Posts Tagged ‘The Arts’

Nutcracker Season

December 3, 2011

There are three more chances to see the North Star Ballet’s Nutcracker this weekend.  Today at 2 and 8 and tomorrow (Sunday) at 2 in Hering Auditorium.


I have been watching the dancers of North Star Ballet for twenty-five years, since the afternoon my son, then seven, insisted that he go to the audition, and Norman, then and still artistic director, looked at him and said, “Well, you’re kind of small but we can find a place for you,” and assigned him the role of boy cherub, trailing behind the Sugar Plum Fairy as she made her entrance onstage.


I’ll be going tonight and tomorrow afternoon, watching another set of girls swoop through the beautiful snow scene or dance crisply through the Marzipan.  Nutcracker season is when those who follow our ballet can see the developing potential in the North Star dancers.  A girl who was a gawky soldier one year becomes a graceful snowflake the next.  The girls in Marzipan sparkle their way to Snow Fairy or Dew Drop.  And always, there’s the dazzling Sugar Plum, the one whose dance characterizes the ballet and forms an apotheosis in her pas de deux with her Cavalier.


We’ve been having Nutcracker weather, too, the past few days—a warming trend bringing fat flakes of snow falling like pillow down through the dark light.  We’re heading to the darkest days: sunrise at 10:19 and sunset at 3:01 yesterday, the morning and afternoon a long twilight, tinged with pinks and oranges, and a slaty light in the evening sky.   We’re eating more chocolate and oranges now, and driving at slower speeds.  If it weren’t for the toad, work, as Phillip Larkin once said, we’d all be sleeping most of the time, or sitting in a comfy chair curled around warm coffee or tea.


Except for small community that forms around the ballet every fall—a hundred parents and volunteers bustling backstage painting on Mouse and Soldier makeup, tying Cherub pinafores and Party Boy ties.  The older dancers are lining up on stage for warmup as I write this, stretching on the barre, getting ready for plies and tendus, stripping away sweats and leg warmers as their muscles begin to loosen under the stage lights.  There will be notes after warmup, then they will bustle off to the crowded dressing room to be ready to be Party Parents, or Snowflakes in the first act.


I never get enough of it.  Sitting in the dark auditorium with my neighbors and friends and all the four-year-olds with tiaras on their heads and dazzled eyes and all that luscious music filling the space around us, I can feel the year turn and a sweet nostalgia for each minute that passes. The dancers are so beautiful on stage, so mature in the gesture and posture of the dance; the moments are so fleeting, like Clara’s childhood entering the Land of Sweets.  I don’t even try to fight the tears that always come.


After this weekend, I’ll be ready for the season, the deep dark, the warmth that endures through friendships and holiday meals shared, the slowly returning light, just a few weeks away.



The View from Mattie’s Pillow

July 28, 2009

ASRA is in week 2 and the kids are writing along.  Here’s a poem that I wrote in response to a journal prompt the other day:

Farm Stand, Snow Hill

I can see the top of the plank

that holds cantaloupe, slices of watermelon,

tightly wrapped corn–the green seersucker

husks, the ragged brown tassel–every

splinter jagged through white paint,

every fly walking squat-legged,

tapping its tongue on sweetness.

My grandfather’s hand rests on my head

as he talks.  The man with the fruit

looks down at me from shimmering

air.  They laugh.  I feel the heat

on parts of my hair that stick

out from his shading


“There,” the man says,

“she’ll like this.”

He hands down a white paper

dish.  In it, golden, glistening

the perfect hexagons

of wax pressing against each

other, ragged at the edges,

honey so sweet I cough

on sweetness, then chew

and chew and chew.

Dancing in the North

April 1, 2009

Last night, the tech rehearsal at Hering Auditorium. It had been a lovely day–the air above freezing, warmer in the sun, snow glistening in the brilliant way it gets right before it truly starts to melt. Redpolls and chickadees flit through the woods, flocking in a feeding frenzy before their mating season. Sam is shedding so much that ravens swoop down to the corral to lift clumps of white hair for nests–or for play.

So, it was hard to drive to town to spend the last hours of the afternoon sitting in a dark theater watching the rehearsal, but I’m glad I did.

A tech rehearsal can be boring for anyone not rehearsing, but I love the loose quality of it. It’s the first time the backstage folks interact with the dancers and everything is fine-tuned. For Les Sylphides, there is a drop–a large canvas backdrop painted to look like a Gothic scene–in the 19th-Century sense. Two large bare trees frame a scene of a lake or tarn lined with bogs with wisps of mist rising in the moonlight. In the background, dark hills and a ruined castle or cathedral–the epitome of “the picturesque” combination of nature and antiquities, which the Romantics were so fond of. The moon, a circle of white, dominates the drop.

As I sat there, I watched the business of the rehearsal take place. Kids in leotards and sweaters sat in the theater doing homework or chatting with friends. Men, former parents who run the stage crew every year, shuffled around the stage, pointing at lights at the drop, at the floor, mulling how to light the dark scene hanging there. First a blue wash–a chilly night–then a bit of yellow, some red to warm it, and finally white along the bottom of the drop, which brought out the filmy quality of the mists–the ethereal sylphs themselves.

