Taking Flight

Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain
Paul Taylor Dance Company, photo by Paul B. Goode, Public Domain

I am busy writing when one of my sisters calls and invites me to a dance concert at the last minute. I want to decline–I’m writing, after all– but what she describes sounds too innovative to miss. And I have a passionate appreciation of dance. Getting out will be a nice break for me, too.

Two other sisters, one able-bodied and one a quadruple amputee, were dancing together and the final part of their documentary was being finished during the performance. SOAR: Dance Concert and Documentary Finale was comprised of not only these two dancers, but four other dance troupes, including Polaris Dance Theater, The Portland Ballet, Kemba Shannon Dance Ensemble, and the exceptional high school group Jefferson Dancers. I had to save my writing and go.

The moment Kiera Brinkley begins to dance with the Polaris Dance Theater, the effect is startling. Everyone else is longer-limbed and can stand fully upright. Kiera sits and stands, but differently, her legs being what most of consider our thighs only. Having lost most of her lower limbs as well as her forearms and hands due to a catastrophic infection as a toddler, she has had a lifetime of practice getting around with her unique body. I imagine the rest of the audience wonders what they are in for. How can she possibly engage with the other dancers effectively and skillfully, contribute a creative spark that was integral to the choreography?

Easily. Or at least that is how it appears. What will power was developed to dance this way? She reaches and turns, swoops and sweeps alongside the others, mirrors their movements in ways that are refreshing and surprising. Her torso is very strong, her focus intense. Yet there is a lightness, a transcendent quality to her dancing from and across the floor. She is devoted to each movement as much as each dancer, perhaps more so. In time her differences seem less so. My eye is drawn to the overall troupe, the designs they configure, the story they impart. She is a rigorous, essential part of the whole as it organically shapes the spaces and then breaks apart. Makes the stage an organism that functions only as well as each dancer, including Keira.

Later, Keira and her sister, Uriah Boyd, whose body is what we might expect a dancer’s to appear, dance together the piece choreographed by Melissa St. Clair. Their interactions are intimate, so connected that it is hard to tell where one’s energy departs from the other’s. Their bodily communications are crisp and clean, sensuous and cerebral all at once, a telegraphing of complex feelings. Their adoration of dancerly movement and their faith in an absolute porousness of physical boundaries wields power.

The documentary is being completed after two years. It tells of the sisters, their lives together as they grew up, their individual love of dance that became a shared living dream. When a clip is shown, my heart comes forth to welcome and applaud their work, their visions.

But that concert has provoked many thoughts, not just of their performances, but of how all bodies are shaped and what that means to us privately and collectively in our culture. Last night I admired many female dancers who did not meet the long-held expectations of a dancer type: reed slimness, good height, lightness and grace, length of neck and fine shape shoulder. Willowy, perhaps. I don’t know all the requirements, as I am not a dancer, but we, if we care to admire and support dancers, may hold a certain image in our minds. The fact is, times have changed considerably since I studied dance sporadically as child and youth. Modern or contemporary dance offers more opportunities to those who do not fit a classical ballet build. And how we, the audience, benefits. What I saw heartened me. It wasn’t enough that the music was exceptional and the choreography was excellent. These dancers were not uniform at all. They were short and tall, stocky and slender, moved softly or with bravado, were dynamic, intriguing, self-defining even as they merged with the whole.

The communion of creativity, the union of many talents is a marvel to see, even if we don’t always feel comfortable or agree. There are many sparks in the world that ignite flames of creative energy. I wonder who out there gives up because they feel they are too “different.” Who tucks away a dream due to being told they do not fit the bill? And why should it take such courage to present the best of what we have? The truth is, it takes a strong ego within a persistent person to forge ahead despite the odds.

I danced once, long ago. Decades ago I attended an international arts camp, called Interlochen National Music Camp when I was young. I studied cello and voice, a little harp, and writing, as well. But my secret desire was to learn modern dance in the dance building overlooking a shimmering blue lake. I had stopped by the studios for years (my father taught at Interlochen many summers, as well), heard the rhythmic thump of bare feet on the special floors, watched perspiration soak their leotards, noted how they laced up toe shoes with meticulous care. I’d taken a few dance classes over the years but had focused on music, writing, figure skating and other endeavors.

