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Yuja Wang, Wittgenstein and Ravel’s curious Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

 

I suppose it’s not all that curious. If you are a concert pianist and your right arm is a casualty in World War I, afterwards you have two options. One: give up your music career and calling, do something inferior and cry into your soup for the rest of your life. Two: tell yourself, “All right. Time to learn how to make my left hand do twice the work on the keyboard to produce the same sound. Create new arrangements of the music I love to play. Commission new works for the left hand alone. It can be done. It is what I will devote my life to doing.” It helps the Option Two scenario considerably if you are not a musician of the destitute persuasion, and, instead, have a generous amount of pennies (or Austrian schillings) tucked away in the family coffers. Which Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein had. Option Two, therefore, became his plan, and he succeeded marvelously.

French-Basque composer Maurice Ravel might have been approaching his own crossroads in the fall of 1929, just before Wittgenstein contacted him for a commission. We know, through hindsight, that he was nearing the end of his creative output. The year before he’d been exposed to jazz music during a U.S. concert tour. He was captivated by its richness, its diverting rhythm, and following the tour, he no longer felt compelled to create the same pictorial music he’d been doing. Instead he yearned to work with something sharper, leaner. When Paul Wittgenstein approached him with the commission request, Ravel happily accepted. At that time he was working, coincidentally, on his own Piano Concerto in G major, which he set aside temporarily. For this Concerto for the Left Hand, he decided to let that sharper, darker voice within him speak.

Maurice Ravel

Wittgenstein was a compelling figure, a powerful inspiration to anyone, even now, whose art or vocation appears doomed by sudden infirmity. Born in 1875 to a wealthy, influential Viennese family, he was the seventh of eight children, all of whom were musically gifted. The family’s considerable fortune, and likely his family name, enabled Paul to commission over a dozen works for left-hand piano. With his empty right jacket sleeve, he powered past naysayers and pitiers to make his musical future happen. Among the numerous composers he employed were Franz Schmidt, Erich Korngold, Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and later, Ravel, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten. He wasn’t particularly easygoing; he didn’t always like the end result of the commissions. More frequently than not, he grumbled over them. In fact, with Ravel’s concerto, completed in 1930, he went beyond just grumbling.

Paul Wittgenstein

There’s an entertaining (to me) story here. In 1931, as Wittgenstein was struggling over the new commission from Ravel (“What’s with the jazz-infused rhythms and harmonies? This is classical music. And this long piano solo as my entrance? If I’d wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”) and readying it for performance, Ravel himself was preparing for the premiere of his now-finished Piano Concerto in G minor. The two piano concertos were premiered at almost the same time. Pianist Marguerite Long performed the G minor Piano Concerto in Paris on January 14, 1932, with Ravel conducting the Orchestre Lamoureux. Thereafter, the two presented the concerto on a tour of twenty European cities. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Wittgenstein gave the premiere of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, the very same month, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Ravel, of course, couldn’t attend the premiere since he and Long were off doing their G major Concerto thing. But when they came to Vienna to perform, three weeks later, Wittgenstein welcomed them, threw an elaborate dinner in their honor. As part of the evening’s entertainment, Wittgenstein performed the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, except with changes he himself had incorporated, which he felt made the concerto better. Not little changes, either. Big whopper ones, like taking lines from the orchestral part and planting them in his piano solo. Changing harmonies, cutting out bars of music, adding a series of dramatic arpeggios to his final cadenza.

Ravel freaked. After the performance, he angrily approached Wittgenstein. “But that’s not it at all!” he sputtered, to which Wittgenstein confidently replied that, as a pianist, he knew what he was doing, to which Ravel snapped that, as an orchestrator (not to mention the composer), he knew what he was doing. They parted that evening angrily. Eventually both of them calmed down, reached an agreement, and the Paris premiere of Piano Concerto for the Left Hand had Ravel conducting and Wittgenstein performing—presumably the version Ravel had written.

Yuja Wang, Michael Tilson Thomas, SF Symphony

It’s a masterpiece, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and fiendishly difficult to play well. Which brings us to last weekend, Davies Hall, San Francisco where Yuja Wang nailed it. She continues to be my favorite classical musician, bar none. She’s exciting to watch, she’s dedicated to her art, she’s a brilliant technician, and her dresses are eye candy, something to buzz about after the show. I blogged about her and the dresses HERE and I will argue that, all these years later, she is just as exciting a performer to watch, one who garners equal praise from critics and audience members alike. I love the way she can be ferocious yet precise, at turns lyrical and boldly insouciant.

The concerto starts off in the low register, with cello and bass as the only strings, more of a mood than a sound. Then we hear the even deeper contrabassoon playing a theme, soon followed by low horns. It’s brooding and dark for close to two minutes. Then the piano presents its part of the musical conversation in that two-minute solo Wittgenstein griped about. The jazz elements, now that I know to listen for them, abound. Ravel has a Debussy-esque sound I find very appealing, with its Oriental flavors. When the piano takes a second solo, around six minutes in, the music becomes dreamy, pensive.  And later there’s Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero” that we hear traces of. Not just its notes, but its mood, the way the orchestral sound builds and builds in a delicious intensity that’s more about power than volume. But this is no “Bolero” knock-off.  There are so many original, inventive musical ideas in this nineteen-minute concerto, each one distinct, uncluttered. Yuja delivered on everything.

