Winter’s Angels

I’ve written about ballet on the blog before, and about my reticence to speak about a subject that I feel unqualified to speak to in any great detail.

But I’ve made a commitment to worry less and write more, especially on the blog. I also have a larger writing project planned which will require me to write extensively about ballet and so any practice I get now will probably help in the future.

Perhaps it is because I’ve moved to a new city and as a result I’m meeting a lot of new people, but I find myself explaining my fascination with ballet a lot more than usual recently. So what I would like to talk about is equal parts a discussion of the new piece by Ma Cong, Winter’s Angels, and also how that piece ties in to what I love about ballet in general, for folks who may not already be lovers of dance.

I only recently discovered Ma Cong’s work when I saw his piece, Lift the Fallen, as part of the Richmond Ballet‘s preview of the pieces they were taking to China on tour. That was the first ballet that made me cry. I later learned that so many people had cried during performances of Lift the Fallen that it had become something of a cliche. Years later, I came out of a performance with tears in my eyes and mentioned to a friend at the Ballet that I had only ever cried once before at a performance; she smirked, raised her eyes and asked sardonically “was the other time at Lift the Fallen?”

My introduction to ballet was seeing full-length story ballets like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Don Quixote in large venues like the performing arts center. Starting to see shorter pieces like Lift the Fallen in the studio theatre in the Richmond Ballet building was a new experience. Coming from a theatre and literature background, I was nervous about my ability to understand and appreciate ballet that wasn’t explicitly narrative, without spectacles like elaborate sets and costumes to “complete” the performance. Pieces in the studio seemed a more intimate, elite environment: ballet for ballet people. Was I a ballet person? None of my friends were ballet people and so I lacked any context for what I was experiencing. I wasn’t sure how much I should understand and I didn’t have anyone to ask. I would read the program for information about the piece I was seeing, and then I would worry that I had only understood the piece because I had read the description first. Would I have really known that something like Polaris was inspired by outer space or that Lift the Fallen was inspired by the loss of Ma’s mother if I hadn’t read the program first? If not, was I a fraud? My enjoyment was genuine, but I was constantly insecure about my understanding.

I imagine that my experience is typical of people who enter the world of ballet as uninitiated adults. Ballet is largely an abstract art, and for people who don’t grow up in the world of dance, they often feel like they need “permission” to interpret what they see. I find the same reticence in my Shakespeare students. They feel like they need a PhD before they’re allowed to have opinions about the plays. I see my job as a teacher as giving students that permission to interpret the plays. I’m largely indebted to my dear friend Melissa for giving me that permission to think and talk about ballet in the ways that I do.

I digress here because my feelings on Ma’s pieces are largely tied to my experience falling in love with ballet. Lift the Fallen was one of the first pieces I saw in the studio, and Winter’s Angels was the last. His work bookends my experience thus far, and since I feel that I am largely writing to a non-ballet audience, I think it’s important to talk about how I have begun to think about these performances.Ma said in his introduction that he wanted Winter’s Angels to be very different than Lift the Fallen, and it was. If I was going to oversimplify my feelings about each piece, I would say that Lift the Fallen was about spirits, and Winter’s Angels was about bodies. Or maybe that Lift the Fallen was about absence, and Winter’s Angels was about presence.

For many reasons: the big impact that Lift the Fallen had on me, the fact that I’ve only seen these two of Ma’s pieces, and his own emphasis on trying to create something very different with this new piece, my thoughts about Winter’s Angels are framed largely within the context of a comparison to Lift the Fallen.

What I have grown to love about ballet is the exact thing that intimidated me at first, the openness to interpretation. As someone who loves words, I am confined by the necessity for coherence. If I want to talk about winter, I have to think of a meaningful, intelligible way to organize and communicate my thoughts. Dance is much less limited by restrictions of coherence or intelligibility. A ballet like Winter’s Angels can muse and dream about an idea without the need to organize or impose structure.

There were a lot of elements that set Winter’s Angels apart from Lift the Fallen: the music, the costumes, &c. But it was the overall theme — or what I perceived as the overall theme — that set it apart in my mind. As I said, Lift the Fallen was inspired by the loss of Ma’s mother, and Ma succeeded in creating a ballet that felt like an ethereal meditation on absence and loss, about the transition from the physical world into the spiritual world. There were moments of ecstasy, the feeling of a spirit set free, and moments of desperation and emptiness, the feeling of those left behind.

Conversely, Winter’s Angels felt very physical. It felt so grounded in the world of bodies, of life, of matter and flesh. Winter is a time when many things sleep and die while other things struggle to stay awake and warm. The world slows to a crawl, it is quiet and hollow. In the forest, bears hibernate and plants lose all their green. In the city, people pair up and spent the colder months seeking solace under blankets and in shared body heat. People take the hollow dry remains of trees and use that dead matter to create warmth to sustain them.

Winter’s Angels showed a world cold and slow, quiet and sleeping, hollow and dying. Dancers ran into the horizon only to slow and be frozen in place. They wrapped themselves up together on the floor, seeking every bit of warmth. Dancers were either giving warmth or seeking it, dying like firewood to warm someone else, or exchanging it in a moment of sensual contact. I jokingly told Melissa that it felt like a ballet about cuffing season.

I may be unique in that I often enjoy an ensemble dance as much or more than a pas de deux. The coordination of larger groups — especially a corps dance with its coordinated movements and patterns — is often more exciting to me than a really emotional pas de deux. But Maggie and Fernando’s pas in Winter’s Angels took my breath away. I wish that I could list each step, describe each movement so that people reading this could understand how beautiful it was. I wish that I was trained in dance, that I had seen it multiple times, that I had a video so that I could explain why I leaned forward and audibly gasped the first time that Fernando lifted Maggie. As it is, however, I can only say that it was beautiful, that I felt like I was watching two lovers convincing each other to stay alive in a cold world.

I said earlier that a ballet was like a dream about an idea, a disordered stream of consciousness that visits a theme irregularly from many angles, now frantic, now languid. It is also like a dream in that it evaporates like mist when you’re no longer in it. I often come out of the studio the way I wake up from an incredible dream, trying to hold onto something that can’t be held so that I can give it away. But I open my hands to present a gift that turns out to be just wisps of smoke.

I wish that I could remember each step and each movement better, or that I had a recording of every ballet I’d ever seen so that when I sat down later to write about it, I could explain things more accurately than to simply describe a mood or a reaction to what I’d seen. Perhaps writing in detail about the technical aspects of the movements is the equivalent of writing a book review that simply summarizes the plot rather than interprets it. But my feelings about the ballet always fall short of describing what it actually was and I always have this idea that if I could just describe the steps more accurately, then I would be able to convey the emotional resonance I felt.

I’ve said before that Lift the Fallen was my favorite ballet, but I hesitated to say that Ma Cong was my favorite choreographer because I had only seen one of his pieces. I suppose that I can now safely call him my favorite choreographer.

Richmond Ballet’s next performance will be Trio, November 3—6 at the Carpenter Theatre.

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