Friday, July 31, 2009


The Japanese Crematorium and Norton's Creative Nonfiction Anthology

I mentioned late last year that my essay, Letter from a Japanese Crematorium, would be anthologized in volume 3 of "The Best Creative Nonfiction" published by Norton and edited by Lee Gutkind. The book is out now, and I'm waiting to get my hands on it to read the other pieces. The folks at Creative Nonfiction have also let me know that there has been some nice buzz, with a nod from the New Yorker blog. And the Creative Nonfiction web page reprints the nice review from Publisher's Weekly, which had the following nice things to say:

Among the standouts is five-time Pushcart winner Brenda Miller on a girl's changing relationship with her body as she grows into womanhood; Edwidge Danticat on an uncle's love of the ultimate expletive; an emotional “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium” by Marie Mutsuki Mockett; a family car deal gone awry by Margaret Conway; an exploration of the meaning of the mass murders at Virginia Tech through the sad eyes of gunman Seung-Hui Cho by Wesley Yang. The energetic Gutkind (Almost Human) edits his lean anthology with panache and gusto.

(Italics are mine). Thanks to all who made this happen! If you are interested, you can pre-order the book here. Enjoy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


Harvest Begins

Every year, different personalities reveal themselves in the runup to actual cutting time. My father, a patient person, was willing to let the wheat let us know when it wanted to be cut. Eric, the harvester who actually cuts the wheat, made his forecast based on his experience and from striding out into our fields to look around and snapping it with his hands. My uncle thought we would begin cutting on Monday. In the end, we started on Wednesday.

But before we could bring the wheat into storage, we needed to prepare our bins--our own storage facilities. Some wheat is taken to the town elevator, which is located by the railway tracks. We pay for this storage, however, and long ago my grandfather built steel bins so we could store our own wheat ourselves for (mostly) free. In addition, once harvest is underway, the line at the elevator to dump wheat becomes very long, keeping trucks occupied for a long time, and slowing down the actual cutting process. By maintaining our own bins, we are able to move faster and take advantage of optimal weather conditions.

My young cousins attacked the inside of the other bins to prepare them for cleaning. They lowered themselves in via a chain, then attached a rope to a bucket. Then, bucket by bucket, they excavated the muck. Having done this job last year, I didn't envy them the task, but was grateful that they were willing to do it at all. They did an excellent job. You can also see a layer of white paint along the bottom of the bin in the background. This seals off cracks and (hopefully) keeps out moisture. Wet wheat in storage kind of sucks.

Last summer, an improperly fixed bin lid blew off the top of a storage bin and knocked over an auger, which suffered a rather serious injury of its own. My uncle said it looked like a wounded giraffe. A real farmer would probably fix these wounds himself, but we don't live in Nebraska full time, and had to hire someone to do the job for us. The new auger was pulled out of our quonset, and positioned beside a storage bin deemed clean enough to receive grain (I'll explain more in a moment). To move the auger is not exactly easy. Everything here is very large and very heavy--as Gordon demonstrates below, posing with a very large and very heavy hamburger value pack.

It's also worth pointing out that trucks play a very practical role out here. Since everything is large and heavy, you really need a truck to "haul things," as my father used to say. It's also pretty tough to drive a little economy car across a "road" that is overgrown with weeds. I can't say that I will ever understand why suburban folk need to drive SUVs, but for farmers, these large vehicles are really and truly a necessity.

To move the auger, we would need some help, and Eric sent over his crew to give us a hand. One of the boys easily climbed to the top of the bin and shouted down orders so the auger would be placed just over the top of the bin and the grain would go in correctly.

We suspect that the presence of pretty teenage girls inspired the boys to work even harder.

As always, it's inspiring to see people move around equipment when they are used to it--and when they are so unafraid of heights. The physical language of people here is entirely different than in the city. Would anyone else I know in NYC so happily clamber up a ladder, then stand there at the top without fear? Some people are just born to do things like this--just as some are born to do, say, gymnastics and to be unafraid.

I've been thinking, too, of gender roles. In the city, it's so easy for men and women to think about their differences in very abstract terms. "Communication styles." "Nurturing qualities." Etc. A lot of the time, we can do the same job in the city. We all cook. We all like to shop and pick out a nice outfit. We all coordinate colors.

