Before the Snow | During the Snow
The summers I was 14 and 15, I spent intense three-week sessions at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The program was designed to augment the studies of languishing “gifted” kids scattered in normal middle- and high-school routines and give them an outlet for their overactive intellectual interest through taking college(ish)-level courses in an actual college environment. The larger point of the program, and the one I probably enjoyed the most, was the social element – throwing a bunch of bright nerdy youngsters together to meet each other and feel less lonely amidst summers that might otherwise be spent reading alone or trudging through some mindless job. Indeed, it was at CTY that I first danced with a girl (outside of a play performance, at least) and where I was first introduced to Diplomacy, which I then promptly imported to my own batch of regular-season bright nerdy fellows back in Albuquerque.
There were other dancing girls at Dickinson those summers, ones I would usually only see periodically and mostly picking at their cereal bowls during crack-of-dawn breakfasts at the cafeteria. CTY had a strict lights-out policy at some absurdly early hour like 10 PM (it may have been 11, or it might have even been 9:30 on weeknights). They checked for flashlights and militantly patrolled the halls. And while I bitterly resented the requirement to sleep far more than I normally would (I was already down to 4-6 hours a night and, by the second summer, pulling all-nighters periodically), I did appreciate that the schedule forced me out of bed at 5 or 6 in the morning so I could take a shower long before anyone else was up. Being housed in dorms, these summers were my first brush with communal bathrooms and I was seriously unprepared for the kind of familiarity and camaraderie implicit in such confines. After all, I’d always gone home after baseball games rather than face the horrors of the long row of uncurtained showers. There was a perfectly good shower at home. Dickinson’s showers were not so devastatingly unprivate, but the idea of even appearing in a bathrobe or trying to change while wearing one in front of other people was overwhelming to my modest early teenage sensibilities.
Thus I was done with showers by 6:30 at the latest and found myself in the unlikely scenario of being awake to see one of the only phases of the day I routinely missed during the rest of my life. Breakfast opened at 7:00 sharp at the cafeteria and many were the mornings that I leisurely waltzed up the brick walk from the dorms to the student center, breathing fresh dawn air and watching the sun’s first glimmers through trees and feeling pure and whole about the opportunity that life itself provided. Only in the euphoria of paper-laden all-nighters in late high-school and early college did I find such similar bliss of first light hitting the world, of being so alive while the rest of the world rested. I remembered talking with Gris at some point during college about how he felt sort of queasy if he was ever awake when most of the surrounding society was asleep, that he felt out of balance with the universe. To me, it’s always been just the opposite. When the world is silent, the mind comes alive. See?
So I would get to the cafeteria, inevitably a little too early, to find myself in the tiny line leading to the fading brown double-doors that held one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever encountered. It was wasted on most of my cohorts, of course, those attending the ballet camp of indeterminate origin that shared the campus during those summers. Indeed, exactly three groups held regular camps at Dickinson in 1994 and 1995 while I was there – the ballerinas (who we lovingly called “rinas”), us, and the Washington Redskins. It was like some poorly constructed joke or an ironic attempt at diversity by the deans of the school. Tiny high-school aged female ballet students, enormous burly adult football players, and average mid-to-high-school prodigies. Grace, brawn, and brain. Small, large, and medium. Female, male, and mixed (or for the most part, more accurately, sexless). Those who refused to eat, those who ate everything, and those in the middle.
As the doors flung back at 7:00 to reveal eggs, potatoes, waffles or pancakes, breakfast meats, a cereal bar, and countless fountain-sprung beverages, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the intent of the deans had merely been to evenly space the burden on the cafeteria staff. Not only were the rinas generally disinclined to eat food, but it was clear that the dawn rush of undersized dancers relished the competition of who could eat less in front of the others. No football players ever saw the doors open at 7:00 and I was generally one of one to three representatives of CTY. But the rinas usually streamed in that early, maybe under the theory that failing to sleep would encourage weight-loss or perhaps their program began earlier than our classes (it must have). And while I loaded up on hearty American breakfasts, they rushed the cereal bar for underfilled bowls with spritzes of skim milk, tiny portions of delicate fruit, or sometimes just the beverage tray of juice a la carte. Smug looks were exchanged and indifferent blank stares as it gradually became clear to me that their respective undereating was as much for show as for function.
Occasionally I would wax eloquent about my early-morning eating habits and persuade one of my friends at CTY to rise at dawn’s first salvo to join me for the meal. I actually enjoyed the solitude of it at times, but solitude gets wearing, especially for an only child ensconced in a summer program to remind him that he is not alone. While I prevailed upon many classmates to join me at least once, I think few to none ever made a repeat visit to the pre-7 line at the cafeteria doors. No doubt a handful were lured by the promise of unfettered visibility of dainty rinas, already suited up in their skin-tight attire, only a few throwing a slovenly sweatshirt over the top. No doubt this was a competitive aspect of the breakfast display as well. There was virtually no fraternization between rinas and CTYers, and mutual contempt ran high. Sometimes an ambitious older experienced CTY male (CTY was capped at 16) would attempt interaction and there were even rumors of one or two rendezvous, but most of my friends were content to look from a safe distance. Me, I never much saw the appeal. I was certainly noticing girls by that point (I’d been noticing them for about ten years, truth be told), but the squat taut bodies and lifeless sneers were not particularly my style. Mostly I was fascinated by their social groupings and birdlike hierarchies, and occasionally was drawn in by the kindred loner who (always sweatshirted) would linger with a walkman or a book and mostly stare into space unegotistically while chewing slowly and thoughtfully.
