In a documentary about the late English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, her one-time partner Robert Helpmann said that she had a quality that, for reasons he did not understand, always made him want to cry. Mr. Helpmann was a man of the theatre as well as the ballet and understood about emotional communication, and yet he could not find the words to explain Dame Margot’s ineffable dancing.
Just so has been my experience watching the exquisite Sara Mearns at New York City Ballet. I find it hard to find the words to explain why, in ballets that have no story, I find myself so moved by her performances. Alastair Macaulay, the dance critic for The New York Times whose depth of knowledge about ballet is unparalleled, often writes with great eloquence about Ms. Mearns. He understands the choreography, the names of the steps, the music, the composer, the conducting, the history of every ballet, and the very high level of Ms. Mearns’ dancing, and yet, somehow, his words don’t really express the magical thing happens when Ms. Mearns takes the stage and allows the dance to flow through her and out into the world. It is as if she becomes something other than human, beyond words, an instrument in the choreographer’s hands, making real and greater both his ideas and the music to which they are set. So ephemeral and otherworldly are these moments that when watching her, I often find that I am holding my breath as I did as a girl, watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis – if you breathe, it will vanish.
Words can be the most powerful things in our human experience – witness the great poetry that uplifts us, centuries later; the mighty oratory that has inspired nations. It is no wonder that writers are often the first who are persecuted by totalitarian regimes: words are weapons that stay with us long after the smoke of war wafts away. So when words fail us, it is interesting, especially when even the best writers struggle to interpret an experience. One can describe the emotional ride evoked by a heartbreaking piece of music, or a stunning painting, or an inspiring play, but the experience of being in the same room with a significant work of human creation is sometimes simply beyond language.
I find this is never more true than with dance, which exists only in the moment it is seen and then flickers away. Of course there are videos, but anyone who has witnessed a live performance and then some time later seen its recording often feels disappointed in the diminishment. This leads me back to Ms. Mearns. Being in her presence when she dances is a gift made more precious by its very evanescence. The old cliché of lighting a candle against the darkness, a proverb quoted endlessly by preachers and leaders, stands in for our fragile efforts to remain human, whatever evil we do to ourselves and others. That small glimmer of light, a seemingly impossible gesture against the vast night, is daring and important. Just so these magnificent interpreters of the inexpressible, the musicians and dancers and painters, bless them, who through their work remind us always to be present, to appreciate and to love.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.