I've never reviewed The Nutcracker. There was never much I wanted to say about it publicly, even when the Seattle ballet-loving public mourned the loss of the beautifully mysterious Maurice Sendak/Kent Stowell version after Pacific Northwest Ballet switched to George Balanchine's Nutcracker in 2015. For me, Nutcracker was always an easy Christmasy uplift, a way to get lost in the sparkle of traditional classical ballet, a bump in memory that made me feel twenty or thirty years younger for a few days afterward. But in all of that it was always just a comfort ballet with nothing mind-blowing or weird enough to pitch to an editor.
Until this year. On opening night, newly promoted PNB principal dancer Leta Biasucci's Sugar Plum Fairy blew my mind. Biasucci is a favorite for many; her dancing is sharp and exacting, her smile authentic, her stage presence making every character she dances immediately believable and adored. But lately Biasucci's technique is more refined and mature, surpassing her previous tendencies to sometimes rush through steps and hide her deeper personality and artistry from the her audience. Now she adds just the right amount of time and physical presence to the end of her movements so that her extended fingertips, feet, or facial profile are as stunning as the difficult step she's just completed. At the risk of sounding cheesy, Biasucci paints a picture with the emotion and energy of each movement and with her increasing technical skills she has the promise of becoming one of the greats. And I'm not the only one who thinks so--even the tiny chatty balletomane behind me only spoke once during Biasucci's and principal dance Lucien Postlewaite's pas de deux, "MOM, she's soooo beautiful!" Check out the end of Leta and Lucien's standing ovation-worthy grand pas here on PNB's Instagram.
Another memorable performance on opening night was young dancer Jack Kaspar's Nathaniel, Drosselmeier's nephew turned Little Prince. Dancing these important roles is understandably overwhelming for many young Nutcracker dancers and sometime that stress shows up in a lack of energy and enthusiasm in the characters that need to communicate a big part of the ballet's storyline. This year Jack Kaspar's classy, smiley stage presence and impressive miming skills brought a lot of fun to the potentially boring-as-heck beginning of Act II, and his battle and party scene performances were pretty darn good too. Keep rocking, Jack Kaspar.
Also noteworthy were exceptional performances by Joshua Grant as Dr. Stahlbaum, Seth Orza as Drosselmeier, Angelica Generosa as the Marzipan Shepherdess, and Toy Soldier Kyle Davis. So what's different? What's going on in the company this season to make everyone shine like this? What's going on in the dancers' lives? What do they think about while they're dancing? When I write criticism for publication, I often ask the art creators about this stuff but I've never asked it of a dancer performing the work of other choreographers. Maybe I should. Balanchine's Nutcracker choreography has been performed god knows how many times since its 1954 New York City Ballet premiere but each dancer must put their own mysterious, indelible artistic mark on it to become as good as Biasucci's performance on Friday night.
I started reading Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere yesterday. I read in two ways now, in this new different life where mothering and cooking and growing things has taken precedence over books and work: I read parenting and self-help books at night, and I "read" audio books for an hour or two in the afternoon while West naps. I used to poop on the idea of audible books as a bonafide literary experience. I don't now. I take books in whatever way I can get them, and I feel shitty for how I used to judge people who read this way.
I feel shitty for a lot of judgy things I did in the past. It was easy to categorize people, to label them as Soccer Mom or Suit or Ave Rat or Christian Goth (yes, you read that right, and they're really pretty cool). It's more simple to put people in a box than to reflect on the intricacies of the experiences that make up who they are. In the first chapters of Ng's book, her descriptions of a white suburban professional mother are cloaked in shades of disapproval and negativity, the woman's wealth and privilege are used to discredit any depth her character might actually have and we are made to hate her from the moment we meet her. Maybe there's a great reason for this--I'm barely into the book--but it rubs me the wrong way. We already do this to each other in real life, particularly in motherhood, and I'm sick of it. I catch myself doing it all the time. And it's dangerous. There's a fine line between recognizing personal failure and privilege and judging the shit out of other people for not living up to our own expectations. I'd like to teach my son to know this line and walk it. I'll let you know when I figure out how the hell to find it.
I love it when my classical ballet experiences are mixed with a little drama.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet announced that their 2018 Director’s Choice program would include choreographer William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, I got super excited for two reasons: 1) I love this mysterious little ballet based on Robert Scott’s Antarctic expedition; and 2) during its 2008 PNB premiere, some audience members hated it so much that they walked out of theater before it was even over. I didn’t get my drama fix on the Friday March 16th opening of Director’s Choice, but I got my Forsythe fix and no one (at least from my vantage point) left in a huff.
Some of my ballet-loving friends really hate One Flat Thing. Over drinks a couple of weeks ago, one of them turned to me out of the blue and said “Can you believe PNB is doing One Flat Thing again?It’s fucking STUPID!” But it’s not! It’s brilliant and complicated and pairs really well with a fat glass of syrah.
