Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cuban National Ballet

My first introduction to the Cuban National Ballet was a small mention given to the company's founder, Alicia Alonso, in a documentary. Since then I have read her biography and any other material I could find, and scrounged YouTube for videos. I recently found this production (performed in Paris in 2007) on DVD. What I love most is the passion with which they dance, even the corps, and their musicality. Alicia Alonso founded the company in the 1940s, and in those early days they toured the country performing in factories and army bases, among other unlikely places, and sharing the history of ballet as they went. As a result of one woman's vision and persistence, ballet is now as popular as soccer in Cuba, with audiences cheering and screaming unrestrainedly during performances. She still directs the company at the age of ninety.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Confidence or Illusion

I am not by nature a confident person.  In all honesty, I don't think many people are.  However, in the last few years I've had a growing number of people remark on how self-assured I seem.  It is true that I have gained a certain measure of confidence, enough at least to create a convincing facade, but I think I should give credit where credit is due, as this transformation has been the work of many years and various influences.

As a little girl I remember being afraid of many, many things, but primarily of people, even my relatives, and men in particular.  I always suspected them of some hidden agenda, especially when they were trying to win me over.  One of my greatest fears was of being one of those children who lost their parents in the grocery store and had their names and descriptions announced loudly over the intercom.  Thus I learned that if I walked quickly down the back aisle of the store, just barely glancing down each cross-aisle, avoiding salespeople and not letting my distress show on my face, I could find my parents before the staff noticed that I had lost them.  To this day I still don't like asking salespeople for assistance.  If I can't find something myself I generally go without.

I also had an abiding fear of venturing out to the chicken coop after dark.  It wasn't far from the house, but something about the way the beam from the flashlight bounced off the distant trees was unsettling, and the door of the coop had this creepy squeak.  Anyway, not sure I should be admitting this, but I invented an imaginary friend for myself whose sole purpose was to race me back to the house after the chickens were fed.  I don't remember playing with her at any other time, but she was my excuse to myself for running back to the house every night.

I learned early that I was forced to come out of my shell if I had no one to hide behind.  When I was thirteen I started volunteering at a historic mansion in Spokane.  It was a place I'd been obsessed with ever since my parents had taken me there some years before.  Anyway, I heard of the opportunity, and wrote a very nervous note to the man in charge of volunteers, saying that I knew I was young, but I would love to help, adding that I'd be willing to do any menial tasks they didn't want to give to anyone else.  He wrote back very nicely to say that he was sure they could find a place for me and that I wouldn't have to perform any menial tasks.  I didn't know anyone there, and was petrified every time I went down, but I loved it, and began to realize that strangers are actually sometimes less scary than people you know.  They have no preconceptions of you.  You choose how they see you.  It was one of the best experiences I had.  Ten years later a fellow staff member looked at me, eyes wide, and exclaimed, "You grew up here!" I suppose I did.

The first time I remember someone, besides family, telling me that I was beautiful, was when I was bald from chemo.  I think this speaks for itself.

Working at Flowery Trail Coffeehouse for the past five and half years certainly deserves acknowledgement here.  Any service job, I think, will make you either compassionate or jaded, sometimes both.  You can't run from people.  You have to help them.  And eventually they cease to become distant mysterious monsters.  They come close, and become people.

My brief stint as a rural pizza delivery driver represents the darker side of that last paragraph.  But it was a great confidence-builder for me.  When you've been sent to deliver pizzas to a trailer park and had the door answered by a large hairy man clad only in spandex shorts... well, fear becomes irrelevant.

In any case, whether it is confidence or illusion, I am much more secure than I used to be.  Even so, I still steel myself before entering a crowded room.  I still run away, though I no longer race an imaginary friend.  Perhaps confidence doesn't actually exist for anyone.  Perhaps confidence is the illusion, and we don't ever learn it, but only the means of masking our lack of it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

That Crazy Time of Year

So this is it, the beginning of the mad, fun, grueling, wonderful rehearsal season, when we pretend to be real ballerinas and not just small-time slaves of Terpsichore.  Actually, we've been rehearsing one piece through February for a fundraiser at the end of the month, but the real excitement starts in March, when we begin to learn all the choreography and start working to bring the show together. 

Here I really must say something about my teacher, Ann Marie Benedict, because just the fact that Chewelah possesses such a gem is amazing.  In her youth she danced with a company in Los Angeles under the direction of Eugene Loring.  She never talks much about herself, but the stories she does tell from that time are fascinating.  She's been teaching ballet in Chewelah for over twenty-five years now.  I've been her student for twenty of them.  She is by far the greatest slave-driver I have ever encountered, and we love her for it.  It is easy, in a small town without much competition for quality, to become content with "good enough".  She has never allowed us to relax into a false sense of self-satisfaction, but always urges us to improve on what we did before -- to jump higher, balance longer, turn the double into a triple, express ourselves more.  Most important, she has passed on to us her passion for art in all its forms.

Our show this year will be on May 22nd, in Colville, Colville being the nearest town that actually has an auditorium.  One of the many challenges Ann has faced over the years is a severe lack of facilities.  Our classes and rehearsals are held in a dirty old gymnasium, and even though we have the space reserved months in advance, we are ousted whenever they need somewhere to have a blood drive, or rehearse a play.  However, plans have lately gone into motion for an actual dance studio, which would be the biggest step forward in years.  There is also the ongoing challenge of making ballet accessible to the inhabitants of a small town whose exposure to it often consists solely of multiple viewings of "Barbie in Swan Lake" with their very young daughters.  Chewelah does have a surprisingly strong core community of artists.  But there are certainly plenty of the other.

