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

nijinsky-faun

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.

riabko-nijinsky

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…

To Baryshnikov, with Love

barishnokov_stting

Mikhail Baryshnikov…

Miss Malaprop has a case of the Baryshnikovs.

It happened quite accidentally, as these often things do: for some reason (still unknown even to myself) I was researching the great story-telller, Scheherazade, when I happened to click on a link to a YouTube clip of the Vienna Philharmonic playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s music of the same name.

Now, I’m not sure whether this phenomenon is unique to my children, but YouTube has a magnetic pull on my girls.  It’s uncanny — no matter what part of the house or garden they are playing in, the split second I start checking something out on YouTube they appear. Instantly. They then either try to squash themselves simultaneously onto my lap or lean heavily over my shoulders and usually end up obscuring my computer screen so that I can’t see a damn thing…

Anyway, this occasion was no different. Marvel Girl was at school, and Miss Malaprop had been happily drawing pictures of the Hulk and Thor (complete with swirling cape and hair so fine L’Oreal would definitely think he was worth it) when I began watching the Scheherazade clip. But there she was — yes, instantly — at my elbow.

“What are you watching?” she asked, her greeny-blue eyes already fixed on the screen.

“I’m not really watching, I’m actually listening — to the music,” I explained. “But if you want to, I can show you some music with dancing? Like when I go to the ballet?”

“Oooh…yes please, Mummy!”

And so it began. I was in one of my Russian moods (evidently, since I had begun with Rimsky-Korsakov), so first I showed Miss Malaprop the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. And she loved it — the costumes, the dancing, the sets, the music; it was as though I had opened a world of wonder to her. But then she started asking questions about Romeo and Juliet and what happened to them, and…well, while I suspect the plot is best summed up in this e-card:

Romeo & Juliet

Seriously…they make several good points here…

…street fighting and teen suicide weren’t things I was ready to discuss with a preschooler.

So we moved on.

“Oh — here’s something you’ll like,” I said, clicking on another clip.

Those of you who follow this blog already know that Blue Jai’s First Rule of Parenting is simply “Distract” (trust me, it works almost every time). But on this occasion, it really worked: Miss Malaprop went from being simply fixated to utterly transfixed.

By Baryshnikov.

We watched him perform the pas de deux from Giselle, and then moved onto The Nutcracker, mostly because Miss Malaprop is familiar with Tchaikovsky’s score from her own ballet classes. Many of the clips are grainy, products of the long-gone days of videotape, but as my daughter watched Mikhail Baryshnikov dance she first grew very quiet, and then grew very still. And it wasn’t until later that evening that I realised just how deep an impression had been made.

You should see how high he leaps...

You should see how high he leaps…

At dinnertime, Miss Malaprop began explaining what she had seen, and did so with a reverence and wonder I have rarely heard from her.

“He’s the most angelic person…” she said, trying to express to her sister that what she had seen seemed super-human.

“Yeah, Baryshnikov.  He’s a man you know…but he’s the most amazing dancer. You should see how high he leaps! I just love him.”

And there it was.

Baryshnikov had acquired yet another fan.

Clearly, Mikhail Baryshnikov is not an angel, he is a man — and one who has been criticised (most notably by his former dance partner and sometime lover Gelsey Kirkland) for some of his personal and professional attitudes. That said, from a distance and, more specifically, from a preschooler’s perspective, I think there are worse people in this world Miss Malaprop could choose to look up to.

“Working is living to me.” Mikhail Baryshnikov

Dancing — as even Baryshnikov would tell you — is hard work. You’ve got to put in the hours, from an early age, and practice. And then practice some more. And then…yeah, you know what comes next…

But to be as good as Baryshnikov, you also need discipline: not just to do all that practice, but to develop good, or in his case, close to flawless technique. And the way Baryshnikov says he achieved that? By focusing on self-improvement: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else,” he says, “I only try to dance better than myself.”

It’s also, all too often, about making choices — some of them difficult. I cannot imagine that deciding to defect from the then Soviet Union in 1974 was an easy thing to do. But as Baryshnikov says, “To achieve some depth in your field requires a lot of sacrifices. Want to or not, you’re thinking about what you’re doing in life — in my case, dancing”.

And finally, there is one thing about succeeding as a dancer that, in my view, sets it apart: it exposes. On stage, there is nowhere to hide. You have to be prepared to perform, to reveal the extent of your abilities and the range of your expression, and to be comfortable with the result. And to do that effectively, and meaningfully, you need to know yourself.

When a dancer comes on stage, he is not just a blank slate the choreographer has written on. Behind him he has all the decisions he has made in his life…each time, he has chosen, and in what he is on stage you see the result of those choices. You are looking at the person he is, and the person, who at this point, he cannot help but be…Exceptional dancers, in my experience, are also exceptional people, people with an attitude toward life, a kind of quest, and an internal quality. They know who they are, and they show this to you willingly.

MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV

mikhail-baryshnikov

“When a body moves, it’s the most revealing thing. Dance for me a minute, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Mikhail Baryshnikov

My maternal intuition tells me that Miss Malaprop’s path in life is not that of a dancer: she is much more likely to use words (volubly and at varying volumes) than to express herself through movement. But if she chooses as role models people who literally embody what it means to work hard, practice harder, be disciplined and make difficult decisions, and if she makes the effort to get to know herself, I believe that she will succeed — in whatever it is she sets out to do.

This, perhaps, could be the moral of the story, though I suspect a cautionary corollary is also called for: if the YouTube phenomenon I described above extends beyond my house and into yours, be careful what you click on…it could change your child’s life.