Back in the 1980’s, I was a ballet dancer who went off to Africa. I could have used a guide. But I was young and didn’t even give the concept — ballet dancer + Africa = not — much thought. For the previous five years, ballet had been my world, even as I concurrently earned my college degree and worked. English teacher in the Peace Corps seemed to be a fun role to audition for. So I tried out, got cast, moved to Central Africa for two years. During which time I came to realize that classical ballet and provincial Africa don’t particularly mix and that I was a fish out of water.
Cut to present day, where I just recently completed my rewrite of “that Africa novel,” now in its third incarnation. If you’re one of my earlier readers, you might remember reading this post, and you’ll know the original 2002 novel was titled Black Ivory Soul. During the past six months as I rewrote, the working title became The Art of Foreign Relations. Last week, however, I pitched titles to a group of writer buddies, and they pointed out potential flaws to my shortlist (favored by me was A Ballet Dancer’s Guide to African Survival, which even I knew was too damned long). The trimmed title that resulted from the group brainstorm is A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, and does just what it’s supposed to do. Because, invariably, my elevator pitch for the project starts off with, “So, it’s about this ballet dancer who runs off to Africa to escape her problems…” No, the novel is not autobiographical. Well. Maybe a teensy bit.
But I digress. That guide I could have used? While it doesn’t seem to exist, here are a few of my personal impressions. And bear in mind the impressions date back thirty years. Also, I’m not counting South Africa here. It does have its dance companies, choreographers, ballet dancers. I am thinking of Central and West Africa. If you have more recent information to share, or information about other parts of Africa, my readers and I would LOVE it if you added what you know below, in comments.
Tips for the ballet dancer heading to Africa…
Reconsider bringing your pointe shoes. They just go mushy fast in the humid, warm climate. Give your poor feet a well-deserved rest.
Don’t make any assumptions about the availability of a studio, a class, a space to do ballet.
Giving yourself a barre twice weekly in your home IS something you can do. Yes, for two years. Don’t think you have to give up ballet completely just because there might not be a single ballet community outside the capital city. (Or even there.)
Expect kids to hear your music and come running, and watch whenever possible. This classical ballet stuff is fascinating for them.
Ballet means something different in French-speaking Africa. The French word for what I call “ballet” is la danse classique. On the other hand, Les Ballets Africains is a dance company based in Conakry, Guinea, one that promotes traditional dance and culture of Africa.
Dance is something so innate in the African culture, it’s a difficult concept for Africans to consider, the way Westerners compartmentalize dance, into something a young girl might do once a week, in a studio, paying for lessons, and no more. It baffles them to consider that some people prefer not to dance at all.
In A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, my character, Fiona, muses about dance and its place in Africa. Here’s an excerpt, where she’s talking with Christophe, her Gabonese friend (and so much more, but let’s not get into that angle here). And lest you feel annoyed with Fiona for clinging to her “I only do ballet” attitude toward dance in Africa, know that her metamorphosis from “ballet only” to embracing African dance is part of the story. A big part.
I waded out into the Atlantic, diving through the breakers. The undertow tugged at me as I sliced through the warm water, stretching my muscles, freeing my body. It felt glorious – the closest thing to dance I’d found in a long time. I swam back and forth for twenty minutes, releasing the surplus dancer energy I’d carried for weeks. Months. Finally I made my way back to shore and the chairs, dripping, chest still heaving.
“That was quite a workout,” Christophe said as I collapsed in the seat next to him.
“I needed it. Bad.”
“Are you dancing these days?”
I shook my head. “Got my ballet shoe stolen, remember?”
“We both know you could have obtained a replacement. In fact, give me the size and maker and I’ll order you a pair. A gift.”
I ignored the offer. “What would be the point, anyway?”
“Because you’re a dancer.”
“Ballet doesn’t work here.”
“Ballet is not the only form of dance.”
“It’s what I excel at. I’m not comfortable doing the other styles.” I watched the ocean thunder onto the beach and whisper its retreat.
“Have you tried?” he asked.
“Of course I have. It would be hard to avoid.”
Dance, I’d come to see, was everywhere here. The Gabonese danced at clubs, bars, parties. They danced in church; they danced in rituals; they danced to honor the arrivals of politicians and luminaries. They danced any time someone put on the right music, which meant, any music with a drum beat. Or any beat. One thing they didn’t dance to was classical music. I hadn’t heard a whisper of anything classical, aside from my cassettes—stolen in theft number six—since my arrival in Africa.
“And how was it?” Christophe prodded.
“I can’t dance African.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
“Why are you pushing this issue? You’ve seen me dance. I’m classical. I’m Caucasian. I cannot move like an African.”
