Saturday, January 31, 2004

Don’t sit too close at the ballet

The band was loud as I leaned in to hear my new friend. Bourbon Street was coming alive as the January sun sank over the French Quarter, turning the sky a quick, passionate red. The band blared blues as we attempted conversation. She, a New England debutante & schooled at Miss Porter’s, dripped intelligence and friendliness, a powerful combination in any venue.

We danced to the blues, sweat dripping from both of us, my white boy, old man antics put to shame by her twenty-something, modern dance trained, fluid movement. Her hips moved like water lapping at the sand along the shore. I could have fallen in, one toe already at the foamy water’s edge.

The band took a break following a bass and horn standard, and we nestled in the shadows, standing close but not touching, New England formality alive and well in the cradle of the Big Easy. We talked, trading stories of family and past, she estranged from her parents and I thankful for the complexity of life.

The witching hour came and went, and I could hear the siren call of sleep; one of us had to work in the morning. We bade farewell, but not before she gave me counsel, I’m sure passed down from her literary parents: “Don’t sit too close at the ballet.”

Only later, blocks away from the din of Bourbon Street and walking down Tchoupitoulas Street, my hands in my pockets to keep warm, did it make sense.

We go to the ballet to witness the seemingly effortless beauty of fluid motion: dancers spinning and swirling and leaping, grace in motion. When we sit up close, we see the sweat, the effort; we get a sense for the years of practice and skill building; we hear the bones creak and can almost hear the ache of muscles. We see the ballet is messy; we see the make-up, the bruises, and the effort. It no longer is a fairy-tale world of make believe. It’s not perfection but humanity; it’s not art but realism; it’s not beauty but work. She sensed I was sitting too close.

What my friend did not perhaps realize is that sitting so close, being able to touch the imperfection, is what life is all about. We know we’re alive when we feel the pain (isn’t this why some people – usually girls and young women – cut themselves: the pain reminds them they’re still alive). We know we’re alive when we feel the sweat, when we see the joy and despair, when we touch a heart and see a soul.

So, I’m at the ballet, sitting close, and I see the effort, the pain, the tension – and that makes it all the more beautiful.

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