The Truth Will Set You Free

Telling the truth.

It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.

Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.

Yes, ballet.

Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.

Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.

So I owned it.

And I didn’t go.

I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.

Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.

It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.

Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.

And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.

Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.

His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.

The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.

The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.

The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.

You have to tell them what you want to do.

In other words: truth.

You have to tell the truth.

Nureyev then tells the French police:

I want to stay here.

And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.

Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.

Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.

Without a Word

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Nijinsky as the Faun

I have been forever fascinated by how humans can convey the depth and width of their emotions without uttering a single sound. You may think it odd that someone like me, who relishes and cherishes the written word, would value such expression so highly – but, quite simply, I do.

I love watching people dance. I’ve written before about how my children do, too. And while I don’t mind a bit of a boogie myself from time to time, there are some things — ballet, for example — that I believe are best left to the experts. To those rare individuals who are disciplined enough to dedicate their lives to honing their skills and their selves to the point that they bare their very souls on stage.

On Saturday night I was fortunate enough to witness one such individual dance, when Alexandre Riabko took to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet in the title role of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky.  It was a powerful, masterful performance, vividly depicting Vaslav Nijinsky’s life inside and outside of dance via a series of memories and hallucinations as he descended, finally, into madness.

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Descent into madness…Alexandre Riabko as Nijinksy.

Watching Riabko inhabit Nijinsky’s interior world, as other dancers recreated his recollections — of being the Golden Slave in Scheherazade, or of the Faun in L’apres midi d’un faune, or of Petrouchka, or of learning his ballet steps with his brother and sister  — was mesmerising. But as other dancers began to give form to Nijinksy’s delusions and as his complex relationships with his lover and employer at the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, and with his wife, Romola, visibly unravelled, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy.

nijinsky-sheherazade

The Golden Slave…

The image of Nijinsky returning again and again to something like second position, arms outstretched, as though trying to find his centre and a sense of safety in the midst of his increasing confusion was heartbreaking, particularly when juxtaposed with the transformation of his memories of Diaghilev — performed with all his usual elegant line and length by Andrew Killian — from sensual lover and suave mentor to sinister impresario.

No footage of Nijinksy dancing is believed to have survived — Diaghilev, apparently, would not allow him to be filmed — but during the two and half hours he was on stage, Alexandre Riabko had me completely and utterly convinced that he was channelling the spirit of the man whom many regard as being one of the greatest interpreters of the artform to ever set foot on a stage.

I left the Sydney Opera House deeply saddened by the tragedy of Nijinsky’s tale — he never again danced publicly from the time of his final performance in 1919 until his death, after spending years in and out of asylums, in 1950 — but I was also, ultimately, uplifted by the sheer intensity, beauty and bravery of the performance I had just witnessed.

And I suspect that feeling — one of great admiration tinged with sorrow — would have stayed with me for the remainder of the weekend, had I not had the pleasure of attending a Greek Orthodox wedding with my family the following day.  My daughters had never been to a wedding before, and they were entranced by everything about the experience from the singing at the wedding ceremony to the table settings at the reception. But what really captivated them — and me — was the dancing.

Watching the wedding guests encircling the dance floor, every one of them tracing the intricate steps of a Syrtos, was every bit as mesmerising as the ballet had been the night before.  Here were women — some in sensible sandals, most in spectacular stilletos — and men following in the footsteps of those who had come before them. Here was a sure-footed groom, leading his radiant bride. Without uttering a single word, the dance spoke of tradition, of continuity, of community, of family.

And as the long line of dancers wound their way around the room, I found myself thinking of each of their bodies as a living link to the past, stretching all the way to the present and then onwards, ever onwards, as they danced into the night, celebrating with the newlyweds and wishing them a lifetime of happiness in the future.

syrtos

A long line of tradition and celebration…