And I didn’t need Christophe to inform me why, that something in me was too rigid and had to loosen, not just physically but psychologically. I knew this. I’d watch the Gabonese move with a freedom within their bodies that I couldn’t even imagine. Relaxed energy flowed from all parts of their body: the legs, the torso, the arms. Sometimes the movement would be so small, just this gentle, rhythmic shifting from one foot to another. There was an innate flexibility in their hips. When I saw toddlers learning to dance in tandem with learning to walk, I understood the source of the intuitive movement. Even before that, actually. Babies were tucked on their mother’s backs, tied in place with a spare pagne. Every movement the mother made, and she went right along with her business, the child felt. Jiggling, swerving, dancing, striding, straining, from a child’s earliest kinetic memory. I thought of my own Omaha upbringing and my first exposure to dance at age eight, with Miss Claireen’s class. And even then, it had been once a week, only in later years three and four times weekly. Less than six hours a week, through my adolescence. Ballet alone. Which I loved fiercely. No ballet available here? Fine. No dance, I told myself.
Christophe studied my stubborn expression. He shook his head and, to my irritation, began to chuckle.
Got questions related to Africa and/or trying to maintain a private dance practice there? Drop me a line! And be on the lookout, in November 2018, for A Dancer’s Guide to Africa. It’s a great yarn, with plenty of humor and heart. And heaps of Africa.
Want to see some great African dance? This is a YouTube of Umoja, a 2011 collaboration that brought together three artist groups in the West African tradition – Voice of Culture, Duniya Drum and Dance, and Oyin Dance. The event was held at Caponi Art Park in Eagan, MN. I love that there’s a Caucasian dancer in the mix. She rocks. It makes me think of my character, Fiona, once she’s evolved.
Jean Sibelius’ tone-poem, Finlandia, wasn’t supposed to be the program headliner one recent Saturday night at the San Francisco Symphony. The main draw was the Sibelius Violin Concerto, gracefully and sensitively rendered by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride, with Finnish guest conductor Osmö Vänskä leading the orchestra. Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra—they of the Great Lockout of 2012-14 infamy—literally staked his position on turning said orchestra into one of the country’s finest, resigning in protest in the later months of the lockout, only to be rehired the following April (good call), where he now continues, with the Minnesota Orchestra, to excel and produce world-class music. Particularly impressive are Vänskä’s Sibelius interpretations. No surprise, perhaps, as both hail from Finland and both have captured, in the music, the nuance, proud spirit and dignity of this Nordic country. And no piece conjures a sense of Finnish national pride more so than Sibelius’ Finlandia, a patriotic tone-poem, the seventh of seven tableaux written in 1899 and revised a year later. Coming in at eight-ish minutes (can be up to nine), it’s short. The first part delivers a brooding fanfare of horns, rumbling timpani, depicting menace, oppression that, indeed, was part of Finland’s history, through occupations by Sweden and then Russia, into the early 20th century. The middle part of Finlandia calls in strings and woodwinds, a gentler but no less affecting sound, before the piece really ramps into high gear. It becomes propulsive and spirited, with plenty of crashing cymbals and an increase in speed and intensity from the entire orchestra. And now, at its peak, comes the melody, slow and majestic, instantly timeless and memorable.
I’m going to use the words of my character, Rebecca, from Outside the Limelight to describe it, because she does a better job with it than I. At a party she’s attending, she mentions to a group that she’d recently analyzed a classical music excerpt by Emily Howell in a college aesthetics class. (Hint: Emily Howell is not a female composer but a computer program that composes original classical music.)
“So, you listened to some of the music?” the man asked.
“I did,” she said. “We compared it to two other excerpts, traditional compositions.”
“Bach. Jean Sibelius.”
“Good, good.” The man nodded. “So, what was your verdict?”
The Emily Howell composition had pleasantly surprised her, a flood of arpeggiated piano notes hovering around a melodic theme, like something Chopin or Scriabin might have composed. The Bach had been lovely and precise, like music meets mathematics. It was the Sibelius, however, that had stirred her with its rich textures and sonorities and, paradoxically, its simplicity. There were far less notes. The melody was not complex. But the horns’ mournful call, the way they sustained one of their notes against the melody, clinging, holding on, had been the most vivid aural depiction of love, fealty and longing she’d ever heard. It had made her throat contract, her eyes sting.
“I preferred the Sibelius,” she told the man.
“Well, it had… humanity. It was art and evoked true emotion. Next to it, the Howell seemed like just a clever, agreeable arrangements of notes.”
“What kind of emotion did it evoke?”
Across the room, she saw Anders, smiling, engrossed in what the beautiful woman across from him was saying. Her heart gave a twist.
“Longing,” she said.
“But how was this ‘longing’ portrayed in the music?” the man persisted. “I’m guessing a minor key, dissonance of two notes, followed by resolution. A solo violin, or maybe a clarinet, a French horn. Am I right?”
“You are,” she admitted.
“So. You teach this rule to the program, which will go on to analyze the scores of any music that is considered soul-stirring, and it will find patterns. It learns to add that dissonance, a little rubato to stretch it out, or the call of a horn, and voilà, you’ve got longing.”
