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Fantastic Interview with Sylvie Guillem

I remember how astonishingly brilliant she was at her height as a dancer. She just blew us away (I was a student still when I first saw her).

Also, She’s right: if you don’t *need* do to it, if it’s not you everything, then don’t do it.

More Musings on Lineage: Emma Livry (1842-1863)

Lineage is a fragile thing. I think about that every time I think about ballet, and I probably learned more about what it takes to maintain and nourish a lineage through having been a dancer than in all the studies and religious work I’ve done since. Lineage is connection, power, tradition, rootedness, identity, culture, and that culture is directed at maintaining and expressing something precious (be it devotion in our case as polytheists, or beauty and art, a different type of devotion, in the case of the dancers I’m discussing here). It is passed through bodies, through the stories, material culture, and lived experience of one generation to the next.  One generation takes the next in hand, carefully forming them, teaching them, helping them, and entrusting to them whatever lineage and tradition it is that one carries. That is a sacred trust, something to be cherished, reverenced, protected. 

In ballet, it’s not just greatness that is shaped this way, but the endurance of specific choreographies, pedagogies, and ballets themselves. One learns directly from those who danced before one. One dancer teaches a particular role to another, or a dancer begins to teach and passes on all he or she has learned to those students seeking to step into the art, and that is how the lineage and tradition survives. It is terrifyingly ephemeral. Break that chain and you can shatter the lineage. 

It is the same with religious traditions, which is why intergenerational passage of knowledge i.e. polytheists raising children as polytheists, cultivating devotion from the womb is so terribly important. We don’t have the societal structure (yet) to support any type of devotion let alone ours, but we can make our households, our homes, our minds, and our hearts living temples to the Gods one by one. We can restore. There’s a line in the Talmud that says that to save a single soul is to save the entire world. I’d like to think that raising up one good polytheist or being one oneself, or leaving behind a body of work to help the next generation, is similarly restorative to our traditions in the world. Anyway, I’m digressing when instead I specifically want to talk about a break in ballet lineage. 

In the mid 19th century, there were two main centers of ballet: France and Italy. Denmark also had a significant school. The Imperial Russian school existed but hadn’t yet come into the fullness of its tradition. That would take thirty plus years of Italian and French dancers and ballet masters working in St. Petersburg and sharing their knowledge, establishing clear lines of pedagogy, and training up several generations of dancers, each better than the last. After 1863 the locus of ballet moved to Italy and then Russia and French ballet fell into … not oblivion but let us say disregard. I’ll explain in a moment. It wasn’t until the Ballet Russe – shaped by French and Italian pedagogy – returned to Paris in the early 20thcentury that French ballet experienced a renaissance. I believe strongly that part of the reason for French ballet losing its place for close to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Emma Livry (and I will caution you before you read further, I’m going to talk about her death, and it was horrific). 

Emma Livry, my collection

In each generation there are dancers who stand out from the rest, the truly great artists and/or pedagogues. The heaviest weight of a tradition rests on their shoulders and they pass it on to their apprentices and students. They infuse the ballet tradition of a particular place with power, life, and vitality and make it shine like the sun in its glory. In the generation before Livry, the key dancers were Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Essler (1810-1884 – Essler actually visited the east coast of the US on one of her many tours! She performed in Baltimore).  There was also Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899), Lucille Grahn (1819-1907), and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909). It’s important to note that many of these women were also noted choreographers, a fact that until recently received very little attention (1). The same can be said for their predecessor Marie Salle (1709-1756). While all of these dancers at some point danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was Taglioni who truly reigned in Paris (and I think can probably be counted the greatest of the dancers mentioned here, though she and Essler were rivals on pretty equal terms technique-wise. Their artistic styles were almost diametrically opposed).

Emma Livry was Taglioni’s student and protegee. Before she met Taglioni, she debuted at age sixteen at the Paris Opera ballet in Taglioni’s signature role La Sylphide. When Taglioni saw her dance, she took Livry as a student and eventually choregraphed a ballet named Le Papillon (the butterfly) for the girl. Livry was incredibly talented and a noted sculptor at the time, Jean-Auguste Barre created sculptures of her. She was praised by ballet critics and it was clear, even in her own day, that she was the one destined to inherit the mantle of the French ballet tradition, and in doing so, carry it into the next generation. Sadly, tragically – and I don’t use that word often—that did not happen. 

On November 15, 1862, during a ballet rehearsal, her skirts caught fire. At that time, stages were lit by gaslights, not electricity. There had been fire related deaths before due to this, so dancers had the option of fire-proofing their skirts. Livry, as many dancers, declined because the substance used in fireproofing made the skirts stiff, unpleasant, and more importantly heavy. When she went up in flames, two male dancers rushed to help her, but by the time they were able to put the fire out, she was so burned that the stays of her corset (dancers wore corsets when they danced in the 19th century) had burned/fused into her ribs. Her face and breasts were unburned. Taglioni was present and tried to help her as the girl as well, and it is recorded Livry prayed fervently immediately after the ordeal. She didn’t die immediately but lingered bed-bound for months in an agony it is recorded she bore with piety and stoicism, dying on July 26, 1863. She died of septicemia when her wounds reopened (they never really healed) at the age of twenty. She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery. I knew most of this from my own time in ballet, but here’s the wiki article on her. 

Livry in “La Sylphide,” image from wiki (her arch in that standing foot is stunning)

As a dancer, Livry was particularly noted for her extraordinary ballon: the quality of her jumps, the ability to jump lightly and to seemingly hover in the air. Le Papillon was the only ballet Marie Taglioni ever choreographed.

Here’s the thing: the power of French ballet died with her for decades. It’s a noticeably glaring gap in the history of ballet. Many of the leading pedagogues had moved to St. Petersburg (which led to the glory days of the Imperial ballet there, and the Ballet Russe, which returned and repaid the debt to France generations later). Livry’s death, however, left a lacuna in the mid 19th century that no other French dancer could fill. I’m not the only historian to note this. I can’t recall where I read it, possibly here, but other historians have also pointed out that with Livry’s death, ballet in France went into a serious decline (2). 

I will close by pointing out that the work you do matters. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. It matters even if all you’re doing is choosing to pray or make an offering. In the eyes of our Gods, I do not believe this is insignificant. It is restoration, the whisper of lineage, devotion and in a tiny way, the restoration of our world. Never ever doubt that your lives matter, that the choices you make matter. You may not realize how much at the time.  You don’t have to be a spiritual specialist like a spirit worker or priest for that to be true.  It matters and what you create matters. So, find your devotional voice. Find the medium by which you will bring beauty into the world and throw yourself into it without hesitation. It doesn’t matter if others think it ‘good.’ Pray. Do your devotions. Bring beauty into the world and know that in doing so you are reweaving delicate threads of traditions through which the Gods, I think, are aching to express Themselves. You’re restoring windows to the world through which They can act. May be so always and may you be blessed in the striving.