Lucky you – here’s a YouTube of her performing this very piece with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, June 2016, Lionel Bringuier conducting. As icing on the cake, she’s wearing yet another stunner of a dress. And something fun that I noticed here—she uses an electronic score. I sensed that was the case when I watched her perform, since it looked more like a finger swipe than a page being turned, but from my angle in the concert hall, I couldn’t be sure. Now I am.

A fabulous concerto, a sublime pianist — give both a listen if you have any opportunity to. And if geographic circumstances don’t allow, well, gotta love those CDs! HERE is the Amazon link for her Ravel piano concerto CD (with Fauré’s Ballade in F sharp thrown in too).

World Ballet Day 2018 is Oct 2nd!

Prepare yourself, dear readers, because World Ballet Day is almost here again! Save the date: Tuesday October 2nd, around the world.

There is some good news and some bad news for 2018. The good: well, it’s obvious. There’s yet another World Ballet Day! The bad news: the San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada won’t be participating. {{Sobs!}} But I have a hunch it’s still going to be a rollicking great day, filled with the kind of stuff we ballet fanatics can’t get enough of: watching company class at the Australia Ballet, The Bolshoi and London’s Royal Ballet. There will be interviews, rehearsals, footage from other ballet companies around the world, more rehearsals, more interviews, and lots and lots of exposure to the professional ballet world behind the scenes, which is my favorite part of all. Really, where would be all be without World Ballet Day, now in its fifth year? A big shouted out THANK YOU, to Royal Ballet, without whose efforts there wouldn’t be this amazing event.

This year’s event will be streamed live on Facebook; simply go to the World Ballet Day page, or the [Australian, Bolshoi, Royal] Ballet’s Facebook page. (I will provide links as the event approaches.) And this just in [on 9/22]: here are the guest companies who will be making an appearance during the twelve-hour event: Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Acosta Danza, Bayerisches Stattsballett, Dutch National Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet, Polish National Ballet, Queensland Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Scottish Ballet, National Ballet of Japan, Norwegian National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, Vienna State Ballet and West Australian Ballet.

Here’s the biggest question I get asked over and over: “When does it begin and what are the times for each company? And what is the time in my time zone?”

Stop 1 is Melbourne and the Australian Ballet. If the world-wide event kicks off at 12 noon* in Melbourne on Tues Oct 2nd (which for those of us in the Americas is actually Mon evening, Oct 1, so head’s up) it looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • Moscow          5am Tues Oct 2
  • London            3am Tues Oct 2 (maybe 2am)
  • New York       10pm Mon Oct 1 (maybe 9pm)
  • San Francisco 7pm Mon Oct 1 (maybe 6pm)

*Note that some websites are reporting that the event starts an hour earlier. I’m not sure about this, so I will triple-check and update

Stop 2 is Moscow and the Bolshoi on Tues Oct 2nd. Assuming the Australian Ballet streams a five-hour segment, this portion would begin at 10am local time, which looks like this for the rest of the time zones, all of which, happily, now all fall on the same day, Tuesday.

  • Melbourne      5pm
  • London            8am
  • New York       3am
  • San Francisco  12:00am

Stop 3 is London and the Royal Ballet. Assuming the Bolshoi had a four-hour segment like last year, the Royal Ballet’s 12 noon start looks like this for the rest of the time zones:

  • Melbourne      9pm
  • Moscow          2pm
  • New York       7am
  • San Francisco  4am

The Royal Ballet’s segment will hopefully run 5 hours, which would end coverage at 5pm local time, which looks like this for the rest of the time zones (and I’m crossing my fingers that more coverage gets added on!):

  • Melbourne      2am Wed Oct 3rd
  • Moscow          7pm
  • New York       12 noon
  • San Francisco  9am

There’s always the opportunity to watch archived material if you miss the original. Check with me here after the fact and I will share those links. Meanwhile, want archived footage and/or details and descriptions about past World Ballet Days? Check out my coverage of the event for 2017, 2016, 2015 and 2014 (just click on the year).

                                  

And one last bit of exciting news. Coincidentally, Oct 2nd is the release date for my newest  novel, entitled A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. What could be more perfect? Two reasons to celebrate the day! In fact, let’s start the celebration early, shall we? My publishers have agreed to lower the price to 99 cents from now (on preorder) through World Ballet Day. Take advantage of this offer while you can, because after that day (and maybe we’ll throw in one extra day to be nice), the price will return to $4.99. And hey, check back on World Ballet Day for some news on can’t-miss-this bargains with my other two ballet novels. OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT and OFF BALANCE.

Khachaturian’s Sizzling Piano Concerto

Nothing in the classical music repertoire says “summertime” more to me than Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto. I discovered this Soviet era gem three summers ago and my first thought, (after “WOW!”) was, How did this elude me up to now? Blame it on the fact that it’s rarely performed in concert halls these days. But make no doubt, it’s a sizzler. It’s decisive, flamboyant, arrives and departs in a pyrotechnic dazzle. Its first and third movements are a textured, color-filled feast for the ears. Its second movement melts your heart. Does the concerto lack a certain nuance found in other composers’ piano concertos, as some will argue? I’ll throw my analogy back at you: does the height of summer lack nuance? Hell, yeah! Nuance belongs to fresh, early May mornings and golden, late September afternoons. Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto belongs right here, with the heat, the direct, can’t-escape-it sunlight, the sultry evenings luring you outdoors to regard the massive, star-studded sky, where you think, “Wow.”