And, well, out here, we can't all shove around an enormous auger. We can't all crank it up. Perhaps we can all drive trucks, but some of us have a weaker constitution and can't take the heat. I was thinking last night that when work really does favor one sex over the other, people are quite naturally going to develop a very different sense of politics.

As I explained last year, the auger pulls wheat up from a truck via an Archimedean screw. The wheat is dumped into what we call a "Mayrath" (the manufacturer) from the belly of the truck. The Mayrath then utilizes a short Archimedean screw to deliver this wheat into a hopper. The wheat in the hopper is then pulled up via a very long Archimedean screw to the top of the bin.

The rebuilt hopper in this picture, however, is quite small. Everyone was predicting a disaster. The wheat would splash everywhere and onto the ground.

Don showed up with his tools and laid them out on the ground, ready to make a little adjustment to our hopper. My uncle and cousin--physicist and programmer--began to analyze the exact problem with the hopper. The spoke of vectors and angles and momentum. (Last year they tried to calculate the percentage hail damage to a crop by counting the number of heads of wheat in a plant that were damaged, then multiplying this by plants per foot, etc. I let them do this and did not help).

As the conversation continued to become more abstract, Don finally shook his head and said, "You people." He then suggested attaching something to the lip of the hopper to extend its capability.

Ultimately, this is what happened. You can see that a piece of wood has been attached with two C-clamps, and some boards stuck along the left side. Farming is a series of never-ending problems, but I have a suspicion the men like to grapple with these kinds of problems because it means playing with tools.

With the bins mostly set up, we were off to the fields to see again if the wheat was ripe. There is a visual check that one can do--looking for excess green. But the most important thing is the moisture level. Wheat that is too wet can't be stored, and will be docked by the elevator. We do have the capacity at our bins to dry wheat, but this is also a rather labor intensive process. There are various ways to measure the moisture level, but the most reliable thing to do is to take a sample to the elevator. They, after all, have the power to accept or reject a truck load.

I like this photo--three generations of farmers, with Gordon looking very natural and very serious.

And here I am with my young cousin Tyler, who cheered me up a great deal last year. He's grown up quite a bit and says he's very fond of the farm, so we may continue to see him in the summer, which would be very nice.

Time to cut. The combines get to work.

Riding around in a combine is lots of fun. But it is also a good way to see how the field is looking, if there are bald patches, and how the wheat is cutting. Um, and it's also fun.

My mother is famous for her pot roast--which she learned to cook from my grandmother. We still know the butcher at the local Coop, and my mother stopped by to make a special order large enough to feed 12 people.

Because my mother's hands are not in particularly good shape, she enlisted the help of my cousin Kelsey to do some cooking. When I came in from a trip to the fields, Kelsey happily told me that she had "browned the meat" herself. It's wonderful to see her take pride in a project like this--kids thrive on learning to do things and learning to do them well. The pot roast was delicious.

The interior of the bunkhouse is quite small, but we have my grandmother's old picnic table, which we set up just outside the quonset. My uncle hung a light from the gigantic hook, making what I like to call the "chandelier." Thus we were all able to eat together.

Of course Gordon is making sure to try local beers while he is here. On our visit to the liquor store, we learned that there is also a local Nebraska wine. I had passed some grape vines earlier in the day, but couldn't believe that someone was really growing wine grapes, but it turns out they are. This is interesting--my father and I used to fantasize about giving up wheat growing for grape growing. Perhaps one day there will be a varietal to facilitate this. Hmm. I think I will have to investigate further.

Of course, about the time we are able to grow wine grapes here, the rest of the country, with its richer soil, will long ago have mastered the process . . .

A favorite after dinner activity is a visit to the local Dairy Queen. This was always a very special treat when I was a child, and the tradition continues. It was dark by the time we got there, and on the walk back, I happened to look up and see a very bright object fly overhead at a very high speed. Young Mark (who is not pictured) determined that we had just seen the Space Shuttle--he looked up the shuttle's schedule on NASA's website. It's so dark here at night, that it is easy to see something like the Space Shuttle against the Milky Way.