Finally, the dancers came on stage, still in rehearsal dress–black leotards and pink tights–and took their places. Since Saturday, they have refined their precision, and, with the backdrop, the dreamy quality of the dance has evolved. Only the principals wore full costumes, and it was lovely to see how the tulle of the dress floated with the movements and lifts of the pas de deux. I can’t wait to see the whole company filling the stage with long white tutus, transforming these kids to a Romantic ideal–and in a ballet that is pure dance, using the choreography of Fokine.

After the rehearsal–the Flower Festival pas de deux, and a lively dance to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony choreographed by Norman Shelburne just for the company–I went back stage to talk to the graduating seniors for an article for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner’s Latitudes page. (It should be out Friday.) As one might expect, they had a wide range of feelings. For some, this will be their last dance performance, as far as they know, and they are sad to leave the home they have made for each other in the studio, but eager to go on to new challenges. One girl, planning a career in medicine like her father, said that dance had taught her to strive for perfection, even if she wasn’t perfect.

Nick Read in his blog Mindbody writes of the drive of the performer, concluding that those so driven eventually need to step away and learn to focus on the human things–family, friends, ordinary life–for their mental health. Yet some dancers, like one I talked to last night, feel they are born to dance. The boy I spoke to told me that when he first saw dance, he knew that was all he wanted to do. He flies through the air and has the entrechat six and temps de fleche or cabriole of a polished dancer. Watching him move with his long-time partner and on his own was to watch him fill the theater with joy of movement.

If you see me Saturday night after the performance, I’ll be wiping away tears. I’m long past the stage of pretending dance–and all it means to these young people and to those who watch, teach, and encourage them–doesn’t move me. These kids, and Norman and Sue who have given them the context and training to do so, are reaching for the perfection of dance. They make us believe–at least for a moment as brief as a balance en pointe–that it’s possible to come close to our dreams.

Performances are Saturday 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm-for those of you in Fairbanks.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 12, 2009

This morning, I was finishing throwing hay to the horses and spending a few minutes scratching their necks under their manes and inhaling their earthy, yeasty smell when the corral, the yard, the snow on the spruce trees began to glow with a copper light. It’s lighter every day now. The change is significant, the day extending by as much as an hour a week. The return of the light starts a fizz of energy in my stomach–or that place in the center of the body that the Chinese call chi. I look at the cutbank behind the house where I have been trying to get wildflowers to grow for the past six years. This year, I think, I’ll find a way.

Then the sun slipped up behind the clouds that spread across all the rest of the sky and the light dulled. Still, to the southern horizon there was a peachy band of light above the silhouettes of the mountains, then thick, flat grey.

I heard Obama’s speech the other night; like everyone else, I’ve been thinking of the economic situation, flattening the mood of delight I felt at the inauguration. I read about places where, already by last summer, people were abandoning horses in forests, in farmers’ fields, in empty horse trailers at horse shows or auctions. I even heard of horses found shot by owners who couldn’t keep them. Here in Alaska, we tend to feel the economic trends on a different cycle than the lower 48–sometimes by as much as five years. Still, we know it will impact us. We live in a place where extravagant living is unsustainable. In rural Alaska, the situation is more grim, as fuel prices went up in the fall just as rural communities needed to put in their winter supply. Some villages, like Emmonak, are in dire straits, but have found a way to make their plight–needing fuel and food–known and some relief has reached them.

I think about how things might go for us–including horse lovers and those working in the arts. We will keep on as long as we can, knowing that the things that sustain us are not all material or financial. Writing is an inexpensive art–though I’m writing on a laptop now, I could convert to pen and paper. Dance only takes the body and a sense of rhythm, though the production of a performance takes a whole lot more. Riding horses takes, well, the horse–and that’s more challenging here in the North than it might be in some more temperate place. It’s when we what to share our arts that the economy affects us the most. As the “recovery package” goes out around the country, I’m listening hard for reference to the arts, knowing that we will be dealing with some bread-and-butter issues first–but still, I’m listening.

I’m finishing this at night, the full moon of last night shaved a bit thinner now, and covered by the clouds still spread across the sky. The wood stove warms the room. The dog sleeps, a mound of brown fur.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 6, 2009

Yesterday I went with Mary Beth and the kids from Effie Kokrine Charter School who are taking part in a “Climate Change and Creative Expression” class to the Large Animal Research Station to visit the musk ox herd. The day was bright, warming to around zero, and we stood by the heavy metal fence and watched as a student worker drove through the herd of cows and calves on a four-wheeler, dropping off rubber dishes of musk ox food (they prepare the pellets there especially for the musk ox diet).

Like horses, musk ox have a herd hierarchy, and these animals–like giant dust mops with horns–played a game of musical food dishes, chasing each other with growly grunts, the one chased in turn chasing another lowlier cow. As the adults kept busy with the work of maintaining herd order, the calves slipped in to eat from the dishes, enacting their own hornless dominancy. The smallest calf stood alone in the middle of the herd, looking through the fence at us, waiting till a dish was left unattended before he bent his nose to it.