 

Khachaturian was born in 1903 to ethnic Armenian parents in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, where he was also raised. He was self-taught on the piano in his youth, and only later did he receive formal training, in Moscow. I’ve always grouped him in my mind with two other well-known Soviet era composers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. But a little background research on him revealed quite a different kind of Soviet. The other two composers frequently railed against the constraints of the Soviet regime, its stronghold on the arts. Khachaturian, on the other hand, embraced Communism and its ideology. Age fourteen at the start of the Russian Revolution, which soon established Soviet rule in Armenia (1920) and Georgia (1921), he took to it all with a teen boy’s fervor, signing on to join the propaganda tours via trains that traveled up and down the newly created Soviet corridor and pounded out ideological speeches and songs. The powerful connection between music and message exploded within him and he decided to embark on a musical career. Although he’d enrolled in the study of biology at a Moscow university, he nonetheless applied to the Gnessin School of Music, where he was accepted as a student of the cello. Music and composition became all that mattered in his world, and when the Moscow university expelled him from the biology program, he likely only thought, “Whew.” Thereafter, he moved on to the Moscow Conservatory, intent on creating music that “expressed the Soviet people’s joy and pride in their great and mighty country.”

“Wait,” you’re probably saying. “He’s an Armenian composer. Or is he a Soviet composer? Or Georgian—wasn’t he native to there?” Good point. Because, to complicate things further, although he is known as Armenia’s greatest composer, and is one of that nation’s greatest cultural heroes, he never set foot into Armenia until the period of the propaganda train tours, in his late teens. And he didn’t make an official visit to Armenia until 1939, three years after he composed his Piano Concerto. But make no doubt about it—he saw himself as an Armenian composer first. See, this was during the Armenian diaspora, and he and his family were part of an Armenian enclave in Tbilisi. Actually, all of it was part of a region called Transcaucasia, that included Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In a 1952 article entitled “My Idea of the Folk Element in Music,” Khachaturian wrote the following:

“I grew up in an atmosphere rich in folk music: popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of the people always accompanied by music, the vivid tunes of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian songs and dances performed by folk bards and musicians – such were the impressions that became deeply engraved on my memory, that determined my musical thinking.”

The Soviet regime adored Khachaturian, his work, his powerful commitment to his Armenian heritage and Communism both. In him they found the perfect vehicle to demonstrate how the Soviet nations outside Russia were equally valued, and delivered an equally strong message that matched theirs. Which was hugely important for a composer during this time. (just ask the less obliging Shostakovich.) In Joseph Stalin’s own words, a composer in Soviet society had to be “an engineer of the human soul by writing music that communicates directly with the common man and instills in listeners loyalty to the ideals of Communism, love for the Soviet Union, and pride in the working class.”

Khachaturian’s piano concerto was composed in 1936, while he was a post-grad student at the Moscow Conservatory, under the tutelage of the great pedagogue, Nikolai Myaskovsky, who encouraged Khachaturian’s use of folk music and ethnic flavors in his compositions. It premiered in 1937. With its driving rhythms, distinct flavors, accessibility and charm, it was an instant success. Khachaturian garnered high Soviet honors and his career instantly took off. He would continue in his highly successful, highly public career, to give the Soviet regime what they wanted, and they would continue to reward him for it. Between 1936 and 1946, Khachaturian wrote a set of three concerti for the piano trio of Lev Oborin (piano), David Oistrakh (violin), and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky (cello).

Give the first movement a listen, and we’ll talk more afterwards. it features pianist Alicia de Larrocha with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Rafael Frückbeck de Burgos conducting, who  all balance nicely the bombastic with the thoughtful. And there’s a treat in store: this is one of the few recordings that, in the second movement, utilizes the flexatone, a strange little steel instrument invented in Britain in 1922, which produces a sound like what you’d get if you mixed a musical saw with a poorly-tuned (and played) glockenspiel. (Stop scratching your head in confusion and just go LISTEN. And if you can explain it better, in the comments section below, I will give you a prize. Pinky swear.)


What did you think? Even though I’m a strings person and would normally gravitate first to the violin concerto, or its cello counterpart, it’s this Piano Concerto that has stolen my heart. I’m so intrigued by to those delicious, slightly dissonant chords — Khachaturian loved incorporating intervals of the second. He also embraced the Oriental music idiom, which surely pairs well with Armenian folk music.

And that second movement — oh wow, it never fails to cast a spell on me. It creates such a vivid inner state, the way the full moon on a warm summer’s night makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into another realm. Lying in the grass, looking up at the stars, everything tight in you eases and the world of imagination and possibility unfurls before you like a grand, endless, magic carpet. Story has it, it’s based on a Transcaucasus melody. A bass clarinet introduces and ends the movement. A new instrument for me; I’d been so sure it was a double bassoon, so deep and gorgeously brooding, but nope. Here, the bass clarinet is utilizing its full range—an octave below the more common soprano clarinet. It lends the movement its unique sound (the bass clarinet is more common in concert bands than in classical orchestration), along with that flexatone. Most recordings don’t use the flexatone, and instead let the violins carry the melody, which is a shame. Once you’ve heard a recording with the flexatone, without it, the strings seem to muddy what was mystical and wonderfully spooky. And the piano dialogues differently with a solo instrument. But, with or without flexatone, the movement is just stunning. Lush, spacious and so viscerally satisfying. And again, there’s that dissonance in the chords that works so deliciously. Remember what I said above about Khachaturian’s love of incorporating intervals of the second” ? That’s what you’re hearing.

