Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Alert Artist: Gelsey Kirkland's "The Shape of Love"


As I never made any separation between steps and story, I was amazed by those who were able to put them into different compartments, as if mind and body could somehow work apart from each other. Unless I had a reason to move, I was totally paralyzed." -Gelsey Kirkland, The Shape of Love

An alert mind is an actor's prerequisite. It must be exercised as continuously and with the same discipline as the body. Another major flaw of the untrained actor is to attempt to separate thoughts from actions. -Uta Hagen, A Challenge for the Actor
A Challenge for the Actor has long been my desert island book. But I just came across Gelsey Kirkland's "sequel" to her  penetrating and brutal first book, Dancing on My Grave. It's called The Shape of Love, and it records her "come-back" after drug addiction and eating disorders that dragged her from being a prima ballerina with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre to the brink of death. I haven't read it in many years, but I remember underlining furiously as her quest for the truth always struck a deep chord in me as a performer.

In this "sequel" Kirkland tells the story of her return to the stage, this time with The Royal Ballet, with whom she felt the sort of camaraderie she could never find in New York. The Royal Ballet is evidently steeped in theatrical tradition, whereas, as English dancers apparently put it, "In America, they dance from the waist down."

As I read Ms. Kirkland's book, I wondered if she had ever read Uta Hagen's books on acting, or if Ms. Hagen had ever read of Kirkland's search as a ballet dancer for meaning for her movements on stage. The two are such kindred spirits that it's hard to imagine they don't know of each other much less that they are the best of friends. (Although, alas, Uta Hagen is no longer with us.)

The Shape of Love, like A Challenge for the Actor, is for performers who are determined to knock down any impediment to the truth.  Why does a person do something when she does it? How is the way in which she does it completely determined by her circumstance (her previous location, with whom she was keeping company, what letter she just read, the weather, her need to get somewhere else, etc...) Previous moments shape all our destinations, like the thousands of points in a Seurat canvas, our movements are links in a chain but appear fluid because of the lightning speed of the brain and heart. When we stand back, we see one picture or story, but an actor must break apart each moment and see how it connects to the last and the next. The audience can watch a fluid story, but it is also watching beats, those precious moments in which a turn in the road is made. We make thousands of such turns every day. Just watch yourself make a cup of coffee. Where is the sugar bowl? Should I use the little spoon that's dirty on the counter or get a fresh one? Is that the phone ringing? It might be that date I had from last week finally calling! It might be the doctor with test results. Should I take it? Ignore it? What happened to that spoon? You see? Thousands of turning points.

Gelsey Kirkland arrived, miraculously, at this understanding of acting without having any formal training, other than mime work, which she did on the side in her years at ABT. In The Shape of Love she dives into the specifics with a tenacity and earnestness matched only by Uta Hagen's. A ballet, particularly a classical one, is a story with dialogue and destination just as is a stage play. But the dialogue is told in the hands, in the arms, in the particular placement of the feet and back that serve to embody the character's point of view, desires and relationships to her partners.

An actor will (and should) contemplate, consider, agonize if necessary, over why she is doing anything on stage. Art is not life, it is distilled life, so that it takes on a reality not more heightened, as is so frequently thought, but more clear. Extraneous movements happen from distraction throughout all of our days. An artist must pare those away and keep only what is essential to the story and the character. Then the moving painting, the fluid line, the story, the humanity rise to the surface and the mundane vanishes.

"I imagine that once you start thinking as an actress, it must be pretty difficult to accept working any other way." So says a young dancer Kirkland is coaching for the role of Giselle.

I began my years of performing as a ballet dancer. My first role, however, was mostly mime. I lucked into a group of visionary choreographers who sought to bring Antoine de St. Exupery's "The Little Prince" to life in ballet form. At ten years old, I was being asked to take one moment to think about a drawing given to me (the prince) by the aviator and the next moment to reject it. In that first moment I needed to see the painting, in the second moment I needed a reason for rejecting it, so that the act of rejecting it made sense in my body. A ballet is made up of thousands of moments. And nearly all of them, at least according to Gelsey Kirkland, and I am inclined to agree, must be thought through in this way.

And so when I began my life as an actor, at 12, I always felt that ballet was what gave me the key to acting. It was fascinating to read that Kirkland had this experience in reverse. You cannot get into an arabesque pique without rolling through the extending foot and passing through a paradoxically infinite number of points in space. So it felt with scene work in acting. Each moment depended on the last until a chain was formed, and rehearsals allowed for both the strengthening of the chain and its flexibility. (This may be one point where ballet and acting diverge dramatically: in acting, when we rehearse, we do so precisely to create the ability to be spontaneous, as paradoxical as that seems. In ballet, these finely tuned rehearsed moments might be more set in stone, as the body must move itself physically through space in the same pattern for every performance. Spontaneity in performance seems to run counter to the needs of ballet.)

Ballet of course has its technical feats. I don't know that the powerful fouettes of final acts are primarily motivated by story, but having been boosted by one's own conception of her place in the story, her reasons for every small gesture and delicate placement of her leg, a ballerina has given herself the wings to fly through the superhuman technical feats now required of dancers.

