You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate automobiles—or ballet.
Entering the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, I noticed the bars first. There were three, and each bar was filled with bartenders in suits. The suits were the second thing I noticed. The ushers wore suits in addition to the bartenders. Fathers in three-piece suits walked ahead of their families. Ladies in dresses followed the lead of their suitors. Only a handful of people in casual clothes mingled among the crowd, visibly attempting to avoid eye contact with anyone else.
At two in the afternoon on a Sunday, it was too early to start drinking. Strolling through the doors in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, however, I was tempted to head to the bar instead of my seat. For my birthday, my girlfriend bought tickets at “the Ellie” for Swan Lake. As a Midwest guy who has lived for years in the Southwest and the Far East, there are few places I feel like I fit in. Standing in the lobby of an opera house, underdressed, and about to watch my first ballet, my malaise reached new heights.
Act 1—Automobiles: The Pragmatic Side
One place I feel at home is behind the wheel of a car. I can set the driver’s seat exactly. The distance from the steering wheel to the seat can only be accurately measured by my arms, bent at an angle just shy of 90 degrees. Of course the mirrors are safely set for my visual needs, but more importantly, so is the air conditioning. Inside my own car, there’s no dress code. If I want to impress, I break out the wax after washing my vehicle.
A sticker in the upper left-hand corner of my windshield reminds me that I have thousands of miles left before I need to change my oil. I know the sound of my engine on a warm day and the squeal of my fan belt on a cold one. Under the hood, I might not be able to identify much more than the yellow handle of the dipstick, but I know which new bumps and thumps warrant a visit to the mechanic.
I might not admit it to my girlfriend, but I am aware of the limits of my mechanical knowledge. In high school, it took me the greater part of a semester to strip and reassemble a two-stroke lawnmower motor. The next semester, I graduated to the engine of a Ford Taurus. While I did get the first semester’s engine puttering to life, the Taurus engine now rests in a junk yard. I console myself with the fact that the world really doesn’t need another Taurus rolling around with an irresponsibly small rear window.
I like to look at the world as a set of binary systems—if you can look at anything one way, then there’s a valid, opposing view to take as well. It’s not that I don’t believe in shades of gray, but rather that I believe black and white exist at opposing ends of the spectrum, as well as orange and blue, green and red, and so forth. Tax cuts are bad. Well, they’re good too. Art should be provoking, unsettling. Then again, it should be pleasing as well. You have a thesis, then an antithesis, and the result of both is the synthesis, the middle-road. Gray, in fact, is good, the best of both worlds.
Cars can be boiled down to two aspects—the interior and the exterior—both worth appreciating. The outside has lines and angles, pure aesthetics. The curves are designed to appeal because few drivers regularly experience autobahn-like conditions. For everyday driving, form takes precedence over function.
Inside the machine, however, practicality is the prime concern. The timing of pistons is exact, the interplay of moving parts precise. As an adjective, well-oiled does not begin to do the machine justice. The car is powerful, but the power is harnessed, channeled toward productivity by exact measurements. That exactitude allows faith. You have faith in your machine. You can believe that each cam, whether or not you know what it does, has a function that it will fulfill.
Act II—The Tutu: A Thin Line
Speaking of faith, the most mysterious part of ballet to the uninitiated is the tutu. What purpose does this gauzy (read: gaudy) skirt serve? Single-handedly, it may be the greatest obstacle to overcome for men and women who disdain what they perceive to be the frilly features of ballet.
It supports nothing but itself, hides even less, and cannot be worn in public without drawing derision. Why wear it?
Why draw the line there? If the tutu did not exist, ballet would be noticeably more accessible. Athletic men and women, at the peak of their physical fitness, bound across the stage. No one says a word while, like a sexual innuendo, the bodies do all the talking. The tutu interrupts the entire conversation.
Act III—Ballet: The Romantic Side
This might seem to have little bearing on ballerinas or automobiles, but I want to mention one beautiful, mechanical feature of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. The chandelier in “the Ellie” is a starkly modern installation. Lacking any crystals dangling from the lights, it resembles a spaceship more than an ostentatious centerpiece. When the theater dimmed, the lights hanging from the chandelier actually retracted toward the center and the entire fixture lifted up into the ceiling.
The chandelier was efficient, practical, and lifted my mood in addition to its own massive bulk. With the darkness came music, and eventually the dancers for the first act of Swan Lake—ballroom festivities in preparation for Prince Siegfried’s birthday.
Although I did not expect to be entertained by the lighting, I did expect the dancers to be physically appealing. They did not disappoint. The women were all small and lithe, repeated variations of each other and eerily reminiscent of Barbie Dolls. The men had the V-shaped upper bodies that guys spend hours at the gym trying to obtain. And while dancers often spawn debate about body image issues, it was the athleticism that interested me. Watching a woman run and then throw herself at a man who can catch her with his arms fully extended forces you to think about the physics of it all. Have you ever tried holding out a 10-pound weight perpendicular to your body? It’s a surprisingly tiring exercise that becomes exponentially more difficult if you merely double the weight of the dumbbell, much less multiply it 10 times over.
I anticipated the aesthetics. I had no doubt that the people would be beautiful, the scenery would be breath-taking, and even the music would be lovely. I might never have seen Swan Lake before, but the soundtrack is unmistakable. What caught me off guard was how sensible the ballet was.
The tights and tutus, mincing steps and spinning—at first glance they make the ballet seem frivolous. Seated in the theater, though, with a view of the whole stage, I watched patterns emerge. The spinning was not just spinning like children do, it was a pirouette. A dime could have been under the dancer’s foot and her whirling would never have uncovered it. The tiny steps were pas de bourée couru. They were not filler material to get from point A to point B, but rather exact piston strokes that had a greater purpose.
As the picture of the intricate machine running in front of me took shape, the tutu finally made sense. Odette, the Swan Queen, drew my attention as well as filled in the details that I had been missing. Each time she appears in front of Siegfried, she stops him from making a terrible mistake. For me, her appearance on stage clarified and corrected my misconceptions.
As a swan, Odette maintained continuous, flowing movements. She waved her arms, simulating the flapping of wings. The gesture was unhurried and graceful and her arms curved, never making angles. However, her feet still had to transport her. She used the piston-like pas de bourée to keep her upper body from bouncing. It produced an effect that allowed her to float across the stage. The brute force of the lower body and the beauty of the upper combined to create moments when you could actually believe that you were watching a woman as a swan or vice versa. At that intersection of beauty and brute, the tutu hovered.
The tutu is a thin line between the practical and the ethereal. It separates pragmatism from romanticism. It reminds the audience that each part of the dancer has an intended purpose, but they’re all aspects of one entire person, which is a piece of one whole troupe. The drive shaft moves in a circle, while a piston moves linearly, but both motions are needed to accomplish the task, something even greater.
Ballet and automobiles have more in common than one might expect, including the ability to transport individuals. Just as both men and women drive cars, we need to recognize that ballet is not simply a frivolous art form reserved for women. At any dance, the people who get it are pressed together, men and women, in the middle of the dance floor and the ones who don’t continue to stand along the edges.
—Photo Wally Santana (AP)/MSNBC PhotoBlog