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It was what it was, and it is just that

Posted on June 5, 2018

Ballets can surprise a dancer. There are works that appear in your lap that you have no prior relationship with: they were not part of your consciousness during your training and you’ve never seen them before. Yet they become a significant part of your life whilst working on them; the unfamiliar begins to feel like a native language. These special ballets haunt you in the time outside the theatre. This month, I’m in wistful mood having finished my 2017–18 performing season with Sarasota Ballet working on Anthony Tudor’s contemplative The Leaves are Fading. Made in 1975 for American Ballet Theatre, and closely associated with the elusive Gelsey Kirkland, the ballet hides its considerable depths below a lilting, elegiac surface. To enhance my reflective mood, two close friends have decided to retire from dance and pursue new adventures.

The end of a season is a thoughtful time. There is a natural sense of achievement and a satisfaction as you look over the little victories and steps forward you’ve accumulated, but I find this is tempered by a fatalistic streak. On this blog in February 2017, I described the different aspects of a dancer’s relationship with age; how the moments when you are doing less but giving more on stage multiply. How much dancing teaches you about living life has preoccupied my mind for much of this season. It’s the same way a poet like Seamus Heaney – in fact any poet – uses the act of creating verse to interrogate their relationship with the world they exist in. Dancing in ballets like The Leaves are Fading this past year has prompted me to examine what we hold on to in life, and what we allow to dissolve away.

Tudor chose music by Antonin Dvorak for his ballet, drawing from a collection of love songs entitled Cypresses that are settings of poems by Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky. Working with Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner from the Anthony Tudor Trust helped to shape my natural responses to some of the lush music. “There’s nothing sad or sympathetic in your face”, a necessary reminder to me when music and movement swept me downstream. What I realised by performance time was that whilst some shadows exist in the ballet, they are not so substantial that they blot out the shining dapples of warmth and affection that pervade the work. Is it self-gratifying to pat myself on the back and notice these allusions between my life in dance and my life at large? Though I’ve written about the importance of establishing your identity away from dance, it is difficult to not think my career isn’t simply a job. Buddhism – Anthony Tudor became a zen master – teaches us that nothing is permanent. A career like dance, which deals in images of beauty and youthfulness that only exist within the notes of a piece of music, offers an appropriate arena to dwell on such things. During the cut-and-thrust of our dancing days, we rarely slow down to confront these thoughts.

A young woman who catches much of what I feel is Shelby Elsbree. Her blog Tutus and Tea is filled with writing that examines what it is to be a dancer today, wreathed in the champagne fizz that embodies the kind of verve we should all hope to live our lives with. Shelby left Boston Ballet in 2016 to pursue a degree at Columbia University in New York. A recent post entitled “she let go” struck a chord with me, particularly as I’ve been thinking about the different ways we say goodbye to our dancing lives. The only major retirement I’ve witnessed first-hand was Darcey Bussell’s back in 2010, but when you’re not one of the world’s foremost ballerinas, what happens? These lines of anonymous verse sum it up:

Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort.

There was no struggle.

It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.

It was what it was, and it is just that.

My desert island ballet, Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, deals with life and loss on an extravagantly puritan scale. Set to Mahler’s song cycle that used T’ang Dynasty poetry as a departure point, the ballet was originally created for John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet. The alchemy of the steps in this work is the way strange, angular shapes resolve into sweeping statements of art nouveau curvature. A delicate port de bras could be a leaf caught on the wind or the unfolding of a blossom. The Messenger of Death – “the Eternal One” in its German iteration – dances in all six songs. In one instance, he enters upstage right, facing away from the audience, and mirrors the Woman exactly. The pair take hands and commence a pas de trois joined by the Man. MacMillan speaks of the inexorable nature of death: preying on us, but part of us. I return to the Woman in my mind constantly. She shows the essential truth of much in life: we’re alone, and how does this colour our choices? In the choreographer’s own words, “in death, there is the promise of renewal”.

Renewal, or rather covert repetition, asserts itself in Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading. The extended second pas de deux, made for Kirkland and Jonas Kage, contain dance images that haunt other parts of the ballet. One piece of music is named In the Deepest Forest Glade I Stand. Perhaps I’m giving this title a Jungian importance that doesn’t exist, but throughout ballet – think of the vision scene in The Sleeping Beauty – and across cultures, people enter the forest in an effort to lose and remake themselves. This song contains a melody we hear twice that I defy anyone to listen to dry-eyed. Tudor has the ballerina execute a precarious en dedans à la seconde pirouette resolving in a drape lift and then later we see her in an off-balance promenade in attitude when the same musical phrase is repeated. It shows her at the mercy of precarious physics. Like much in life, we ride the wave.

The penultimate section of the ballet, When thy Sweet Glances on me Fall in Dvorak’s Cypresses, contains one of the most special moments I’ve had on stage all year. My partner and I stay facing upstage, she resting her head on my shoulder and we let the music wash over us. I realised it was a body position I was sharing with this woman that I’d never shared with my partner in real life, and this was pertinent, unique to this experience and one I will always remember. It goes along with the cogent interpretive choice McKerrow gave one colleague during rehearsals: “You can either be reflecting on your past, or looking hopefully towards your future”. So as each season ends with its harvest of memories, I’m more accepting of my demons, as Heather Watts said in her riveting interview on Conversations on Dance, more comfortable with the ghost of times past that we hold hands with, and looking forward to the summer and my next dancing year.

Something’s not the same,

I taste the sap and feel the grain,

hear the rolling go the rowan,

ringing, singing in a change…

Extract above from Poem for a New Year by Matt Goodfellow

Pictured: Kate Honea and Daniel Pratt in Sarasota Ballet’s production of The Leaves Are Fading. Photographs by Frank Atura.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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