All, Art, Tales from the Tutu Side

Moments of Wonder

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Edgar Degas’ Dance Class, Bing Images

 

 

Ballet is a teacher, a teacher of life lessons as well as of quirks unique to the art itself.  Returning to dancing full-time after a college hiatus has reminded me of many of these lessons, both sweet and sour.  For example, I had blissfully forgotten just how gosh darn sore one’s toes become and how much one’s feet can ache after being crammed in pointe shoes for hours on a daily basis.  The flip side of that, however, is the liberating feeling of removing said shoes and being able to spread one’s toes wide apart again.  In ballet, the old saying, “beauty is pain” can very often be all too true.

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Pointe shoes!

Furthermore, training and performing in any dance form and especially in ballet, at least at a school or company worth its salt, teaches a person to push himself/herself.  To perform and even to take class every day, one must have a solid work ethic and a whole lot of discipline.  Moreover, one must allow oneself to be vulnerable for one is continually being compelled to move out of his or her comfort zone, through self-motivation, teacher-prodding, and new and challenging choreography.  Trying and failing and trying and succeeding are part and parcel of the life of a dancer be he/she student or professional.  Practice that pirouette again.  Hold that balance a bit longer.  One more time.  A little more effort.  And most importantly, don’t forget to put heart and soul into the movements as well.  No automaton dancers.  One’s passion for ballet is what one can draw upon to inform the artistry and grace that gives life to the technique.

Despite the mechanics, the technique, and the arduous work that I know goes into ballet, sometimes it still seems like magic to me.  When I watch someone execute a step flawlessly or when the movements feel natural and good in my body or when I see the amazing feats of grace and coordination in balletic partner dancing, I find myself thinking of the tremendous gift that is dance and ballet and of the goodness of life.  I experience a moment of wonder.

Some of these moments have recently come during rehearsals of “The Nutcracker.”  This time-honored ballet favorite is familiar even to those who are not ardent followers of the dance world.  Many professional companies perform dozens of shows of “The Nutcracker” each year during the Christmas season.  Between rehearsals and performances, Nutcracker can easily consume a dancer’s life for three to four months.  Dancers sometimes joke about being sick of hearing the music over and over.

However, I never get sick of it.  Though the choreography of “The Nutcracker” differs company to company, Tchaikovsky’s incomparable music is the one exquisite and steadfast component to any production.  Perhaps because it has been a long time since I have danced in “The Nutcracker,” I have a re-awakened and heightened appreciation for its beauty.  Regardless, while listening to this grand score, I have found myself with goose bumps and not being able to suppress smiles.

One day as I was dancing to “Waltz of the Flowers,” I found myself almost becoming emotional while I was moving across the studio.  My stamina and breath were flagging toward the end of the nearly 7-minute piece, but the music was swelling and building, and in that moment, I realized that I had to allow the music to carry me through to the end.  The music and the realization that to little children in the audience, I really will be an enchanted flower dancing across the stage.  I am a character in a fairy tale.  And to me, that is pretty cool.  Again, a moment of wonder, of magic, and of appreciation for the gift of imagination.

The famous ballet choreographer George Balanchine said, “See the music, hear the dance.” This quote captures in a nutshell the relationship between dance and music, namely, an intimate one that enhances both sides.  I believe a prime example of this quotation is in “The Nutcracker.” The music is so rich and diverse as is the dancing, which includes several smaller dances or variations that reflect different nationalities. The music seems to be telling the story. There is the spiciness of Spanish, the sophistication and sensuality of Arabian, the breathless exuberance and strength of Russian, the excitement of the snow scene, the joy of the waltz of the flowers, and the majesty and romance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier’s grand pas de deux, among all the other colorful, beautiful parts.  Throw in costumes and a set and the end result is truly awe-inspiring. (To learn more about a grand pas de deux, please see my previous post, Lessons in Love & Chivalry from the World of Ballet.)

These little moments of wonder are inestimably valuable, especially in our day and age.

Amidst the hustle-and-bustle of our daily lives, the concerns we may have about national and international events, and the modern technology that allows us to have a geyser of information and facts at our beck and call, it is rejuvenating and calming to allow ourselves to feel wonder and awe at the simple things in life and at the beauty of the world around us.  Remembering this can help us on those inevitable days when our occupation or our particular stage in life can be overwhelming or feel monotonous. I know I am trying to recognize more and more the little things in life and to thank God for them.

As a closing thought, if you have never listened to Tchaikovsky’s musical masterpiece of the Nutcracker or if you have never attended a live performance of “The Nutcracker,” do yourself a favor and remedy that situation.  It will be well worth your while.

You can watch an excerpt of “The Nutcracker,” filmed for television in 1977 and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, two icons of the dance world, here.

