Monthly Archives: August 2014

Debussy’s Quartet and remembering Camille Claudel


Debussy’s String Quartet in G-minor is one of those pieces of music that I will listen to over and over, struck anew by the power that resides within it, its energy and originality and rich textures. The third movement, ever my favorite, seems to impart a secret message, one you must be very still and quiet to hear. It seems to encompass a story, one of love, pain and redemption that afterward haunts you. Go ahead and give it a listen while you continue to read.


Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to hear this unforgettable quartet performed at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato had joined the Alexander String Quartet in the world premiere of composer Jake Heggie’s Camille Claudel: Into the Fire. The evening’s performance, satisfying on so many levels, produced two particular moments of haunting transcendence. The first, as I’d hoped and anticipated, was the Alexander String Quartet’s rendition of the Debussy, and that oh-so-crucial-to-me third movement. The second, following intermission, was DiDonato’s performance as Camille Claudel, in the song cycle’s final piece, the Epilogue, where the once fiery, exuberant young sculptress had become a subdued, shadow image of her former self.


First, a bit of history on Camille Claudel. Born in 1864, she was an artist, a sculptress of considerable talent. She became August Rodin’s student, protégée, lover, but was eventually betrayed by him, then by her family, by the dictates of a society that did not treat female genius sculptresses with favor. In the wake of increasingly unstable mental health, her family had her institutionalized. She never sculpted again, and spent the last 30 years of her life largely in solitude.


Heggie’s composition contains seven pieces, each one revolving around one of Claudel’s sculptures and her musings on the day she is to be committed. The exception is the Epilogue, which is based on a photograph taken decades later (seen above), Camille with a visitor at the asylum, her old art school friend, Jessie Lipscomb. The text, penned by librettist Gene Scheer, is thoughtful, powerful in its economy, particularly affecting here.

Do you remember our studio in Paris? Everything moving.
Two young women, so many ideas. Look at me now!
Oh, Jessie… Every dream I ever had was of movement.
Touching. Breathing. Reaching. Hovering.
Something always about to change…

A photograph? Just me and you. Yes. I understand. I must be very still. 

Thank you for remembering me.

And that’s how it ends.

There stands Joyce DiDonato, as gifted an actress as she is a singer, having morphed into an aging Camille Claudel, left to languish. Spirit broken, bereft of illusions, there is nonetheless the youthful Camille still visible behind the eyes as she tells us in a small voice, “Thank you for remembering me.”

Safe to say I was not the only one furtively wiping tears from my eyes after that.  Even DiDonato gave a quick, furious swipe to her face as she pivoted around to join Heggie for their bow. And how uncannily similar to the feelings the Debussy’s third movement evoked in me, both with their mix of gravity, tenderness, using pauses and silence as effectively as if they were instruments. The final effect is devastating, unforgettable. It’s what fine art is all about.

Claude Debussy ties in, in more delicious ways. He was a great admirer of Camille Claudel and her work. She’d presented him with a copy of her sculpture, “La Valse,” that he kept on his mantel until his death. La Valse: “the waltz.” One of the seven subjects of the song cycle, and the very feeling and image Heggie’s composition conjures up and carries through.


I loved the 1988 film Camille Claudel, actress Isabelle Adjani’s performance and mesmerizing blue eyes, but I must say I’ll remember Claudel even more clearly now, after having heard this composition, witnessed this performance. 

Thank you for remembering me.

Thank you, Jake and Gene and Joyce and Camille and Claude and members of the Alexander String Quartet, for reminding us of the art and artists worth remembering.

PS: My absolute favorite recording of Debussy’s Quartet in G-major is by France’s Quatuor Ébène. But for instant YouTube gratification, here’s the first movement by the Tokyo String Quartet: It will also provide you links to the 2nd and 4th movements, and the third movement is embedded up above. But consider treating yourself to Quatuor Ébène’s exceptional performance (17 of 18 customer reviews are 5-star). (é-String-Quartets/dp/B001BWQWKS/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1409080975&sr=8-2&keywords=Quatuor+Ébène)

Pointe Shoe Haiku


Young girl live for dance
Teacher say “now pointe shoe time”
Finally dream come true
Torture instrument
Blame Marie Taglioni
Romantic Era
Pink, peach, all hand-made
Burlap, glue, many layers
Bring lots of money
Freed, Gaynor Minden
Feet on fire, toes squished and numb
Soon blisters will form
Shoe hard like pink rock
Bang against wall to break in
Crunch in door hinge too
Satin toe too slick
Hack off fabric and darn tip
Now dancer happy
Ribbons pink and loose
Needle and thread dancer’s friend
Sew many ribbons
Pirouettes en pointe
Scary business for new girls
Practice at barre, first
Shoe not last too long
From one night to twenty weeks
Cash or credit, please?
Callus, bunion, corns
Tendinitis special treat
No pain-free life here
Autumn days approach
Pointe shoes in shop whisper name
Soon comes Nutcracker

Now shoes stay in drawer
Souvenir of ballet days
Dance blogging less pain
Reader ask “too late for me?”
Never too old for ballet
Dance forever, friend


PS: Ever wonder how pointe shoes are made? Or how bad Classical Girl’s feet could look after a performance?