There is an infinite amount to say about both these fine artists and their books. If you are hungry for meaning in art, if you are fascinated by the techniques, if you simply love ballet or acting, find these books and read them.

As Giselle.

Life at a barre.

A complicated Juliet.

Once a dancer...

Related: Tutu Much, Tutu Soon

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Across the Divide

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This nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana...There is a room in the basement of Miss Fulsom's school where the nurses wait. They sat on forms, while Nana lay on the floor, but that was the only difference. They affected to ignore her as of an inferior social status to themselves, and she despised their light talk. -Peter Pan

After ballet class today, the nannies were talking. One little charge wouldn't eat anything but pasta, the other refused to sit down in the bath, that sort of talk. Chit-chat. No different from the chit-chat one hears among mothers conversing about the world's most boring topic: their own children's foibles. They strolled their charges toward the elevator as my daughter ran ahead and pushed the button. I kept hoping that the elevator would take long enough to arrive for us all to share it. I really wanted to take part in the tedious nanny chat.

I have always wanted in, but no matter which side of the divide I've been on, I've never managed it. When I was a nanny, most of the other nannies assumed I was a mother, because the tables were turned and I, being white, was the minority in the group. To be white meant I was a mother, surely, and therefore an invader, spy and judge on the playground. There are other Caucasian nannies, but I would estimate that we make up about 10-20 percent of the Manhattan nanny population.

Somehow the mothers always knew I wasn't one of them, either. I wore no wedding ring, I usually wore sweatpants and the rumpled look of someone who had arrived to take the children at 7:30 am. Or they knew because they knew the real mothers and fathers. Conversations with parents were as abbreviated and curt as those with the nannies, try as I might to pick up a thread of dialogue and sew myself into their tapestry.

Maybe I'm just not very good at conversation and it has nothing to do with social status. But I can't help thinking that appearances seem always to matter so much to people. Assumptions cling despite our efforts to break down walls and share something of ourselves, to let the other person who is spending the often lonely day of childcare know that you want to be friends and make the day go faster together.

I speak only from Manhattan experience. Perhaps being guarded is a survival trait ground into our bones here, our very DNA mutating in our cells to harden our exteriors that we may survive our underground commutes and near daily-run-ins with people screaming at us on the bus or with cars determined to flatten us with one quick right turn. Perhaps people here are very tired and it is far easier to assume that a person sitting next to you on the playground is your enemy because it saves you the trouble of vulnerability, of effort, of making small talk with someone new.

I have some friends from the time my child was a newborn, a "mommy group" that used to meet regularly. I consider them my friends, but I have been troubled at times whenever the conversation turns to the topic of babysitters and nannies. Can you BELIEVE the cost of sitters? Can you believe they charge you if you are home, just getting your child used to them -- I mean, we are right there! Can you believe the base charge the agency has for New Year's Eve? Yes, yes, and yes. Childcare is hard work, and mothers should know this better than anyone.What is it that hardens the hearts of so many mothers on the topic of sitters? What makes reasonable pay for an exhausting job that demands so many skills so difficult to fathom?

On the flip side, why can't a nanny of the same or a different race let me in? Has she had so many bad experiences with her employers that I have no fighting chance of becoming friends? (Perhaps.) How much do I long to tell these nannies, who take their charges to ballet class each week, that I know how long their day is, that I know how relentless and dull it can be, that I want my child to be friends with their charges and I want to be friends with them. We are all in the embarrassing position of trying to get toddlers to "gallop" in a circle. We are all mortified when the teacher comes in and sings the "Duckie Song" and the Thumbkin Song" and scolds us when our child leaves the tedium of the circle in pursuit of some actual exercise and adventure.

Maybe it's that my own assumptions are incorrect. Maybe no one else is mortified by our teacher's antics. Maybe no one else does have need of as much human interaction as I do on a daily basis. Before I had a child I think I was about the same, but it's possible my need for community has increased since spending most of my hours alone with a toddler. And when I was a nanny I certainly longed to share conversation and resources with other nannies and parents.

I did form a few fast friendships with other nannies and some mothers over the years. I crossed paths with people from both sides of the divide who were willing to talk about interesting things: books they had read or their fantasies of where they'd like to live or what their dream job would be or how much they couldn't wait to get a haircut. I treasured those intimacies.

Childcare should not be as lonely as it is. Something has gone terribly wrong in our part of the world, where the work place and the home is divided by an iron wall. If that system is too entrenched to tackle, perhaps we can at least work toward a bridge among caregivers. I'm willing to talk about the superiority of rice pasta over white flour with any nanny or mother as a starting point. Just let me in and one day we could be dishing about our wildest dreams or our most frustrating experiences, domestic and otherwise.

Doesn't everyone need more close friends?

As my daughter and I meandered home after class, she spotted a black nanny and her white charge: a little girl in pigtails of about four years old. They were holding hands, waiting for the light to change before crossing the street. I, meanwhile, was making a mad dash through the crosswalk with my child in my arms. My daughter pointed and said, "That Mommy and her little girl are waiting for the light."

"Yes," I said. "That Mommy is much more responsible than yours."

Alice B. Woodward, 1923 illustration of Michael riding Nana.

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