But one year I chose as an elective class in modern dance. I started in a beginning class, then was placed in an intermediate class. I was anxious about failure but my happiness overcame temerity. I worked hard to keep up, pushed my body in ways I had never experienced, felt pain and knew fulfillment. This was nothing like the long hours practicing a stringed instrument or singing art songs. Here, I could move. I could express everything, mold feeling, morph the lines of body with effort and discipline. Everything about dance began to animate my being, even when I wasn’t there. It opened doors that took me to the depths of wordlessness, into silence. It was diving into a still pool only to discern other worlds. I often felt as though I should give up but he instructor one day kept me afterwards.

“You should dance,” she said. “You have natural ability. You have the passion. You come to it from your heart.”

My face reddened. “Oh, no, I haven’t really studied. I am so behind others here. And I am fourteen–it’s too late now.”

“Nonsense. I first began earnestly to study dance in college. And I have danced professionally and also teach. Think about it.”

Her words were carried like a gift to my next orchestra rehearsal. I thought of my hometown, the lack of serious dance instruction. The expectations of my musical family and the way singing and playing cello made me feel–really, as good as dancing, just different. My unrelenting love and need of writing. I returned to each modern dance class and worked hard and felt freed, entranced, inspired creatively. But I didn’t take more classes beyond the camp. I didn’t agree with my teacher. I knew to dance truly well took more than I could give in many ways, not the least being time and dedication. And I envisioned myself being a writer or a singer or combination.

I stayed with music for a few more years, but writing–it was ever with me, in my thoughts and dreams and doing. To perform before an audience required many opportunities. Writing was available every moment–a pencil and paper, a typewriter, then a computer. I didn’t need so much to be read as to just write something every day, make it shine. Oh, I have danced in casual situations and now at Zumba at the gym. I think of taking flamenco; the May schedule is nearby. Early heart disease changed the way I  accomplish physical goals; it doesn’t have to stop me from trying and enjoying myself..

But I wrote a novel about a dancer ten years ago, yet to be submitted for publication. Here is the gist of it: Sophia is six feet tall. She has a body that is powerful and elegant but not thin. She has managed her own dance company of intergenerational dancers who have bodies of all shapes and sizes, with skills as diverse as their skin color and age. But then Sophia experiences a loss beyond understanding when her husband dies mysteriously and she is harmed in the process. She cannot dance. She cannot even speak. She has lost her truth and power. The story takes us into her well of grief and out again, follows her footsteps as she learns again to trust her body and mind as well as her soul. Sophia discovers those who can accept and love her when she cannot yet love herself. And she begins to heal and give back, to even aid a photojournalist who is lost in a state of burnout and a woman under the spell of a cruel man. And creative work helps untether Sophia from her own misery.

This is what I was thinking last night as I watched the dancers on stage, was moved by Kiera Brinkley and her sister: Art can transform both artist and viewer like little else. It gets the job done when our imaginations light up. Liberates. Edifies. Not that these are new ideas, of course, but what impact they have when I stop and observe others carefully. Dance is a part of a vast network of disciplines and persons who love creating so much they devote their lives to it. Take difficult risks to share what matters most. But everyone can create some way, some thing. All can share their story, at home or in the world. It is a matter of beginning. Why not make something wonderful of what we have and who we are? Give ourselves whatever wings fit us, fly a little more.

The Dancers by Arthur Mathews
The Dancers by Arthur Mathews

(You can learn more about SOAR on Facebook.)

She Who Rules Wisely: Troll Runs the Show

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My family recently enjoyed a reunion for a week. We shared a variety of activities and talked from morning until evening. Our five adult children landing within the same city limits is a rare event. They got to reunite with an uncle and three aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.