Violin at risk: quitting or preserving?


I have decided to quit my weekly violin lessons, after nine years. This is a daunting prospect, but it feels like it’s time. I’m burnt out; I simply can’t continue to make time for it, keep up on the material, week after week. Years back, I’d assumed that having a child move on from elementary to middle school, and later, onto high school, meant my own time would grow freer. For years, I’ve been waiting for things to get easier, calmer, during which time I’d get to relax more into making music.

It ain’t happening.

My intention is not to quit playing the violin. It’s simply to withdraw the “must do” angle that helped me in my earlier years of practice, but now strikes me as a mean, prune-faced authoritarian whose words and stance make me want to fight back, or mutter “wanna make me?” or basically, because I am by nature a relatively polite and well-behaved creature, feel like all the joy, curiosity and creative impulse have been leached from the experience.

My teacher and I are parting on good terms, and she’s invited me to come in from time to time, to touch base, go over issues I might be having with my own efforts. I have no ambition to push myself further technically—in truth, that’s what has made me hit a wall over the past two years. Something in me wants, instead, to regress a few years, and play the tunes that were just darned fun to play. No high positions on the violin, no tricky bowing, although, oddly, I enjoy challenging, syncopated rhythms. I’ve developed an unexpected affinity for the music of 20th century composers Bartók and Hindemith. I found the “Bartók 44 Duets” book just prior to my decision to end lessons. This book will go on my solo journey with me. (No, this is not an oxymoron; you can play solo duets by recording one voice.)

I’m nervous, though. This could be a terrible mistake. What if not taking lessons leads to not practicing at all, which leads to not playing at all? I so don’t want that to be the case.


Fear of letting go of what is no longer working—oddly, or maybe not, this very thing came up time and time again during my recent silent retreat.

Why is it so hard to let go of a treasured precept or habit, even after you’ve recognized it no longer serves you? If you’ve ever encountered this feeling, you’ll know that it runs deep, very deep. Even the prospect of changing things unleashes a gremlin that is determined to not let go, not let you go. It can make your insides quake with fear. Oh, how tightly we cling to our attachments, our habits, even when they start causing us more harm than good. Letting go of something, or observing my reaction to the prospect, is at the core of my meditation practice these days. It’s not a comfortable feeling. Then again. We grow from the discomfort in our lives. Comfort, ironically, is where we stagnate, even lose our way, which is a shame because comfort feels so damned good. So cling-worthy.

But I digress.

Tomorrow is my last planned violin lesson. After that, it’s up to me, to listen to self, know when to take a break, when to push myself. When to enjoy the silence and when to seek out the music.

Wish me luck, reader.


PS: In a wonderfully serendipitous way, there’s a member who started a discussion on her own decision to step back from learning and focus on just enjoying learned music. Oh, glory be – I’m not alone! Here’s the link if you, too, are cheered by this kind of discussion:

Zen and Ballet: 10 Tips for the Journey


It’s time once again for my annual trek to Vajrapani for a three-day silent retreat. Last year, upon my return, I penned an article for Dance Advantage about how my meditation practice paralleled, oddly, my experience in taking ballet classes. Rereading it now, I’m grateful for the wisdom I’d accrued last year and utterly, wholly lost in the ensuing twelve months. Dang. I’d thought it was permanent wisdom. Silly Classical Girl!

So for myself, and you, dear reader, in case you didn’t catch this essay last year, here’s a repeat of some powerful common sense wisdom you can likely apply to your own life journey, be it ballet-strewn or not. (You can check out the original, modified article here: )

Um, just how is ballet is like meditation?

Regular meditation is a challenge. Ballet is a different kind of challenge. Granted, it’s more pleasure than discomfort. It’s art, the beauty of applying movement and focus to music. And yet, it’s a breeding ground for dualistic thinking. Observe the following:

  • Even on good days, you sense you can always do better.
  • There is an image in your mind you’re striving for, that you can’t seem to ever reach.
  • There is always someone better than you. (If this is not the case, you’re taking the wrong class.)