Here is the second movement on its own. Very much worth a listen even though it doesn’t have the flexatone. The soloist is Aram Avetyan, it’s the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eduard Topchjan.

Khachaturian has got a rollicking good violin concerto too, and a cello concerto that doesn’t strike me as mind-blowing as the piano concerto, but let me know if you disagree. Khachaturian was more prolific than a lot of people realize, probably because, as a Soviet composer, much of his work found a home only in the (former) USSR. He composed quite a few film scores, which I hadn’t realized. In later years, he composed another set of three concertos — actually, concerto rhapsodies, which are a “single-movement, multi-sectioned concept balanced between cadenza and fantasy.” My ballet readers will know and love more than one Khachaturian composition, maybe not even realizing who the composer was for the Bolshoi’s ballet, Spartacus, and its gorgeous, romantic Adagio pas de deux. And the sweeping “Masquerade Suite.” And the Soviet ballet, Gayaneh.

Here are links to some of the things he composed (some of which might surprise you):

  • The Sabre Dance. You’ve heard it. Trust me. Head’s up: if Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee” kind of annoys you and/or gives you a headache, well, brace yourself. This one’s worse. https://youtu.be/gqg3l3r_DRI
  • The 1942 ballet, Gayaneh https://youtu.be/_JlGS1m1PL4
  • From the above ballet, this stunning violin adagio: https://youtu.be/K6ZBSdjzKfk It’s featured in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and also heavily borrowed from by James Horner for his soundtrack to Aliens.
  • Violin Concerto (features violin legend David Oistrakh, and Khachaturian himself composing) https://youtu.be/TeKZAbFj83I
  • Cello Concerto https://youtu.be/HbkWS8wXqMg
  • Spartacus Ballet, the Bolshoi production, the Adagio pas de deux. (A MUST CLICK for any ballet dancer reader – the music plus movement will utterly transport you.) https://youtu.be/gVX0BoXc_Jk 
  • Adagio from Spartacus for music purists https://youtu.be/LZLMKkEGFRo This one is all sound, no ballet, and I think its sound says it all. A more nuanced listening experience than the above.
  • Here is my absolute fave, “Masquerade Suite.” The ballet dancer in me was instantly smitten upon hearing this, decades ago. The love has never abated. In fact, let’s embed so all can enjoy.

Sibling rivalry – when your sister’s a dancer too

The story is as familiar as it is painful to many a dancer. A promotion or a lead role, just within reach, is irrevocably lost, given to another dancer. Someone you admire and respect, someone you might have toiled and danced alongside for years. Now you’re hurting, and all you want to do is go home, grieve, cry, vent, in the security of your home. Only this time it’s more complicated.

This time the other dancer is your sister.

While I myself have five sisters, none shared my passion for ballet while growing up, so as an adult, I decided to explore the situation fictionally. In my 2016 novel, Outside the Limelight, professional dancer Dena, three years her sister Rebecca’s junior, gets the promotion to soloist that Rebecca had been anticipating. The story, if you haven’t yet read it, follows the sisters’ ensuing relationship, through its bumps, challenging circumstances, dramas and traumas, and the ultimate realization that the bond of sisterhood surpasses all others

Real-life ballet sister scenarios play out quite frequently, I’ve since discovered. In a 2013 New York Times article, Patricia and Jeannette Delgado, both principals with Miami City Ballet, discussed their own situation. Much like in my novel, younger sister Jeanette, after years of being the subordinate, excelled extravagantly, prompting dance critic Alastair Macaulay to call her “one of the world’s most marvelous ballerinas.” Patricia, older by two years, was taken aback. In the article, she shares that, “I closed my eyes and opened them, and said, ‘Oh, my God. My sister is amazing,’ I knew she would have opportunities I wouldn’t get, and that was the first time I was dealing with that.” In the long run, however, Patricia credited Jeanette’s success as helping her to elevate her own dancing. “She was blowing me away, and I said, ‘I’ve got to turn it up.’ ” And she went on to do just that. (Read the full article here.)

Ballet sisters Zippora and Romy Karz, who both danced with the New York City Ballet (shown below together, and below that, with their other two siblings) offered their own perspective.

“I am blessed—my sister is my best friend,” said Zippora, the eldest, who rose to soloist rank. “We went through growing-up years, for sure, and I didn’t always turn to her, but she was always there. Romy and I were very different dancers and personalities, and different life happenings, so I don’t think we ever compared ourselves to each other.”

Romy, three years younger, agreed. “I never put myself on her level, and so the competition was not a struggle. I loved being her sister. When I first started at the School of American Ballet, she wouldn’t let me live with her. She wanted me to carve my own place, and for her to have hers, without taking care of me. Within a year, we found great comfort in our relationship with each other, and the desire to live together because we actually wanted to. Being her sister felt like a great honor to me.”

Challenges for ballet sisters can come in other forms. Zippora, who wrote The Sugarless Plum, a memoir chronicling her battle with Type 1 diabetes while dancing, did not share her illness with the other dancers. This increased the sisters’ closeness. “I knew of her incredible struggles with her health,” Romy said. “I knew how hard it was, so I worried a lot about her. That was stressful for me. It was hard to separate from my connection and caring of her, within company life.”