One sunny afternoon we explored a few offerings of downtown Portland. My oldest daughter is an artist and since we all love the arts, we visited the choice Museum of Contemporary Craft. We saw an exhibit of bowls in many mediums displayed as part of a project organized by Ayumi Horie in partnership with the museum entitled “Object Focus: The Bowl”. Particularly curious was a table lined with bowls that we could pick up and examine, think about, admire. An option for the visitor was choosing an artist whose bowl was enjoyed, thus being given the privilege of taking a similar bowl home to use by checking it out at the Circulation Desk. This part of the project is called “Object Focus: The Bowl, Engage + Use.”

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Yes, that’s correct–we got to utilize the very art that museums typically discourage us from touching. What an adventurous concept! I was all in, especially when the others encouraged me. We all agreed we would at least use a unique and beautifully crafted bowl for an upcoming family BBQ. The daughters started to think of foods the bowl might hold. I finally chose one created by Mike Helke. It is an unusual shape, and the glazes are lovely. I knew it could make something good happen.

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We did fill the bowl with a luscious fruit salad for our family reunion meal. But we had a few other ideas and I seized upon one in particular.

It involves a troll. My troll.

She Who Rules Wisely (aka Crone aka Old Troll) was given to me by my mother over thirty years ago, following a Scandinavian trip both parents took. I think of this creature as an ancient and watchful being from first, another dimension, and second, a region that attracts me with its natural grandeur and history. Since her kind has power there and in my house, I afford her respect and a prominent place of repose. Every now and then we talk in secret; she is reassuring yet stern, frank but humorous–much like my mother and her sisters could be. But most of all, dear “SWRW” is a survivor who considers herself queenly when at her best. In fact, in private she confides she borders on goddess-hood. In truth, she is a bit raggedy after a long, nearly legendary life.

There was no question that she would chime in when she saw the bowl. She has opinions and likes the limelight. What follows is a transcription of her responses, aided by pictures she allowed.

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“I see. Trying to get this one over me, eh? I happen to have been thinking about boats and beds, either of which this great piece of ceramic might become. Allow me to investigate further. I can’t sleep anyway, with all the racket.”

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“Yes, yes. About the right size. Sturdy yet elegant. Best colors I’ve seen in eons. But which to use it for…no, no suggestions needed!”

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“‘Oh, sail me across the great Atlantic, take me back to my fiords, dear! Make me a bed in the deep of forest, my true love will await me there!’ What? My voice needs a tune up? Never mind. This suits me well. But would it sink…anyone check that out yet? What are the specs?”

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“This looks and feels nothing whatsoever like the ocean…”

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“That was extraordinarily taxing to flip over. No, I didn’t need your help. I need to get an exercise regimen going. Now, what to do, what to do? I feel at home in here…A bed, a boat. Shhh…! I’m cogitating. “

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“Brain fatigue. I might need to rest up first. Not as quick as I used to be. Wait….that gives me another thought. Watch this.”

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“Not so easy to get comfortable but I’ve known rocks that were worse. The three rectangles are a deft touch but this rounded side sleeps poorly. What did you say the craftsman was building? Right, bowls.”

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“Okay, it’s the fabric that is half the problem. Where did you get this? I don’t like it. Cheap.”

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“An improvement but somewhat claustrophobic. Reminds me of some fishing boats I’ve sheltered under during my unbelievably long, occasionally nomadic life. I could tell you stories, but another time. If I could, I’d close my other eye and sleep away the rest of the evening. This whole experience is inspiring but, I have to admit, tiring.”

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“You know what? I appreciate the generous offer, but you may keep it, Cynthia. It looks good, you like it, but to me it’s a boat that won’t float and a bed that hexes snoozing. My tail is starting to drag now. Let me give you some advice. Next time you want to bring home art, take me with you. I’m available for consulting, for a reasonable fee. Speaking engagements, as you know, are a heftier investment. But they might not be about any arts that you’d appreciate.”

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“Hey…okay, here we go again. Storytellers–you all have to have the last word. Wait–keep that profile shot–my best side! I do look pretty good, eh? Yes, I do.”