γινέσθω

Notes: 

  1. Until the past two, maybe three years, there was in ballet circles the mistaken idea that until the 20th century choreographers were male. Even now, it’s still seen as men choreograph, women dance. This is not the case at all though historically. Women, from the earliest significant periods of ballet, like Marie Salle in the 18th century, were choreographers, and noted as such in their heyday. 
  2. The prestige of French ballet began to rise again in the 1920s (after the Ballet Russe re-infused ballet there with vitality). Several noted Imperial ballerinas, most especially Matilda Kchessinska , Olga Preobrajenska, and I believe, Lyubov Egorova began teaching in Paris. Then there was ballerina Yvette Chauvire and Claude Bessy, the latter the youngest child to ever be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and who later became director of the school. Both of whom helped train the incomparable Sylvie Guillem, and thus the tradition in France was revived, restored, and holds its place today as one of the great schools of modern ballet. 

Thinking About My Ballet Lineage -Giuseppina Bozzachi

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting several posts about lineage, particularly my artistic lineage. Part of this is simply due to the fact that these spirits have been strong and very present in my devotions of late, and partly to something one of my friends told me. 

Apparently, (this is what my friend told me – she watches Ukrainian, Russian, and English news about the war) pro-Russian propagandists are using the reputation of the imperial ballet and the ballet russe as justification for Russia invading and torturing Ukrainians (and anyone else – give it time). The argument is something like, look at the glory that only Russia has produced. Let me just say that the modern Russian ballet is a caricature of its glory days. Even Soviet era ballet was better formed, with better technique and far, far more artistry (though not choreography) than what we see now (1). Imperial Russian ballet had phenomenal dancers from all over what was then the Russian empire (not all of whom were ethnically Russian), and its core came from a French pedagogue and choreographer Marius Petipa (March 11, 1818- July 14, 1010) and an Italian dancer and pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 -November 13, 1928–he was the first to dance the bluebird in Sleeping Beauty). The latter’s skill and style were essential parts of the artistic formation of every iteration of both the Imperial Ballet AND the Ballet Russe pretty much through Alicia Markova – who was actually English (2). It continues to form the core of British ballet training. Ballet is and always has been an international conversation. Without the Italian and French influence, there wouldn’t be modern Russian ballet. The artistic torch inevitably makes the rounds from generation to generation, prima to prima, pedagogue to pedagogue, country to country and no one country can lay claim to that artistic prize without bowing its head to the weight of the multi-national lineage that comes with it. 

Now, yesterday a piece of ephemera arrived for my ancestor shrine. This is meant for the section of my ancestor shrine given to my artistic lineage (and lately I sort of just roll castrati, ballet dancers, artists, and writers all into the mix – gaudeamus igitur and all that – but this particular person is part of my ballet lineage). 

G. Bozzacchi, photo portrait, my collection

This is an image of Giuseppina Bozzacchi (November 23, 1853-November 23, 1870 – yes, she died on her 17th birthday). Bozzacchi was an Italian ballerina who created one of the most beloved comedic roles in classical ballet: Swanhilda in the ballet Coppelia (3). Bozzacchi actually has the shortest ballet career on record. She lived during the Franco-Prussian war and died technically of smallpox or possibly an unspecified “fever” (4) but more likely of war-time starvation.  

At the time she was dancing with the Paris Opera ballet, she was “discovered” by choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (September 17, 1821 – September 2, 1870). Saint-Leon was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg for a decade. He had studied music with Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) and ballet, most likely with his father who had danced with the Paris Opera. Saint-Leon danced with one of the last great romantic ballerinas Fanny Cerrito (May 11, 1817 – May 6, 1909) He even married her, though they later divorced.  While Saint-Leon was a gifted dancer, he has become even better known as a teacher and choreographer. He is responsible, along with Marius Petipa for creating the scaffolding of what became a pedagogical system that turned out some of the greatest dancers in the history of the Russian Imperial Ballet who in turn traveled west with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and helped create English and American ballet. 

Bozzacchi danced Coppelia eighteen times before she died. Here is a lengthier article about her, Saint-Leon, and this ballet. 

A better image of Bozzacchi, which I got off wiki. She has excellent feet and very strong pointes for someone of her generation (the technology and technique of pointe work changed greatly throughout the early 20th c). I find her confidence in this image quite remarkable for someone only seventeen. She’s presented here in Coppelia.

Notes:

  1. The ability to raise one’s legs beyond a split does not artistry make. It’s a grotesque twisting out of true, in classical ballets – the core of the art – at least. There is also a simple fact that having a great artistic history doesn’t give you the right to go into a neighboring country and start killing people there—and I’ll forgive a lot in service to art, but there are limits even for me!
  2. Her birth name was Lillian Alicia Marks but in those days, because of the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and also dancers like Anna Pavlova, it was common for English girls to take Russian names if they were ballet dancers. I’ll be writing about Markova later this month.
  3. I danced this ballet – in the corps. I played one of Swanhilda’s friends who help her break and enter a dollmaker’s shop. It’s a fun ballet to dance. It tells the story of a dollmaker, who makes a doll so lifelike that a stupid young peasant boy, Franz, falls in love with it, thinking it a living girl. The toymaker, you see, would set the doll in the window, with a book in her hands, where she could be seen from the street. His sweetheart, Swanhilda, isn’t having it and after a small act of breaking and entering (lol), hides the doll and takes its place. The toymaker is initially none the wiser, and eventually, of course, it all works out. Her lover Franz gets his come-uppance and realizes he’s been an idiot, the toymaker is amused and forgives all, and Swanhilda and Franz go off into the sunset. It’s quite a charming ballet and the only one I can think of that’s anywhere close to it (though for whatever reason, it’s not performed very often these days) is La fille mal gardee (I believe it was first performed in the mid 18th century). The Royal Ballet has an updated ballet version choreographed by Frederick Ashton. 
  4. The accounts note smallpox and fever. Today we have a vaccine for smallpox but up until the middle of the twentieth century, smallpox was considered one of the “deadliest diseases known to humans.” See here and here for more info. As of today, it has largely been eradicated via vaccination. The vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England in 1796 and there was a vaccination drive in France throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Bozzachi had grown up in Italy however and it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that there was a significant push for vaccination in that country. The methods of vaccine creation were hotly debated as the technology was fairly new.