Lauren Jonas, artistic director of Walnut Creek-based Diablo Ballet, had not one but two ballet sisters, growing up. From the family’s home base in San Rafael, the three of them trained at the Marin Ballet. Mindy was five years older than Lauren, Corinne two years younger. All three went on to dance professionally, although Mindy was forced to retire at a very young age due to a bad foot injury that never healed properly. Lauren joined the Milwaukee Ballet after completing training, and Corinne joined the Houston Ballet.

Here, then, is another challenge ballet dancer sisters face: the prospect of being geographically separated. Cuban sisters and principal dancers Lorena and Lorna Feijóo spent their professional careers in San Francisco and Boston respectively. Sisters Maria Sascha and Nadia Khan, Montana natives, are based in Russia and Rome (and have two brothers, also professional ballet dancers, based in London and St. Petersburg). The Jonas sisters dispersed to New York, Milwaukee and Houston.

“It’s hard being in different companies,” Lauren admitted. “Living far apart, not being able to seeing the other dance, after those years of training together. You’re used to having that support right there, and then it’s gone.”

Years later, in an intriguing twist, Lauren co-founded Diablo Ballet, and a few years later Corinne joined the company, the two younger sisters finally dancing together on the same professional stage. This did, however, bring new sister-related challenges: Lauren had to refrain from showing any administrative favoritism toward this new dancer who was also her sister.

Lauren and Corinne Jonas. Photo by Ashraf

I asked Lauren what helped the two of them overcome any sense of competition in their youth. “It helped that we were very different dancers,” she replied. “I was very Don Q, good at fouettés, jumps, pirouettes. Corinne was more Juliet, lyrical and flowing. Although, we looked alike and choreographers liked playing around with that.” In choreographer Sally Streets’ 1997 ballet, Encores, Lauren danced in front of a mirror, where she encountered her mirrored self: her dancing sister.

I asked these ballet professionals what kind of advice regarding sibling rivalry they might offer today’s aspiring ballet dancer sisters. All were in agreement: figure out what you yourself are good at, what makes you unique, and work to improve and refine that.

“We all have to carve out who we are,” Romy said. “It’s a natural thing to feel jealous of someone who has what you want, and that may be better arches, extensions and parts in a ballet, and that may be your best friend, your worst enemy or your sibling. I think it’s healthy to feel what you’re feeling, and then to examine what you can do about it. Harboring those feelings won’t bring you closer to your own goals, but focusing on your own work and keeping your focus on your own goals will.”

Classical Girl (in orange) with her own sisters.

Here are but a few names of professional ballet dancer sisters through the past generation. Can you add to the list?

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief
Patricia and Coleen Neary
Johnna and Gelsey Kirkland
Tina and Sheri LeBlanc
Kathleen and Margaret Tracey
Laura and Elise Flagg
Svetlana and Yulia Lunkina
Leigh-Ann and Sara Esty
Mary Mills Thomas and Melissa Thomas
Zenaida and Nadia Yanowsky

This article first appeared at Dance Advantage with The Classical Girl’s permission.

© 2017 Terez Rose

And the winners are…

Thank you to all of you who entered my giveaway drawing for Amazon gift cards and advance reader copies of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. I’m happy to announce the following:

First prize
A  $25 gift card from Amazon and a print copy of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA, goes to… Andra!

Runners up
A $5 gift card from Amazon and an electronic copy of A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA, go to… Lisa Blanchard and Samantha!

 

Congratulations, winners! I will be contacting you via the emails affiliated with the comment posted (or if you emailed me directly). If you don’t hear from me by the end of the week (because tomorrow is the 4th of July and I ain’t working!), please do contact me!  If you have an AOL email account, they can be notorious for deciding that the Classical Girl admin email address is spam. Boo hoo, AOL!

And for the rest of you, thank you so much for contacting me and adding your name to the bowl. If any of you would be interested in being an advance reader and posting a review of the book on Amazon once it’s published (Oct 2nd), I will be making the novel available to all reviewers on August 2nd. It will be available through NetGalley, but if you’d like me to contact you and send you a reviewer’s copy privately, I’d be happy to do that. Just let me know, either in comments below, or via email.

Thanks, all, for celebrating my 200th post, and I look forward to celebrating with you all again, in three months’ time, when A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA gets released into the world!

                       

Want a taste of what’s to come on October 2nd? Here’s the opening chapter from A DANCER’S GUIDE TO AFRICA. Note that WordPress has squished some of the words together. If you prefer the better formatted version, click on this link:  Chapter 1, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa  

Chapter 1

The first thing I noticed was the AK-47, cradled in the arms of the Gabonese military checkpoint guard. That, and the fact that the man looked angry. He sprang to attention as our dust-caked van rolled to a stop, clutching his rifle close, arms at rigid angles. A steel bar, supported by two rusting oil drums, stretched across the unpaved road, preventing us from passing without his permission. Since my arrival in Gabon seventy-two hours prior, part of a group of twenty-six trainees, I’d discovered military checkpoints were common in Africa. At the first one, outside the Gabonese capital of Libreville, the guard had waved us through without rising from his seat. At the second, a soldier was sleeping in a chair tipped against a cinder-block building. Only the noise of our honking had awakened him. But this third official took his job seriously.

