At the moment I’m busy working on The Green Table, a story I wrote some years ago for older children. I’m re-writing it as an adult novel and this has already proved to me a more involving and engrossing task than I anticipated, requiring me to go deeper as I veer away from the initial dance story into exploring love – what we love, how we love, the perils of mis-placed love. Taking its working title from Kurt Jooss’ famous ballet created in 1932, The GreenTable is set during the Nazi Occupation of The Netherlands, with particular
emphasis on the Nazis’ oppression of the arts. I need to write about dance and the experience of dancing in a way that serves the narrative but also brings to life dance theatre at the time, as well as the emotional and physical experience of dancing. How to do this for a reader who may have no knowledge of the language of dance is something I’m working with. The chapter I’m now immersed in requires me to imagine and describe a ballet of the period, the experience of dancing a part in it, as well as very damning newspaper review
written through the eyes of a Nazi sympathiser. It’s good to return to my dance history books as I research and write.
At the same time I’m reading Carson McCullers’ marvellous book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and last night came across the most wonderful passage describing a young girl’s experience of listening to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Mick Kelly has no knowledge of music – her response is raw and overwhelming. This is only a paragraph from a whole page describing her feelings. Wonderful writing...awesome in the best sense of the word.
This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her...This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen... Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.
I watched the daft and cheery Russell Howard Show last night. It was very good news to see the young American dancer, Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who’s determined not to be defeated since losing her lower leg in the recent Boston bombing. She will – she says – dance again. Of course she will –
she radiated positive attitude and a love for dance.
The dancer who rises above adversity is something of an archetype, and one we ballet girls of the sixties and seventies are familiar with. Remember Princess Tina comic – Bella at the Barre, and the marvellous novels of Noel Streatfield – Ballet Shoes, and Gemma and Sisters, and Lorna Hill’s Veronica at
the Wells. Good old Veronica was resourceful enough to use the bathroom towel rail as a barre. The message in these tales was always positive, and the writing vivid – I remember the wonderful description of Northumberland as Veronica canters over the moors in the nick of time to get the train to London for a
vital audition. Gripping stuff!
Of course these heroines were always going to make it big on stage, and probably live happily ever after - there was nothing unpredictable there. Not like real life where failure to succeed in a stage career can cause such misery. It’s important not to idealise the competitive world of theatre that has its own cruelties. No I think it was the human spirit that these books celebrated - the world of ballet was just a romantic and
compelling vehicle for the perennial tale of survival against the odds.
I have never forgotten the haunting account of a young gypsy girl imprisoned in one of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. I can’t remember the details or where I read this story – possibly one of the essays of Bruno Bettelheim. It was a long time ago. I’m left with the memory of a girl in extreme circumstances, knowing she’s about to die, facing the brutal Nazis Officers with their chained dogs. The dogs will be turned on her. She starts to dance. She dances in defiance of all their abasement of human life, in defiance
of terror. She dances wildly, for her life, with the only power she has.
I try to imagine that dance.
For at least the last four years I’ve had a newspaper cutting pinned to my wall with the headline ‘Grandpa-de-deux makes his ballet debut aged 88!’ There’s a picture of a very lithe and cheerful man in full plie, and another in attitude at the barre, see above – graceful, and looking as if he’s danced all his life. To the contrary, John Lowe started ballet classes aged seventy nine and truly delighted in the whole adventure.
I’ve just started ballet class again after at least twenty years. I’m nowhere near John’s age, but I’m still older than everyone in my class. Difficult though it is, I love the rigour of the exercises, and I feel stronger
and more balanced for this weekly struggle. Some weeks I feel like giving up. Other weeks everything comes together and I feel as if I’m really dancing again – a great feeling.
I was recently thinking about the difference between class when I was young, and class now. As a Pilates teacher I’m stronger in some ways than I was before, and I have the advantage of years of teaching movement. All this helps even though it’s not nearly so easy to jump, leap and turn as it was then. For
the first few weeks I’d completely forgotten the names of the steps, so once we’d left the barre I was all at sea. Determined not to give up I kept some semblance of a dance going, and somehow fluffed my way through the enchainments. I used to be very quick at picking up sequences. Now I’m slow and rely on my
sense of movement to get me through. Do what you think it is and you might hit the right note! I found that if I thought about the exercises between classes, even without practising them, it was easier the next week. The movements are there in my muscle memory. The main problem, apart from stiffer joints, is the
speed and the shifts of weight. Now why is that so much harder these days? Will that too become easier?
