Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

Dancing in the North

December 11, 2010

More Nutcracker

On Facebook, a friend posted a You Tube video of a Glass Armonica recording of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This music is unavoidable this time of year and in many bad renditions, but this one, played by rubbing wet fingers across spinning half globes of glass, caught the magic, the delicacy, and the precise optimism of the music.

I’m always brought back to the deeper threads of the Nutcracker at this time of year.  Last week, watching our Nutcracker, I paid special attention to the progression of Fairies in the piece.  First the Snow Fairy, in her crisp white tutu, surrounded with dancers in Romantic tutus—calf-length, floating with each movement.  The music swirls them along, and the pas de deux is energetic and full of anticipation.   Everything sparkles as Clara watches, and snow filters down on the bare backs of the swirling snowflakes.

The Snow Fairy is pristine, innocent, hopeful, glamorous—a young girl’s naïve dream of her adult self.  The Cavalier is gallant, lifting his white-tutued partner in shoulder-sits and jetes.  The choir joins in—angelic, anticipatory—and the Snow Fairy leads the group on through the spangled winter scene to all that lies ahead.

Then, after intermission, the Snow is gone, and we are in springtime—warm light, dancing flowers, and the busy flitting about of the Dew Drop Fairy.  I once heard Norman, directing a Dew Drop Fairy, say that she is his favorite role in the ballet—she is liquid, bursting with life, bringing the flowers to bloom.  And, at least in our version, she dances alone, touching the flowers as she passes, diverting their motion by her touch.  She welcomes Clara to the Land of Sweets with her newly humanized Prince (who’s no longer a wooden grotesque, the Nutcracker), and she introduces them to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her court.

For Clara, Dew Drop represents a path she could, but ultimately does not take—a solo female role, powerful in all the traditionally female attributes (the ballet is rooted in the 19th century, after all)—nurturing, creating order, displaying beauty in the flowers and in her own gorgeous tutu.  In our ballet, her tutu is a rich dark green with tear drop pearls and sequins on the crisp flat skirt.   She is self sufficient, but alone.  But Clara already has her bond with the prince and the puzzle of the second act is how she will fulfill the potential of this gift of a partner.

The Sugar Plum holds the key, and she presents Clara and the Prince with a series of alternatives: the sultry Spanish dance, with its intimations of the bull ring as the dancers pass and parry; the erotic Arabian dance, with its exploration of power and allurement and ultimate submission; and Mother Ginger, drawn from the Commedia del Arte image of the comic prostitute, the Old Woman in the Shoe, who has so many children she doesn’t know what to do—a cynical vision of adult womanhood that is comic in its cross-dressing exaggeration.  Clara and the Prince watch all this play out, and we move through these phases with them, the music subtly working on us to prepare us for the final choice—the Sugar Plum.

We are ready for her when she appears, having been soothed by the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dew Drop’s ability to restore order to the scene after the chaos of Mother Ginger’s appearance.  There is a pause in the music, and the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier appear.  The music darkens; at least it darkens beneath the upper registers, which still seem sparkly.  There is a longing, a poignancy to the music.  You sense that the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier have earned their moment in the ballet through some past series of sorrows and joys.  The lifts, turns, carries are done to rising themes in the music, as if they have triumphed, and the consequence of the triumph is the trust they display in their pas de deux.  They are both the feminine and masculine of experience—the sparkling, twirling Sugar Plum and the leaping, lifting Cavalier.  When the dance is finished, they present themselves to Clara, as if to say, “Here’s what a fully developed human life is like—incorporating the opposites of joy and sorrow, strength and delicacy, passion and restraint.”  The company dances the celebratory apotheosis, and Clara and the Prince stand together ready to accept the kingdom of Sweets as their own territory, ready to step into adulthood.

And we, the audience, watching the ballet in the coldest, darkest time of year, can be rejuvenated, as well, and sent back into the path of our own lives reminded of the possibility of living them so well that we incorporate the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier—sweetness and strength—into our own lives.  In the crisp, unforgiving cold and the perfect whiteness of snow, we remember spring and all there is to long for and nourish in the days to come.

Dancing in the North

December 5, 2010

The Nutcracker: a Prelude


A brief word on the Nutcracker, since our last performance will be today at 2 in Hering Auditorium.

Last night’s performance was radiant.  This year’s cast is a mix of upcoming North Star Ballet dancers, a couple of returning dancers, and guests at different stages of their careers.  Although the sets have been the same for over twenty years, they still remain fresh to me–it’s like entering a beloved childhood home, slightly distorted in the manner of dreams.