One Flat Thing consists of twenty flat metal rectangular tables arranged in even rows across the stage. Dancers sit on the tables, bound off of them, dance around and under and through them, every once in a while rearranging the tables back into perfect order before resuming their quick, powerful steps--sometimes dancing, sometimes moving with the normal (albeit much more graceful) movements of a group of pedestrians at rush hour. The dancers are dressed in the street clothes of hip, young Europeans: bright blue velvet pants topped with hooded t-shirts, leggings under loose cotton tops, hair in ponytails. For those more accustomed to story ballets with tutu-clad princesses and adoring cavaliers, One Flat Thing is a shock to the senses. The score by Thom Willems is loud and electronic, the sounds as angled as the cold metal tables. The choreography is a beautiful pattern of slow leg extensions and quick jumps that seem as random as the use of the tables, until you consider the background of the piece and Forsythe’s other artistic endeavors.
Based on his study of Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, Forsythe’s use of the tables and lighting reflect the cold hardness of survival. The choreography mimics the unique ways that humans interact when simultaneously pushing for success and trying not to die. To get even nerdier, Forsythe's use of patterns and focus on individual bodies frozen in moments of chaos can be compared to his solo artistic work, much of which uses light, stark black and white settings, and studies of simple human movement to highlight the complexity of human interaction with nature. There’s some great stuff on Forsythe’s webpage about this work.
The other pieces in the 2018 Director’s Choice were not as memorable. PNB soloist Leta Biasucci and principal Jerome Tisserand danced proficiently in company member Ezra Thomson’s premier The Perpetual State, but the piece was too crowded with dancers, plot lines, and themes to make sense as a singular ballet. This oft happens with new choreographers, even the smartest ones. It’s almost as if there are so many ideas swimming around in the choreographer’s head that they are thrown together in one ballet and the potential brilliance of each gets lost in a cacophony of over-ambition. Thomson has some great ideas though, and it will be interesting to see where they lead in the coming years.
Choreographer Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels was headed up by the reliably fiery PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch, and Forythe’s other piece of the evening, Slingerland Duet, was perfectly executed by the astoundingly graceful and otherworldly legs of Laura Tisserand and Karel Cruz.
I screwed up this weekend. I'm writing again and in an effort to please new editors I bit off more than I could chew. It's nothing irreparable, I'm working steadily in a rare morning at home alone but I'm also beating myself up needlessly about those little errors. Listening to the composer for one of the pieces I'm writing about reminded me that I am allowed these mistakes. I am a collection of parts: mother, wife, friend, writer, worker, woman who hasn't slept a full night in 20 months. Perfection of all parts at all times would be inhuman.
"Collection of Pieces", by composer William Yin-Lee: https://soundcloud.com/williamlinyee
My brain isn't working. I'm sitting in a cafe on Saturday morning trying to write my first theater review in over a year, and I've got nothing. My mind is buzzing with worries about the state of the exhausted baby I just left with my husband, reminders that I forgot to pull the laundry out of the washer, buzzing, buzzing, buzzing with its own extreme state of sleep deprivation.
I've had one full night of sleep since October 2015. West doesn't sleep all night, I'm a light sleeper, and we've decided to continue to breastfeed until he's a bit older, maybe two, maybe beyond. When West wakes up at night and cannot be comforted by his father, I go to him. We don't let him cry himself to sleep. We waited until we could afford to live on one income so that I could stay home with him in his early years, so that we wouldn't have to chose between our sleep and his personal sense of security, his trust in his parents. So I'm really fucking tired.
I thought I'd be able to write a bit during these years. I went to a ballet last night so I could review it for City Arts Magazine, planning to go to a pub after the show, write the review, edit it over one hour in a coffee shop this morning and send it off to the editor before noon. It's 11AM and I have 700 jumbled words on the page, mostly adjectives. My brain is on my child, on the sleep that I didn't get last night. My hands are heavy, my eyes near tears of frustration. And yet I'm right where I want to be. I don't want to be a writer right now. I want to be a mom. So I guess that's what I'll go do. As soon as I finish this fucking review.
I started bawling while spooning oatmeal and strawberries into my son's mouth this morning. Between bites of coagulated mush he would sing his little ode to nursing "side-y, side-y, side-y," and I realized that it's time to wean.
I love breastfeeding. We had our first conversation when he was about five minutes old and I'd unswaddled him and put him to my bare skin as we were wheeled out of the operating room. I could hardly feel my arms and chest after a brutal labor and delivery, but I knew how to guide his tiny mouth to my breast and he drank hungrily while peering up at me through his squinty little black eyes. Over the last 18 months we've learned a lot about each other during feeding time conversations. It is our sacred time. And it's coming to a close.
We sing to West all the time. One of his many nicknames is "Tiny Hansen," from the hours of time spent listening to Elton John during his first few weeks. Elton John is incredibly cathartic for postpartum hormones. This morning while I was sobbing over porridge, KEXP played Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." I cried some more, cleaned up the oatmeal, and nursed West for probably one of the last times. It was but one of the thousands of moments of letting go I'll experience for the rest of my life as West grows up. It is devastating, satisfying, and human. It is why I am here.
