A good many years ago now, when I was an awkward adolescent making timid but determined steps forward in an avocation of being culturally aware, there was a sponsorship group known as the Community Concert Association which made it possible for moderately well-known musical artists, soloists, and dancers or dance troupes to tour our complacent little backwater of a town. Our town would possibly have been omitted from this flattering arrangement if it had been one whit smaller, more rural, or deeper in the surrounding countryside. There was also the fact that it was the county seat, and had a number of professional people from larger areas and more prestigious educational systems living and raising families in what they thought of as a “safe” and unremarkable place. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who, though a widow, thought it important to make such performance viewing opportunities available to me, and so she set aside part of her small income, stretching it enough to cover my attendance at the season of concerts and ballets each year. It was just a taste of intellectual freedom and enjoyment, just enough to set my appetites for more as I grew older. I can still remember sitting in a crowd composed mainly of adult couples up in the balcony, where I had chosen to sit so that I could see better in the crowded high school auditorium. The seats were not ranked according to preferential spots as they are in most performances; it was first-come, first-served, and the balcony meant that I didn’t have to look over heads or miss the echoes of the music that floated up into the overarching ceiling.
I can still remember, and in fact except for a blurred recollection of many a night taken together, one night stands out as the symbolic equivalent of the whole endeavor, which took place during the 1970’s, when the entire area was burgeoning and growing with cultural and monetary progress, which only began to recede again once the mid-80’s were over. But let me concern myself with this one night, which stands out for me as the epitome of grace and accomplishment, though initiated by a failure, of sorts. It’s a shame that I didn’t know at the time just how strongly this impression would stay with me, and that I didn’t preserve the dance program, or remember the male dancer’s name. But perhaps by consecrating his memory in a stray paragraph or two, I have more accurately or feelingly preserved his moments with us on stage, which just dropping a name or a company moniker would not do, as that would only commemorate his gift to us for those who are knowledgeable enough to be acquainted with his or their work, and would neglect to foster awareness of just what he gave to me and others that night for everyone to understand.
The first few performances of the evening were by small ensembles of dancers, round dances and pas de deux and other such exhibitions of talent. And don’t get me wrong, all of those artists, as far as I can recall, were quite accomplished. But they were in no way remarkable each from the other, but were just as good as they were supposed to be. They filled the bill, as it were. Finally, as the last performance of the evening, the single male dancer who was going to dance alone came out to thunderous applause, which was possibly because he was known to be someone more important than the other dancers had been, the troupe’s manager, for example, or possibly because the county audience had more or less had enough for one evening, and was looking forward to the last moments of the night’s performance. He took his place on stage, struck a pose, and waited. And waited. There was a moment’s shrill squawk from backstage, then a tearing sound, then a wail. Still composed, he broke formation, stepped to the side of the curtain, and spoke with someone behind the scenes. We saw, I saw, him hesitate for just a split second before something in his manner seemed to state, “Right. Okay. Well, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that. We’ll have to go ahead.” As it turned out–and as he stepped forward to the footlights to explain to us in broken English heavily accented with Russian, or Slavic overtones–the tape had broken which contained his music. Seemingly unfazed by this, he proposed to us that he would dance without the music. There was a slight murmur from the crowd, presumably because now there was nothing to tap one’s foot to, and such a small-town area as this was not overly fond of male dancers as it was. The immodestly tight tights, and all that. Male friends of mine who were taking lessons in the only dance studio in town had already encountered such prejudices. But from his first leap high in the air, the audience seemed to waver, and change its mind: he was dancing in time to something which he could hear and we couldn’t, quite obviously. We watched him and marveled as he swept and swooped and cast himself upward like a reverse waterfall, and then came down again on both feet, and then started the whole thing all over again, with what seemed like a magical ability to keep pace with some hidden music. And in fact, that’s what he was doing: showing an extraordinary degree of preparation for moments of grace when he could have gone away and protested that someone or something he counted on had failed him. When he was eventually done, he struck a strong, masculine, and thoroughly accomplished pose on stage and let us look at him, the man who could suggest musical tones just by imagining them clearly enough. To my great delight, the audience loved him. When the troupe came out, group by group, he got the largest round of applause; his own troupe applauded him as well.
I hesitate to draw a moral from a tale like this, because it seems preachy and overly goody-goody. Suffice it to say, that when my own Ph.D. instructors told me about what my task in passing a Ph.D. exam ultimately consisted in, and they used the expression “Grace under pressure,” I knew what they meant, whether I can be said to have succeeded in showing it or not. It meant that I was going to have to leap high whether there was any music for me or not, and that the audience expected to be pleased whether or not I was feeling harmonious at the time. I needed to rely, that is, on hearing inner harmonies, and seeking out whatever grace I had come equipped with already.
On a lighter note, I was also privileged to see yet another exhibition of grace under pressure from a beautiful troupe of ballet dancers, mostly female, who were onstage up in Toronto during the time I attended graduate school there. They had been passing round and round on stage in a circle, doing parts of Swan Lake, when suddenly amidst the exhibitions of fluttering tutus and pointing toes there struck a huge clunking noise. The noise itself detracted from the visual elements, though it wasn’t easy to see what had caused it. The ballerinas continued to circle, some dropping out at the wings, some swooshing into the line from the same spots, and all circling close and closer to the front of the stage. Imagine the audience’s surprise when, just as the twelfth or so ballerina bent gracefully over her own toes, she also picked up a huge semi-circular object and carried it out of the round when next she exited! There was some nervous laughter as the watchers realized that the ballerinas had been dancing around a heavy weight which had fallen from the ceiling, which could have struck or tripped up any of them, and yet, since it didn’t, they had chosen the neatest, most audience-friendly way of removing it so that their fellows wouldn’t fall over it. Again, there’s no fail-safe remedy for such moments, such unpredictable moments, but there are people who manage to incorporate the grace notes and arpeggios of chance into their routines, and those people, to my way of thinking, make their own sort of music and sound their own sorts of rhythm for the universe.
We all have moments when we are in tune with something we can’t name, which yet fills us with a nameless sort of confidence and then leaves again before we can get its calling card or take its number down, something which is too busy in the universe to allow any of us to hog it. But we can prepare to greet it on those odd occasions when it walks up, slaps us on the back, gets our suggestions, and makes off again while we run off to tell the other so-and-sos in our life whom we met. As far as I know, the best way of being prepared for it to call again is to celebrate it when it comes, because as we know, everyone likes to hear himself or herself mentioned with approval; and who’s to say that grace isn’t like the rest of us, waiting to be approved of and mollified? In any case, rejoicing is rare enough, and we can all rejoice together when we witness an instant of grace, our own or someone else’s. And together we can hear the music of what was intended for us, even if it sometimes seems, as it sometimes does, that the music has been borne away, the tape rent, the trumpeter silenced. The music is ours, from the time we make it ours until it accompanies us through the final performance, and we strike the last post and wait for applause, the music that, though others may not be able to hear it, we can imagine as we dance, and can set our steps to, all the way to the very end.
©4/21/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett
(P.S. to my readers–This is my essay which was inspired by a reading of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.)