General Update for August

Since passing my qualifying exams in May, co-organizing/facilitating an academic conference on Syriac studies, and then teaching a whirlwind five-week theology course over the summer term, I’ve been taking some time off. Of course, my idea of taking time off involves… well, work, just different kinds of work from what I normally do. 

Right now, I am participating in an art show in a lovely town in the Hudson Valley. I’ve shown my work both professionally and internationally before, but I took a break when I started my PhD studies, so this is the first serious show I’ve done since 2019. I had invitations but painting is very, very different headspace from academic work and I needed to focus on the latter fully. The curator of the show took a serious injury about two weeks before we were due to open, so I and several other artists are filling in for her for the month of August. This means hanging the show, gallery sitting, managing sales and records, and so forth. It’s not my first time at the rodeo but it is like having an unexpected second job dropped in one’s lap. I am, as they say in German, fix und fertig!

It’s nice to be painting again. Check out my Instagram (heathenliving) to see some of my recent work and a current still life in progress. I like taking progress shots and posted two tonight of a still life I’m working on. It fascinates me even now how a painting comes together.  

 I’ve also started to study classical guitar (I promised if I passed my exams, I’d do something new that I’d been thinking about for the better part of a year). I’m loving it, though my arms and hands hurt in new and amazing ways lol. I expected this though. The good thing about this isn’t just that I love the instrument, but that it allows me to connect with so many of my ancestors: the castrati and also the dancers that I honor (I honor my ballet lineage) – because it’s music and of course that dove tails with the world those spirits and I myself moved in at one time, my adopted mom who was a musician, and my great grandmother (maternal, biological) who was an opera singer and pianist. It’s nourishing part of me as well that greatly missed that world (in my case of ballet). I found a marvelous teacher who is very patient and very focused on proper technique and I’m having a blast. 

Of course, I’m reading German every day (I decided that this summer was going to be given over to studying German – I’ve gotten rusty). I need to add Greek and Latin to it as well (lest I lose them) so I’ve started just recently alternating days: German and Latin one day, German and Greek the next. So, I haven’t been totally ignoring my academic work. The term starts Sept. 1 and I’m teaching a Byzantine Theology class so there’s also syllabus prep and such. No rest for the weary or wicked or…something. Lol. 

On the spirit-work and devotional work side of things, I’ve been focusing extensively on the ephesia grammata. I was originally introduced to this family of spirits through a colleague years ago, but they never really clicked, especially since they were presented almost exclusively as useful for divination. I put the knowledge aside and never really did anything with them. Recently however, I and several members of my House received a cleaner re-introduction to these spirits and they’re fast becoming significant allies. This was unexpected and has been taking up a good deal of my time. It’s humbling to realize how much was taken from us in the period of conversion, how much was lost. The haunting process of bringing it forward once more, of opening doorways long forgotten, of restoring cultus and speaking again the sacred names, of taking up again the sacred contracts is awe-inspiring, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to take part in this process in whatever way that I have and shall continue to do in service and use to my Gods. 

Recently, I’ve also received an email from a reader asking if I was going to finish my Freya devotional. I’ve had this on a serious backburner since I started grad-school. The request was so fervent that I am moving it to the front of my devotional “to-do” pile. This autumn, I will work on and hopefully finish my novena book – part of my pocket-sized devotional series – to Freya. After that, I hope to do one for Sigyn. So, I ask patience. 

Finally, I’d like to recommend a TV series that my husband just introduced me to: “Reservation Dogs.” It’s a fascinating series set on a reservation in Oklahoma and focusing on a group of young people who are trying to find their way through the challenges of their lives. It’s so good!!! Best of all, it incorporates elements of spirituality and treats the indigenous spirits and customs with utmost respect. It’s refreshing and I highly recommend it. 

Musically, my teacher has me listening to the guitar work of H. Villa-Lobos, so I’ve been focusing mostly on that. I go between that and vengeance country LOL. I love this particular genre of country music. 

Lest I neglect books, I recently finished a fantastic history of ballet in Australia called Dancing Under the Southern Skies by Valerie Lawson. It was one of the best books on ballet that I’ve read in years. It has extensive chapters both on Anna Pavlova and Olga Spessivtseva – both of whom I honor as part of my professional lineage and it’s remarkably well researched. The book is a bit tough to find – it’s not available on amazon—but I got an inexpensive copy on abebooks just by chance. 

That’s it for me for the night. What books, music, movies, or tv do y’all recommend? I’m always looking for good recommendations and love learning what folks are enjoying (just please, no marvel movies. They’re banned in our home by common consensus both for misusing and misrepresenting our Gods and for the anti-theistic attitude at their core). 

Treading the Path of Memory

Ballerina Gavin Larsen

This Yule, one of my best friends gave me a book about ballet: Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” by Gavin Larsen. The author had been a principle dancer for close to 18 years with various companies, she even danced in Suzanne Farrell’s company – a respectable career for any dancer. The book was very, very good and in fact described the physical realities of being a professional dancer better than anything I have thus far read. It opened with a discussion of what it’s like upon first awakening in the morning, how the first thing—while still lying mostly in bed— one does is carefully test every muscle, unkinking the back, stretching the Achilles, opening up the body gently and carefully before even setting foot on the ground. Every breathing moment is a test, determining the state of one’s body and how one is going to physically work later in the day. That careful evaluation is something I do even now, because the alternative is pain, sometimes crippling pain, and further injury. The book details the process from first opening one’s eyes, to daily [ballet] class, to rehearsals and post-performance care. I became tremendously emotional reading it, because my body remembered both the good and the bad of that life. Shortly on the heels of reading this book, I watched a movie, “White Crow” about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev and again, it brought me back emotionally into the middle of the world that shaped me: ballet. 