Inside the Peace Corps van, I glanced around to see if anyone else noticed the danger we were in. No one was looking. Animated chatter filled the overheated van. “Um, excuse me?” I called out over the din, my voice abnormally high. “Someone with a big gun out there looks very angry.” My seatmate and fellow English-teaching trainee, Carmen, leaned over me to peer out.

“Whoa,” she murmured, “he kind of does. Cool!”

Her fascination shouldn’t have surprised me. Carmen seemed to embrace the gritty, the provocative, evidenced by her multiple piercings, dark spikey hair, heavy eyeliner and combat boots. Although we were the same age, twenty-two, I would have given her a wide berth back home. Here, she’d become my closest friend.

Together we watched the guard draw closer. His eyes glowed with a fanatic’s fervor, as if he were drunk on his own power. Or simply drunk. The authorities herebore little resemblance to the clean-cut police officers back in Omaha who patrolled the suburban neighborhoods, stopping me in my dented Ford Pinto to politely inquire whether I was aware of how fast I’d been driving. That world seemed very far away.

Our van driver, a short, wiry Gabonese man, stepped out of the vehicle and waved official-looking papers at the guard. By the determined shake of the guard’s head after he’d perused them, it clearly wasn’t enough.

The two began a heated discussion. When the driver held up a finger and disappeared back into the van, the guard scowled, tightening his grip on his weapon. Restlessly he scanned the van windows and caught my worried gaze. And held it.

I am going to die. The thought rose in me, pure and clairvoyant.

I pulled away from the window in terror. “He’s staring at me!”

“What are you talking about?” Carmen peered closer out the window.

“No, stop.” I yanked her arm. “I don’t want him to look this way.”

“Fiona. He wasn’t looking at you. He was looking at the group of us.”

“No, he wasn’t,” I insisted. “He was looking for someone to single out.”

Someone to pull from the bus and shoot. The thought, however irrational, made my gut clench in fear.

Carmen studied me quizzically. “You know, they say taking your weekly dose of Aralen gives you weird-assed dreams. Even violent dreams. You didn’t just take your Aralen, did you?”

“No! And are you saying you don’t find this angry military guy with a gun more than a little scary?”

“I do not. I mean, I would if it were just him and me on an empty road at night. But we’re a van full of Peace Corps volunteers and trainees. How sweetly innocent is that? This is Gabon, not Angola. And besides, do you see anyone else in this van getting anxious?”

I glanced around to see if anyone else was bothered by the danger. Conversations had continued without pause. Aside from the occasional idle glance out the window, no one was paying the drama any attention.

“No, I don’t,” I admitted.

Our van driver returned to the checkpoint guard. He said something that made the guard relax his grip on the rifle. He opened one hand and accepted the two packs of cigarettes our driver offered him. Pocketing them, he gestured to a structure adjacent to his building, and the two of them strolled toward it.

“You know, I’m not sure who won,” Carmen said.

I released the breath I’d been holding. “At least he didn’t shoot off his gun.”

Another uniformed guard crunched over to our van. “Descendez,descendez,”he called out in a bored voice.

Carmen and I exchanged worried glances. The volunteers in the van rose, grumbling and stretching.

“What’s going on?” Daniel, another English-teaching trainee, asked, frozen halfway between sitting and standing.

One of the volunteers shrugged. “Checkpoints….”

This wasn’t part of the plan and that concerned me.Wewere supposed to arrive at our training site in Lambaréné by mid-afternoon. We’d already stopped once for a flat tire and another time for a steamy, bug-infested half-hour, the reason never made clear. No one else seemed bothered by all these delays. Or worried. I could only fret to myself as we descended from the Peace Corps van into the staggering humidity, squinting at the overhead sunlight. Away from the city, deep inside the country’s interior, the whine of insects was a noisy symphony of clicks, buzzes and drones. Jungly trees crowded the landscape, broken only by the red-dirt road and clearing. A group of children, wearing an assortment of ragged thrift-store castoffs, shrieked at our sudden appearance and ran from us. The rifle-toting soldier and our driver had disappeared.

“But what’s the problem?” I quavered, trudging behind the others over to a mud-and-wattle shack set up next to the checkpoint station. “How long will we be here?”

“Who knows?” a volunteer named Rich replied. “Long enough to have a Regab.” He entered the shack and we followed like ducks. In the dim room, lit by sunlight filtering through cracks, Rich pointed to a table where our driver was sitting, relaxed in conversation with the guard. Both clutched wine-sized green bottles of beer. Regab.

“There’s malaria, of course,” Rich was telling us after we’d grouped around a back table, armed with our own tepid Regabs. “Then filaria, hepatitis, typhoid….” He ticked off the diseases on his fingers, undistracted by the whispers and giggles of the children who’d returned. Through gaps in the wall, I could see them outside: a half-dozen pairs of eyes watching our every move.

“Don’t forget giardia,” a woman sitting next to me on the bench sang out. “Purple burps and green farts,” she added for explanation.

“These are diseases a person might theoretically get here?” I asked.

“They’re diseases the volunteers have right now,”Rich replied.

“You’re telling me someone’s walking around with malaria?”

“That would be me,” he stated with obvious pride.

I scrutinized him. Tangled blond curls framed his gaunt, stubbled face, but there he sat across from me in a poncho-like shirt with wild swirls of color, swigging his Regab and chuckling as if having malaria were great fun.

“Aren’t you, like, supposed to be delirious and burning with fever?” Carmen asked.