And with this visit to Dairy Queen, Gordon was able to eat his first Dilly Bar. He says this will not be his last.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Asleep by Ten, Up by Six

Regular readers may remember that life changed unexpectedly when my father passed away last year--I found myself looking after part of the family wheat farm in Nebraska, which my great-grandfather started over 100 years ago. I'd been to harvest lots as a kid, but last year was the first harvest in which I really tried to immerse myself into the entire process as an adult. I've excitedly been waiting to see how the seed wheat we selected, and which I saw planted last September would turn out. The rain that has been plaguing New Yorkers also got some play in Nebraska, with the end result that harvest has been delayed--and the wheat thick and lush. I have not minded our soggy June at all (plus, I hate summer heat in New York) because I've been hoping it would help us achieve a rich crop.

This year my husband was able to come with me, and I was eager to show him a completely different side of the United States. He took to the open road as I expected, happily driving through the prairie while listening to Pat Metheny.

Nebraska is also beef country. This is a mammoth "value pack" hamburger . . . dispenser. I think if you needed to feed about 30 people, or wanted to eat hamburger three times a day for ten days, this pack would be suitable. I've never seen anything like this anywhere else. Harvest has historically been tyranny of the hamburger and the potato. But being pregnant means I'd like to try to eat some other foods this summer. And so, my secret weapon--my mother--has also arrived with a suitcase full of raw ingredients necessary to cook Japanese food.

Gordon likes the prairie.

You might remember I went to visit our harvesters in Pennsylvania at the end of April. Back then Eric and his family and crew were days away from heading off to follow the country's wheat belt--and we parted ways knowing we would meet up in Nebraska in July. I hadn't been in Kimball for a half an hour before a white pick up truck with familiar bumper stickers stopped in front of me at a stop sign. I yelped and clambered out of the car, scaring my husband who thought I had been stricken by some form of prairie road rage. But it was Eric, who'd seen me driving, and parked in order to greet me.

Before we came to Nebraska, Gordon asked me if anyone ever wore shorts on the farm. I said, "No." Of course, the first farmer we met--Eric--was wearing shorts. But then Eric is made of some kind of indestructible material which makes him impervious to weeds or burrs or even rattlesnakes--he showed me a tail of a snake he'd killed on his travels this year. Eric is a kind of uber human masquerading as a farmer. We decided that his shorts don't count.

Gordon and I abandoned our little rental car in favor of Eric's truck to head out to look at some of our wheat fields--Eric had been on his way to assess how ripe the crop was looking. As he drove, he narrated the land to us. Here a farmer had tilled his land and due to winds, was losing his top soil. There, someone had left the previous year's stubble in place and was practicing "no till" farming, which meant the dirt--and moisture--were staying put. "Your family is doing it right," he said. Gordon and I sat mostly rapt with attention, asking questions every now and then. It's always wonderful to try to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows much more than you do, and who truly loves what he sees.

As I said, Eric is made of some kind of indestructible material. Here he is, knee deep in wheat, and I am trying to catch up to him to see what he is seeing, and trying not to get poked too much by the plants. I am not made of anything indestructible, and already have a rash from the boots I was wearing to protect my legs from getting a rash from the wheat . . .

In the end, we decided the wheat was not yet ready to cut. This is always a very stressful judgment. Farmers want the grain out of the field as soon as possible. But wanting something does not make it come true--we all have to grapple with reality, and there's no way to really make unripe wheat more ripe than it is. Temperatures in the High Plains are very hot and dry, however, and wheat can ripen in a day. One never knows.

I was eager to see our friends the Yungs and Birkhofers, who have been farming for and with our family for many years. Last September I had a particularly lovely visit with Virginia and her daughters (scroll down). Virginia is, among other things, an enthusiastic reader--the kind of person who lights up with real, rare and sincere excitement at the prospect of reading something new and good. I love this kind of genuine enthusiasm. Understand, Kimball is a town with a library (which my grandmother supported), but no bookstore, and no movie theater. Since September, I've been putting together a pile of books to bring to Virginia, hoping that I could share some favorites with her.

In the photo above, I'm posing with her father, Don, who was my father's great friend--a veritable Obi Wan Kenobi of farming. "If something ever happens to me," said my Dad, "listen to Don." I'm trying to. As it happens, our visit at the Yungs was cut short because Don had diagnosed that the bunkhouse where we stay during harvest had a serious plumbing problem. We needed to get a new sump pump (I think that's what it was). I'm not very useful when it comes to fixing things--and even less helpful this year due to my, ahem, delicate condition. So we volunteered to do the one hour drive to Scottsbluff to pick up the new pump, which meant that Virginia and my booksorting has been delayed. But at least she has the books.