There is a saying in the ballet world: “A dancer dies twice.” The first time is when he or she has to stop dancing and the second is actual, physical death. This is truth. It took me at least a decade to recover emotionally and mentally from my retirement (I retired in my early twenties), and I still carry injuries and chronic pain from my career. Somehow, in some strange way, perhaps through a desperate clutching at the memory of being able to create, through the sweat, blood, and pain of my body, a beauty that elevates the soul, perhaps through the desperate longing (to touch the Gods?) that drove me into dance and didn’t leave me even after I was spat out by the daimon of that art, a bridge was crafted that spanned the fractured, abyssal space between my life as a dancer and becoming a devotee of the Gods, a priest, and finally a spirit worker. One led directly to the other and without the first, I would not have survived the transformation into the second. 

me dancing in the 80s, one of the very few photos that I have

Long ago, I learned that there were two paths to becoming what many might term a ‘shaman’(1): madness road or death road. The idea is that you are cast down from your world, shattered and in the process of rebuilding and restoration, one comes back stronger and more resilient than before. There is a third way though, and that is the road of art. What is that? It is living a life where you are fully given over to the daimon of an art – in my case dance. Every inch of your identity, everything inside and out by which you exist and define yourself as a human being, centers around, relies upon, and is defined by one’s art. Then…usually at a terrible and critical juncture, that is stripped away and the result is a psychic shattering of the self. You rebuild (or not, but “not” involves consequences that are a luxury for a spirit worker. “Not” involves destruction, devolution, sometimes madness, drug addiction, and death). You claw your way back into some semblance of existence. You learn to live again and eventually, if you’re lucky, to find some measure of joy. If this is part of a spirit-worker’s journey, then this is when the Gods begin the process of direct formation. (In the end, I think every spirit worker or shaman ends up traipsing painfully down every one of the roads at some point in their life as we are remade again and again in service to our Gods. It is the way of things – formation never ends). The easiest and most productive thing to do is to embrace the process. 

There are so many things that I brought with me out of the crucible of ballet training that helped me when I became Odin’s, that helped me center myself as a priest, that helped me embrace my formation as a spirit worker. I am so immensely grateful that I was allowed to foster under that terrible and hungry daimon of the arts. Ballet prepared me for spirit work, but also for regular devotion and I cherish the lessons that I learned as though they were jewels poured into my hands. Some of these things are contained in words that young people today find very difficult to swallow, triggering if you will, but they are utterly essential to the Work. 

The first is discipline. In ballet, there is the understanding that discipline brings freedom. It was ingrained in us from the beginning of our training. This isn’t discipline that someone is forcing onto us, but a process that we enter into willingly. The discipline comes from within, must be summoned from within, and it is a gift we give first and foremost to ourselves. We train and train, submitting to a series of exercises that have been done by ballet dancers from beginner to professional, in largely the same order, the same way, all across the world for at least four hundred years. The moment we place our hands on the barre and will our bodies into position, we enter into a lineage that began in the mime and theatre of the ancient world, and that came to fruition as ballet specifically in the court of the Sun King, and then reached its perfection in 19th century Russia (2). We stand with our ancestors within that lineage, moving as they did, putting our bodies into the same steps and rhythms that they honed and passed down, dancer to dancer, body to body – because that is the way that memories are passed in this art—and in so doing, we ourselves are shaped in accordance with the dictates the tradition requires. It is a beautiful yet terrible thing. The discipline required in ballet is brutal. One engages in a constant battle against nature. With that discipline comes a tremendous endurance to pain, a knowledge that one can persevere, and a potent resiliency in the face of physical pain and even failure. Those things all transfer well, not just to spirit work but pretty much to any other field. 

Louis XIV dressed as the sun in an early ballet

The second jewel in that hoard this art gave me is that of obedience. I think this is perhaps THE most difficult idea to accept. It comes into play more often in devotion than one might think though. We learn to willingly curb our will so that we might learn the necessary techniques, and so that we might develop the aforementioned discipline. In devotion, the idea of obedience to one’s Holy Powers isn’t so much a matter of unthinking, blind obedience but of choosing to trust when we may not have all the information or answers. This obedience is a personal choice, not something imposed to destroy one’s autonomy, but rather something one consciously chooses each and every day in order to help in one’s spiritual formation. It helps us to better develop as devotionally pious people of iron strong faith, and it helps us to carry more fully and well the Mysteries of our Holy Ones that we are meant to carry. Ultimately, it brings freedom. There’s a lovely saying by Seneca that comes to mind as I write this: deo parere libertus est. To serve a God is freedom. 

 Finally, if one is very focused and very lucky, ballet brings with it an awareness, palpable and almost physical, of the Holy. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t experienced it in this particular way, but ballet opened me up to a sense of the sacred, to the Presence, to Numen. It was how I first learned to pray.  It was my first direct experience with the Holy Powers. In Larsen’s book, toward the end (p. 224), she quotes Choura(3) the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova.

Soviet dancer Alexandra Danilova (1904 – 1997) as the can-can dancer doll in the ballet ‘La Boutique Fantasque’, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Danilova, who trained at the Maryinsky, was a ballerina with the Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and also both professionally and personally involved with George Balanchine. She also taught at the School of American Ballet, shaping a whole generation of professional dancers. In her autobiography, she writes about the tradition of bowing (female dancers curtsey) at the end of each performance. Like the respect shown at the beginning and end of each ballet class, this is a ritualized act, and an acknowledgement of one’s place in the lineage and hierarchy of the art itself. Danilova writes, “In Russia, we were taught never to touch our knees to the floor when taking a bow unless there was royalty in the house; we were to go to our knees only to royalty or to God. (Larsen, 224)” It’s a lesson many polytheists in general and spirit -workers in particular would do well to take to heart. The humility and respect, bound together like the circling chains of our DNA, that this awareness engenders, an awareness deeply embedded in the body on a visceral, almost primal level, cannot be under-estimated. It is one of the greatest gifts my ballet career left me, and in all ways, it prepared me for encountering the Gods later in my life. 

dancer bowing after performance – Maria Doval ballet

 Recently, one of my undergrad students asked how I went from being a ballet dancer to a theologian. The answer is painfully, but doggedly and the line from one to the other is straighter than one might think. I am grateful, deeply, deeply grateful for each of the many teachers I have had in my life on the way. (I was thinking of this today when I was doing the dishes. My assistant made her first cake the other day and I was washing up one of the cake pans. Whenever we bake in our home, the first piece is given to our house spirits and domovoi. I learned that from another Heathen woman. I visited her once, many years ago in NC for what turned into an incredibly fruitful weekend of hearth cultus and spirit work and though we’ve long fallen out of touch (she was Theodish and I left Theodism behind close to twenty years ago), I am grateful for what I learned in the moment we baked together in her kitchen.  There are Teachers from whom one consciously studies and by whom one enters into a tradition, and teachers who often inadvertently open us up to greater understanding of our Gods. I am grateful for them all. Every teacher is a treasure to be cherished, respected, and their lessons honed and passed on. 

This brings me to the conclusion of this rather rambling meditation on my life and work: gratitude. Last year, instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, I chose a word that was going to be my touchstone throughout the year. That word was devotion, and it was certainly a tremendously fruitful year devotionally, often in graceful and unexpected ways. This year, my touchstone is gratitude.