I have long wanted to write more on the Nutcracker, having written publicity articles on our local version of it for nearly 15 years now.   Since the Nutcracker season everywhere can extend from now to New Year’s, I’ll post a few meditations on the story and its archetypes and significances–at least as I see it.

Mostly, don’t dismiss the Nutcracker.  At the end of last night’s performance, I thought of how this ballet, unlike, say, Swan Lake, contains no tragedy (unless you are a mouse, that is), and that this lack of tragedy allows some viewers to dismiss it.  But for me, the ballet represents a rite of passage–for the dancers, for Clara/Marie moving from childhood to adulthood, and for us, the audience, watching this ritual ballet as we head into the darkest time of year.  Who wouldn’t want to go to the Land of Sweets and be ushered into the future by the ever-competent Sugar Plum Fairy?

I’ll be there this afternoon, tearing up as I always do–the gorgeous music with its dark undertones and its possibility of light and hope–and defending my bid on the ten-pound bag of organic carrots at the silent auction!

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

November 14, 2010

Fine snow sifting through the air—a day of gray on gray.  I went out to the corral to rake up manure and add it to my newly-half-built manure compost bin and spend time with Mattie and Sam, who are on their long winter layoff.  Though the darkness comes earlier now, there’s still a time during mid day when the sky is full of light and the snow seems to catch the light and magnify it in the air—even on a day like today when there’s no sun, just flat, filtered cloudlight.

I just finished a conversation with my friend Joe, a brilliant poet who has been part of my writing community for the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in the Interior.  He is ill; in the midst of a visit to his brother back east, two summers ago, he was struck down by a seizure and discovered that he had a brain tumor.  Now, it has returned, and he is back in Ohio, living through rounds of treatments, MRIs, hope and despair.

I have been thinking of him, of how fast our lives can turn and on how little.  Here at Mattie’s Pillow, I find it possible to believe that I can fend off trouble with good intentions.  If I keep my hands in garden soil and horse manure, I magically believe, I will stay healthy and strong.  I recommend it to anyone who asks; the transformation of hay to manure to compost to soil to tomatoes to the delicious meal of pasta I can share with a friend such as Joe seems powerful to me.  The best part of the magic is that the horse is in the middle of it all, the agent of transformation, health, and strength.

But I know there’s more to it than that.  There’s randomness to disease.  It does no good to search back to the time the disease began, for that moment can’t be predicted or changed.  We can only go forward.  I told Joe that his friends here love him and asked what I could do.  I wish I could send him this snow—so dry and fine, falling with a soft hiss and softening the edges of fences, trees, rocks, the trucks parked for winter, the horse manure pile.  I wish I could bring him here for a few moments to run his hands over Sam’s thick coat, lift his pale mane, and breathe in the yeasty horse smell.

I’ve been reading a book called The Horse in Human History, by Pita Kelenka.  I’m going through it slowly.  It’s an academic book, dense with facts and details.  But it suggests that the connection between horse and human goes back farther than we have previously assumed.  The horse is part of our psyche—whole cultures have evolved as they have because horses were made with strong backs, fast legs, and a predisposition to move in concert with others of their herd.  The horse exists deep in our collective memory—swift, powerful, mysterious, and willing all at once.  And we exist deep in theirs, if it makes any sense to draw a parallel.  At least, the horse as we have bred it reflects our deepest dreams of what we want it to be—and what, by the same token, we want ourselves to be.

Another writing friend, Sue Bowling, has been blogging about horse color varieties—the variants of palomino, for example: cream, champagne, dark gold, and more.  She gets into the genetic details, the places on the chromosome that change for each color.  For me, thinking of horse colors touches on the dreamlike qualities of horses—the colors have significance to horse owners, they go in and out of fashion—and how we respond to the colors from deep within.  Sam, the fleabitten gray, seems white in winter.  Seeing him looking over the corral fence from the road below, a neighbor girl called him a magic horse.  And Mattie—I blame much of her “issues” on the response some early owner had to her dark coat—the “Fury syndrome,” I call it.  She lived up to the negative expectations some humans placed on her as a big black horse.  I know they’re not really black and white; Sam has flecks of brown and black, and Mattie is really a dark bay.  Still, it’s beautiful to see them together in the snowy corral—the light and dark, yin and yang.