Later, Gordon got a lesson in how to install a new pump for the sewer line by Don, who can fix anything. We had a nice little conversation in which he tried to convince me that farming is much easier than computers--which he seems to think I have some proficiency in. Of course, the truth is that I don't really have any useful skills--let alone any advanced knowledge in computers. But I'm not sure he believed me.

Gordon of course is the big star this harvest--everyone has been wanting to meet Gordon.

I was feeling antsy after the plumbing problem had been resolved. It'd been 24 hours since we'd last looked at one of our wheat fields, and we hadn't had any rain. I wanted to see how the crop was looking. Off I went with my mother and Gordon to a plot known as the "Kob." Understand--most of the countryside is empty. You can go for quite some time and not see a soul. The roads are not paved. Farmers who pass each other on the road wave to each other. When I came to the Kob, I saw a truck parked with all its hazard lights blinking and I thought: "Oh no. I need to stop and help. And, as usual, I am incapable of helping." As it happened, the truck belonged to Eric, who had also come to see how the wheat was looking. He'd hauled the combine headers--the part responsible for actually cutting the wheat--and was awaiting the rest of his crew. We had a good laugh about running into each other again without any planning, yet again.

I like to think that farming is the closest I will ever get to being in outer space. The equipment is mammoth and exotic. Operating anything requires teamwork and careful and abstract thinking.

You always know when you are going to run into a vehicle in the country because, as I said, the roads are not paved, and every car, truck and tractor kick up dust. I saw this little caravan approaching, and hoped it would be the combines.

It was. By this point, my uncle had arrived too and we all stood around to watch the harvesting crew assemble.

These combines remind me of Transformers. Here, Winston is using hydrolics to lift the header--the teeth--off the back of a trailer to attach to his combine. When the harvesters are all done cutting and ready to move to another part of the country, they will detach these mammoth teeth, load up the combines on trailers, and travel on the Interstate. It's all amazingly efficient.

The assembled combine.

The test cut showed that the wheat was not quite yet ripe. Almost, but not quite. We hope to be able to cut tomorrow, assuming these ugly clouds don't bring too much "weather."

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Kaytie Takes Flight

Congrats to my friend Kaytie, who flew off last night for a new life in London (in Business Class, no less!) with her husband. Because it is so easy for me to take the subway to the airport, and because she had about a 5 hour layover, I was able to hop over to see her off. It was quite emotional and exciting-changing countries isn't for the faint of heart! We had some food and a last farewell-to-New York cheesecake to mark the event. I'm now plotting ways to go and see her.

There are some changes afoot here in my little apartment as well. We learned this week that the pregnancy I haven't been talking about publicly, but which has kept me in bed, and in a kind of dreamlike state for the past few months, is looking healthy. So, I feel comfortable putting the news out there on my blog. I dream a lot these days about water. I wonder sometimes if this means I am making contact. Needless to say, we are excited about our own adventures at home. Change can be wonderful.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Seo and Stearns

Last night, I saw something truly special. The South Korean born ballerina Hee Seo and her partner, American born Cory Stearns, debuted at the Met in Romeo and Juliet. It's my last ballet this season, and I'm so pleased it ended on a high note. As you can see (photos taken from ABT's website), Stearns and Seo are beautiful people.

I have to be honest. I bought a subscription series to try to ensure decent seats this year, and was expecting to see Irina Dvorenko, who was originally slated for this evening. I've never seen her dance, and was very curious. And I was irritated when she and her partner were replaced by people I'd never heard of. I'd already decided not to get a subscription again, but to buy single tickets in the future. But this sort of clinched it for me.

And then I saw Seo dance in Desir, partnered by Marcelo Gomes, and I was floored. She and Gillian Murphy both had large parts in Desir, but it was Seo who absolutely radiated that evening. She has a smile that projects all the way up into the Family Circle. She is gorgeous--the lines and the feet and the extension are all there. But she is so alive as a dancer, that I find it impossible to stop to watch just for technique, or just for some pose. With Seo, everything just comes together. She dances with incredible warmth-there is no technical coldness to her. Also, I get the feeling that her style is her own--she hasn't been overly schooled in one kind of technique over another, so she doesn't default to some kind of clinical behavior she was taught to adopt in class. Whatever she does, she is always dancing. And as an audience member, that is what I want to see.

