I love the ballet. Yes, I was the little girl who constantly wound up her musical jewellery box with its twirling ballerina at the centre, and who always wanted a pink tutu and lace-up pointe shoes. At college, I remember driving to another city just to see the visiting Bolshoi Ballet company.
Over the many years since, going to the ballet has always felt magical and inspiring. I still get lost in the grace and beauty of how the dancers’ bodies move, lengthening and leaping or making tiny sharp steps, as though staccato symbols floated invisibly above their coiffed heads. All that disciplined work looks so effortless, but most of all, dancers remind me of what I so often forget: that the human body is a joyful wonder, able to accomplish more than I usually give it credit for.
I haven’t been to the ballet since October 2019, when I saw a performance by the American Ballet Theater at the Lincoln Center. Like the rest of the audience, I had no idea it would be the last live performance I’d see for more than a year. Now, as New York carefully unlocks its cultural arts venues, ballet companies are gearing up for returning to live performances in the fall.
Last week, in anticipation of a gradual return to normal, the New York City Ballet premiered their 2021 Digital Spring Gala, as a 24-minute film directed by film-maker Sofia Coppola. Nothing compares to a live performance. But still, late Monday night after an over-extended workday, I tuned in, suddenly giddy with anticipation, as if a little thread of thrill had been pulled within me. If you plan to watch, it’s available online until May 27.
Spoiler alert: it was beautiful. The film begins with short, sharp glimpses of the barren spaces around the theatre: the rows of empty velvet seats, a cold-looking storage room stuffed with clear plastic bags full of unused pointe shoes, and iron rods of hanging unworn tulle skirts and dresses.
A shelf of gigantic plush costume heads of mice reminds us of the lavish holiday season, the magical Nutcracker performances that didn’t happen last year. It feels both exquisite and forlorn, stirring both nostalgia and a longing for a return to the parts of our lives that summoned joy.
Into this quiet yearning, principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia enters the frame, walking into a long dark hallway. We follow him towards the light at the end, an empty rehearsal studio, where he pauses at the doorway, drops his bag and gazes in with what feels like a strange mix of quiet relief and lingering grief, as though he were never sure he’d be there again. We follow Garcia’s muscular limbs as he moves and stretches and glides and pirouettes and jetés around the room, a dazzling example of what the body is physically capable of when one is in command of it.
It feels like a quiet reminder of our bodies’ resilience in times of trauma, the way they can hold not just pain but memories, too, of better times. Watching professional dancers of any kind, I am constantly amazed at how the body seems to have its own language. With movement it can convey and release emotion in ways that can free and expand us. It made me think about how all of our bodies are capable of communicating, and how all of us are always in some sort of dialogue with our own bodies.
Physical sensations, instinctual responses, emotions and intuitions arise constantly within all of us, whispering insights about our present experiences and what we might need. Yet although our culture and society is obsessed with body image and how we look, we are not readily trained or encouraged to pay attention to how our bodies communicate with us or to listen for their inherent wisdom and guidance.
In the past 14 months, we’ve all found ourselves more aware of our bodies. Some of us gained or lost weight due to stress and anxiety, others had to combat new levels of lethargy, insomnia and unrest. We had to find creative new ways to stay active when gyms were closed or we didn’t feel safe being in proximity with strangers.
In surviving the pandemic, our bodies have been through traumas that can’t be separated from the emotional or mental hurt we may have experienced. But I suspect that in this past year, we’ve all discovered deepened ways to be grateful for our bodies.
Watching the ballet the other night, even digitally, was an especially beautiful and moving experience because it reminded me to recognise again the strength and beauty of our bodies, to remember that our bodies are a language unto themselves.
For the finale, the film bursts from black and white into colour, replete with classical tulle tutu-wearing ballerinas, and male dancers dressed in white tights and pastel blue jackets, all against a sky-blue background. They twirl and leap joyfully together to an excerpt from George Balanchine’s “Divertimento #15”, and I feel the muscles on my face stretch into a broad smile. It is a moment of enchantment and childish delight.
Our bodies may not always win in the healing game, nor might we always treat ours or others’ with the respect and honour they deserve, but while the curtains are up in our lives, they remain exquisite works of art.
Enuma Okoro writes weekly for Life & Arts
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