from the beginning
The Beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.— JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1749–1832)
The garbage bags pile high on the sidewalks. The city shudders and heaves under the heat. The newspapers are filled with accounts of people being shot at night in darkened cars. Pride at New York City having its very own serial killer competes with the fear of going out after dark. At bus stops, children wearing keys around their necks—“latchkey” kids they are called — wait alone.
There is an infestation of bluebottle flies whose bug-out eyes see everything. They are poisoned to death in a citywide public health campaign, but barrelfuls of pigeons die too and their rotting corpses have to be stepped over while crossing the streets.
The sprinkler systems in the city parks break and, due to lack of funding, go unrepaired. Throughout Brooklyn the fire hydrants are decapitated and a barrage of water spouts forth. The children splash in the gutters with the pigeon corpses and dried Popsicle sticks and Twinkie wrappers, while the grown-ups stumble around, cursing and trying to drag them out.
Then there is the day in July when the lights go out. Block after block blinks off. Fans and air conditioners stall. Under the purple haze, people gather on street corners, in hallways, and in parks, around battery-powered boom boxes. A citywide blackout.
Thousands of ladybug eggs hatch in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s suddenly warm storage freezer. In the days afterward, they blanket Brooklyn’s parks and apartment windowsills. Then come the reports of looting and, up in the Bronx, of fierce fires in abandoned buildings. The people lock their doors and swear at the heat and pray for their city. The grown-ups are busy with the untenable state of their lives. Perhaps they feel relief at the darkness. It is the children who stand and watch their city extinguish like a dying flame.
When the ladybugs die, they fall to the grass, the floor, they crunch underfoot. They choke up vacuum cleaners. When the cool air comes, their husks are blown under piles of leaves, and, unheralded casualties of the ever-changing season, begin their descent into the earth.
Inside the world of asphalt and concrete, there is another world. Things that look like they are made by someone’s hands: grosgrain ribbons and spiderweb-thin hairnets and soft leather slippers. Down the crumbling school corridors and cracked sidewalks, these delicate things can be carried like talismans in jeans pockets or book bags.
In this other world, the girls do not wear tight jeans, scuffed Keds, or stiff pleated skirts that come in cellophane wrappers. Instead, they wear tights that range in color from a soft pink to a bright salmon. They wear cap sleeve or tank top black leotards with bands of two-ply elastic around their waists. They wear ballet slippers: Capezios, which are a tawny, russet-pink, with soles that crack in the middle of the arch, making it look like their pointe is better than it is, or orange-pink Freeds, which are made in England — and have an aura of exoticness. The poor or oblivious girls wear Selba’s, which are a flat pink that looks both prissy and cheap.
These girls — known to each other as “bunheads”—wear their hair braided or twisted and wrapped around to form a solid nub held in place with bobby pins and a hairnet. As bunheads, they each own a few prized hairnets of human hair, so soft and fine that they hold their breath while handling them; they pull the bobby pins out carefully, fold the nets into small balls of fur, and slip them back into their paper pouches. The mothers keep these pouches in their purse pockets — so expensive are they. Meanwhile, nylon hairnets from Woolworth’s shift around the bottom of the girls’ book bags while they are in the other world, catching on pens, the corner of books. The girls turn them round and round, searching for an unripped section.
In the whitewashed, cinder-block viewing room on the basement level of the new arts center, I take off my wool jacket. I smooth my black sweater dress, spray my hair to keep down the frizz, put on lipstick. I change into my heels. I load today’s DVD behind the lectern and set up the viewing for the day. Today we’re watching Le Sacre du Printemps. Of course they have already read all about it. They think they know it — Stravinsky’s famous Rite of Spring—of course, everyone knows it. But few have actually seen it.
This is Dance History 101, first viewing section of the week. The students are a standard representation of the usual dance majors and minors, with a sprinkling of theater majors. Of the dance majors, there’s two-thirds of the “dance cabal,” the rotating group of students most devoted to dance at the moment, a showing from the contact improv crew, a few former bunheads who, despite their ripped jeans, piercings, and asymmetrical haircuts have not shed their romanticism or rigidity, and one kid who drives to Cleveland to take hip-hop class, since this department is modern-based, with a lineage that runs back to the 1960s.