Time and again this season, my eye was drawn to Seo whenever she was on stage (and no, it's not because she's Asian). Some people just have a unique quality that sings out to you--and she has it. Once I realized how special she is, and that she is at this point just in the corps (Kevin, promote her, please!), I couldn't wait to see what she would do with Juliet.

Seo began dancing at 12, a relatively "old" age for a dancer to start. To hear her tell it, she blithely auditioned for the Sun-hwa Arts school in South Korea, after only dancing for 6 months, then went on to win a scholarship, bypassing the other girls at her audition who had been dancing for years. This story of course made me think of 1: my novel (for anyone who has read it) and 2: the Korean soap opera Boys Over Flowers where Jan Di is accepted to prestigious Shin-hwa school on scholarship. But that's just me and my dorky free-association brain going to town.

I still remember the cast for my first Romeo and Juliet, even though it's been over twenty years. I saw Marianna Tcherkassky as Juliet, Johan Renvall as Mercutio (and became fans of theirs for life) and Robert Hill as Romeo. I've seen a lot of pairs since then, but Tcherkassky was still my gold standard until I saw Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca, who were magical together, as everyone will say.

I've been bored by a lot of Juliets and bored by even more Romeos. But now I have to agree with Tonya that Seo is the best Juliet I've seen since Ferri. And while I also agree that I want to see her dance with Bolle, I do love the Stearns/Seo chemistry. Also, if you read Seo's interview, she's fiercely protective of her partnership with Stearns. And I rather like that. It's very Juliet-like.

Everything about Seo's dancing last night was just wonderful. I've never seen such girlishly expressive bourees--I now understand why MacMillan used them at that point in his choreography. The moment in the ball scene where Romeo first lifts up Juliet, and she's clearly delighted and surprised by this new sensation, seemed just right for the character at that point in the plot, and for the music. This complex-but-still-girlish set of emotions absolutely radiated out of Seo's body. Her desperation when Romeo leaves the morning after having killed Tybalt, relayed a real growth in character, from young girl boureeing about, to a woman about to take control her life via a somewhat drastic decision. Juliet's a fabulous character for an intelligent performer after all--both in the play and in the ballet. You can tell that Seo has thought about Juliet's arc, and yet there is nothing calculated in her performance. It was a joy to watch her.

Stearns, as I said, is also gorgeous and has the makings of a wonderful lead. I now realize I've seen and enjoyed him dance in a piece by Millepied at the Joyce last season. But I felt as though he were nervous at the start of the ballet last night--I wanted him to enter the stage and take command and not hold back, which I felt him doing. Romeo's kind of a laddish guy at the start of the play, but leads are leads, and it's still important to make an entrance.

Reading this interview between Stearns and Kourlas (grr), I wonder if people have told him he's arrogant so many times that he hasn't figured out how to channel his naturally playful energy on stage and make what some have criticized as "arrogance" (and which probably isn't) work to his advantage--ie, he just has to be himself. Really, it's terribly romantic for an audience to think that a slightly cocky guy loses his edginess because he's fallen in love with a girl. Stearns can absolutely capture that transformation, and I'm sure he will in time. And his chemistry with Seo was just superb. I actually got chills watching the two of them come together in the ballroom scene. And you felt his anger when Mercutio was killed, and his despair when he found his beloved Juliet "dead" in the tomb.

Other highlights: I was so pleased to see Danil Simkin, a late minute replacement for Benvolio. Gorgeous dancer. I've never noticed the part of Benvolio much before, but because of Simkin's performance, I did. There was a moment, for example, where both Benvolio and Mercutio make fun of the feuding Capulets and Montagues, by playfully miming swordfighting and stabbing, while in arabesque. Simkin gave his mimed stabbing an extra thrust that echoed in his torso--just a tiny detail that made the moment and the character seem more and alive, engaged and real. He used his turns and jumps to really show off his character--Benvolio, the peacemaker. I hope to see more of Simkin next year, and in larger roles. I wonder, for example, what he would have done with Mercutio, where there is just so much musical material and choreography to mine. Simkin, like Seo, is not just a good dancer, but an intelligent one.