He shrugged. “The fever and chills come and go. I feel like shit at the moment, but hey, might as well drink and have a reason to feel that way.”

I stared at him, uneasy. “I thought taking Aralen kept us from getting malaria.”

“In principle, yes. But it’s chloroquine-based and the mosquitoes are becoming chloroquine-resistant.” He wagged a finger at all the trainees. “You’re not safe from anythinghere.” At his pronouncement, the contents of my stomach—an earlier lunch of mystery meat in fiery sauce over rice—leapt around.

“Oh, don’t go scaring them,” the purple-burps woman told Rich, her pale, sweaty face earnest. “It’s been yearssince a volunteer in Gabon has died, and it’s usually from car accidents anyway. Aside from intestinal parasites and skin fungi, I’ve never gotten sick. If it weren’t for the stares that make you feel like a circus freak, and problem students in the classroom, life here would be a breeze. Well,” she added after a moment’s reflection, “except for those packages from home that keep getting torn into at the post office and arriving to me empty. Oh, and the loneliness, of course. That’s a killer. But hey, there’s Regab.” She raised her bottle and paused to regard it with something akin to reverence.

“Have you talked to Christophe about the post office business?” Rich asked her.

“No. Think I should?”

“Definitely. He might know someone there.”

“This guy, Christophe,” Carmen said. “I heard someone else mention his name. Is he Peace Corps staff?”

“Only as a trainer for you English teachers. But his father’s the Gabonese Minister of Tourism, so he knows a lot of people.”

Regab seemed exotic, heavier and darker than the Coors Light I drank back home, but very drinkable, in the end. It began to soothe my jangled nerves, numb my overstimulated brain. Sitting in a dark shack in the sultry equatorial African interior almost became the grand adventure it was supposed to be. Pinging foreign music blared from a battery-operated cassette player. Two chickens crooned and wove their way around our ankles, pecking at the dirt floor. Inconceivable to think that only five days prior, I’d been in Washington, D.C. with the other twenty-five Peace Corps Gabon trainees, beginning preparation for our two-year assignment.

The delay extended into another twenty-four-ounce beer. Apparently our driver didn’t have all the correct papers qualifying him to drive a group of us in the Peace Corps van. Chuck Martin, Peace Corps Gabon’s country director, also en route to the Lambaréné training, could solve the problem with a signature. When he showed up. I drank more Regab and pressed the bottle to my sweaty face. Carmen fanned herself with her Welcome to Gabon! leaflet. “I need to use a bathroom,” I mumbled to her. “Where do you suppose it is?”

“Got me.” She shrugged and grinned. “I think you need to go ask those friendly guys at the checkpoint next door.”

Instead I asked the bar owner, in careful textbook French, the next time she brought beers to our table. “Là-bas,” she told me, pursing her lips in the direction of the back door. Over there. “Follow the path,” she added in French.

“Want company?” Carmen asked.

“No thanks.” I teetered through the bar and stumbled outside where the brightness momentarily blinded me. The Regab, heat and jet lag had made me queasy and disoriented as well. But I found the path and started down it.

The forest directly behind the checkpoint station appeared scraggly, commonplace. The thin trees and spindly brush were like something I might have found in rural Nebraska. The number of flies, however, was remarkable, as was their tenacity. Waving them away from my ears, nose and mouth, I wandered down the foot-worn path, in search of the latrine. Past the clearing, weedy scrub rose on either side of the path, up to my waist. I began to wonder if my translation for là-basas “over there” was way off. Because I’d gone pretty là-basand I was nowhere. The marching cadence, however, relaxed me. In the past week, through the Peace Corps stateside training and the group’s transatlanticflight to Gabon, I’d rarely been alone. And I craved solitude the way I craved dance.

Dance. My ballet practice.

The thought made me stumble. To deflect my attention from the sadness that billowed up like a storm cloud, I focused on my sister, Alison. Alison and her boyfriend. The rage kicked in, clearing my head, making me feel strong again.

Okay, so maybe the Peace Corps business had been a mistake. At least it had offered me an escape. Nine months ago, back in September, Dad had given me an ultimatum. I’d just commenced my fifth year of undergraduate studies—the cost of changing degree programs twice—performing with a local dance company, enjoying life precisely as it was.

“Time to wrap it up, Fiona,” Dad told me. “Get that psychology degree—”

“—Sociology degree,” I corrected.

“Fine. Get your bachelor’s degree and go find work. A real job, not just dancing.”

Dutifully I dropped by the university placement center the next day, where I scanned the listings of job offers and recruiting interviews tacked up on the bulletin board. My heart sank further with each one I read. Actuary. Oscar Meyer sales rep. Claims adjuster. UPS supervisor. No, no and no. They all seemed to want to crush something unnamed and precious within my soul, that only dance brought me.

ThenI spied a Peace Corps brochure. Teaching English in Africa sounded responsible and yet romantic. To placate Dad and my own anxiety over leaving dance, I started up the application process. The CARE commercials on television, after all, had always touched me, with their drama and beautiful background music. I visualized myself, noble and selfless, helping rid the world of poverty. Africa would be reallife, a true adventure, yet something with soul.

The acceptance letter six months later, after a series of interviews, made me want to run the other way. Somehow my grand idea, viewed up close, had lost all its charm. I told my family about the letter, more for show than because I was going to do it. But while Mom and Dad congratulated me, I saw my two siblings exchange glances.