We were cruel to the rinas in our own conversations – everyone gathered at roughly the same time for lunch and we’d chuckle about their haughty prima donna attitudes and empty plates. We had no inklings of the pressure they must be under, oblivious to the depth of others’ plights in the way that even brainy young teenagers inevitably are. There were the more sage among us who would speak philosophically about bodily drive and the need for artistry and how our own pursuits of mental fitness were undoubtedly superior. Some who would jest about trying to convert a random rina to the more intellectual pursuits, which inevitably devolved into a gag about what part of their pursuits they were really after. I would ponder the table-corner loners and shudder at the idea of approaching one for so much as borrowing the salt, let alone a conversation.
I saw “Black Swan” with my father last night, a movie ostensibly about ballerinas. To say it was my first contact with ballet since the summer of ’95 would be gross exaggeration, but much of the movie served as a time machine, teleporting me to the quiet breakfast air of exactly half my life ago. The film itself is brilliant, a crushing examination of the drive for perfection and the pains and power of artistry in a seedy, practical world. Darren Aronofsky has had my attention since “Pi” and while the subject matter of “The Wrestler” left me unwatchably cold, I have great esteem for both “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream”, both first watched in the last year or so. As can be expected in his films, there are moments that are profoundly unsettling and uncomfortable. No matter how old one gets, watching sex scenes on a big screen next to one’s father never gets easier. But we were both able to agree that the film was a triumph by the starkly contrasting credits.
Much of the examination of the movie resembles the same examinations we used to make from three cafeteria tables away, with varying degrees of compassion, about the impact of the art on the artists. How could one live on a quarter-grapefruit (a half-eaten half) a morning, especially when one was about to put one’s body through unbelievable torment? We had no visibility into the condition of the rinas’ feet from looking over our heavily laden trays that summer, but “Black Swan” spares little in its stark displays. We never turned the camera inward in those discussions, asking whether four mandated hours at the library each day were truly necessary, or what impact being openly intelligent might have had on our social progress. Although, of course, our physiological health was largely untouched by a commitment to college-level coursework… we could eat what we wanted without reprisal. Although no doubt many of the girls among us felt disproportionate pressure to stay slim with the already glaring “strike” against their social standing of high intelligence.
What’s amazing about “Black Swan” is the disconnect between the artist’s personal vision of perfection/accomplishment and the vision of everyone around her. Everyone else has their own theory about what will provide a leg up for her performance and ability, and while she dabbles in each suggestion, she ultimately crafts her own ideal solution to the problem of how to find flawlessness in performance. And while the conclusion, which I will not here spoil, is shocking to the allegedly objective eye we try to watch with, it is undeniably a form of perfection unanticipatable and unexpectable. In exceeding the bounds of what we could dream of, it reaches a nirvana of unassailability that provides true transcendence.
Which helps inform the journey of any artist or performer or just striving person in the long road of their life. And this, of course, takes me back to my own struggles, both of late and of yore, and one of the greatest pieces of writing I have ever encountered, both in its own twirling perfection and for informing me about my own path. The story is “Hommage a Bournonville” by Peter Hoeg, which appears in his brilliant collection Tales of the Night. I first read it in the hurried boxed-up finals week of my second sophomore semester at Brandeis, nestled between thin detentes between myself and both my roommate of that year and my only girlfriend of that year, both patchings-up that were frail and destined not to last. While both people had headline-level impacts on the awful nature of that year that almost drove me from college (at least temporarily, though it probably would’ve been permanent), it was an anniversary e-mail from the most significant of ex-girlfriends that drove me to the initial brink that dark annum. No doubt that interaction and the fallout of what followed were heavy in my mind as I spun page after page in awe.
Through the magic of my extensive public record-keeping efforts, I can know that it was the fifth of May 2000 that I first read the story and the fifteenth of June eight years later when I anointed the piece as the second best short story of all-time. You should go read it now, on page 154 of that file. But if you don’t, you should know that the centerpiece of the story is, of course, ballet.
The story is about ballet about as much as “Black Swan” is, about as much as this post is, which is to say entirely and not at all. It is as layered and multifaceted as both, a story within a story within a story, much of the narrative embedded in a third-person retelling of an autobiographical story to a second party described within what is, itself, a short story written by another author who, at some point in his life, really was a ballet dancer. And the story, like the movie and what you are reading now, is mostly about art. About the sacrifices people make for it, about striving for perfection within its unforgiving but paradoxically flexible confines, and about how love or life itself weave and bend within the treacherous passages left for them by the self-demanding artist. It is hard now to truly talk about what is most relevant about these pieces without spoiling them mercilessly, without ruining their ends and conclusions, and yet to navigate even those waters while still enabling you to finish this post and then see and read is perhaps my own struggle with perfection at this very moment.