Kristi Boone is fierce. I saw her as the Siren earlier in the season and she was wonderful again tonight as Lady Capulet writhing in agony on the floor after her beloved Tybalt was killed.

Finally, the legendary dancer Frederic Franklin celebrated his 95th year by playing the role of Friar Laurence. There are no people like show people. ABT marked the performance with balloons and extra flowers.

I just wish that since Seo really triumphed last night, she and her partner had had more of a chance to enjoy their own curtain calls. It was their night too. But, I suppose, she'll be back, for many, many more curtain calls in the future. I'm pleased that so many balletomanes agree. And in the pathetic way of a fan who wants to pretend that someone else's success is part of my own--I can say that I was there at the start!

(One final note to the ABT orchestra: please get some new trumpets. I understand when horns have a bad night. But trumpets? And repeatedly?)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009



I had a conversation the other day with a friend about perfection and how many of the classic high arts--jazz, classical music, ballet--face the criticism that perfection has replaced expression. Pianists beautifully hit notes, but don't dig into the music to relay complex emotions. Jazz musicians are technical fiends, but aren't displaying the artistry of the 50s and 60s and so on. As a result, purists complain, nothing new is being said.

I was musing over this in relation to writing and novels and wondering if I could think of books that are technically showy, but which don't really have much to say. And, yes, I could think of a few and of a few trends--though I don't tend to finish reading books like this anymore, and try to focus instead on writing that is challenging and thrilling. (And, no, I'm not ready to name names. Not yet).

But I guess the easiest way for me to talk about something like the above concept on my blog, is through ballet, which you know I've had fun exploring lately.

Here's the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, dancing in her signature piece, "The Dying Swan." She revolutionized the use of pointe (toe shoes), which you see her use to great effect here, so she seems almost to be hovering over the floor, defying gravity. It's an old film, possibly taken around the turn of the century when the art form was still quite young.

This is the Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in the ballet Swan Lake. She is about 50 years old in this video--and still dancing. It's often said that Maya revolutionized ballet because she extended what was technically possibly, while finding even more deeply passionate ways to express emotion through music and movement. Ballet fans know of the back-arch in Kitri's great leap in Don Quixote; it is Plisetskaya who first threw that into the choreography. Now everyone follows her. Plistetskaya found ways to hurl herself into dance, thus changing and furthering what the body could do.

In this scene, Plisetskaya is dancing the role of Odette, a princess who was turned into a swan by an evil magician. At night, she takes corporeal form, and you see her here, just after her transformation. She runs into a prince, who promises he will break the spell that has been placed over her, so she may be free (things don't end too well--the prince gets distracted by another woman and even though he's really, really sorry, everyone dies).

Just comparing the two tapes, you can see how much more complex dance vocabulary has become (though this is also because the pieces are completely different) and how the placement of the body has changed. A modern dance person might look at Anna's shoulders and say they are too stiff, and that her arms flap wildly. Also, both women's bodies don't really match the high standards we have today for ballerinas. And yet, for me, there is something wonderfully wild and dramatic about Plisetskaya in her characterization of the swan.

The other great ballerina of Plisetskaya's era (translation: during the Cold War) would be Galina Ulanova. I can't embed a clip of the same section of Swan Lake on my blog, but you can watch it here. It's unclear how old Ulanova is here, but certainly she is not that young--she began her career in the twenties, and this video must be from the fifties, at least.

It's worth noting that Ulanova danced with the Kirov, and Plisetskaya with the Bolshoi. These are two different companies, with different styles, histories and emphases. The Kirov was greatly influenced by the great ballet teacher Agripinna Vaganova, who "emphasized clarity and strength." Further:

Most importantly, she (Vaganova) insisted that each movement be infused with "meaning." Natalia Makarova, one of Vaganova's most articulate admirers, tells of being taught to "eat up" a movement--internalize it, give it a physical soul and substance.

Makarova, who was trained at the Kirov and defected in 1970, was surprised to find that Western dancers took a "purely rational approach" to steps (skill and lots of it) and then tried to graft "meaning" on top. For those trained in the Vaganova method, by contrast, movements do not exist without a psychological or emotional impulse.

Take a look at Makarova here. Now you see the "body type" that you expect with ballerinas, along with no small amount of acting. She's precise and delicate, but still musical and expressive. The video is from the 1980s.