“You’re still playing with that idea?” Russell, the eldest and the family’s academic super-achiever, asked.

Alison, the family’s beauty queen—literally: she’d been Miss Nebraska four years earlier, in 1984—didn’tspeak at first. Her expression creased in bemusement before she shook her head and began to chuckle. “Oh, Fiona,” was all she said.

I knew what that shake of my older sister’s head meant. I’d seen it constantly through my bumpy, awkward, adolescent and university years. It was the pained look you gave someone who’d just stepped in dog shit. This, on top of the most recent humiliation and grief she’d caused me. I had to get away from her. The Peace Corps was my ticket out.

“Yes, I’m still ‘playing’ with that idea.” I glared at them. “In fact, I’ve decided to accept.”

And so I did it. Except now I was stuck in Africa for two years, thanks to my sister—and, admittedly, my pride. But I was going to stick it out, even if it killed me. Which, evidently, it might.

It dawned on me that I’d walked for a long time without seeing the latrine. “Screw this,” I muttered. Stepping away from the path, I squatted down to pee. Afterward, smoothing my skirt back into place, I turned around and headed back. But the return began to confuse me, after the path forked. I stopped and looked around. Had that grove of banana trees been there before? After another minute of walking, my heart began to pound against my ribs. I retraced my steps back to the fork and went the other way. It was worse—I recognized nothing. Fiveminutes later, I turned around again. This time, I could find no fork at all. Dizzy and nauseous, I began to trot, stumbling on a gnarled vine half-buried beneath the path. I followed the path until I came to a new fork. Or had I taken this fork? The overhead equatorial sun offered no directional clues. It sank in that I was hopelessly lost.

I dropped to my haunches, covering my face with my hands, my breath coming in short, panicked gasps.

Eh… Ntang, wa ka ve?”

 I dropped my hands and looked up. Like a mirage, a tiny, dusty African woman had appeared out of nowhere. She stood in front of me in bare feet, bent from the wicker basket load on her back. A twig poked out of her matted hair. She wore a sheet of fabric, the print faded with age, wrapped around her body like a bath towel. As I stood up, her face broke into a wide grin, revealing gaps from missing teeth. Her milky-brown eyes lit up in pleasure as she reached out with both hands to clasp mine in greeting.

Ntang, wa ka ve?” she repeated, pumping my hand. She smelled smoky.

“Uh … bonjour.I pasted a bright smile on my face.

Ah, madame.She beamed at me. In French, I explained I was lost, and could she help me find the checkpoint station? She bobbed her head and cackled. It dawned on me that she didn’t understand French. I imitated an AK-47 with my arms, putting a fierce look on my face. She nodded and patted me. She began talking, a patter of incomprehensible language in a soothing, hypnotic voice. Her face was serious, eyes riveted to mine as if this would make me understand her language better.

 “I’m sorry,” I interrupted in English, my voice breaking. “I don’t understand a word you’re saying and I’m lost and I’m starting to freak out here. That stupid Regab…”

At this, her eyes lit up. “Regab, oye!”

“Regab, yes? Regab—to buy, to drink!” I mimed gulping down a big bottle, tossing my head back and making glugging actions. “Where—” I placed my hand over my eyes and with sweeping theatrical gestures, pretended to scope out the scenery, “—is Regab? With guns?”

This time she understood my rifle imitation. Taking me by the hand, she led me back the way I’d come. For a few minutes, I heard only the hushed rustle of the grass as we passed. Even the bugs seemed to be holding their breath.

We arrived at the fork. “Regab,” she said, and pointed to the right.

I paused. I’d tried this way already. She sensed my hesitation and made a little “eh” noise and nudged me down the trail. After a few steps, I turned around.

“Please, mama, this isn’t the right…” I started.

No one was in sight. The woman had disappeared into the grasses as silently as she’d come. A chill crept over me, in spite of the sweat pouring down my back. She’d been there and nowshe wasn’t. But I had no time to ponder the woman’s disappearance. Pushing down my panic, I hurried past the trees until I heard the sound of voices and laughter. The trail rounded a bend to revealthe clearing, the two buildings, the Peace Corps van, which, in my absence, had become two, with my fellow traineesand volunteers milling around.

Chuck, the Peace Corps countrydirector, a burly, vibrant man with a buzz-cut, had arrived. “Thereyou are, Fiona,” he said. “We were wondering what happened to you.”

“I don’t know where that latrine was that they were talking about. I went forever and got lost.”

He glanced to his right. My gaze followed his down a better traveled path, at the end of which stood a wooden outhouse.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”

As we walked together to where the others were starting to board the vans, I caught sight of the checkpoint guard. “Peace Corpse, oye!” he called out to everyone as they boarded. A broad grin nowcovered his face. He waved his arms, benevolent as a mother seeing her first-grader off to school, the image marred only by the presence of the rifle in one hand.

It was all too weird. I slowed down.

Chuck glanced over at me. “What’s wrong?”

It took me a moment to decipher my uneasy feeling. First, the rabid guard who was nowour buddy. Malaria Rich and his stories. Getting lost. The old woman. My intestines began to grumble, in tandem with my pounding head. I didn’t know what I’d seen out there or how I’d gotten un-lost or what had happened. Gabon was feeling a little like The Twilight Zone.

“It’s just that…things here don’t make sense.”

Chuck’s face widened into a smile.

“Welcome to Africa. You’ll be saying that a lot.”