 

from The Art of Calligraphy

Notes: 

  1. I have no issue with using the term “shaman.” The difference between a “shaman” and a “spiritworker” is that death (or madness, or art induced psychic shattering). I’ve found, however, that for myself over the years, the word “shaman” fits less and less for what I do. There are Norse terms I prefer, particularly vitki, because it aligns me in mind and heart more fully with Odin as Gangleri and Galdrafaðr. Ever and always, the work remains much the same though. Spirit worker is an umbrella term for a specialist who works with or for spirits and the Holy Powers. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this article, that definition will do. Likewise, I use the word “daimon” in the classical sense, that is as a divinely connected and powerful spirit. 
  2. I have opinions on this. While ballet obviously continues across the world, I think the artistry and glory of the imperial ballet is yet to be equaled. 
  3. This is a female nickname for Alexandra. It’s spelled шурa. The other common nickname, used for either Alexandra or Alexander, is Sasha. 

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Me about 14, just after ballet class, having just started working with a regional company (I blurred out the figures around me to preserve their privacy, hence the strange background).

Ben zi bena, Bluot zi bluoda…

So ends the last couple of lines of the Second Merseberg Charm, with a cantrip of a type echoed in various healing charms in conjure, rootwork, and old English leechcraft. The whole ending (and the most potent part of the working charm) goes: 

Sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki:

Ben zi bena, bluot zi bluoda,

Lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin!

Like bone-sprain, so blood sprain, so joint sprain:

Bone to bone, blood to blood, 

Joints to joints, so may they be glued! (1)

I’ve been thinking about this charm all day because I spent most of the morning dealing with precisely the type of injury mentioned in this 10th century incantation (2). 

Living with chronic pain often means that one becomes accustomed to very high levels of physical pain as a daily norm. That’s certainly been my experience and having been a professional ballet dancer through my early twenties, I also learned early on to compartmentalize pain. I write this as a preface, because I’ve recently been attempting to address an ankle injury and I had my first physical therapy appointment today with surprising results (I was actually pretty shocked!). 

In the early eighties when I was still dancing, I sprained my ankle badly. I came down out of a tour jete, a leaping turn, where one switches legs while turning in mid-air. I landed on the outside of my ankle and predictably tore the ligaments. It was bad, really bad, and sidelined me for several months. I never really had physical therapy and that ankle remained a weakness, though it was not what caused me to retire. I worked for many more years as a dancer, studied martial arts and just got on with things. In 2004, while hiking down a trail, I tripped over a root. As I fell I heard the tendon in that same ankle snap and thought, “that’s not good.” Turns out I had indeed snapped the tendon and I was in a stabilization boot for close to three months. I stupidly didn’t get physical therapy at that time. 

Over the past eight or nine months, I realized that ankle has been getting progressively worse. I’m having trouble walking. It flares up and the way my body compensates hurts my hip and sets off my back injury, causing a great deal of pain. I talked to my doctor and we decided to try physical therapy – better late than never, right? I had my first visit today (and the PT is wonderful). 

Well, he noticed right away in examining my ankle that there was muscle atrophy. Then I got a rather horrifying surprise: “Did you break this bone” he gently touched my fibula, “when you damaged the tendon or did that happen earlier?” um…. I didn’t realize I had ever broken that bone –not to my knowledge. I asked a few questions and he pointed out that it had clearly been fractured at some point. I was stunned. I had never realized I had ever broken my fibula. We had a long discussion about it and apparently A) one can still walk with a fractured fibula and B) I broke it at some point between ballet, martial arts, and now. This was news to me but really, not completely  surprising. I did break a metatarsal when I danced and just iced it and got on with things. It’s entirely possible that I had at some point broken my ankle and simply not realized it. I’m horrified. Of course, having waited so long to get physical therapy for the sprains and damaged tendon, it’s going to be a long haul but it’s worth it if even a bit of strengthening can help my overall pain levels. 

My pain levels tend to be high, even with medication. That’s old injuries, including thoracic outlet syndrome, spinal radiculopathy, Achilles tendonitis and tearing, migraines, and fibromyalgia. I can focus so keenly that I often don’t realize that my pain levels are creeping up until I stop working and my focus is broken. Then of course, it’s a terrible experience. Even with all of this, I’m stunned about the broken bone. 

This is a real wake up call to me and I hope those who have injuries like this, who sprain joints, hurt their backs, or have what may seem like minor soft tissue damage take note. Don’t wait. If you can do it, get physical therapy as soon as possible. It’s annoying. It eats up time. It’s 100% worth it though. Do not be like me. I’m going to have a real fight to get this ankle to a point where it’s no longer throwing off my gait and causing me severe pain. I’ll do it, but it would have been so much easier if the first time I’d sprained it, when I was still dancing, I’d taken the time to do the PT. Learn from my mistake. 

In the Northern Tradition, our corporeal form is part of the soul matrix. That means that taking care of our health, keeping our bodies (as much as we can) in healthy, working order contributes to our overall spiritual well-being too. This may be the part of our soul that we slough off at death, returning it to the earth in recompense for the food and minerals, water and nutrients that from the moment we were conceived, nourished us and formed our bones, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to give it a little love now and again. Our physical bodies are the conduits through which we experience everything, including our devotional worlds. Their integrity is important. I wish to Gods someone had told me this when I was still dancing. I’d have approached the whole thing in a much, much healthier way. 

Notes: 

  1. See here for the full Merseberg Charms. 
  2. I love this this charm mentions Woden as a God of healing. We don’t usually get a focus on Him in this capacity. 

Weekend Fun: Ballet and a bit of σπαραγμός to Round Things Out

Royal-Danish-Ballet-rehearses-for-The-Bournonville-Legacy_5_1

Now that my thesis is mostly done (and my defense date scheduled), I decided to take the weekend off. A couple of really awesome opportunities arose that I just couldn’t pass up: Royal Danish Ballet dancers doing a Bournonville retrospective at the Joyce theatre, and Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Bacchae (the latter is free, which is lovely). I saw the ballet last night with a couple of friends and it was utterly delightful.

I’ve always loved the Bournonville style. It emphasizes ballon (the ability of dancers to jump with such ease that it almost seems as though they’re floating in the air), and quick footwork. It is elegant, precise, and this particular style never advocates contorting the body to achieve a higher extension. The emphasis is on artistry not acrobatics and it was a breath of fresh air to see a company that hadn’t given itself over to the colorless, broad blandness that so characterizes so much of modern ballet. It really fed the soul.

