The Caged Bird

Dance is the only art form that speaks of prayer and blasphemy in the same language.

Before time started ticking in atomic clocks and ancient animal debris fueled our hunger for travel and luxury, humans lifted their hands to the skies in ancient dance, a song to the gods, asking for good fortune, rain, a good harvest, a healthy child. Dance was the song, the medium of the prayer. It was the language of community, a public supplication to the god that breathed wind and rain and roamed the sky.

But time has changed and we have changed, as an organism, a culture, a mind. Nature has turned into steel and concrete canyons, thousands of reflecting eyes in which we see our fragmentation. The world has shrunk, but we’ve drifted apart, faster than the continents. We see each other not in the flesh, but in thousands of bits traveling through space in arteries of light. I am no longer eyes, body and touch, but an endless stream of updates, texts and instgrammed moments. I don’t know the side effects of this particular addiction yet. In time, we shall all know.

Somewhere along this endless stream chronicled as history, came along the French and the king in his mirrored hall, and harnessed dance, caught it, placed it in a cage with rules and obligations.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

writes Maya Angelou. She is not writing about dance, but the mind supplies the narrative even when it is uncalled for. I think of ballet as the caged bird, an ancient artform reborn with rules.

Somewhere along the road we began to think in dichotomies, in borders drawn on water: night and day, black and white, woman and man. Shimmering borders that seem absolute. Thus came also the arts of the mind: painting, literature, music and poetry and the art of the body: dance.

I was recently at a ballet recital. It was one of the “nude” ballets, that modern choreographers are fond of putting together and presenting to eager audiences. A man and a woman, in minimalist leotards, on a stage together. Bodies entwining. I am intrigued and ashamed. I feel that intimacy is violated in the dusky lights of the stage even though this is a performance. At the end I clap, with everyone else. The loud noise shatters the moment I want to savor, the moment when the danseur gently touched the hand of the ballerina, brushed her body. There is something that appeals to the very ancient part of my brain in that touch, in the close contact of hands and torso.

After the performance, I discuss something mundanely existential with a platonic friend. We dip into the dance performance of the evening. “That touch was…” I leave the sentence hanging between us. “ Carnal”, he says. The trill of the r hangs like an unpleasant expletive. As an afterthought, he hovers the bottle over my glass. “More?” “Sure”. Chiraz, when poured slowly, has an oddly seductive quality, the bruised grape blood flickering in the dim room. Carnal. Dance for years was among the persecuted art forms, forbidden, because it inspired lust and carnality. A blasphemy.

Somewhere, far below in the glass canyon between the two buildings, an ambulance wails. Someone is bleeding on a gurney beneath fluorescent lights. The body is so frail in these moments, when it hovers on the brink of death or on the brink of touch.

silver and exact

What bothers me is that I cannot see myself. Not in the way I see others. I cannot, to paraphrase Atticus Finch, walk in another man’s shoes, see the world how he sees it, feel the wind falling on his face, the sun shine on his arms, experience his joy and excitement. As a child, I used to look into people’s eyes. The polite thing to do, my mother said. I used to gaze into my mother’s hazel ones (so different from my washed out blue), but all I saw was my own face reflected in the retina. When I first heard the age-old adage, the eyes are the mirror of the soul, I always thought it meant that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul of the person we are looking at. Growing up I understood that the eyes of the other person are the mirror to our own soul.

So I stopped looking into eyes of others. Because in them, yet another mirror.

College was a kaleidoscope of human mirrors: professors, fellow students, boyfriends. Too many ways to see oneself, and one night, overwhelmed, alone and homesick, I, clutching a pair of worn out ballet slippers, went into the ballet studio. The lights had been dimmed. I lay on the cold Marley floor and mentally traced the patterns on the ceiling. In the mirror, I could find myself. I stood up and put on my slippers. Looking was easier than I thought.  In the mirror, I saw myself or perhaps a version of myself, someone who could only exist in this space and in this moment.  I prepared in fourth, good, old-school Vaganova fourth, and turned my half-formed pirouettes, until I was only a blur on the silver surface.

Dancing is a way of being blindfolded. Because when moving, when dancing, when pirouetting, looking at oneself from any angle is impossible. Perhaps that is what bothers me about dancing, and about ballet. The external mirrors that become the ultimate judge and executor, dealing sentences in harsh silvery light.

Some cultures believe that a mirror captures the soul. The eye of the little god, wrote Sylvia Plath. Once again the eye and the mirror are synchronized. Eyes are like mirrors. My mother’s eyes and my own acne-marked teenaged face rising from the black liquid iris. I have surely looked into the eye of this god for countless hours in the confined space that is the ballet studio. I have seen the reflection of other women and men, dancers whom I thought were superior to me. I wondered if what I saw in their reflection was what they saw of themselves. We were looking at the same image but from different worlds. “We see things not as they are, but as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, those tired heavy words tumbling into the world through her journals.

My mind and body have shared an uneasy space for many years. For those I refused to look into the mirror, for fear of finally knowing that this is how I am going to appear for the rest of my life. This is my body, the shape that I will live in. The only shape that I will live in. Ballet forced the confrontation of the two antagonists. The body that bluntly refuses the societal standards. The mind that aspires to conform to them. Even my numerous attempts to reduce the body to a starving saint of fashion have done little to melt away the mutinous mountains of fat. I feel their burning weight in the mirror of the ballet studio. It all  comes down to looking and seeing.

But dancing, in its purest, truest, brightest form (whatever that may be) is being blindfolded, oblivious to the shape, and open to the flow, for lack of a better word. I hold onto those moments like a child trying to hold a fistful of sand. I go back and back, back to the studio, back to the pain, and sweat and blood and tears, like a moth burning in the lamp on a warm summer night. Every step, every turn, a reclaiming of space. Am I body or a mind? Does it matter?

a dancer, more than any other human being

There is always an end in the distant future. It is almost 11pm. Classes are over, exams have been finished papers written. A thunderstorm is raging outside and I am trapped in the library , soaked completely wet and too scared to walk back to my dorm.

 

I haven’t written, danced or lived much during the past few months except for the routine things of classes, homework, dinner and lunch, a TV flick caught here or there. The truth is, all I have wanted to do is cocoon myself from the world. Endings, death, goodbyes, loss have all been present and at times I have felt at a loss. Loss of what to do or what to turn to. Dance, the ever healing presence of music and moving bodies, became a burden. So I stopped, slowed down, let time run around me like a river washing over.

Martha Graham once remarked,

”A dancer, more than any other human being,

dies two deaths:

the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body

will no longer respond as you would wish.

After all, I choreographed for myself.

I never choreographed what I could not do.

I changed steps in Medea and other ballets to

accommodate the change.

But I knew. And it haunted me.

I only wanted to dance.”

source

Her words have often been with me during this spring. I imagined the burden of knowing that one day the body will no longer be a fine tuned instrument. I imagined the coming of that realisation, that end.

I also imagined a world beyond my obsession with ballet. The mirrors that reflect all that beauty also reflect all of that which is vile and undesirable, both in the body and in the mind. I have sought escape from that.

I have been away from ballet for nearly two months. I have looked at my pink satin slippers lying on the floor, week after week untouched. I have put on weight again, so that black leotard will have to stay hidden.

And yet in one of the insomniac moments, I pine to live in the moment’s dream, extend myself if you will beyond the everyday, breathe and exhale the music.

Because moments are not everlasting.