The Dancer in Red
I always try to speak the local language when I am in a foreign country, even if I am terrible at it. That night at the Bastille Opera House in Paris was no exception. I said a polite, “Bon soir” to the woman who sat down next to me. She responded in flawless French but with a strong American accent. We quickly moved into English.
( I am always a bit relieved when that happens.)
She started looking at her iPhone after she was settled and suddenly blurted out, “The police have lost track of him. You know, the younger brother, the one who set off the bombs at the marathon.”
“What do you mean ‘younger brother’?” I asked, confused and suddenly scared.
“You haven’t heard?” she said, amazed that I wasn’t keeping up with events back in the States as closely as she was.
“No, I have no idea what you’re talking about” I said, beginning to get annoyed.
“Oh,” she went on, eager to share the horror. “The older brother was killed in a fire fight outside of MIT and the younger one is on a suicide mission, you know all strapped up with bombs and no one knows where he is or what he’s going to do. Boston is shut down.”
I sat there in shock, unable to respond to this woman, this stranger who had also come to watch the contemporary ballet we were about to see.
The house lights dimmed and the curtain went up. The powerful opening to Gustav Mahler’s 3rd symphony saturated the space. I was immediately drawn into the genius of John Neumeier’s choreography. Part of my brain said, “How does he do that? It’s perfect!” The other part said, “Who cares? I’m sitting here watching a ballet while there’s a man in Boston trying to kill more innocent people . . . and they can’t find him!”
But the ballet went on relentlessly, almost indecently beautiful . . . compelling. The final movement came, worthy of Petipa in its symmetry and overwhelming power, and it was done . . . simply, with the dancer portraying an angel dressed in a red unitard walking off stage right, slowly, precisely, while the man watched. No pyro-techniques, no flashy pirouettes — just hope – – and with it a deep sense of Love. Not between the dancers even . . . just there.
And that is the power of art. To say what we cannot put into words, or only with imperfect, halting steps. To show us things we only hope are true. To let us seewhat Love looks like.
This spectacle, this enormous work, undertaken first by Mahler in 1896 and then by Neumeier eighty years later, lifts human experience from the personal to the universal. It causes us to connect intuitively with others . . . people we will never know. It tells us, “We all feel like that at times.” It gives us a way out – a way UP.
The fact that Neumeier left the name of the symphony intact and named his ballet after it speaks of his reverence for great music, and his humility and respect for other art forms. The fact that he succeeded in building a ballet around a great piece of music speaks of his genius.
The sixth movement is especially powerful. Its haunting lyricism and patterns evoked emotions I didn’t realize were so close to the surface. Emotions, however, that I knew were not exclusively mine: a longing for peace and certainty; a whisper of hope; a thirst for something higher — bigger than self; and, finally, redemption and a deep-rooted joy.
This final movement left me stunned, unable to move, to get up and find all the students who had come with me to the performance. Mahler had said of this movement that it was, “A summary of my feelings about all beings.” And Neumeier had recognized that the music, “leads us into regions we know of in the innermost sections of our hearts.” Together with the dancers, they had succeeded in touching me somewhere hidden, somewhere deeply personal.
No one can predict the power a work of art may have on those experiencing it. Every single audience member brings themselves to that theatre, to that event, to that possibility. They bring their biases, their history, their predisposition to that seat, and it inevitably colors what they see because they are the ones seeing it.
As an artist I know this . . . all artists do. As an audience member I forget it. I don’t expect to be moved at a deep, emotional level anymore. I watch for the technique, for the tricks, for the novel, but I do so with my intellect not my heart, and usually my heart stays safely put away, untouched. But not this night, not with the combination of Mahler and Neumeier, not with the knowledge that very bad things were happening thousands of miles away in my homeland, and the intense desire to just get away and pray . . . not watch a ballet!
And there was something else. The fact that this ballet was so beautiful disturbed me. After all, I knew many, if not most, of the dancers were largely self-centered, dysfunctional people. But on stage they were Godlike: Flawless, strong and fluid. They knew exactly what they had to do and they did it – – without fear, without self-consciousness. They danced the ideas . . . the ideas that embodied struggle, grief and, finally, divine Love. How could they do that?
More importantly, how could it help?
And then it hit me . . . Love with a capital “L” is universal. It has to be or it wouldn’t be divine. The dancers and creators of this piece of art had tapped into that source to some degree and were simply sharing it with all of us. It was why I was so deeply moved. Instead of feeling like I had to get away to pray, this ballet became my prayer.
Leaving the theatre I knew, intuitively, that this was a time it was best not to talk. At those moments it is better to find a quiet, solitary place and be still. Animals know this, usually when they are wounded, or having their young, or dying. I was none of those things, but I knew I needed solitude that night. I went back to our hotel, closed my door and was alone.
Later that night, much later, my nineteen year old son, who I had been trying to contact, texted me from the States. All he wrote was, “They got him. It’s all over.”
Weeks later while reading through the journals my university students had kept during this trip abroad I read the following and realized I had not been the only one moved by this performance. The student wrote, “I don’t know John Neumeier’s religious or spiritual background but I felt that he was making a statement about man as undying. I felt a sense of “on earth, as it is in Heaven” for a few moments watching on stage. That is what art should do. Remind us of our source, and our divine heritage. Thank you Mr. Neumeier for giving me that reminder.”
The “reminder” has stayed with me. I will often flash on the visual image of the lone dancer in red walking peacefully, deliberately across the front of the stage. The man behind her watches, but not in longing or desperation, just watching. It’s as if he is thinking, “Someday that will be me, and I’ll know . . . I’ll be ready because you, Love, have showed me what it can be like.”
Not bad for a ballet.