The performance opened with an excerpt from La Sylphide. The original version of this ballet was created for Marie Taglioni, a 19thcentury ballerina who pretty much ushered in the era of Romantic ballet ( culminating in ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty). Bournonville had danced with Taglioni in his youth and wanted to stage the ballet in Denmark. Apparently, he faced so many challenges from the Paris Opera Ballet (where the original had been performed) in doing so that he decided to choreograph his own version and it is this version that survives. It tells the story of James, a man who is engaged to a young woman of his village but who becomes enamored (and obsessed) with a sylph, an otherworldly creature of air and magic. Unfortunately for James, he pissed off the local witch by showing a regrettable lack of hospitality during his engagement party and his obsession with the sylph provides the opportunity for his undoing. He tries to capture this creature, which is rather obscene in and of itself: he’s taking this amazing wild thing and trying to tether it to mundane humanity, and the witch tricks him by providing him with a magic scarf. She tells him that if he wraps it around the sylph’s neck and arms it will enable her to remain with him. What it does is kill her and James is left with nothing, all the more so since his fiancée has long tired of his bullshit and gone off to marry his best friend. Last night’s performance showcased the section of the ballet where James kills the sylph. It is classic Bournonville, but was actually not my favorite part of the evening’s performance.

I much preferred the second half of the show which highlighted excerpts from the ballet Napoli, and other lesser known ballets. It was just delightful and the technique and artistry of the dancers, across the board, was high. It was a satisfying performance, and I particularly loved the rapport between the dancers. This review is correct: they were performing as much for each other, and delightfully, as for the audience. I was particularly impressed with the technique of principal dancer Jon Axel Fransson and soloist Stephanie Chen Gundorph. I have never seen such clean, effortless jumps as Mr. Fransson’s and Gundorph’s footwork was a thing of razor precision and beauty.  I could have happily watched them for hours. Truly though, every dancer there was just amazing, including a performer that I can’t believe is in the corps: Tobias Praetorius. He had such a gift for comedy in his performance as a street singer that I found myself laughing out-loud. I also wish they’d done an encore of the Jockeydance, which was a hilarious variation depicting two jockeys competing to show off their skills. Seriously, all the dancers were quite lovely and if I could, I’d go to every remaining performance.

As a former ballet dancer, I was surprised to note that Bournonville style has preparations for turns in a small second position, not fourth. One of the more surprising elements of the choreography also involved a woman on pointe doing a series of bourrees or similar steps while the man holds onto her shoulder promenading in arabesque or attitude…usually it’s the woman doing that! The female dancers also darn the tips of their pointe shoes. I used to do this, though it’s not that common in American companies. It helps the shoe keep its shape and adds stability to the box. I was happy to see it being done (some of the shoes were signed and on sale so I got a good look at them).

I firmly believe art elevates the soul. It also represents the best that our human cultures have to offer. It crosses all boundaries and unifies like nothing else.  We need more of it!

Tonight, it’s off to see the Bacchae, which for me is a deeply religious experience. I cannot wait to see what the Classical Theatre of Harlem is going to do with the play. It looks amazing. There is a review here.

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(ballet photo couretsy of this site, where you can see more images of the dancers participating in The Bournonville Legacy show at the Joyce).

Apollo and Marsyas: The Nature of Art

Bartolomeo_Manfredi_-_Apollo_and_Marsyas

(Bartolomeo Manfredi’s “Apollo and Marsyas.” Source: wiki commons)

I have a fascination with operatic castrati and since I’m currently doing quite a bit of research for an academic project that involves them, their music has been the subject of much conversation in my house lately. Add to that a meme a friend of mine posted on facebook wherein one of the choices was “because a human did something better than a God and that God threw a hissy fit” and I knew I had to write about the conversation my husband and I had the other day.(1) Somehow the subject of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas came up and the lessons this might hold for musicians.

In this story, Marsyas, a satyr and master musician hubristically challenges Apollo to a music contest. The contest is to be judged by the Muses and the winner would then be permitted to treat the loser anyway he wished.(2) Both God and satyr play, Apollo wins, and in punishment for his hubris Marsyas is flayed. Customary interpretations of this story revolve around the flaying specifically as a punishment for hubris, for the satyr daring to challenge a God (and thus to put himself above the right and natural order of things) and this is not an incorrect interpretation but there are other lessons to be had in this tale as well.

Allowing that one of the major lessons of this story is in fact the need for piety and humility before the Gods (amazing how “don’t be an asshole” covers so many situations in which we might find ourselves, devotionally and otherwise), I’d like to discuss here one of the other lessons, and this is where the castrati come in.

In my research I’ve noticed that there is a standard way in which historians seemingly must approach this material. Before they go into whatever it is that they want to discuss about the castrati, they must first state how barbaric or inhumane they find the practice.(3) They must first separate themselves from any hint that they might approve of the process, particularly if they are writing positively about the result (and given that the influence of the castrati pretty much defined opera for two hundred years and shaped contemporary opera too, there’s quite a bit to celebrate there).

The question is endlessly asked (by academics and other researchers): why would someone do that to himself? Why would someone allow that to be done to a child? What was the allure of the castrati (they were the equivalent of sex symbols and rock stars)? I find these questions boggling: for the voice. Are you people deaf? Have you never listened to a top-notch counter tenor? It’s like listening to the voice of God. It’s like having the heavens crashing down around you and these men don’t come close to the vocal quality of a well-trained castrato superstar.(4) I completely understand why someone would have sought to become a castrato and certainly why they were so attractive to their listeners. I mourn the fact that we can’t hear them today.

If the sounds harsh, consider my own background: I was a professional ballet dancer for the first part of my adult life. I started working with a regional company at thirteen and retired in my early twenties. I retired with crippling injuries. I knew at thirteen that I was choosing to commit to a career that would likely leave my body broken irreparably. I knew that I would have to make health and nutritional choices that were ultimately damaging. I didn’t make this choice blind and I did make it over parental objection. The call of that daimon – dance – was too strong. I have crushing pain now and very limited mobility and while I did soloist roles in the regional company for which I worked, I didn’t make it past apprentice in the New York company. I’ll go down in no history books as a competent dancer and…I would make exactly the same choice again.

I suspect that is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t been infected with that hunger, been taken up by that daimon, felt what it is like to push the body past its limits, past pain, to fly. I know that if at twelve, someone had said to me, if you mutilate your genitals you’ll have a chance to be one of the truly great dancers, I’d have done it without question. I would have considered it a worthy trade. There are things more important than what’s between our legs and far more important than our ability to procreate or the limits of our bodies. Being in service to art, in service to something far bigger and more important than ourselves supersedes all of that. That’s what moderns don’t comprehend.