My own ugly little confessions


I watch other students. I judge them. I study them. I use them as a template to decide how I am lacking. There is a tight feeling akin to grief that eggs me on, tells me to work harder, to strive more, tells me I am losing.

I remember who I once was, performing onstage, and it’s not who I am now.

I want to dance better. I am grimly determined to dance better.

In class, I lose all sense of equanimity. Instead, envy fills me. I want to look like her, and her, and her. I want to be thinner. Have a smaller waist. Thicker, longer hair. A narrower chest. This big shelf I carry will forever consign me to the “matronly” look, and that so doesn’t look good in the ballet studio’s mirror. I want to be happy like the others all seem to be. I don’t want to be me.

It is what it is

Duality. Desire. Ego. They run my life. The Buddhists gently suggest that, in order to find peace, ease suffering in your life, you should examine these culprits, observe them, try and distance yourself from their control. By staying in the present, what is, you are freed from “what once was” or “what really, really needs to be.” It is possible to make your way through life in this gentler way, not so caught up in right and wrong, good and bad, past and future, grabbing for what you want, running from what you hate. When I approach life through these parameters, I like myself more. It’s a novel feeling.

Being in the moment


In my sitting meditation practice, my goal is to simply observe the breath, my thoughts, the constant stream of them, striving to return to the present no matter how alluring or compelling the current thought tugging at my psyche seems. It is interesting to note that, outside this practice, ballet is my greatest “remain in the moment” activity. For ninety minutes of ballet class, I am there wholly, mind, body and spirit. If I allow my mind to wander (and it does; it’s terrible, my worst fault in ballet class) off it will go. I’ll get sucked into some past drama, some future worry, and before I know it, the teacher is cuing the music, motioning for us to take our places at the barre for the ronde de jambe a terre exercise (always complicated), and I don’t have a clue what I just observed her demonstrate. Bad girl! Bad ballet dancer, bad meditator! 

But meditation isn’t about blocking thoughts, nor is it reprimanding yourself for getting it wrong. You aren’t “good” when the thoughts are slower to arise and “bad” on a day the thoughts race and mill about like mice on steroids. It’s like pirouettes in ballet class. You have good days where it all flows. You have bad pirouette days. Just awful ones that make you shake your head and mentally recalculate just how many months/years you’ve been trying, and for this result? It’s usually about your focus, your balance, both physical and mental.

Gentle tips to help you on your own journey


I’d like to share these ten nubs of wisdom I’ve accrued through my practice, that seem to apply to both daily life and ballet. They help me along the way, although darned if I don’t forget all the wisdom a day later. Luckily, this list is here to remind me and reteach me, every single day.

1) Wherever you are in life, at this very moment, and in your ballet practice, is precisely where you’re supposed to be. Don’t waste too much energy or mind power wishing otherwise.

2) Your body, likewise, is built exactly how it is supposed to be. And if it is healthy and supports you, regardless of its size or shape, it is beautiful. You are beautiful. Don’t let the mirror decide where your beauty begins and ends.

3) Be present. Be here now, in the class, in your life. Observe the way your attachments and aversions often dictate your moods, your choices, and limit you.

4) It’s good to improve on a regular basis in ballet, set personal goals, but don’t withhold satisfaction with the way things are right now. Don’t live your life waiting for the day things will be easier, or better. The reality is, that day in the future when things are “better,” you will find a new “better” dangled before you like a carrot. It’s all an illusion to pull you from your life in the present.

5) It’s all about the journey, the process of learning, not the destination. Once we stop the learning, we stop living.

6) Learning ballet (or maintaining the practice) is hard. Life, in general, is hard. But it’s the hard stuff, these forays outside your comfort zone, that make it so rich and worth living.

7) Observe everything with gentle compassion. We are all on this journey, on parallel roads. Each has its bumps and smooth spells. We all made choices in life that put us where we are now. We deserve to be cherished, and respected. Particularly by ourselves.

8) Some days it all comes together. You’ll have moments of startling insight, power, clarity, and it will feel like You Have Arrived. This includes pirouettes.

9) The next day, or ballet class, you may find yourself stumbling back to square one. This includes pirouettes. This should not be construed as failure. It is simply another facet of the learning process.

10) Pain hurts, both the physical and emotional kind. Don’t judge your own pain, even if it stems from competitiveness or disappointment. If it is there, burning, whether or not it is noble, have compassion. Compassion of the self is where it all begins, and is the greatest gift you can give yourself. Harsh self-judgment is nothing more than pain on top of pain.

Last but not least: enjoy the dance. Because that’s what life is. And the music is calling us to rise, leap in, and participate with all we have, all we are. Go for it.

And now, I go for retreat…