She hated this thought. Hated it. “No,” she protested, “that doesn’t cover it. Longing didn’t come from the instruments or the notes, it came from the man, the human composing it. I’m sure of it. Longing fills a human, it permeates their world. How could a computer experience longing or shortcomings of any type? Nothing is unattainable for a computer. You can just feed it more data.” The thoughts and words tumbled out. “Creating art requires feeling pain, having a soul that’s crammed with complex emotions that have nowhere to go but into your art. A computer can cleverly simulate art. Nothing more. Otherwise, what’s the point of being human, of harboring all that pain?”
This new thought hit her, cut into her so sharply, it made her want to cry, for a half-dozen reasons, most of them hazy and undefined, but so real, so painfully real. She knew, beyond a doubt, that Sibelius had reached from deep within his own heart, his soul, to produce this work. The simple melody was anything but simple. It evoked, in a mere handful of notes, the patriotic cry of a country’s freedom.
Sibelius had written the piece, initially entitled “Finland Awakes,” part of his Press Celebration Music suite, for an event, a covert political rally of sorts to protest Russia’s increasing censorship and other punitive measures against Finland, an “autonomous” region of the Empire. It was an instant hit. In 1900 he revised, making the seventh piece stand alone and renaming it Finlandia. Its popularity grew in leaps and bounds, particularly when the fledgling Helsinki Philharmonic, eighteen months old, took it with them on their first European tour. Suddenly the world knew about Sibelius, Finlandia, and Finnish national pride. The Russians, of course, hated this, and did their best to censor performances of Finlandia. Story has it, the Finns got sneaky and gave the piece alternative names at future performances, like, “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring,” and “A Scandinavian Choral March. The correlating hymn, too, had become a big deal. Huge. Sibelius had taken the piece’s slower melody and made it a choral hymn — although the more popular words were written in 1941 by Veikko Antero Koskenniemi. It became the patriotic cry of a nation. It defined the voice of Finland that emerged in December, 1917, when the Finnish parliament finally declared independence from Russia. It is second in importance in Finland only to the country’s national anthem, “Maamme.” (Some still would like to see it become the national anthem.)
December 6, 2017 marks Finland’s centennial. I can think of no better way to honor such an event than to share Finlandia with the world.
This is my favorite version of the choral hymn. It makes tears rise in my throat every time I watch it (and I’m going on a dozen times at this point). That nationalism can be expressed with such beautiful song, is just one more reason why Finland impresses me to no end. (Second: tied for highest literacy rate in the world at 100%. Third: most engaged, informed, prolific classical music audience in the world. Fourth: one of the highest functioning welfare systems and lowest infant mortality rates in the world. Fifth: the best front row seat for viewing the Northern Lights.)
Want to know the words? Here you go! (And if WordPress’ auto-correct made a mess of the Finnish text, apologies to all my Finnish readers out there! Let me know and I’ll fix.)
Oi Suomi, katso, sinun päiväs koittaa Yön uhka karkoitettu on jo pois Ja aamun kiuru kirkkaudessa soittaa Kuin itse taivahan kansi sois Yön vallat aamun valkeus jo voittaa Sun päiväs koittaa, Oi synnyinmaa
Oi nouse Suomi, nosta korkealle Pääs seppelöimä suurten muistojen Oi nouse Suomi, näytit maailmalle Sä että karkoitit orjuuden Ja ettet taipunut sä sorron alle On aamus alkanut Oi Synnyinmaa
Here is the English translation, although a translation never gets quite to the heart of the piece, so I’d recommend you master the Finnish language and read it that manner. Because, hey, the Finnish language looks so intuitive and translatable, doesn’t it? Kinda like Basque. Easy-peasy!
Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning,
the threat of night has now been driven away.
The skylark calls across the light of morning,
the blue of heaven lets it have its way,
and now the day the powers of night is scorning:
thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!
Finland, arise, and raise towards the highest thy head now crowned with mighty memory. Finland, arise, for to the world thou criest
that thou hast thrown off thy slavery,
beneath oppression’s yoke thou never liest.
Thy morning’s come, O Finland of ours!
And now, I offer to you the full version (coming in at nine minutes, so a little more deliberate pacing), which also provides a film tour of Finland and its staggering natural beauty. (But warning, the cute little animals and birds kind of kill the mood of “we, the oppressed, must struggle or die trying” patriotic fervor. Now it’s more like a Nature episode. But a gorgeous one, I might add!)
PS: Happy Centennial, Finland!
PPS: Want to hear the original Press Celebration Music suite? In truth, it’s pretty cool, because, for you Sibelius fans such as myself, there’s some new music in there that hints at what he will produce further down the road. And there’s a pretty nifty slide show that depicts different historical scenes for each tableau, which are, themselves, intended as historical episodes. Further, you can hear the original 1899 first ending.