Despite all this the liberating thing is that nothing is expected of me – I don’t need to be bone-thin and beautiful, or to impress anyone. I can dance for the sake of it, muddle through and still find a sense of flow. And there’s no age restriction on learning more about the mechanics of movement, physiology
and kinaesthetics. There’s always something I can apply to my own teaching.
John Lowe, smiling down at me from my wall is a bit of an icon for me. I hope wherever he is that he’s still dancing. And I hope I too will dance into my old age.
I was thinking about the legend of Salome the other day –this following our regular Coffee after Class on Monday morning. One of my students was talking about her weekend – despite a number of physical difficulties with the onset of osteoporosis, she was thrilled to have danced the night away to no ill effect.
One of her friends, watching her on the dance floor, commented. ‘Bloody hell, I didn’t know you could dance like that!’ To which my student replied ‘Oh yes – I’ve made many a seduction on the dance floor in my time.’
I loved her response - a celebration of dance, of life, and I like to think, of the wonders of Pilates!
It reminded me too of a rather odd incident a long time when I attended a theatre workshop in Nottingham as part of the International Workshop series. After a couple of days working we all had to present a short solo. There was a young woman who opted to perform first as she had to catch a train. We all sat in a circle and she danced. As she danced she took off her clothes. Her body was very beautiful and her dancing light and unbound – she whirled round the space stopping in front of some of the group to dance as if for them alone. I observed a mixture of admiration, irritation, embarrassment on the smiling faces around me. She finished the dance, dressed, and ran off for her train, not stopping long enough to receive either praise or criticism. More self-conscious child than seductress or Goddess, what did she intend us all to feel and think? Was
she showing off? Was this dance a kind of gift?
I wonder about Salome, who danced for Herod her step-father, and whose dance was apparently so powerful that he offered her anything she wished for – even his kingdom. How much was he flaunting his own power – how much was he beguiled by her? What was really going on and how could a girl dancing end in the horror and pity of John the Baptist’s head on a plate? This has fascinated painters, poets, playwrights over centuries. Salome - the innocent or the seductress? The power of sex, and femininity - or the power of dance?
I have many conversations with my cousin about the misguided nature of
science, or of many scientists, who regard the materialist world –that is the
measurable physical world - as the only reality.
We were chatting about it this morning after I’d read his blog post – see Nigeness – De La Mere, Gray, Sheldrake - about the philosopher scientist John Grey who spoke on Radio 4 yesterday morning. We talked about how often the imagination is altogether forgotten in materialist science, and yet it is the imagination of the writer that dreamed realities beyond this material world before quantum physics even emerged. The imagination that can create a world and then shift to perceive it from an entirely new angle – imagination that is ever fluid and flexible and far-reaching.
I watch my cat moving around the garden in her cat world that I can only guess at. Often there’s an interface between our worlds – she likes to follow me around, I love to watch her, but as far as I know I must be as much a mystery to her as she is to me. She is stuck with cat-ness and me with human-ness. Here I am defined and limited within a human body mostly to what I can perceive with five senses – but with the gift of the imagination.
Somehow dance for me enables a kind of humility, a sense of both the wonder and the limitation of living in a human body. There is enough to experience and explore in human existence, in movement itself, whilst ever aware there are worlds and universes beyond. A distant, half heard music.
Last week one of my Pilates students came to my ballet barre class for the first time. She hadn’t done any ballet since being a small child and then only for a short time, but as soon as she stood at the barre for the first exercise she remembered precisely how to stand, and the arm gesture of
preparation to second position.
I’m fascinated by the way memory is retrieved through movement - a kind of Muscle Memory that seems to be stored in the body and only recalled through particular gestures that relate to the original - apparently forgotten - sequence. Sitting at my desk and thinking, I can’t remember the sequences from Martha Graham’s ballets that I learnt in class as a teenager, but as soon as I start to move my body seems to flow through movement after movement. I know when I’ve recalled it as it was originally set because it just feels right, and anything not true to the original just feels awkward and out of place. The movements are somehow engraved in the nervous system. I’m sure a scientist would give a neat explanation for this, but for me it’s one of the wonderful things about movement. I call it the archaeology of the body.
I believe it’s partly this movement memory that comes into play in a dance improvisation - then in fragments, informed not only by dance gestures recalled, but also vernacular movement and the memory of touch going right back to babyhood. It all comes back in a dream-like flow informing our movement script, similar to the flow writing, or free-writing, I’ve done in many writing classes. Out of the flow emerges something that has potential –something I can work with and develop something that may become a fragment of dance.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.