The point, it is probably though perhaps not safe to say, of “Hommage a Bournonville”, of “Black Swan”, is that love itself and even perhaps sexual feelings in the first place, are tools with which grand artistry can be crafted. They are implements of scouring pain and visceral sensation, they have unmatched power to provide release and tension, outlet and bottling up, strife and chaos. And when the artist can examine these feelings, without flinching or turning away, as mere tools in the bag of life for creating the grand performance, the ideal artistry, it is then that the artist simultaneously flirts with perfection and madness. What person in their right mind would choose an artistic acme, be it on stage or on page, over a happily fulfilled life of love? None. And yet, there is an argument for it, no? There is an argument to be made that living and loving is commonplace, mundane, the march of the masses, while true artistic genius requires putting such temptations in their place.
It is dangerous territory to contemplate, for sure, especially as someone who has, despite its alleged mundanity, always placed love first in line. But in reading and rereading “Hommage”, in watching “Swan”, it is clear to me that the opportunity of heartbreak, especially this continual and renewed heartbreak I now face, offers consolation prizes in the form of artistic expression. These prizes, as they always have, seem hollow and shallow and pale to me, but it is only in understanding their insufficient nature that I can truly feel the feelings necessary to make the whole project work. It’s like a game I’ve long played with the universe and found important – one can have faith that everything will work out in the end, but as soon as one resigns one’s fate in that way, takes the path of those who replace medicine or decision-making with prayer, then one invalidates the deal and submits to the only path of possibility for things not working out in the end. That the rules for the game are that one must play it sincerely and react accordingly. One must be devastated by losses and setbacks, not winking at the camera (wherever it may be) and nodding that things will ultimately be for the best, but collapsing in the knowledge that they will never again recover. And only by doing that, by feeling it to its fullest extent, can one enact that strange moral strings of the universe that preserve real hope.
Which makes one start to wonder to what extent life itself is a performance, that existence in this strange backwards planet is itself rigged for artistry and beauty. That what captivates us about ballet and makes said dance such a conduit for grand metaphor of screen and word is its resemblance to life itself. That in standing on tippy-toes and flailing effortlessly and yet exactly, we all see ourselves and the eternal struggle to both let go and be precise in our deeds. And the judgment the ballerina fears may reflect the same we dread in our own lives. Will our existence remain in the shadows, unnoticed? Will we fall at the moment of our grandest opportunity? Will we prioritize base concerns like eating or sleeping or laughing with friends over the highest calling of our otherwise mundane existence?
And what role pain? What role do the pitfalls and pratfalls of physical and emotional scarring have in shaping who we are, how we will perform, what we will be remembered for? No doubt the high emotions of a ballet like “Swan Lake” or “La Sylphide” are meant to illustrate the profoundest impact of love, especially love taken or unfulfilled, on our very lives. To what extent is it more important to illustrate such impacts for others than to live them oneself? Is every artist a martyr? Is martyrdom, emotional or literal, itself what enables artistry? Are those tapped for greatness in dance or writing or filmmaking merely those who have, by accident or unluck, endured more than the rest of us? Can it be shaped or crafted? Or is it merely those who see their almost universal pains and losses as opportunity who have the advantage, who get the toehold on explaining what we all know in the bottom of our arrhythmic hearts?
It seems that if I make it as a writer, I will have to thank the two people (so far!) who have hurt me the most, for bringing me a depth of feeling more oceanic than all the experiences in the rest of my three decades of life. Neither were dancers of any kind, unless one can classify their devastating twirls of deceit and betrayal, their flowering lack of confidence and trust, as a form of ballet. I have been known to say I could not have found pacifism or believed it as thoroughly, were it not for my life-threatening experiences at Broadway Middle School, four years before Dickinson. Is all this meant merely to bring me skills and understandings that only brushes with the harshest of feelings can bring? It is a cute and convenient story, and one that doesn’t wash most of the time, that sounds profoundly like an excuse, a juice-squeezer desperately trying to churn through a mountain of lemons with gallons of artificial sweetener. But I see “Black Swan”, I read “Hommage a Bournonville”, and I have to wonder. To remember, to feel, and to wonder again.
As Ani DiFranco put it in her own song about swans, “I don’t care if they eat me alive. I’ve got better things to do than survive. I’ve got a memory of your warm skin in my hand. I’ve got a vision of blue sky and dry land.”
Artistic vision and triumph in the face of the gravest of threats. Pain unending, manifest in visions of blood and wrathful vengeance. To what extent is this wishful thinking, the efforts of a poetic mind to make meaning of unthinkable agony? And to what extent is it real, true, the nature of beauty and redemption in a warped world unsure of its own purpose?