There is something distinctly fresh and contemporary going on at Smuin right now, beautifully apparent in their 24th season opening program, “Dance Series 01.” The company, led by artistic director Celia Fushille, was subtly rebranded in 2016, incorporating “contemporary” in their title to emphasize their mission, to present work that melds classical ballet and contemporary dance. Smuin’s collaboration with inventive choreographers offers an experience of contemporary ballet that is entertaining, evocative, and original. Case in point: the West Coast premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s impressive 2009 “Requiem for a Rose.”
Saturday afternoon’s mixed-bill program in San Francisco opened with the return of Garrett Ammon’s effervescent Serenade for Strings, another dose of the inventive and contemporary, a 2013 ballet set on Smuin dancers in 2014. Ammon, acclaimed choreographer and artistic director of Denver-based Wonderbound, likes to blend tradition with adventurous new ideas, and here, has set his work to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, best known for its accompaniment to Balanchine’s legendary Serenade (1934). Adventurous, indeed. Happily, it works. Brisk, flowing movements and classical lines are interspersed with flexed wrists, ankles, jazzy head bobbles. Costumes, designed by Rachael Kras, add to the piece’s lighthearted nature, with the females sporting mint-green bodices and short skirts fluffed up with layers of petticoat-meets-tulle. They looked as adorable as dolls. The men, in trousers and untucked button-downs, appeared both relaxed and energized. Gorgeous arabesques, strong footwork and assured partner work came from the entire ensemble, which, on Saturday afternoon, included Tessa Barbour, Robert Kretz, Valerie Harmon, Dustin James, Erin Yarbrough-Powell, Rex Wheeler, Lauren Pschirrer, company newcomer Oliver-Paul Adams, Mengjun Chen and Erica Chipp-Adams.
Serenade for Strings; Photo: Keith Sutter
The stunning “Requiem for a Rose” was the program’s centerpiece, literally and figuratively. Created in 2009 for the Pennsylvania Ballet, the work opens as a lone woman (Erica Felsch), a Venus figure, stands under a spotlight, center stage, bent from the waist, her long, flowing hair a pale curtain, a flesh-colored leotard rendering her nude [looking] and vulnerable. A tremor shakes her inert body and soon she moves to the sounds of an electronic pulse, a heartbeat, punctuated by pizzicato twangs of a plucked stringed instrument. Slowly she straightens to reveal a red rose against her mouth, the stem clenched between her teeth — one that would stay right there, through the curtain call. The image was unforgettable. Her ensuing movements remained stark, angular, arching. The boom-boom of the electronic heartbeat increased in speed and fervor, until soon a half-dozen men joined her onstage, circling her. Bare from the waist up, they sported full, red skirts, marvelously designed by Tatyana Van Waslum, like petals of a rose, flowing fabric that undulated and created waves when they turned. Six similarly clad females (wearing flesh-colored leotards in lieu of bare chests) joined them to complete the image of a full bouquet of red roses.
Requiem for a Rose; photo: Keith Sutter
The Colombian-Belgian Ochoa is a masterful, innovative choreographer who has created nearly fifty dance works for companies worldwide, including Dutch National Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet of Flanders, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba. (Bay Area audiences will get to see new commissioned work this spring in San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 “Unbound: A Festival of New Works.”) European trained and Netherlands-based, Ochoa’s choreography, accordingly, delivers movements both classical-infused and abstract. Particularly satisfying to watch were the big, luxuriant port de bras, cambrés back, pirouettes and leaps from the dancers. Occasionally passages came to a halt with a squared-off elbow, arm gesture, a propulsive movement, that seemed to insist “not classical.” Legato stretches within movements lent an uncluttered, spacious feeling to it all. The music, too, the adagio from Schubert’s Quintet in C-Major, was lush, full of space, and romantic possibilities. Indeed, Ochoa, chose this music because she found it to be “the most romantic music I know.”
“Requiem for a Rose,” according to Ochoa, strives to highlight the differences between romance and love, the former, elegant, easy, the latter, raw, angular. The lone, vulnerable female with the red rose in her mouth is a metaphor for real love. Roses, of course, are vivid and romantic. But roses die, and the red-skirted dancers at one point sway forward, bending over, a sort of wave, hand over heart, a hesitation. Throughout, Tony Tucci’s lighting (Michael Oesch’s adaption for Smuin) lent the piece further theatricality. Ochoa also creates for theatre, opera, and fashion events, and it shows, in all good ways. The opening scene had been like living art. The colors, the contrasts, the textures, the sounds; days later, it, and Felsch’s compelling performance, still haunt me.