Of course, that the castrati had to be castrated before puberty complicates things. There are questions of a child’s ability to make such a long-term choice for himself (see my comments above for where I stand on that) and certainly there were children sent under the knife against their will. The consequences of early castration are not just loss of fertility. (5)I also find the way Castrati were treated socially by the same communities that idolized their voices to be repellent (the church, for instance, forbade them to marry and in regular society they were often viewed as freaks, mocked for the very procedure that gave them the angelic voices so celebrated). By the nineteenth century with “enlightenment,” industrialization, more focus on binary gender roles, more focus on ‘nature’ as opposed to constructed brilliance, and certainly the elevation of both childhood and the individual over any common good the castrati were fast becoming a thing of the past. The last operatic superstar was the castrato Giovanni Velluti for whom both Rossini and Meyerbeer composed but operatic tastes were changing along with everything else and by 1913 not even the Vatican choir allowed for them. (6)

So what does all of this have to do with the story of Apollo and Marsyas? One of the many ways that I interpret this story is as a clear indication of what is required for excellence in an art. It doesn’t matter what the art form is (dance, singing, music, painting, etc.), to truly reach the heights of greatness, sacrifice is not just required, it is demanded. Excellence has a price. Art brings us into communion with the Gods like nothing else can. The Platonic philosophers wrote about the ennobling effects of Beauty, how it had the capacity to elevate the soul and I very much believe that is true. To be in service to the arts is to be in service to the Gods when it’s done right. It’s to move in sacred currents. That carries a demanding price and sometimes the consequences are irreparable. Devotion is like that too, if one wants to do it well.

We are owed nothing, yet opportunities are given. Devotion is an art just as much as dance or opera. It’s the art of the soul and it often carries as great a price as that any performer will pay. Excellence requires sacrifice. Mediocrity doesn’t. Make a choice. I read once of one castrato (and I can’t recall which one at the moment. I’ve been reading * a lot* on the topic) who was once asked if he regretted having been cut. He laughed in the interviewer’s face. He was one of perhaps half a dozen men who could do what he did at the level at which he performed in the entire world. He was feted across Europe. His name would go down in music history. He was as close to a god as a mortal has any right to be (barring apotheosis!).

Ironically I have seen some of the same criticisms of ballet children that I’ve seen about the castrati: it’s abuse. How can a child make that decision, etc. etc.(7) One such included a documentary about a leading Russian ballerina. The narrator could not stop talking about the brutality of the training and the sacrifice required. Yes, and she’s one of maybe ten women in the world who can do what she does. She had some of the best training in the world, and it’s training she herself wanted. I find it far more offensive that a second rate film maker is complaining about her sacrifices than that she’s consciously making them. Excellence requires certain choices and sometimes those choices hurt.

I think that’s the second lesson to be found in the story of Marsyas and Apollo. It’s not just a warning against hubris, it’s also telling us what is required to reach the heights of a practice: sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a warning against the hubris of assuming we can find greatness without the work or the cost.

Far from being appalled by the castrati, I rather think that when we as a culture began putting the mediocrity of the individual over the glory of art, over arête, over those things that represent the best of who we are as a people, that was when the real moral and cultural decay began and that’s what horrifies me the most because it’s not just sacrifice for the arts that modernists find problematic, it’s veneration of and sacrifice for devotion too and yet, if we wish to truly find excellence in our devotion, it’s going to require hard work and sacrifice on par with that of the best of the castrati or the best ballet dancers. We should be willing to bleed for our devotion, to bleed for our art, to bleed for our dreams. That’s Marsyas’s lesson: nothing is free, and one doesn’t reach the top of one’s game without painful hard work. We all have those talents and skills that we were given. The gap between that and excellence is what we choose to do with them and how much of ourselves we’re willing to bet in the bargain.(8)

Notes:

1. The meme in question meant to be humorous, and I found it funny but it edges well into territory that while not impious necessarily bears watching. Humans do not do things better than the Gods and I think to allow that idea to take deep root in our minds is problematic. A joke is one thing but we’re constantly being bombarded by pop culture movies and tv that even when entertaining put forth the idea that humans are superior to the Gods and it’s important to recognize when that’s happening.
2. One source implied that of course the Muses would vote in favor of Apollo but I think that rather They would vote for the better musician. To do otherwise would be to violate the very Arts whose mysteries They govern. It is also to ascribe to Gods our own pathetic lack of integrity.
3. The Castrati were the rock stars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Castrated before puberty (often by their own request), they were men with pure, powerful soprano and alto voices. They commanded great applause and even greater fees and dominated the opera stage for two hundred years. The phenomenon began in the Byzantine church (the earliest recorded castrato singer that I’ve been able to document so far is a Byzantine choir master in 400 C.E.) and ended in the Papal Choir of the Vatican in 1922. We actually have recordings of the last known castrato: A. Moreschi. Unfortunately, they don’t give any sense of what his voice was actually like. Not only was he never an operatic virtuoso, but the recording technology of the time was in its infancy and could not capture the main bulk of his range. You can hear this with contemporary recordings of female stars like Nellie Melba too: the main part of the tessitura, its frequencies couldn’t be recorded so the voice sounds thin and given the limitations of recording, also out of tune. It’s unfortunate but early video recordings of the great dancers of the imperial ballet, like Pavlova and Spessivtseva show similar issues and in no way do justice to their subjects.
4. A couple of my favorite counter tenors include F. Fagioli, P. Jaroussky, A. Scholl, and the winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera prize, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. Then there’s natural soporano M. Maniaci, who is in a class by himself. Each of them is singing work originally written for the greatest castrati of the baroque age and a the recent interest in baroque music has allowed for a mini-renaissance of counter tenors. 🙂 The counter tenor voice is a very different voice from that of the castrati, and both are different again from female sopranos. They’re very different instruments.
5. The ends of the bones don’t harden and so most castrati were, for their time, very, very tall. Depending on when the castration was done, they may or may not be able to have sex. If the operation was performed when they were very small, their genitals might not have grown to adult size. The results, according to way too much medical literature that I’ve had to read for my research, varied significantly. If their voices didn’t hold, if they didn’t have what it takes to be truly great, they were resigned to church choirs. Some became priests. I think it’s likewise important to note that ‘childhood’ was not then the cossetted state that it has become now for better or worse. There were different expectations of children and many parents gave their children over to the knife so that the boys would have a better future than the parents could otherwise give them.
6. I often wonder what it must have been like for Velluti…a generation before him, castrati were super stars and while he had an extensive career, he was the last of his kind and knew it and was often greeted as much with horror as acclaim…not to mention Meyerbeer and Rossini don’t hold a candle to Porpora and Handel when it comes to showing off a high voice.
7. Like with castrati, there is a time limit to the training. If a dancer doesn’t make that decision young, they’re not going to have a career and they certainly aren’t going to reach the heights of that career. A childhood is a small sacrifice to pay for such an opportunity, in my opinion (having made that choice). There are rare exceptions. Melissa Hayden for example, one of Balanchine’s stars began dancing at sixteen. She is a rarity and frankly not in the same league as the best Russian or French dancers who began as children. I began my ballet training at ten and that was at least three years too late. There’s a sweet spot with certain elements of the training too. If a girl, for instance is planning to go on pointe, that should happen after two years of near daily training (in the west, I’d say around 12, but in major ballet schools, if they’re training for several hours a day from the time they’re seven or eight, you might see it earlier, around ten. Without that multi hour daily training regimen though, putting a child on pointe before twelve is criminal. The bones just aren’t ready.). Going on pointe too early without proper preparation can severely damage the feet but going on too late, after say 15 can also be problematic. It is much, much more difficult to develop the competence and fluidity on pointe that one needs for professional work if the feet aren’t broken to it young. As the bones harden, it’s that much more difficult to gain that combination of strength and flexibility that makes proper pointe work possible.
8. Here is a BBC documentary on the castrati that is useful for those with no prior knowledge. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. The whole thing is about an hour.