I want to send Joe a bit of what Mattie and Sam give me just by standing in the snow, letting it blanket their winter coats, and letting me lean against them for a while.  I want that magic transformation for him and for us all.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

October 2, 2010


Mattie is a big black horse—or a dark bay, when she’s been in the sun a lot.  There’s a way she moves sometimes that’s powerful and graceful all at once, a quality that drew me to her when I first saw her.   Sometimes, standing the corral, scanning the house for movement that might indicate I’m coming with hay, she has a high-headed,  alert look that seems classic, the way we dream a horse should be.

I write this because there’s a horse out there, Zenyatta, who has so much of this dreamy quality it’s as if she were bred from our dreams of what a horse could be.  I had heard about her from a friend who had been following her career over the last couple of years, and I knew she had been winning races, but I didn’t really know what the fuss over her was about until I went to my friend Casey’s to watch her run on the big screen.

I have watched the Triple Crown races on TV since I was around 7 years old.  I remember certain horses I chose as my favorites—the gray, Carry Back, was the first I remember though I forget the year.  And there were whole eras I missed when I didn’t have TV—graduate school years and the out-of-work years after that.   But now, I don’t miss the Derby, Preakness, or Belmont.  I remember Funny Cide and Barbaro, Street Sense and Eight Belles, Rachel Alexandra.  But Zenyatta skipped the Triple Crown, skipped her whole three-year-old year to keep growing sturdy bones and long muscles.  And then she started winning races.

So, today, I went, again, to Casey’s to watch Zenyatta’s 19th race.  She had run undefeated in 18.  19 would be a thoroughbred record.  She won and now holds the record, but that’s not what I remember about her.  She’s built differently than any other horse I’ve seen—a bit longer in the neck, wider-set in the hind legs.  Her gaskins, the muscle above the hock that allows the hind legs to extend and lift, seem exceptionally long so that her hind legs stride deep under her at the walk, like a Tennessee Walking horse.  She is so full of eagerness to run at the start of each race that she paws the ground and extends each front leg in a Spanish walk.  Her muscled back and loin distort the movement of her walk from behind so that she almost looks like she’s waddling or lame—until she’s saddled and moves out onto the track in a smooth trot.

She stands a full hand or two above the other mares she raced against today, which makes her easy to spot in a race—the large graceful black horse who seems to be loping along behind the pack.  The front-runners strain and scramble for the lead, but Zenyatta is having a nice easy hack.  Then, her jockey gives her two smacks with the crop, like a reminder of the business at hand, and she unfolds.  A plucky little bay, Switch, pulled ahead as Zenyatta was working up to her full stride, and, for a minute, we all thought she had waited too long.  But Zenyatta stretched out her frame and those long fluid muscles, and, in two huge strides, she had won.  We were bouncing on the couch and screaming.

So, why this horse?  She seems like a horse out of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books.  It sounds corny to say it, but she seems to take everything in: her large ears swivel to every sound and movement, she looks at the camera as if she understood posing, she looks at the crowd as if she intended to be admired.  Hardened sports announcers marvel at her ability to know where the finish line is and cross it ahead of the others at the necessary moment.

And everything about her is large—her large diamond blaze that covers her wide forehead, her long, arched neck that tapers up from the width of her shoulder to the crest to the narrower poll, her wide back and loins, the dappled gleam of her coat.  When we watch her, we know we are seeing something we may never see again.  She touches some deep longing in us for perfection or for the ideal.  She makes everything she does seem easy.

I’ve been thinking of her all day on a day when people I love and care for are dealing with troubles: a bad breakup, a serious illness, unfinished projects, the onset of winter.  She lifts us out of it all for a couple of minutes that we can replay and replay in our memory (not to mention You-Tube).  She balances us out—heartbreak/Zenyatta; runaway dog/Zenayatta; political shenanigans/Zenyatta; the waning moon, the dark night of the soul….Zenyatta.

She will run again on November 6, in the Breeder’s Cup, against colts.  Maybe she will lope less and run more.  Maybe she will find that extra speed her jockey, Mike Smith, believes is there.   Maybe we’ll all hold our breaths, endure what we need to get to that day, cheer her last race before retirement to the lazy life of the brood farm, let a little of her beauty, her strength, her confidence into our lives at that moment, in hopes it will carry us on through the winter ahead.

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

May 1, 2010

Standing in the rain with a glorious coat of gray mud on his white coat, Sam dreams of the Kentucky Derby and all those sleek, lean colts and one bold filly.  Agile Sam, who can curve and twist sideways in mid air on the end of the longe line, remembers being a colt and runs free in his dreams.