Fly Me to the Moon; photo: Keith Sutter
Concluding the program was the late Michael Smuin’s Fly Me to the Moon, a ballet that eschews innovation in favor of nostalgia. It’s a fun, light-hearted romp through a string of Sinatra classics, against a dark backdrop that alternates with stars and a crescent moon. While some of the vignettes are starting to feel a bit dated, costumes continue to hit the right mark, both nostalgic and contemporary. The men wore slacks, fedoras, and their vests matched the women’s diaphanous skirts and bodices in pastel colors, Highlights for me included “I Won’t Dance” (Tessa Barbour, Benjamin Warner), “Moonlight Serenade” (Jonathan Powell, Erica Felsch) and Robert Kretz’ solo, set to “That’s Life.” Mengjun Chen and Dustin James danced notably well through the program, and Valerie Harmon’s bright smile shone throughout. The entire ensemble dazzled in the closing, “New York, New York.” It was very signature Smuin; it made my throat tighten, as if Smuin’s spirit had descended to enjoy it along with us. At the ballet’s conclusion, several members of the audience leapt up to give the dancers a standing ovation, and you could tell it was equally for the memory of the man and his considerable legacy.
Dance Series 01 runs until Oct 7 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. It will also be presented in February and March 2018 in Mountain View and Carmel.
There exists within all of us a shadowed place tucked deep within our psyche. Usually it stems from a childhood experience, something harsh that slips easily behind our barely formed defenses and brands our tender soul. San Francisco-based choreographer Marika Brussel poignantly chronicled one such experience here:
You are eight. Your father brings you to a strange apartment in a neighborhood far away from where you live. It’s dark and smells like pee. He holds your hand as the door opens and a man in a white, stained tee-shirt says something to your father that may or may not be in English. It’s a question and your father knows the right answer. The door opens to let him in.
“I’ll just be a minute,” your father says. And you believe him because he’s your father. And he’s tall and strong, and he takes care of you.
The door shuts behind him.
The hall makes funny sounds. Shuffling, as if there is an animal somewhere. You hear whispering, but can’t tell where it’s coming from. A door downstairs slams. A baby cries. You father is taking a long time. Your belly feels funny—hollow and tight. Steps sound behind you, so you fold yourself into a small ball near the wall. A man passes. He doesn’t notice you. You are invisible. The apartment door opens again, and as the man goes in, your father comes out and, as you breathe again, he holds his arms out to you.
As writers, we are taught to mine those dark places as a source of the richest material. Choreography, it’s clear, is cut from the same cloth. Particularly choreographers who have MFAs in creative writing, who’ve captured the poetry and the pathos of a child torn between loyalty and unease over her heroin-addicted father’s actions that will, ultimately, land him out on the streets, homeless. From these shadows comes art. Fitting, then, that Marika Brussel’s newest work is titled From Shadows, and is a contemporary ballet that explores homelessness and addiction through the eyes of a young girl looking for her father. The sixty-minute ballet will have its world premiere on Oct 12 and 13, at ODC Theater in in San Francisco.
One afternoon in late August, I join Marika and her dancers for rehearsal. Fog outside creates a more insular world but doesn’t mask the San Francisco cityscape through the windows. A cheery red shopping cart is parked on the gray marley floor, looking festive, out of context. Earlier, Marika borrowed it from a local choreographer friend and wheeled it over to the studio. In the area of 16th Street and Mission, rife with transients, it made her look like she herself was a transient. “Pedestrians seemed embarrassed to meet my eyes,” she told me. “Especially the more affluent white people.” In truth, the very people she hopes will support the arts and attend her ballet’s performances.
Today’s rehearsing dancers—Nina, Theresa, Emily H and Nick—are warming up, the women putting on pointe shoes before stowing their dance bags under the barre, affixed to a wall dominated by east-facing windows. “Let’s take it from where Nina comes in,” Marika tells them. The dancers nod, take their places. Without the music, Nina, dancing as the young girl, steps onstage into a commanding piqué arabesque, arms stretched in an imperious high fifth elongé that says back off to the bullying women nearby. She’s clutching a precious sweater, the only item she has of her father’s. But Theresa, a weaker, mentally ill transient, reaches over and unsteadily pulls it from her grasp. Marika, observing from the corner, calls out to Nina.
“You’re not sure if you want to touch her, or your sweater now, because, basically, she smells.” Accordingly, Nina backs off with a grimace from Theresa. Nick enters, upstage left, pushing a cart. Shoulders and head slumped, he is slow-moving, beaten down. He spies Theresa and they begin to interact. Her smell doesn’t bother him, likely because he’s used to it. She lunges out, as his hands reach out to catch her, support her. Through a partnered lift, they are momentarily entwined. Afterwards he places her tenderly in his shopping cart, tucks the jacket over her, around her.
Marika halts the flow of movement to step over and murmur with Theresa and Nick. The three discuss a better way of getting her into the shopping cart. Behind them, Nina stretches and understudy Emily H marks the steps on her own. “Try it over the shoulder,” Marika urges, and the two dancers implement the suggestion.
