“What do you notice about her face?” our cousin Rachel Kalnicki asks, pointing to the Degas sculpture of a young ballerina with tattered tutu and grim countenance. Jean and I are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with cousins Shirley, Dan and Andrea. Rachel, born in Brazil, who has been a volunteer docent at the museum for over 15 years, is giving us a personal tour.
It is a famous sculpture. One that Shirley knows well. But the back story Rachel tells of the piece’s originally controversial and poor reception, of its social commentary on the exploitation and injustice borne by the impoverished girls in the Paris ballet’s back rows, is not obvious.
Slow down. Examine. Consider. Reflect. Reflect some more.
As a regular part of our writing class sessions, our instructor, Keith Eisner, has each of the students read a portion of a writing prior to our collective discussion of the piece. He believes that slowing down and hearing the writing is essential to its understanding.
Last week, prior to his first-year student’s public readings, Keith read a poem by Tennessee Williams. With the war in Ukraine about to enter its second month, with over three million refugees – 90% of whom are women and children – fleeing death and destruction, he asked people to consider the purpose of art:
The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.
Last night, joined by our cousins Shirley and Dan again, Jean and I went to a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, part of the New York City Center Dance Festival. Jean had secured the tickets and as we were led to nearly the front of the auditorium, I remarked to her at how close we were to the action. “Well, we can see the orchestra,” she replied, “but for dance, we might be a bit too close to get the wide view.”
A young woman of slight build, wearing a mid-length black dress and black mask, sat next to me on my left. To the left of her, a solidly framed man in black shirt and pants, chatted purposefully with her. As we waited for the performance to begin, I listened as the young woman started talking softly with an older matron in the row ahead. At a break in their conversation, I asked my neighbor if she was a dance performer.
“Yes, I am a dancer,” she replied.
During the subsequent 90 minutes, prior to the start of the dance and during its intermissions, I learn more about my neighbor. I learn still more after returning to our apartment and searching for web references.
Her name is Lauren Lovette and the man seated to her left, Michael Novak. Novak, it turns out, was hand-picked by Paul Taylor to take over the reins of the dance troupe after Taylor died in 2018. Lovette had just been named by Novak last month as the company’s resident choreographer.
I knew none of that, of course, when our conversation began. “You’re a dancer. Oh, that’s wonderful,” I respond innocently. “Do you ever perform professionally?” And away we went.
Lauren had grown up in a deeply religious North Carolina household. And she had a gift. At the age of 14, she got a full scholarship to attend a prestigious New York City ballet school. It was a hard decision for her parents, but they released her to follow God’s plan. She never returned home to stay.
After understanding, if only vaguely at the time, that Lauren was not only a performer, but also a choreographer of some note with a Taylor-produced world premiere (“Pentimento”) performed only the night before, I dove right in. “May I ask you a challenging question.”
“Well, yes, but I may not be able to answer it,” she replied. I could see her smile beneath the black mask.
“The obvious physical differences between men and women seem to play out consistently in dance. The men are powerful and lift the women. They display acts of strength while women are placed in a trusting role of being moved around by the men. What if anything has happened in modern 21st century dance to reflect the changing roles of men and women in society?”
Lauren thought about it for a moment. “You know, I’m not really political in my choreography. I look at the abilities of my dancers and explore from there. There are women who are amazingly strong and able to do things that, frankly, I can’t do. I’m trained in formal ballet. It involves a certain verticality – movement up and down – while modern dance is more horizontal.”
She described movements that require a greater understanding of the body than I can describe, yet I did follow her at the time.
“Recently, I was working with two men. One of the men, very strong, had always functioned as the lifter of women. But in a piece I was choreographing, he was being lifted by the other man. He simply broke down and cried for the joy of the experience. People are different. With different passions and yearnings to fulfill. I love to work with that.”
I asked Lauren, in addition to her new choreography position, if she still performed. “Yes, I’m going to Southern California next week to dance at a maximum-security prison.”
She showed me a picture of a colleague of hers who was in Poland, assisting Ukrainian refugees. They were collaborating on an arts-in-the-prisons project. Then she showed me a picture of a grizzled prisoner she was working with on the LA project. “He has a swastika tattoo which he says he will remove when he is released next week after serving a 15-year felony sentence.”
The Paul Taylor Dance performance was a spectacular tour de force. In parts silly and humorous. In parts tragic. Always an overwhelming expression of the depths of feelings possible from movement of the human body.
Slow down. Slow down. Take in the essence of the moments unfolding.
My son Zac is marrying Vicky in May. Vicky is an art curator. Zac an editor… kind of a curatorial role in journalism. As I have gotten to know Vicky, and am continuing to know my son more as well, I have thought more about art. About the work of curating. About the importance of contextualizing works of art. Be they cat narrations of the apocalypse (https://artreview.com/candice-lin-cat-demons-will-heal-you/) that Vicky is working on), the history of musical instruments at The Met (another Rachel specialty), or Lauren’s work to advance freedom for people by expressing our body’s wonderous capacity for movement.
Slow down. Observe. Do a bit of research. Take it in. Be changed.