Wishing all the best to the horses in today’s race.  Run well, run well, run well; be strong and sturdy and fleet.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 10, 2010

Spring Break

A week’s respite from the intensity of spring semester; I am getting time for real life.

This morning, as I write, the sun is warm on my back through the glass door to the deck.  Recently, it’s been high enough in the sky to clear the ridgeline behind us, so the corral is in sun till late afternoon, and it’s light enough to work outside till nearly seven and later each day.  This time of year sneaks up on us—but all seasons do in the north; they’re so extreme and transition so quickly.  Now, during this fallow week, I planned to get out every day to work with Mattie and Sam, but it’s Wednesday already, and I’ve only been out with them twice, and I can already feel the week slipping away.

On the shelf by the south-facing window are this year’s seeds, sorted by planting date, and stored in those clear plastic shells that cinnamon rolls from Lulu’s come home in.  Yesterday, I washed the old flats from the greenhouse, and today I will plant the first seeds of the year: Chianti Rose, Pompeii Roma, Sungold, and Camp Joy tomatoes.  Later in the week, I’ll plant the Little Prince eggplant—trying over on an unsuccessful experiment from last year.  Although the ground will be covered with snow till well into April or, if we get a few good March snowstorms, May, my mind is full of the joy of green things to come.

I imagine lettuce—I plant a cutting mix and a red and green romaine mix—the speckled leaves, the russet leaves, the frilled and smooth leaves, glowing as the sun slants through them in the evening. I imagine pulling carrots—I’m trying King Midas this year, a long variety, with the horses in mind.  I miss the taste of them, sweet, with just a hint of garden grit with the crunch of the root.

Mattie and Sam still stand in the sun each morning to warm their coats—it was fifteen below this morning.  In the afternoon, it will warm above zero and I’ll head out to groom them and do some longeing and groundwork.  I imagine I’m working them towards fitness for summer, but know that the weather, the cold, the packed snow melting in April to a dangerous slickness, the work ahead to finish the semester will all compete with my intentions toward them.  We have an ambitious lesson and clinic schedule set up for summer, including a three day Centered Riding clinic.  Between now and May, they need to be fit enough to take hour long lessons and the trail rides I hope to go on.  And so do I.

So, now, I’m on the couch, Jeter the poodle curled on his end, writing this instead of grooming, longeing, planting, dancing.  The sun has moved farther along the window now.  On NPR, there’s a discussion on the role of poetry in our lives in the 21st century.  There’s more coffee to drink.  Spring is still a dream, but a lovely dream.  We gather our energy now for the work ahead.

Poetry Challenge 40

February 21, 2010

The Thaw

Here in the Interior, temperatures are sneaking above freezing at mid-day.  The snow is melting away on south-facing hills, birds are darting wildly through the air as if they think they missed the beginning of mating season, and the roads are slick and treacherous from the melting ice over still-frozen pavement.   People are shedding coats, eyeing the greenhouse, ordering seeds, walking out in the sun and thinking of summer plans.  All the while, we know our folly, for we are not yet out of February and not yet into March.  At the back of our minds, we hear the old song, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska, It’s Forty Below.”  Really.  We’re restless, joyful, yet preparing for this respite from winter to be snatched away from us by deep cold and more snow.

So, here’s the challenge–write about a thaw of some kind: an old grudge melts away, an intractable animal becomes gentle, a place that seemed ugly suddenly looks beautiful, or an actual thaw complete with mud, green things, dripping water.   Post it in the comments section and I’ll add it here.  All of us in the Interior are waiting.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

December 31, 2009

A New Year

And I’m ready.  This has been a year of great promise: on the national scene, a new president who represents a true turning point in American politics; on the local scene, a new mayor, a growing interest in gardening and energy efficiency, and a turn toward inventiveness and ingenuity in dealing with living well and close to the earth in our difficult climate.

But on the ground here in the Interior and at Mattie’s Pillow, it was a year that gradually accumulated small disappointments, local disasters, and a bushel of griefs.  On this blog, I’ve focused on the beauty of life in the Interior and on the challenges those of us who live here face.  In general, I’m an optimist—and living with horses, an exuberantly fun-loving dog, a garden, and all the wild and human creatures that surround us here gives me a lift and a bounce back to the optimistic when  things get rough.