I ran into an old friend today while out walking with my son, and in an instant went from feeling on top of the world to shoulder-slumping despair. My friend is beautiful, ten years my junior--and not a parent. I am 40 and a stay at home mother to a teething one year old with a cold. I began this morning with a 5:30 AM shift at my twice-monthly volunteer job after waking every 90 minutes all night to breastfeed a cranky baby. I came home to a sleepy family who giggled with me over breakfast. I ran around the house doing chores with my 25 lb son on my back, bundled him into the stroller mid-morning and walked to the store with a big sense of accomplishment sitting on my shoulder whispering "Good girl, rock on girl."
As I type this, my crappy mood is fading. When I met my friend, I glimpsed myself in the window behind her perfectly-pinned hair, flawless makeup, painted toenails. The bags under my eyes were visible in the reflection, frizzy post-pregnancy hair flying away in a hundred directions, baggy sweater over jeans mottled with old oatmeal and rogue baby loogies. And after everything I'd done already today, that was how I judged myself. Not as the sleep-deprived mom who still got up before dawn to work at a women's shelter, not as the domestic goddess who made breakfast from scratch for three people in ten minutes flat. Not as the wife who spent five minutes oogling and kissing her husband before sending him off to work, humming and smiling to himself. With each of these actions, I was healing the people I love and preparing them to meet their day with healthy bodies and hearts full of peace. And that, right now, is how I fight. Not by going to every demonstration or teach-in, not by writing every senator and politician, not by posting my thoughts on social media. But by feeding those around me, sometimes instead of brushing my hair. I resist the dangers of our world, at this particularly scary time, by love.
I threatened a big white man in a pickup truck today. I road raged. A big Chevy truck pulled in front of me when I had the right of way, almost hit my car carrying me and sleeping infant, and when he rolled down his window at the next stoplight I told him that I was going to follow him home so that he'd know what it felt like to be intimidated. I didn't, but I did scream at him to go fuck himself as I pulled away. Classy. Now I feel like shit, a typical angry mommy in a Subaru who deserves every judgement you're thinking as you read this.
But I'm not angry. I'm scared. I get scared when I drive and when I bike and when I cross the street with my son strapped to my back. People in this city drive like shit. A woman in our neighborhood was killed crossing the street in front of her house last week. I'm terrified that me or my son or my husband are next. And so, I scream at people who don't pay attention. If I were a daddy, yelling out of fear to protect his children, I wouldn't be made fun of. But I'm a woman and women aren't supposed to get angry. Men are strong when they express strong emotions. Women are bitches, or crazy, or on their periods. What does that bumper sticker say, something about "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention?" I guess I'm paying attention. Close attention. And I'm angry that we don't watch out for each other in this increasingly dangerous, unloving world. So don't pull out in front of me. I just might follow you home.
Apart from a brief mention in a 2013 article I wrote for the Stranger about male birth control, I have never spoken publicly about abortion. I understand why people who base their ethical principles on religious ideals and scripture oppose abortion, and I respect their freedom to voice their opposition and to handle their reproductive health in ways that fall in concert with their values. I also believe, with every fiber of my birth control-practicing, abortion-having, child-bearing body that women have the absolute freedom to decide what to do with their own bodies. Any restriction on abortion access, whether legal, financial, or social, is a violation of human rights.
I listened to Jose Antonio Vargas speak last night. Vargas, a Pulizter Prize-winning journalist and fierce advocate of human rights, taught me two things: One, that human rights are not granted by laws. You're human? You have rights. Two, that shielding ourselves from people who have different beliefs about what these rights mean is destructive. Without engagement, we cannot progress toward equality and peace in this country. With this week's announcement of Ohio's potentially devastating ban on abortion access, my fear of talking about my experience of having an abortion is overshadowed by my fear that we are about to have our basic human rights to determine our reproductive health destroyed. So I'm going to fight. And I'm going to write. And I'm going to discuss. If you agree with me, awesome. If you don't, let's talk about it.
I learned to trust my gut today. Early this morning, I could tell that my son was feeling off and I almost texted my friend to suggest we take our babies to a park instead of a busy cafe. Our sons' favorite pastimes at the moment are spitting food while saying "yeah!" and chewing on our shoulder blades--we're just not urban lunch crowd material right now.
I left the restaurant before my friend arrived. Ushered out by icy glares after my tired toddler grabbed my straw and flicked frigid iced tea onto the business meeting behind us, we stumbled back onto the street with my son in tears and my nursing bra unclasped and dangling out the bottom of my blouse. It sucked. I said "fuck" a lot under my breath and cursed the people around us for not appreciating their iced tea shower. But fifteen minutes and three blocks later we were sitting in a huge pile of fallen leaves with our friends, munching on soggy gas station sandwiches and laughing. My friend's son is learning to walk, his eyes huge with pride as he took tiny steps toward his mom before collapsing into giggles in her arms. My son continued to eat large amounts of dirt and leaves, evened out by small bits of hard boiled egg that he spit out and rubbed into the concrete before putting back into his mouth. I've never been prouder to be by his side.
The walker, not the leaf eater.