The movements all come alive when run through with the music. It’s marvelous stuff, at once contemporary and classic, melodic and jarring, reminiscent of the staccato second movement of Debussy’s Quartet in G. It’s “Dream House” by Mary Ellen Childs, Marika informs me when I ask, a composition reflecting Childs’ experience of having her house torn down and rebuilt. Musicians are the New York-based string quartet, ETHEL whose unique, classical-but-not-entirely sound Marika admires. The second vignette, “Shopping Cart,” brings in an utterly beautiful, plaintive violin lament, reminiscent of John Corigliano and The Red Violin. Later in the ballet will come a more jarring, percussive, drum-infused musical movement, which signals the arrival of the police, bent on dispersing the sleeping transients. But for now, bittersweet tenderness.
Throughout From Shadows, the choreography, much like the music, is steeped in classicism, technically assured movements that leave plenty of room for more contemporary touches: heads thrown back; arms flung out; staccato touches that hint at instability, mental illness, the dark side of addiction. It’s movement that is both beautiful and stark. It is the humanity behind the shadows, illuminated.
Marika Brusselgrew up in New York, the daughter of hippie artists. In ballet, she took quickly to the structure and discipline her household lacked and ballet mandated, showing great promise at an early age. She was selected to be a scholarship student at the Joffrey Ballet School. But pre-professional ballet training is fearsome, daunting, with countless sacrifices, physical and emotional. It’s a heavy burden for a pre-teen girl, made worse when her father was kicked out of the household for his heroin addiction. He sank deeper, and landed on the streets of New York when she was eleven. “I would walk around Chinatown and Greenwich Village looking for him,” she shared in an essay recently published by Street Sheet. (http://www.streetsheet.org) “Usually, I knew where he would be – he had found a home of sorts in a theater dressing room. But sometimes he would be nodding out at Bagel Buffet, near where I went to ballet classes. And sometimes he would be just in the doorway of my ballet studio, watching his daughter, like any father, except he hadn’t bathed, and his many layers of clothes told his story, right there for everyone to see.”
Marika remained doggedly committed to ballet until age 18, when, now aware of how much normal teen life she’d sacrificed through her adolescent years, she decided she wanted to experience other things in life. At twenty, she moved to San Francisco, curious to explore what it was like to be a young adult in a new city. “I wasn’t dancing at the time, but working on a novel,” she shared. “The loss of ballet had created a void in my life, which was filled somewhat by writing. But it wasn’t until I came back to ballet that I felt wholly myself again. In 1999 I moved from San Francisco to Santa Fe. I started dancing again there, professionally, with Ballet Theater of New Mexico. There, I started dipping into choreography, a little, although it wasn’t until 2014 that I started seriously choreographing.”
She and I discuss writing. It’s not often I get to connect with choreographers who also have MFAs in creative writing, and I relish the opportunity. When she asks about my current novel-in-progress, I tell her it’s set not in the professional ballet world, like my two previous novels, but in Africa, an ex-ballet dancer’s response to living there, its harshness, its mysticism. Her eyes light up. She asks whether I’m familiar with the Nigerian writer, Amos Tutuola, and his novel, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I tell her “yes” on the former and “no” on the latter (which I’ve since remedied—what a vivid, amazing, intensely African novel). It’s the story of a boy who inadvertently wanders over to a land populated entirely by ghosts, dozens upon dozens of communities of them, and the curious adventures he encounters during his time there. In one of those “small world!” moments, she shares that this African novel provided the spark for this ballet’s creation.
“Originally, I was interested in doing a ballet version of the novel,” she tells me, “but I couldn’t connect to it on a deeply personal level. Another choreographer asked me what resonated and I realized it was that the ghosts in the novel were neither dead nor alive. They were their own thing. The homeless seem to be like that too: not quite living, but also not dead.”
Back in rehearsal, the cart itself has become an interesting partner. During breaks, Theresa idly improvises with the cart, and it’s amazing, the grace and beauty from this pedestrian vehicle, as it supports her arabesques, her pirouettes. At one point, her two legs press together to give the illusion of one leg, hobbling along, made mobile only by the shopping cart. It’s a beautiful leg, a gorgeous line, en pointe, pretty as can be. But since most humans have two legs, the image becomes ugly by inference. Which somehow describes the experience taking place near the studio, in the heart of the Mission District. The homeless and the home-owners co-mingling. Some hurrying, some loitering; some reeking, others perfumed. Some conversing on their cell phones, others conversing with themselves. Such disparity. Yet every last one of those people were, at one time, whole, beautiful, healthy.
A second rehearsal three weeks later allows me to watch what is sure to be one of the ballet’s most riveting scenes, the “Invisible Police” movement, where the arriving police (portrayed by flashing red lights) violently disperse the homeless in their encampment. There is chaos, confusion, a perfect mesh with the boldly propulsive music. Today is the dancers’ first glimpse of the choreography, only recently created by Marika. “I’m a little nervous,” she tells me, with a chuckle. “I’ve never worked this with a large group of dancers before. And I’ve only marked it in my kitchen.”
