Sunday, September 19, 2010

The woman in black

Domododevo International Airport, Moscow, Russia
Sunday, September 19, 2010

In transit to Almaty, Kazakhstan

In Minsk on Friday our last program before leaving for Grodno, a small city on the western border of Belarus, was a second Master Class, this one at the Choreography College at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts. Walking up the stairs from the street, with the weather cool and damp, an occasional mist drifting through the air, there was that classic sense of being in an environment of young artists. It’s a different vibe than a normal college campus; at once more intense but in that way of everything being immediate. And the fashion…I don’t typically notice the way people dress all that much, but here, everyone, the women especially, are so utterly and carefully put together.

Of course the fact that we were at a State run University whose sole focus is Culture and Arts was exceptional in and of itself, another reminder that in this part of the world art is respected in profound ways, ways which open doors otherwise locked in the search for exchange between Belarusians and Americans. Here its not, as someone said to me at the Embassy event the other night “what happened to your law degree” when you tell them you are an artist. It’s a bit like being a rock star and an intellectual rolled into one. There’s really no comparison to it at home. At the Airport on Tuesday as I was clearing Belarusian customs the young agent behind the glass asked me what my purpose was in coming to Belarus. She asked the question looking down at my passport, as I suspect she did with almost everyone coming through her line.

When I told her it was to perform at Philharmonic Hall with my dance company she transformed from bored bureaucrat to art lover. Looking up from my passport her face changed, her manner changed -- she changed. "Oh!" she said under her breath. The smile on the other side of the glass told me all I needed to know. "Welcome to Belarus. I hope you have a wonderful performance." 

If you can find that in someone whose job is theoretically to make you a bit nuts trying to get into the country, what does it tell you about the power of art. 

The major ballet school interviews 3,000 students for its incoming class (mind you the entire population of the country is around 11 million), out of which they pick something like 30. The Choreography College students train for six years – six – to become professional artists.

We were met at the entrance by the Choreography College’s Director, Svetlana Gutkovskaya, an exceptionally elegant and attractive woman with a sparkle in her eye about art, and about life, which just holds your gaze. Exactly the way you think of a performer whose image stays in your mind for those long moments after the lights are gone from the stage.

We came to the hallway leading to the studio, a few more moments of conversation and logistics between our colleagues at State and Svetlana. Svetlana stood at the edge of her studio, waiting. I trailed behind in the tight corridor. The hallway was full and quiet.

Out of the corner of my eye, over my right shoulder, a young woman caught my attention. She was perhaps 5’5” with enormous, exquisite blue eyes, deep brown-black hair in a French braid along her shoulder, high cheek-bones that cut along her face in an elegant, Kate Moss kind of way. She was anxious.

She angled her way to Svetlana and you could tell immediately what she wanted – she wanted to come to class. And the answer was no. You know how that is when you clearly want something so much you’d do just about anything to get it, but that when the boss says no you’re done? That’s what this was. But she persisted anyway. That’s how much she wanted this.

And it worked.

Some people are born into a dance studio. They’re rare, but when you see them, when they enter a room, its as though they were day-glo painted when everyone else was left in the dark. She’s one of those. Every moment in that room was precious to her. She stretched every movement and every exercise, looking for the extra grace in a stretched muscle or a lingering drag of the foot as it slid around in a simple arc. The floor-work for her felt like a discovery even though she’d done it who knows how many times before. Her English was good – good enough that she caught the nuance in Chris’s directions, the inner monologue between he and Alice and William. Every time a movement phrase was finishing, she’d be the last to complete it, pulling every moment out of it. It was so clear that the world just went away for her in those moments.

Those are the moments that stay with me – the ones where you realize that something you are a part of extends around the globe, and that wherever you are there are people like this woman, who fight to get into a simple class, who hold onto an entire two hours and absorb them in every way they can. I guarantee you those exercises are still playing in her mind and coursing through her body today.

She wasn’t the best dancer in the room technically. She’s still working through the connections within her own body. But she has the facility and the musicality.

I asked Svetlana about her during one of Chris’s combinations. “She’s from Poland,” she said. I thought about what could happen to her dancing if she had Chris to be her guide through the connecting of all the dots of modern and contemporary movement. She seemed so right for the aesthetic of Eastern European dance right now – that instinctive and immersive exploration of self through movement that you see there. But mostly I thought about the hunger that brought her into the room. That hunger is what truly drives an artist, and especially, to me at least, a dancer, to pass all the things which bind us and keep us from the physicalisation of our lives, the discovery that we can pull all our experiences and emotions together into a single, sinuous stretch of an arm, and that the interior feedback-loop which every dancer has can light us up in ways the rest of the world just can’t comprehend. There’s an ecstasy to it, and endorphin and self-awareness rush, a “past your own skin” relationship to the world.

To see that in someone who passes into, and then right out of, your life in a simple two-hour period is to be invited into it even though it wasn’t for me. I doubt seriously she even knew I was in the room. That’s the magic of it – the people who moved together, and the bond they formed with Chris, with Alice, with William, was for them. Yet each of us on the outside got to share it. It has a way of filling a room that nothing else I’ve ever experienced does. It’s a preternatural thing, which is how it should be.

We are so much more than our words.

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