All, Art, Faith

Music and Life

Why is music so connected to the human experience? Minds greater than mine have pondered this question; yet, like the haunting notes of a stirring musical score, this inquiry is recurring and timeless.  Why is music so inextricably linked to humanity?  The harmonious and discordant sounds of the world as well as the notes of actual music greet us practically from the first moment of our existence in the wombs of our mothers.  Even if by some bizarre circumstance we somehow were to live our whole lives without hearing any man-made music, we would still be serenaded by nature’s music, so lauded by poets, namely, the whirring of the insects, the chirping of birds, and the roaring of the wind.

I daresay that the majority of people have an opinion on music; there are certainly differing viewpoints on what constitutes good music, on what music is appropriate for certain times and places, and, undoubtedly, there are extreme variances in musical preferences.

A myriad of musical genres exists, and it is a good trait to have a cultivated and eclectic taste in music.  There is no harm in enjoying classical, rock, country, and pop music.  Nevertheless, some music, arguably, is objectively superior to other music.  To paraphrase one of my former philosophy professors at Franciscan University, one can recognize the musical superiority of a Bach or a Beethoven and still simply prefer the music of the Beatles.

Yet all of this discussion still has not answered our initial question regarding music’s relationship to humanity.  It is a somewhat cliche saying that “music is a universal language.”  However, cliches become cliches because they are true, so what is it about music that makes it universal?

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, music is described as an attribute of heaven.  Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the greatest musical geniuses that the world has ever known, said the following statement: “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom

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Ludwig von Beethoven, From Bing Images

and philosophy.”  Hans Christian Andersen of fairy tale fame, said, “When words fail, music speaks.”

In each of these descriptions of music, there seems to be an appeal to a transcendent quality?  Is this the universal characteristic by which music is united with mankind?  Is it that music appeals to our higher nature, to the spiritual part of us that is connected with God?  And is this why even people who profess no formal religious beliefs sometimes claim to find spiritual expression through music?

Along with those who have considered these questions before me, I would answer with a strong affirmative.  Music can be a channel through we come to a greater self-discovery as well as to a deeper realization of the meaning of our lives.  Moreover, music relates to beauty, which leads to God; therefore, music is a vehicle by which we begin to discover our relationship to God.  Finally, music also has the ability to facilitate a greater understanding between persons.

Firstly, let us consider how music can lead us to a better knowledge of ourselves and of our lives.  St. John Paul the Great in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” (which is a worthwhile read for everyone, no exclusively partakers in the arts) states,

“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.  The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s  own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.”

These eloquent words exemplify the truth that an artistic intuition, which includes musical intuition, is an encounter with beauty and a means of transcending the mere sensory world to see something mysterious and unifying about reality.

How often has someone listened to a particular song or musical composition that seemed to afford a release and an outlet to feelings that were inexpressible otherwise?  Music can be a catharsis and help a person to recognize pains or graces that were previously ignored or unnoticed.

Over and over again in this inspiring letter, our late pope speaks of beauty.  Beauty awakens a yearning within us.

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence .  It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future.  That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy.  It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…”

And God is beauty itself.

St. John Paul continues, “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.  It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.”

Music is art, and, thus, it has the power to shed light on man and on the world, subsequently leading to the transcendent end of faith and of God for Whom man was made.  Certainly these are some of the reasons why music contains such potency and importance for mankind, why it is a universal language.  Music bespeaks of mankind’s Creator, Who knows how to speak to the hearts of each of His creatures through His creation.  God can use music as a means to call us to Himself.

Secondly, music can provide insight and understanding between persons.  In the “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul writes,

“Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them.  The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men  and women.  Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.”

Thus, this is also a way in which music is universal: we feel connected to one another through music because each composer, each singer/songwriter infuses some of his very self, his soul  into his art, and we cannot help but come to understand him better and to grasp more fully his view of the world than through listening to work.  This builds communion and unity with one another and preserves the story of the past for future generations.

Whether it is the Russian nationalist music of Tchaikovsky or songs from the 1960s and ’70s protesting the Vietnam War, we have a musical record of people’s feelings towards events  that were changing their personal worlds and the world at large.

Music is a wondrous thing.  Music has the ability to transcend, to lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other.  Music can be a meeting with beauty, which leads us to a meeting with God.  These qualities of music are, I think, solid answers to our initial queries.  Yet, there are many more answers that are just as worthy, so let us conclude as we began–with thought-provoking questions: How has music  been a part of your life? Have you felt the beauty of music?  Have you been drawn closer to God and to your fellow man through a musical composition?  How has the universal language of music influenced and changed the notes of your individual life’s song?

NOTE: This is a slightly edited version  of a piece that I originally wrote for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville,  in 2014.