Two more dancers, Cal and a second Emily, have joined the others today. The six of them mark the steps and then dance them. Again. Again. Again. Emily No. 1 (“Emily H”) radiates tireless energy as she runs, alerting the others, and embarks on a circle of impressive grand-jeté leap turns. Later, I watch as Nina and Cal, closest to me, nail the ensemble passage, flinging their bodies through the movements with razor precision and technique. It’s a lament of sorts, eyes and arms to the sky as violence swirls around them. “Why this? Why us?” they seem to be asking. “Are we not people, too?”
Marika’s father, homeless on New York’s streets, was one of the lucky ones. He came clean after two years, went through rehab, and remained clean, off the streets, through the last twenty years of his life. He did it, he told Marika, for her and her brother. Meeting Marika in San Francisco at one point, he called out an easy greeting to one of the homeless people clustering on the sidewalk. It turned out to be someone he’d met in rehab, who, regrettably, had gone back onto the streets. But his sense of familiarity with the transients, the way he really saw them, engaged with them, burned a permanent impression in Marika’s mind. Now she tries to do her own part, to help them, engage with them. See them.
I asked Marika what she would like audience members to draw from watching her ballet. “In a word,” she replied, “empathy. But in more words, I hope the ballet starts a dialogue about how we can change the situation in our culture of seeing homeless people as “other,” as a threat, and instead treat them with dignity and compassion.”
A grant from The Fleishhacker Foundation gave her the opportunity to expand this from an eleven-minute piece to a sixty-minute ballet. She is also the recipient of a 2017 Classical Girl Giving donation, awarded to companies, choreographers and dance organizations that strive to take ballet out in the world or use ballet to deliver important social messages.
Want a taste of From Shadows? Here is part of that original, eleven-minute piece:
From Shadows: a ballet about homelessness, will be presented on Thursday, October 12 and Friday, October 13, both at 8 pm. Run time is one hour. ODC Theater is located at 3153 17th Street near Shotwell in San Francisco, a short walk from the 16th St. BART station. Tickets are available at the door, $25 regular; $40 community partner ($20 from each ticket will be donated to the Coalition on Homelessness and Farming Hope) A percentage of the proceeds from the performances will go to local homeless organizations such as Project Homeless Connect and Farming Hope.
You can find out more about Marika by going to her website HERE, or take a ballet class from her at ODC, where she teaches adults on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6:15. She teaches Dance for Parkinson’s Disease in Berkeley on Mondays at 12 noon and in San Francisco on Thursdays.
PS: A “thank you!” to the dancers who allowed me to watch them rehearse on 8/29 and 9/19 respectively. They are: Nina Pearlman (pictured in rehearsal photo above with Marika), Emily Hansel (ditto), Nick Wagner, Theresa Knudson, Cal Thomas, Emily Kerr. Joining them for the performance will be Sharon Kung, Ruby Rosenquist, Alexandra Fitzgibbon, Allie Papazian and Jackie McConnell.
PPS: HERE is intriguing backstory of Mary Ellen Childs’ “Dream House” which opens with ETHEL performing the “Invisible Police” movement.
PPPS: Want to hear more from the string quartet, ETHEL? You can find it HERE.
PPPPS: It was getting a little crowded up above, so I couldn’t make room for this lovely pic of Theresa, but I say, hey, there’s always room for an extra notice, or pic, in the PS section. Am I right?
PPPPPS: See what I mean? Plenty of room, still. And, by the way, that’s Emily H, Cal, and Nina in the photo above. And since we’re squeezing in pics that I wanted to use but couldn’t, and by now, the readership is down to the people who like to read to the very end, much like those who watch movie credits to the very, very end (count me in here!), here is one last goodie. It’s of Marika, dancing, from years past. Maybe she’ll chime in here and give us an exact year. Cool pic. And no, it wasn’t planned in any way that her leotard bears an uncanny resemblance to Theresa’s above. Let’s just call it one of those serendipitous, end-of-the-blog-and-still-reading kind of moments.
PPPPPPS: Last one. I promise. Nick, the shopping cart, and his recent acquisition (Theresa)
PPPPPPPS: I lied. Nina, in silhouette. I mean, why WOULDN’T you want to see this very cool pic?
The funny thing is that by the time I called Nordstrom lost & found, I’d made peace with the fact that someone else had requisitioned my $142.00 purchase of Jo Malone perfume. I’d visualized them spraying it on, sighing in satisfaction at the delicate English Pear and Freesia, or the zesty, invigorating Grapefruit, or the brand-new-to-me Nutmeg and Ginger cologne. When the customer service person in Lost and Found asked me to describe the product I’d lost, four days earlier, I hardly felt like going there anymore.
