Story.  Dance rested her graceful hand on a knee draped in gossamer as green as the forest through which her acolytes frolick.  She leaned to her right, concentrating on what Song, in a gown of aquamarine that undulated like ocean waves, whispered into her ear.  Story sat aloof, silently observing and adorned in pure white.  I knelt, unable to summon words.  I watched them, wondering how to break through the morass of absorption and distance.  Finally, I gathered courage and said:


No response.  It had taken me a long time to find these three and I wasn't expecting this kind of reception.  I fidgeted and rubbed my right calf, which had grown numb from kneeling.  Dance and Song continued in consultation, Story looked omniscient and wise.  I did another wind up and said:


No response.  I looked around the glade in which the throne sat.  It was a vision of pastoral bliss.  Birds flitted.  Clover bloomed.  Bees hummed. Brooks bubbled.  If I'd been more effusive, I might have imagined Pan jumping about with magical pipes and mischievous schemes.  But I wasn't feeling expansive.  I'd loved these three for so long, and now they refused me.  I waved my arms, danced about, and shouted:

Hey!  You! I'm down here!  Look at me!  I have a question for you!

Dance looked down and said curtly, Can't see you.  The sun's in my eyes.

I moved into the shadows.  Can you see me now?  I said, hopeful.

I see your left foot,  Dance replied, imperious.

I need your help.  I need some answers.

I don't give a flying fuck about you and your questions!  I'm old and tired.  Leave me alone,  Dance screamed, then turned her back on me.

This was unexpected.  I didn't have a ready reply.

Song, less asinine but equally imperious, broke the silence and apologized for Dance, Her arthritic hip is acting up, explained Song,  But you should know better than to address us directly.

I had no choice.  You were hiding from me.

You should know by now.  You can't see a shooting star by looking at it directly, Song instructed, and turned her back on me.

I looked at Story with desperation.  They've both abandoned me, I moaned.

Story, wise in the ways of human emotion, explained in her gentle but knowing way, We're all angry with you.  You've been impatient with that Tango business.

I have.

That makes you nervous.

It does.

Then go.  Live.  And forget about us.  We've been around for a long time, and we'll be around for much longer still.  Live your way through it with patience.

But I need to know... is Tango art?

That is not for you to decide, and Story turned her back on me.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tango Confessional

Oh mea culpa, I have sinned!  Three Hail Mary's and four Our Fathers and still my conscience plagues me. I didn't mean to do it.  Things got out of hand, my curiosity got the better of me, and before I knew it I had strayed away from Tango.  Cha-Cha was tempting.  But it wasn't just Cha-Cha.  It was also Hustle, Fox Trot, Salsa, and Viennese Waltz.  All in one night!  I know what you're thinking, can hear the sharp intake of breath, the eyes wide open with judgment (you ought to be ashamed of yourself!)  But the weather has turned cold, the days are shortening (which means the nights are lengthening), and a girl needs variety from time to time.  Tango and I weren't getting along. Tango had bristled under The Rules, felt put upon, hemmed in, confined.  We were on a break (not a break-up mind you, just a break).  We each needed some space.  

It all started with a Groupon (those mouth watering deals sent over the internet with discounts to spas, restaurants, wine tasting events, scuba diving lessons, and, yes, even dance classes held all over NYC-- I'm not a spokesperson for Groupon, I just like a deal).  Tango is an expensive habit, and supporting it can turn a person into a junkie (how do I get my next fix?!) So, a few weeks ago, I received a message about a Groupon discount to "Dance With Me Studios" in Tribeca.  I carefully checked the website before purchasing (I am an informed shopper).  The schedule listed "Intermediate Tango".  That's for me, I said, After two full months of Tango training, I can confidently say that I am Intermediate Level (no one can ever accuse me of not being ambitious). 

Last Thursday I walked through dark streets and drizzling rain, past the art galleries and designer chic stores of Tribeca, took the stairs down to the basement studio at 466 Broome St., and stepped into a plaster wedding cake.  The place looked like it had been plucked from a Beauty and the Beast sound stage.  There was fake gold gilding on the walls, and dozens of petite crystal chandeliers sparkled from the ceiling, while sconces crawled up the walls.  I felt a pang of longing for dear old Sandra Cameron Studios, where I had taken my first Tango class, and which was tastefully decorated in elegant white on white.  Oh, the receptionist moaned, we don't have that class anymore (referring to Intermediate Tango), but you can take Beginning.  No. I. Can't!  I absolutely cannot take one more Beginning Tango class, I thought.  But instead, I politely inquired, what other classes are offered tonight?  Well, there's a Mixed Class.  That's a good one, she beamed.

That's when Cha-Cha walked in, with his fast-paced knee-bending, hey-dance-with-me, it's-all-about-fun adolescent attitude.  And I did, and it was fun.  But a little empty.  So Hustle barged in, looked me up and down, and grabbed me away from Cha-Cha.  Hustle swung me and swirled me so fast that my head spun. It was then that Fox Trot saw what was happening and decided to intervene.  He pranced right in, took my hand, and with that upright stance of his, marched me up and down the dance floor until my dizziness cleared.  But then Salsa swaggered in, with his swively hips and  that I-know-you-want-me look in his eyes.  I'll admit, I was distracted.  But Salsa made me feel uncomfortable.  I had started to pull away when in glided beautiful, elegant, Viennese Waltz with his pouffy hair and silk cravat.  He swept me around the dance floor to the tune of Edelweiss.  We were still gliding when Tango re-entered the scene.  I felt nervous.  It had been awhile since we'd seen each other.

What.  Do you think you're doing?  Tango asked, valiantly trying to disguise wounded pride.
I stopped dead.  Waltz slunk into the corner.'  I stammered, Just dancing.
I'll bet just dancing, Tango replied.
But we were on a break, I defended myself, and there were all these other dances, and I got curious.
Oh, Tango said.
And also, I didn't know you felt this way.  You can be a little hard to read sometimes. 
And sometimes you can be so serious.
And also, you're awfully complicated.
And here I paused to consider whether or not I should continue, and (though in hind sight I realize this was indelicate), I barrelled ahead,'s just that sometimes...well, you can be a little cheesey.
Come on now, gimme a break, Tango fired back, And Cha-Cha's not cheesey? I thought we were having fun.
We were.
What about the milongas?  Those were fast-paced and up beat.  And what about Nuevo Tango: Otros Aires and Gotan Project?  I thought you liked them.
I did.  I do.  But... sometimes, I wonder.  All this fish net and glitter and skirts slit up to here (I indicated my hip) and stillettos.  Sometimes it doesn't feel like me.  Sometimes I just want to wear jeans and a tank top.
Tango looked delighted.  That's fine by me, then paused and added, But... can you sometimes still maybe wear the stillettos?
Maybe.  I'll have to think about it.  I just don't know.  I'm not sure...
When do you think you might know?

And that's when I reached out my hand, and Tango grabbed it, and there was that same undeniable connection that Cha Cha and Waltz can't hold a candle to (and Salsa isn't even in the same league), and Tango sighed and said, Dios mio, what shall we do...