I like to think that these various obstacles have made us all stronger, more interesting dancers than we would have been otherwise.  In all events, they have certainly made us stubborn, determined, and maybe just a wee bit pugnacious.  

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hints For Etiquette Provided By The Great Lewis Carroll

For today's post I turn to the genius of Lewis Carroll.  This little gem is not among his best-known works, but it is certainly worth noticing, and considering the decay of modern table manners, is perhaps more applicable now than when it was first written,  though I believe sightings of boys in buttons to be somewhat rare these days.  Tips 7 and 8 are my favorites.

Hints for Etiquette;
Or, Dining Out Made Easy

As caterers for the public taste, we can conscientiously recommend this book to all diners-out who are perfectly unacquainted with the usages of society. However we may regret that our author has confined himself to warning rather than advice, we are bound in justice to say that nothing here stated will be found to contradict the habits of the best circles. The following examples exhibit a depth of penetration and a fullness of experience rarely met with:


In proceeding to the dining-room, the gentleman gives one arm to the lady he escorts-- it is unusual to offer both.


The practice of taking soup with the next gentleman but one is now wisely discontinued; but the custom of asking your host his opinion of the weather immediately on the removal of the first course still prevails.


To use a fork with your soup, intimating at the same time to your hostess that you are reserving the spoon for beefsteaks, is a practice wholly exploded.


On meat being placed before you, there is no possible objection to your eating it, if so disposed; still in all such delicate cases, be guided entirely by the conduct of those around you.


It is always allowable to ask for artichoke jelly with your boiled venison; however there are houses where this is not supplied.


The method of helping roast turkey with two carving-forks is praticable, but deficient in grace.


We do not recommend the practice of eating cheese with a knife and fork in one hand, and a spoon and wine-glass in the other; there is a kind of awkwardness in the action which no amount of practice can entirely dispel.


As a general rule, do not kick the shins of the opposite gentleman under the table, if personally unacquainted with him; your pleasantry is liable to be misunderstood-- a circumstance at all times unpleasant.


Proposing the health of the boy in buttons immediately on the removal of the cloth is custom springing from regard to his tender years, rather than from a strict adherence to the rules of etiquette.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Studio Version)

So, Fleet Foxes is proof that occasionally ordering an album unheard based on the band name and a few positive reviews on Amazon can sometimes work out beautifully. I stumbled upon these guys quite by accident a few years ago and I've been hooked ever since. Their music makes me think of trees and grass and mountains, rocks and rivers... all the real things. This is from their new album, due out in May.

Monday, February 7, 2011


So... I am supposed to be going over my synopsis (again) today.  In fact, I have it up in its window, and I have been working on it, but my mind is continually distracted this morning by a number of other things, only the first having any bearing on synopsis-writing.

1. I hate writing the synopsis! All of my positive comments on last year's critiques were about the actual writing sample.  Nearly all of the negative ones were about the synopsis, mostly regarding how there wasn't enough information in it.  However, that was a two-page synopsis of a 210-page novel.  This year they have shortened the required length to one page, so I must cut things short and expound on them at the same time.

2. Pliny the Elder informed me this morning that women in his day used beer foam as a cosmetic.  To do what exactly?  He doesn't say.

3. I am taking advantage of my day off to wear an impractically pouffy skirt.  This makes me want to bounce, twirl, cavort, and do any number of other equally juvenile things.  It also brings on odd looks in the grocery store, but I'm getting used to that when I wear anything that isn't made of denim.

4. My trip to the grocery store took longer than it should have, partly because of the man who had to tell me all about how he almost didn't get out of his driveway this morning, and then about how he hit a deer with his wife's car.  Poor man, I'm very sorry for you but I was only trying to pick out brussels sprouts.  Apparently I was examining said brussels sprouts in a sympathetic manner.

5. Ballet videos on YouTube.  Pathetic I know, but I seriously can't get enough of Kenneth MacMillan's choreography.  The man was a genius with movement.

6. My hair wants cutting.

7. Blueberry bagels are delicious.

Anyway, somewhere in the midst of all these thoughts (as well as many others not mentioned here) I did manage to work out my synopsis, and it really was a good lesson in word economy, though I still have my doubts about some parts.  I'll have to go back tomorrow after I've been away from it for a little while.


Thursday, February 3, 2011


Song lyric of the day, from Deb Talan's The Gladdest Thing:

Doesn't each of us have a place where we belong?  Could be a sidewalk crack or a sad song.

The song came up on Pandora this morning at work, and that line caught me.  Everyone can think of a place like that, somewhere they felt at home, at peace.  Elizabeth Goudge, in Green Dolphin Street, referred to it as one's own "special country", as a state of mind given shape as a place.

For me as a child I found it in the branches of a particular tree.  Since then I have found it many places, from the banks of the Teifi in Wales to an empty parking lot, a full auditorium to a dim cedar grove.  They are the places and the moments when I feel I have most truly lived, times and places where doing was not required, when simply being was enough and more than enough and the distortion of life as we know it was gone, when action became superfluous and speech banal.

To live always in those moments would be to live in heaven.