These are such ancient animals. With their long brown guard hairs and thick quiviut underlayer, they look like large hay bales from a distance. Up close, they look like tussocks covered in long lichen or dead grass, but moving slowly while grazing or quickly when dashing across the field to chase away a rival. They have large faces, like the cartoon faces drawn for cows-big gentle-looking mouths, brown eyes, and droopy horns that seem to melt down the sides of their heads like lop-ears on a rabbit. But the look is misleading. The ends of the horns curve up to a sharp point and they have the ability to stomp their foes with their hooves and half-ton weight. Observing the males, we saw several pairs line up and run at each other, whacking the flat horn at the top of their heads with a loud crack. And, though these musk ox are familiar with humans, they have no instincts of friendliness with the weaker creatures who feed them, only a watchful tolerance.

After watching the musk ox and the reindeer for a while, we were thoroughly cold-some of the teens were colder than others, wearing hoodies and tennis shoes rather than boots and parkas, so we went inside to the classroom where Lindsey made us all hot chocolate. We sipped the warm sugary chocolate and I gave the students a writing prompt, and. for fifteen minutes, the room fell into silence. Outside the window, the white fields edged with spruce, dotted with the humped backs of musk ox. From time to time, one would pass below the window, brown fur fading to frost along the back, startling to see, like a moving bush or a small hill passing by.

They wrote some wonderful fragments in the short time we had. I look forward to seeing what they produce when they have time to revise. More on this project as it progresses.

Dancing in the North

January 21, 2009

(I’m going to branch out in the weeks to come and write some short pieces on life around the North Star Ballet studio as the kids prepare for this year’s ambitious performance of Firebird.)

Finally, after a long break for the holidays and the deep cold followed by a thaw and black ice, I made it back to ballet class last night. For years now, my weeks have been bracketed by Sue Perry’s adult ballet classes–Tuesday and Wednesday nights. In the closed world of the studio, we relive our past dreams of dancing. Some of us have danced on stage; some have never had a dance class before we walked through the door. But in class, we are moving toward a mutual goal–to become that ideal of lightness and grace that we imagine dance to be, to defeat gravity where it overtakes our bodies first–arms, legs, back, bellies.

I had been dancing for some time before I met Sue, but I started as an adult and adults progress through the forms of ballet at a different rate than children do. My son and I started together, me at 34, he at 5. Now, he is a free-lance dancer who has performed in four countries; I’m a permanent adult intermediate dancer. When I walked into Sue’s class, it was as if I had started over as she systematically took me back to the good habits I should have developed in the first place. Sue, however, treats each adult as if her or his potential is unlimited and as if whatever level we ultimately reach is a level worth reaching and worth working hard for.

Last night, I noticed how my right and left arm move differently. I was dancing at the front of the class and watching my port de bras in the mirror when I realized that my left arm–my writing arm–moved back down through the arc of the movement faster than my right one, which stayed floating longer. Try as I might, I couldn’t get them to move at the same rate and still concentrate on the echappes that we were doing. I realized that this is also a problem for me in riding: one side of my body reacts faster than the other; one side stays in balance better than the other and it makes the horse move stiffly to balance me out.

It’s like this blog–to me, all the things I’ve listed in the heading are connected, and each is an art in itself. As I read around the blogosphere, I notice others working on the interrelation of the arts–and we each have a different set of arts to interrelate. More on this in the days to come.

View from Mattie’s Pillow

January 15, 2009

Finally, warming weather, and, as if to overcompensate, spring-like weather. Here in the hills the snow is melting. There’s a constant tick of dripping water from the eaves, with the occasional rush of snow sliding from the roof. The horses, now free from their blankets, play the bite-y kick-y game through the fence: Sam reaches through to bite at Mattie’s neck or hocks and she swings around and lets loose at the fence beside him. They trot around and have a good laugh. Then they do it again. Because the fence is metal, it sounds like they’re playing an all-percussion New Music piece-silence, CLASH, the staccato of hooves, silence, with a few high-pitched squeals thrown in.

I’ve been thinking about this blog and my purpose for writing it. What do I mean by a virtual writers/artists/horse lovers’ retreat? What can I offer to you, dear reader? I’m posting links that are interesting to me and fit with my evolving sense of vision for this blog. I’ve posted a few poetry prompts, as well, though no one has posted a poetry response, yet (except me). An artist’s retreat–Yaddo, McDowell, etc–is a place to retreat to work on art, but also a place of connection, interaction of the arts. So, I guess that’s one hope I have here: to connect artists of different genres, to stimulate inter-arts connections, to kick-start ideas.

And where do the horses and gardens come in? In a literal place, they would be part of the scene-a horse rescue/retirement facility, an organic garden, a community table. This is part of the vision I haven’t explored here yet, except to write about my own horses and post a few horse links. I’ll write more and explore this more as I go on.

So, dear reader, I pose the question to you: How can this site serve you as artist, writer, dancer, horse person, gardener? How would you like to link to others? What can be done here that will feed your art?

%d bloggers like this: