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Michael Henry

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Men and Women, Ballet, and the Shock of Recognition

Posted: 09/21/11 04:43 PM ET

I'm fresh off one of the high points of my life: watching Ballet Nouveau Colorado perform Intersection, a full-length narrative ballet based on 13 poems I wrote in collaboration with Garrett Ammon, Artistic Director of BNC.

I like to joke with my poet friends, telling them that when a ballet troupe comes to you and asks you to write some poems for them to perform on stage, you should always say yes, even though it happens all the time. Because what awaits you is a transcendent and sublime experience. And because your poetry will reach, in one weekend, an audience it is not likely to reach in ten years.

Last night Garrett and I did a curtain call with the dancers, standing dizzy in the stage lights. I could not see anything, and probably smiled in a dumbfounded and blinded way. My wife would later tell me that it was a standing ovation! -- my first and last, probably.

I asked her and our good friend, writer Nick Arvin: "How'd I look up there?"

Nick said: "You looked like a poet among dancers."

That's about right. At least I didn't trip over my shoelace or step on a dancer's foot.

Intersection is intense. The story is about a 16-year-old boy whose mother has died and whose father, a stoic, blue-collar water meter reader, is lost in his grief and does not have the emotional apparatus to find his way out. The only thing he knows is to endure -- to keep walking -- without seeking any kind of solace or relief. That's what men are supposed to do, after all.

But the boy can't do that, and in his yearning to find some solace, some direction for his young life, he runs away from the world he knows in search of something else.

When creating the poems, Garrett and I considered the question: what does it look like when a stage performance's main character -- in this case, the boy -- is absent from the real-time action, existing only in memory, in the minds of those left behind? (Kudos and apologies go here to Shelby Foote's great play, The Young Man From Atlanta. And hat tip to Beckett, who famously harnessed the power of absence and waiting around.)

This premise led us to other rich questions, like: how do we ever know someone? How do different people -- especially men and women -- deal differently with loss?

I love those kinds of questions; I'm obsessed with them, and probably always will be. These are related to other obsessions, too: how to endure, how to not be a quitter. How to bear the weight of loss and death. The possibly stereotypical distinctions between men and women. The act of running and running away. Age and nostalgia for one's youth, which often glosses over the rough edges, making it prettier than it really was.

Oh yeah, and did I mention death?

Garrett Ammon is an exceptional talent -- a truly insightful and inspired artist. Someone who, in merely reading the poems and working on them with me, seemed to see into the depths of my soul. I know that sounds groan-worthy but it's true.

Even though I've seen the performance of Intersection a handful of times, Sunday night, within minutes, I was weeping. I weep easily and all (I'm a poet), but the terrible beauty of expression in the dancers' bodies and movements, the music and multimedia images Garrett has chosen -- everything coalesces into a stunning unity I never could have imagined when writing the poems or contemplating the story. And yet it all rings so true.

Words in great poems can be gorgeous and capital-T Truthful; but the rare ability to express complex ideas through the movement of bodies is beyond language. And the BNC dancers are so adept at bringing the Intersection characters to life, imbuing them as actors would with their own emotion and wisdom; each character has become something I didn't envision, and I love that. Ballet is an art I knew little about before I met Garrett, but now I think I understand its almost primal power to move an audience.

How odd to find myself in the audience, changing and learning not only from a ballet, but from the words I'd contributed to it (recordings the dancers did of the poems are parsed throughout the works, or recited live, on stage). Doesn't the person who wrote the words know everything about them?

The answer to that is newly clear to me: Hell no.

For example, I was struck by the distinctions made between the male and female characters. Specifically, how the women who loved and cared about the runaway boy are left with the task of grieving. If you want something done, and done well, ask a woman to do it. (Men can do a good job, but it's often hit or miss. C'mon, guys. Admit it.) The debts women generally accrue are more than just financial -- they are emotional, familial, and complex.