But each fall, as we begin the slide into the dark days of winter, we look at those around us and wonder who will be with us in the light of spring.  Already some have slipped away: Roy Bird, Marjorie Cole—and others have taken a more dire route off the planet, something which leaves those of us who knew them still tumbled in their wake.   And, since I mentioned politics in the first paragraph, the politics has been surreal, both nationally and in-state.  But I’ll leave that to other blogs to detail.  Check the Missing Links section for more on this.

Now, on New Year’s Eve, I’m once again in New Jersey assisting my brother.  It feels odd to be far from Fairbanks.  On New Year’s, we usually go to the fireworks on campus, standing out in the cold, bundled, booted, mittened, scarved, and even wrapped in sleeping bags, lying back warm in the snow and below zero air as the fireworks sizz and burst and sparkle above us and shake the ground beneath us.  Then we spend the evening with friends in the Farmer’s Loop valley, sitting around a bonfire and watching the neighbors’ fireworks light up each hour’s passing of the year in some time zone.  I miss it, but we’re planning a red beans and rice dinner with sparkling cranberry juice, some balloons, and some poppers.

Though I miss my usual celebration, it feels right that I start the year doing some good—such as it is—for my oh-so-stoic brother, helping him get his life back after a long healing that’s not quite over yet.  Perhaps this beginning foreshadows a better year ahead.  Perhaps, instead of the euphoric celebration of (and projection onto) the election of Obama we experienced last year, this year we should each do what Obama knew he needed to do all along: roll up our sleeves, wade in, and do the dirty, tiring, sometimes thankless work of making our world, or the part of it in which we live, a better place than we found it.

I’m starting with my brother’s kitchen.  What about you?

Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog.  Thanks for your readership, your comments and poems, your willingness to stop by from time to time.  I’ll be back to Mattie and Sam in the next entry.

Dancing in the North

December 4, 2009

Tonight, as I sit sipping tea and grading student papers, I hear the strains of the Nutcracker in my mind.  Over at Hering Auditorium, the cast is running through its second full dress rehearsal for the young dancers of Cast B.  At 8pm, I hummed the sprightly music of the opening scene, which in our performance features young elves tidying up the drawing room of Clara’s house and spreading magic for the evening.  Later I heard the chorus of the Snow scene, my favorite, with the white romantic tutus—the long calf-length tulle gowns—and the crisp short tutu of the Snow Fairy as she is lifted through the falling snow by her cavalier.

This year, dancers who’ve gone off to start dance careers—including my son, Ira, who started as a seven-year-old boy cherub with a quiver of arrows—are returning to dance together again as professionals.  The younger girls of the corps de ballet—the snowflakes in those gauzy gowns and the flowers swaying in the breeze—are precise and beautiful.  The returning dancers give them something to aspire to.

It’s the deepening of the dark time of year.  We still remember summer, but in a couple of weeks we’ll be at the darkest day, winter solstice.  The Nutcracker with its sparkly music and comic second-act bits counters that darkness, somewhat, though if you listen closely, you can hear Tchaikovsky’s acknowledgement of darkness in the bassoons and deeper bass notes throughout.  The part where I tear up is always the Sugar Plum pas de deux, so full of strength, inspiration, yet deep longing and nostalgia.  In their perfection, the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier represent the best young Clara can aspire to as an emerging adult, yet we sense in the music the sorrow, regret, toil, and pain it takes to reach that point.  The Sugar Plum offers all that richness to a young girl in love with a wooden soldier doll, then offers her the Kingdom of Sweets, a real prince, and a chance to find out for herself.

To me this is the metaphor of Nutcracker: the younger dancers reaching and reaching for the “plum” roles and the older dancers returning, some of them year after year, to mentor them to reach that point, just as Clara is mentored in the various possibilities of her womanhood-to-be by all the dances of the second act.

And behind it all is our Drosselmeyer, Norman Shelburne, who patiently teaches the young dancers the roles in a year-after-year progression till they, too, go off to their own adult Kingdom, with memories of all this sweetness and tunes of the Sugar Plum in their heads forever.

So, if you’re in Fairbanks, don’t miss it this weekend—Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.  See you there.

Poetry Challenge 22

June 2, 2009

The Lives of Plants

Here in the Interior, garden planting is going on with great frenzy. A fellow poet, Derek Burleson, is posting lists of plants he’s putting in his garden on his Facebook page—every day a new list: violas, zucchini, Early Girl, etc. So, start with a list of interesting plant names, then work them into a poem. But, let the poem drift away from plants to something else—a memory, a longing, a satisfaction, a dream.

(Thanks for the idea, Derek!)

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