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My art blog at Krasskova Creations

My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.

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Day two of the poetry challenge

I don’t usually participate in online challenges, but a good friend (and poet) tagged me on Facebook and told me about the five day poetry challenge. One posts a poem every day for five days. i kind of like that sort of challenge. 🙂 (the poem doesn’t have to be one’s own–it can be a famous one, but since i write poetry, I thought i’d give it a shot). So last night i’m sitting working and sannion calls me over to watch the video I am sharing here and that (as well as the Wild Hunt, and every predator’s hunt) was the inspiration for this piece.

The Hunt
by Galina Krasskova

A single crimson tongue
slender,
delicate
unassuming marks its passage
leaving a stain of dye
die
dying
in its wake.
A single crimson tongue
running
in obscene whimsy
dancing over ground
already staked
and claimed.
It trembles
celebrating its freedom,
no longer tied
to the domination
of heart and lungs and bowels.
It runs
and it is everything
and through it the ancestors call.
It runs and one does not expect
the howling silence.
It runs and one begins to realize:
The end of all hunts is the same:
Red.

My Mom’s Birthday and a Blast from my Past

So I’m off to an artists’ residency in Taos, NM. I’m so excited about it: two whole weeks dedicated to painting in the company of other artists (all of them so much more experienced than I, though I’m getting better every day!). My only other obligation is to finish my term paper while I’m away which unfortunately necessitated the hauling of books with me in my luggage, though that’s a small price to pay for this experience.

I’m fairly new to art. I’ve only been painting two years. I consider it a gift from my ancestors, the Orisha, and my Gods. It came out of the blue. I never expected that I’d be able to paint and paint well enough to have gallery shows. It’s been a perplexing blessing — perplexing only because sometimes I’m like ‘where did this come from?” I”m thinking about this today, not only because I’ve got this residency, but also because it’s my adopted mom’s birthday today and I very much wish she could have seen my painting and photography. She was so supportive of my creative pursuits and I just know she would have been delighted.

She never got to see me dance. Once, when I was visiting her at her home in Carmel, she had gone grocery shopping, leaving me at home to finish up some writing work. I’d finished and had put on music and was doing a very, very modified series of ballet combinations….nothing strenuous or vexing (my body is too broken from ballet for that!), but I was moving. She walked in while I was dancing and that is as close as she came to ever seeing me move as once I could.

She was actually instrumental in getting me to a place emotionally where I could watch ballet again. Though she was a pianist, she’d never been exposed to ballet before and she asked me to introduce her. It was the first time since i’d stopped dancing that I immersed myself in ballet again. Of course, i was only watching ballet videos, not performing (those days are well and truly over!). Still, until she decided she wanted to learn about what had been such a foundational and crucial part of my life, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to watch a ballet all the way through. I didn’t stop dancing because I wanted to, I stopped because I had no choice. I had too many chronic injuries.

When she asked me to bring her into that world, I was delighted. It restored the experience for me, allowed me to go back into the periphery of that world cleanly, purged of a lot of old pain. I happily gave her a run down of ballet history, told her all about my time dancing. I showed her my old pointe shoes (and she had the most sensible response ever. She slid her foot in and barely rose to a low demi-pointe…i mean barely a half inch up and stopped saying “Screw that, it hurts!”).

I collected videos, starting with Bournonville’s “La Sylphide,” first performed in the 19th century by Marie Taglioni, a ballet that inaugurated the age of the “white” ballet—all those classical ballets where the dancer is in a floofy white tutu. Then I took her through all my favorite Petipa ballets. I found videos of some of my favorite ballet stars and we watched the same ballets again. (I don’t think much of ballet since Petipa. I’m only now coming to appreciate Balanchine so I stuck with those ballets I considered truly great). We watched a documentary about the ballet “Giselle” and she was awed by the clip of Olga Spessivtseva. I introduced her to the ballets and the dancers who had once formed such an important warp and weft of my world. It became one more pointe of bonding for us and I was able to reflect on my time in that art far more contentedly than ever before. Now, years later, i even go to ballets regularly – something I could not do for a good twenty years after i retired from dance.

I know she would have been thrilled with my forays into art and we would have had a blast sharing it and exploring that world together too.

My life has been full of pain and disappointment in many ways but for each whispering memory of hurt that hides fluttering in the dark halls of my heart, I have been doubly blessed. I have been lucky and charmed. The Gods supported me through the worst times, always helping me to keep my head above water, always helping me to survive and then They brought me a mother. i’ve had two mothers: one who tried very hard but was too damaged to mother well and one who gave my soul wings. I have been graced.

As for ballet, I was talking to my partner about why on earth I went into the field. It was my passion and I was thoroughly ensnared and obsessed by it. I broke my body reaching for excellence within its borders. He pointed out that it was beautiful and given the house I grew up in, I likely craved beauty. He was right. It was also a way out and for that, I owe the daemon of dance a great debt. He may have chewed me up and spit me out pretty quickly, but it gave me freedom from the drudgery and mediocrity of my childhood home, it gave me a glimpse and taste of magic, and it prepared me for Odin and my work now. It was boot camp, a beautiful and grueling boot camp and I am oh, so grateful for my time there.

Here is a picture of me when I was still dancing professionally. I don’t recall what the piece was. (I had thought this image lost but my friend Mary Ann worked some photography magic and repaired and salvaged it).

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