But let’s back up. Here‘s the story as I relayed it on Facebook the day before my last-ditch-effort phone call.
The stoned sense of exhaustion you feel after the sixth day of a road trip, 900 miles covered, friends, family, and one particularly unwell, beloved sister visited. The pleasure you get at spying a big mall when you have an hour to spare and want to do something special for yourself, because the next day, you have to do that 900 mile drive in reverse. The delight at seeing a Jo Malone counter at Nordstrom, because you’ve adored the sample of grapefruit cologne you just ran out of, and having a favorite cologne handy on a long drive at the end of a tiring trip is just perfect.
Adorably nice clerk named Christina + sampling a few new scents you’d never tried before = two bottles of perfume purchased to the tune of $142, which garnered you a complimentary Jo Malone gift bag (including a trio of three more scents – score!). Happy dance all the way out of the door.
The challenge of too much shopping mall stimulus 30 mn later and the relief of returning to a quiet car. The horror of realizing that the hand clutching the Jo Malone bag is empty. Racking fogged brain produces no clues. Retracing steps for the next 30 minutes to no avail. Bag is gone. Stupid, fogged, tired me, now minus my new treasure.
The child’s tears that arise when I return to the Jo Malone counter empty-handed, and see the puzzled, concerned look on Christina’s smiling face, which turns into pure compassion when I explain in a wobbly voice. I tell her I’m ready to just buy another bottle, to take the edge off a 900 mile fume and self-castigation punishment the next day.
“No, no,” she said. “We don’t want you spending more money today. Let me assemble you something. That way you’ll have something to hold you over until you get your original bag back.”
“It might not happen,” I sniffed, the tears still, annoyingly, a steady leak. “It probably won’t.”
“There are good people out there,” she said.
“There’s both kinds,” I said, all pessimist and defeat.
Christina gave me a reassuring smile. “I have a good feeling about this,” she said, and set off to do what she could do for me right then.
The deep, deep appreciation for people in the world like her, who manage to find a silver lining for your cloud. She gave me another beribboned Jo Malone bag, with a second complimentary gift (free with a purchase over $130, so she told me “easy to give you another one!”) and two generous, oversized sample bottles of what I’d bought and lost.
In the end, back home, the reverse 900 miles traveled, and more accepting about my loss, calmness, amid a wry understanding that life is like this. Sometimes you lose and it just hurts. A bottle of perfume, a marriage, a house, a car, a life — you go through pain regardless of the loss’s size. When you’re tired and vulnerable, a small loss can feel huge. But, in return, life gifts you with surprises. Maybe the someone who’d found my unattended Jo Malone bag really, really needed it. They picked it up, took it home, and likely stared, agog at this unexpected bounty. Because that’s the flip side. My mistake had gifted someone $142 of lovely perfume, just as Christina, my lovely Nordstrom clerk, had gifted me with something I very much needed at that particular moment.
Kindness. Compassion. Price: immesurable.
And now you know what followed this aha, dear reader, that I myself didn’t while penning the above. That phone call to Nordstrom lost and found, a Hail Mary pass and catch combined.
I had indeed left the bag right there in Nordstrom (when?! where?!) and someone had turned it in. I waited, disbelieving, for the punch line, the “just kidding!” or “whoops, my mistake, wrong item, not yours!” from the customer service person speaking to me. None came. Instead, a cheery request for my mailing address, and would two-day shipping be okay? Free of charge, of course. A Nordstrom policy.
Nordstrom is a unique company, still family-run and owned since John W Nordstrom opened his first shop, a shoe store, in 1901. This year marks the 20th year in a row Nordstrom has made the Fortune 100 “Best Companies to Work For” list — just one of 12 firms to do so, and the only one in the fashion apparel segment. I’m not surprised; I’ve always noticed their quality customer service and you can almost feel it in the air, the culture of empowerment that they encourage among their employees. When I spoke with Christina over the phone, the day after my box arrived, sharing the good news, telling her what a difference her actions made that day, she agreed that Nordstrom is a great company. She shared that their new store manager told all the employees that one of his top goals was to keep employee turnover down. Think of it. What an affirming philosophy. What a nurturing work environment. I remember Christina’s comments the day of my loss, her “Oh, we don’t want you buying anything more today. Let me, instead, give you a gift.”
Is that the coolest thing or what?
I told Christina that her kindness to me that day had been one of the most unforgettable gifts I’d received. Even superseding the return of the perfume and gift bag, back to me via mail. Her sympathy and compassion in my time of tearful vulnerability had been everything.
“Oh, you just made my day,” she said, and my own heart swelled, all over again.
What a wonderful gift, kindness. It’s something we can give away free, to boot. It doesn’t require planning or analysis or foresight. It’s just doing the right thing at the right time for the right person.
Thank you, Christina. Thank you, Nordstrom. Thank you, Jo Malone. I’ll remember this gift for some time to come.