They enter with a scuffle of backpacks and scrape of tin water bottles, these students whose style now resembles backwoods backpackers. They pull their laptops covered in stickers out of their rucksack-size bags. And, as an afterthought, their books, which they keep on their laps because there’s no room on their desks. I’ve stopped trying to form chair circles. Whose idea was it to put wheels on these chairs? I wait for the chairs to settle into formation. Today it’s a kind of a star-shaped cluster.
The DVD starts. Here is the opening of Le Sacre—fierce tableaus of people in bearskins and Roman sandals. A set of pointy trees, a round and ruthless sun. Their movements stab and jab and rush along with the thunder and jolt of Stravinsky’s score. Halfway into the piece the group parts and reveals the shimmering awkward girl, the sacrificial lamb. She dances her strange stiff-limbed expressionless solo. Ostensibly it’s the story of the ritual pagan sacrifice of a young woman who dances herself to death, but the choreography tells another story.
She strikes out, scours the stage with extended limbs, pushing back her attackers. She’s not cowering, but filled with rage at her fate. She’s not a lamb at all. At the final discordant climb of the shattering music, the group rushes toward her and raises her high above them, and it feels like a victorious moment. But a victory of what?
The students — I check their faces in the dimness — keep looking down or picking at the stickers on their laptops. When it’s over I raise the lights. “Wow. Intense,” they say. But how to unpack it, to illuminate it?
Michael, one of the cabal this year, jumps right in. “I mean really. Compare it to what we saw last week, all those tutus and girls in white and wailing violins”—the class laughs—“but if you think about it, it has the same, I mean the same exact themes as those Romantic ballets—La Sylphide. You know, the girl, the mad girl who loses her mind and dances herself to death. . because she is too innocent or whatever—”
I nod. “Okay. But consider — you’re used to seeing ballerinas in tutus, sylphs, fairy tales lit by oil lamps, and now you are going to the theater — it’s 1913—and you are seeing this. How would it surprise you? Would it astonish you? Remember the title of our reading—‘The Age of Astonishment.’”
We dig into the choreography—“jagged,” “one-dimensional,” “awkward” are the words they use. They note the turned-in legs and feet, the angular arms, the lack of plié. “Clearly a reaction to classical dance,” says Jen, normally a quiet girl.
“Right,” I say. I tell them that Nijinsky’s dancers were often in open revolt at his choreography. “He made them use their bodies against every bit of training that they had ever received in the ballet academies of Russia and France. He asked them to betray everything they’d worked for.”
“It’s good Diaghilev’s weight was behind him,” says Michael.
“You mean on top of him,” says Karl, the other gay guy in the group. The class titters.
“Private life aside, what is Nijinsky trying to do here?” I ask.
“I think he, Nijinksy, was just listening really, trying to fit the movement to the music. It’s so fierce and so totally devoid of compassion. These are people who have been stripped down to nothing by the fear of the cosmos.” Sioban’s eyes open wide, as if she is just realizing the truth of what she is saying. “That’s what he’s trying to say in this dance. It’s like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad — it’s about hate and fear and the savagery of the human heart, you know?”
They’ve been waiting for her to speak, passionate tawny-skinned Sioban who is just discovering modern dance, and is imbibing it with a missionary zeal. Classically trained, she danced professionally in the corps of a regional ballet company for a while. But she is also a neuroscience major and has an impressive bunch of scholarships, of the kind for “nontraditional students.”
Michael jumps in. “It’s camp! That girl’s Godzilla stare — come on! It’s totally over the top!”
Sioban stares at me, waiting. She has a long bony face and a constellation of acne scars across one cheek. She has curly black hair, which she wears in a high ponytail, and light blue eyes that look almost crystal. Her beauty is hard to find the source of. I remember she’s a refugee from the world of ballet, that cult of beauty and perfection that I disappeared into for years of my life too.
My heart starts beating faster. I flush. I don’t like to defend one student over another. But we’re onto something here. “Well, let’s not forget the audience’s reaction, which was discussed in the article you read — near riots, remember? Can camp explain that powerful a reaction?” This is what I love about teaching — when some truth rises out of necessity, a truth that feels for a moment unshakable. Sioban’s truth this time.