That's what surprised me last night -- this deeper truth that the ballet casts into a vivid, gorgeous movement: women are often the carriers of loss in families. They're the ones who cry at funerals, they comfort those in emotional distress, they kiss the pains away. And when the men feel existential angst, the women are often the silent, calm witnesses, waiting in the metaphorical widow's watch for their man to return -- once he's gone on his hero's journey and dealt with his "issues." (I won't even launch into an analysis of the cheated-upon politician's wife standing by him at the confessional news conference.)

All this might sound very 1950s and antiquated, and it recalls for me the conundrum Sylvia Plath faced in the last years of her life. An immensely talented poet, she was also a mother of two small children. She tried to survive one of the most brutal winters London had ever suffered, without her husband, the champion of her work (a philanderer he was, too, who was off living with his girlfriend). Very quickly she collapsed under such burdens, and committed suicide. For a vivid fictional example, there's Mad Men's Betty Draper: a brilliantly devised character on the vanguard of this struggle. She's supposed to be the perfect, attractive housewife to the horny cheating Donald Draper? What about her dreams, her life?

In the ballet, there are a couple of points when the entire troupe takes over the stage, and the infusion of collective energy is mesmerizing. In one flashback, everyone is whirling and spinning as the runaway and his friend and sister ride The Spider, one of those carnival rides with spinning arms and small pods you sit in as you fly into the sky and swing down back toward the earth, a small quarry at the end of a giant spider's leg. Here, the men and women are communing and enjoying the spirit of the moment, enjoying sensation and movement as only young bodies can embrace. (I used to love such rides and sought them out. Now that I'm 44 years old, just looking at them tenses my neck and gives me a knocking headache.)

Later, the men stand, backs to the audience and frozen like statues. Like stereotypical stoic guys who never betray their hopes and fears. And the women slip onto the stage and circle them, but the men cannot identify or embrace the love that is focused their way. Eventually, not quite defeated 00 merely rebuffed, for the women are tougher than that -- the female characters leave the stage to the men. But only after the men fall down, several times, only to be gently caressed and nurtured back to standing by the women.

At another point, the runaway's girlfriend -- played by dancer Sarah Tallman, who is the emotional prism of this ballet, as all the complexities of emotion in the movement can only exist in the context of her power -- works her way toward a reckoning. In the poem I wrote, there is grief, surely, but at the end, this girlfriend makes a promise:

If you don't return soon,
I will rage into light,
become a new star in the endless

nothing, I will burn
the gold of your name
across the sleeping hours,

and then I will let you go.

When I first wrote those lines and understood their place in the ballet, they gave me the chills. I have left many people in my life, and in those small and vast abandonments I have felt terrible guilt. But as men sometimes do, we leave people when the emotional work becomes too heady and grave. As a young man, I was a big idiot at times. Okay, often. For that I will always be sorry. But I have learned how to stay and to solve whatever problem is before me. I've also re-learned that women are tough, so very tough, and brave. And I believe the act of writing, for me, has facilitated that learning to a certain extent. The ballet performance, however, has made it vividly clear.

Sarah's transformation here is one of the emotional hinges of the ballet, upon which the energy swings from grief to acceptance -- a process which surely includes fury. There's a moment as she rushes across the stage, her back to the audience, and writes in the air something. In the poem it's the "gold" of his name in the sky, but you can't help but see it as her writing "goodbye." (Or maybe "fuck you.")

I knew this anger was there when I wrote it, but like most authors, your intention, once the words enter the mind of the reader, the character, the audience, are tossed out the window as they bring their own mind to the words. They make their own story and apply their own emotions to circle around in their minds.

Perhaps you've had this sensation as you've read something, or stared at a painting, or watched a ballet: you feel suddenly grateful, because you are so glad that you are there, in that moment, because the work of art speaks so directly to all the situations you are struggling to understand. Or it merely confirms a truth you may have taken for granted. For me, last night, the truth was this: the women in my life -- mother, grandmother, sisters, wife, daughters -- are all so incredibly understanding. And strong. And brave.

To quote Robert Lowell's opening to "Epilogue":

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.

I think I know what Lowell means. You make the art and trust that it will speak to your everyday world. And you hope it will tell you those things that you don't know you know.

And that, my friends, is one of the truest functions of art.