And here we are with Gillian Murphy, of ABT, who is still dancing today (she enters at 1:40). Murphy is gorgeous. Look at those long slim legs, the slim arms and the arched feet! Her balance is extraordinary. Her articulation of the steps very, very clear. She's musical, and floats on the score. She has incredible control.

But are you moved? Is the characterization grafted on top of the technique? Or is the technique an afterthought to the acting?

And here is another contemporary swan, Svetlana Zakharova, who has truly ethereal arms and wonderful feet. And as far as I can tell, about one facial expression. She's wonderful to watch, but there is just so little urgency in her dancing. For me, we've now come a long way from Plisetskaya to Zakharova, and while something in the art form has been gained, something important has been lost.

Watching all these videos, I've been thinking a great deal about how an art form develops, how tastes change, and how audiences also change what they want. There are no ballet superstars today, the way that there were in Nureyev or Fonteyn's time. Ballet stars don't make the headlines. You could argue that dancers have never been technically better. But are they thrilling us? Are they feeding popular culture, and the popular imagination? Is it better when art is for a small elite, or better when it appeals to more people? What would it have been like to be alive at the time of Plisetskaya, or--expanding the categories of classical arts--Bernstein, Balanchine and Mailer?

I think about these things as they apply to writing and to books, and wonder.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


At the Ballet

So, here's a confession. I have been indulging myself lately. A lot.

One of the reasons I wanted to live in New York, and always claim to love living here, is because of the incredible cultural opportunities going on every evening. When I was a student in college, I always got discounted theater tickets, and went to standing room at the opera--often by myself. As an adult, though, I found that I developed a slightly different relationship with "high culture" for reasons that are still difficult to explain. For a long time, before I sold my novel, I found myself balking at going to anything other than jazz gigs. I went to the occasional opera or show, but didn't go often.

Part of that probably had to do with being chronically broke, and if you are a writer, you know what I mean. I found it hard to justify spending too much money on expensive tickets. And in a strange way, I found it difficult to completely enjoy too much high art, when I felt I wasn't making much progress with my own attempts. Along the way, something changed, though and in the past six months I've been going to as much stuff as I can. I suppose losing my father affected me too--if he lived here--if he were alive at all--I thought, he'd be going to the opera all the time. And so I decided I had better take advantage of the opportunity I'd given myself while I could.

Lyrical, radiant, effortlessly buoyant and musical Marianna Tcherkassky

Once upon a time, I was an enormous ballet fan. My parents kindly took me up to San Francisco whenever American Ballet Theater came to town, and I fell in love with its dancers. My favorites were Marianna Tcherkassky (who is half-Japanese), Johan Renvall, Martine van Hamel and later, Susan Jaffe. I was at Tcherkassky's 40th anniversary (or maybe it was her birthday) and remember when all her male partners lined up to give her flowers. Renvall did a fancy and dramatic bow and I was pleased to see that they were friends since I loved them both so much-I think they used to dance the Bluebird pas de deux together.

Powerful, sexy and sublime Martine van Hamel

I continued to see them in college. My big splurge at the end of my Freshman year was a ticket in the Orchestra section to watch Renvall dance the Rite of Spring. Agnes de Mille was still alive, and premiering what we did not know would be her last piece--she died not long after. I remember being apalled that the theater was not full. How could anyone miss Renvall and the Rite of Spring? I realize now it was a dancer's program--not something geared to the masses. And yet, what an amazing experience. There was crotchety Jerome Robbins sitting a few rows ahead of me. Agnes De Mille was in her wheelchair, then was whisked away for a curtain call. I passed Marianna Tcherkassy on my way to the bathroom. New York had never felt so glamorous.

I'll never understand why Renvall wasn't more famous. He was better than Baryishnykov. I have yet to see anyone who can jump and turn like this man. I first saw him as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and thought (as I do when I read the play): "Juliet! Choose the short, exciting guy!"

Around 1986, the Bolshoi announced that it would tour Los Angeles. LA is a good 7 hours away from little Carmel, but my parents, always eager to indulge my cultural cravings, agreed to make the road trip just so I could see the Russian stars. We'd a friend when I was growing up--the famous musician's musican Jascha Veissi who had run away from Russia to New York where he'd known Bernstein--and who knew of my love of ballet, and who had always insisted that if I loved dance so much, I had to see the Russians one day. You never know what children will remember. Jascha probably died when I was around 12 years old, but I heard his voice in my head, and asked my parents to take me to LA.

Our friend Michael had convinced my father that we should buy the cheapest seats in the house. He always did this for the opera, and then snuck into the Orchestra section. I wasn't so sure. But my father could sometimes be easily persuaded, and he never met a good deal he didn't like. I had nightmares that our seats would be terrible. They were. That's the thing about dance. I don't mind sitting up high and far away for orchestral music and the opera. But with dance, you must be able to see.

Michael felt terrible. He took me down to the Orchestra section after the first intermission, and we sat in an empty seat. Ann Miller sat in front of us. So did Betsy Bloomingdale. Michael knew who all of them were. It was a complete old Hollywood fantasy land down there. But of course, I thought. The "society" people had come out to see the ballet. Eventually it became clear that we were not sitting in empty seats--this was made all the more clear when Carol Channing kicked Michael as he exited the row. I was mortified. Why, I wondered, could I not know people who did things the "normal" way? Why must everyone around me always be working an angle.

Photo of Mukhamedov and Bessmertnova taken from here.

The lights dimmed. We snuck into a doorway, still at the front of the orchestra section. KGB agents were everywhere, but no one stopped us, and I watched Ludmilla Semenyaka and Irek Mukhamedov up close, which was a treat. I was also--being the kind of person that I am--stressed the entire time. One day I thought it would be nice to pay for a seat, and avoid this kind of high stress situation. Other highlights from that weekend included seeing a young Nina Ananiashvilli, (who just retired from ABT last weekend), and Natalya Besmertnova. But it was Semenyaka and Mukhamedov who blew me away with Spartacus. I'd just never seen this kind of confident, unabashedly dramatic and bold dancing. If I remember, the press made a big deal about how "Bolshoi" means big and indeed, every movement was just so large. Mukhamedov was so fiercely male in a way I hadn't seen since watching Nureyev on television. I was floored. Jascha was correct.

A few years later, the Kirov came to San Francisco and we went to see them perform Giselle, and I learned that dance companies do have different styles. It was hard to explain exactly how ABT, the Kirov and the Bolshoi were different. I loved the dramatic and lyrical quality of the Kirov dancers, and I wish they would return to NYC soon. The sensitivity of their dancers was a gorgeous contrast to the Bolshoi, and yet I would not pick which company I liked more (though my parents liked the Kirov sets).

And this brings me to the present, and my recent ballet obsession. I've been going every week. I bought a subscription thinking that friends would like to go with me, but it turns out that most people aren't really interested. I'm cool with this. I scalped one ticket at the urging of a security guard, and dragged my husband to another performance. I'll figure out to do with the other extras. I've also managed to buy some singles and sit all over the Met opera house looking for my favorite spot (still searching). I'm learning who the new dancers are. I'm making friends through the internet who also love dance--and if you do like the ballet, you must hop over to visit my friend Tonya's wonderful blog. She's a great love for dance, but also a critical appreciation for it.

Some of my favorite dancers are long gone--Alessandra Ferri and Julio Bocca. But I've found some new dancers to admire. My highlights so far: Diana Vishneva in Giselle (not so much in Sylvia). David Hallberg in everything (and he's from South Dakota!) Angel Corella in everything. Michele Wiles in Swan Lake--what power and what wonderful acting. There was also a collective gasp when she exited the stage, transformed into a swan. Also, young Hee Seo in small parts--I'll see her Juliet next week. As for who I am sorry to have missed: Robert Bolle and Veronica Part, who has been the talk of the Steps Dance Studio women's changing room. I'll have to hold out for an off-season appearance or next summer.

Since I've rambled on and on so much, I'll just leave you with one more small clip to watch. I love what Ferri says about Bocca as her ideal partner--an artistic partner is really a special kind of relationship. It's a kind of love, but it expresses itself through a piece of art. I also love what she says about dance being the only way to "become" a piece of music, which is pretty much how I've always felt, and why even at this point in my life, I can't take a yoga or pilates class for "exercise." There is nothing, nothing, nothing to me like the feeling of dance. And for for me, the very best writing registers as a kind of music too (take your pick what kind of music you want it to be).

(Edited to add--been going to the Joyce as well, where I saw my beloved Philadanco. But I'll save that for another post).

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