“This dance was deeply unsettling to a public still schooled in Romanticism. They wanted a fantasy of exoticism, not an encounter with our own deepest pathos.” I’m walking around the edge of the star shape. Their heads crane to follow me. “Yes, it is a deeply unsettling piece of art. And it was very serious about its intent.”
They — my students — bring me out, they bring me alive. I feel their eyes on me. They are waiting for something more. I drop my awareness down into my psoas muscles and envision energy into my legs. I feel my toes on the floor. For years the greatest challenge of the academic life for me was the lack of physical motion that went along with it. But I’ve learned that stillness has power too.
Then the words arise.
“Modernism wasn’t just a response to what came before, but it was also a reorganization of self in relation to a changing world. So what is this world? A world that must confront the darkest parts of its own psyche without the aids of fantasy, of beauty, of escapism.”
Before they leave, I remind them that spring break is coming up and that their take-home midterm will be available tonight, and due by Friday at midnight.
Now comes the deflation after class — the synapses have been firing, my temperature rising — and I’m back out in the March gloom, a shell of a person, my insides flayed and carted away. Teaching is an extension of my early performing.
The slushy ice crackles under my feet as I head toward my office on the top floor of Johnson, the looming stone and wood mastodon of a building built in the 1920s. I shudder, hurrying along the frozen sidewalk.
At Johnson, I stop by the program office to pick up my mail, then I swing by Bernadith Lissbloom’s office. Bernadith is one of my supervisors, a history department head, a Russian history specialist, a lesbian, and a raiser of Rhodesian ridgeback dogs. She has been a supporter of me and my work, but she’s old guard, comes at it from a social historian’s angle, all materialist, Hegelian. No gender studies, no Lacan, no Derrida.
Her door is open, I poke my head in. “Any news?”
Her quiet, flush-cheeked bulldog self barely looks up. “Not yet. End of spring break we should have a decision.”
Why do university administrators so much enjoy the power of withholding? I’m coming on the end of a one-year visiting professor appointment without a clear sense of where I’ll be in the fall. Again. For the third year in a row.
Last November, when they announced the Pell, a new tenure-track cross-disciplinary position they were creating in performance studies, I thought, Yes! I feel a kinship with this small town, its frozen driveways, its bright gray lid of a sky, its timid attempts at downtown beautification, its inveterate army navy store, its cluster of local-food restaurants for the visiting parents. My self-destructive tendencies are in check here. In the past, my exacting nature has cost me popularity among my colleagues.
I hope I get the Pell. I pray for it.
Kate, I say to myself. Do not fuck up now. There’s too much of me, or too much desire, or desire of the wrong kind. Whatever it is, when I let go, I ruin things. I need to keep myself contained, buttressed.
I’ve learned that the hard way.
At the end of the summer, Mira’s mother takes her to Selba’s. Selba’s is in Manhattan, but all the way east, on a block of stores with names like Wetzel’s Hosiery Outlet and Abraham and Son’s Brassieres. Even if you go in the middle of the day, there are few people on the street.
They walk from the subway in the afternoon sun. Only the occasional car passes, stirring up the fetid water from the gutter. Men in tall black hats with curls of hair flowing from their ears peek out of the tiny storefronts. Above hang the black tentacles of rusted fire escapes.
And there is still the stench, the smoldering that’s been in the air for weeks after the blackout. The smell of charred rubber and plastic hangs over the empty lots they pass. It makes Mira cough. The overgrown grass has been replaced by husks of bottles turned dark and cloudy from flames, scorched bricks, the flesh of tires. “The smell of the apocalypse!” her mother says, laughing. Mira holds her nose.
Inside the store, round women with stiff piles of hair guard the bins of cellophane-wrapped leotards and tights. They loudly tell customers to keep their underwear on, hand them stretched-out samples, and point to the dingy curtain. All the clothes in this store have something wrong with them — sleeves of slightly different sizes, crooked seams, or puckers in the fabric.
Her mother likes old things, used things. That is why Mira spends so much time at the dusty Salvation Army on Atlantic Avenue while her mother shops for plates, silverware, clothes. Selba’s is one of those places where Mira’s mother shops, not out of poverty but to prove a point to the world.