‘Raising the Barre’ excerpt: passion and persistence

A Eugene author makes a mid-life decision to fulfill a childhood dream -- dancing in 'The Nutcracker'

by LAUREN KESSLER

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch presents an exclusive excerpt from award-winning Eugene author Lauren Kessler‘s 2015 book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker, which has just been released in paperback and would make a delightful stocking stuffer. Here’s what ArtsWatch’s Jamuna Chiarini wrote when it was published. “Her love affair with ballet and The Nutcracker began at the age of five when she was taken to see famous ballerina Maria Tallchief perform in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker. From there she began ballet lessons until she was twelve when sadly she stopped after learning that her teacher André Eglevsky, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, had told her mother that she did not have the right body for ballet.

Her unrequited love for ballet and her deep obsession for The Nutcracker is where her story Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker begins. In the book, Kessler takes a ten day, whirlwind tour of Nutcracker performances across America, and when she returns home she decides she hasn’t had enough and bravely asks the Artistic Director of the Eugene Ballet Company, Toni Pimble, if she might take company class and perform in their version of The Nutcracker. The answer was yes and off she goes to prepare.

Through this adventurous immersion into the subculture of ballet, Kessler finally experiences what it is like to be a dancer—the misadventures of shopping for leotards, the rigours of getting in shape, buying and applying gobs of stage makeup, and, of course, learning steps and dancing with ease. She is a “midlife interloper” as she called herself at her book reading at Powell’s on Wednesday night (this week marks the release of this new book), and she experiences what she has been yearning for her whole life: What it is like to be a dancer and perform in The Nutcracker.

This is a great, inspirational story for someone who is looking for a push to take that leap and do that thing they have been putting off for a really long time. If Kessler can do it, you can do it.

***

I started this project in awe of the beauty and grace of ballet as seen at a distance, my view from the audience. I am now in awe of the sweat, the grit, the sheer will that gets them through nine-hour days and ten-hour bus trips and sixteen-city tours. To say “you have to love it to do it” is an understatement so colossal as to be meaningless. Yes, I know they are not out there curing cancer or feeding the homeless, but these dancers have committed themselves heart and mind, body and soul to an enterprise, and they do it every single day. Days when they are hurting. Days when the sun is shining, and they’d rather not be stuck in a windowless studio. Days when it’s wet and gray (like, for example, today) and bed looks like the best option. Days when life conspires against you. And still, they get up and do it. It is a lesson to us all – certainly to me — and not just a lesson about ballet and what I need to bring to class and rehearsals. It’s about what it takes, really takes, to do something well. Forget “waiting for the Muse.” It’s about daily commitment. It’s about the marriage of passion and persistence.

Lauren Kessler, center, performed in Eugene Ballet’s production of ‘The Nutcracker.’

All of a sudden it’s November. Mon Dieu! I’d say “merde!” but that’s how dancers wish each other luck (their version of “break a leg,” which, of course, is not something you’d dare say to a dancer). What I mean, though, is: Holy Shit. It’s November. My first performance as Clara’s Aunt Rose—a part created for me–is sixteen days away. Toni emails me that she’s scheduling costume fittings this week. I text Suzi and beg her to come over to give me a lesson in how to apply stage make-up. Meanwhile every rehearsal counts.

At rehearsal this morning, both Mark and Danielle point out (unnecessarily) that I’m making this dance look too much like work. I am button-down serious, intent on getting everything right. I am rigid, not so much in my body but in my head. I am supposed to be a fancy Victorian lady having a lovely time at an elegant Christmas party. Instead, I’m a self-conscious midlife interloper trying desperately to not screw up in rehearsal. Danielle stops the music. They double-team me.

“You have to have fun with it,” Mark says, tilting his head, smiling, waving his arms expansively.

“The audience is there to have fun,” Danielle adds. “They want to see you enjoying yourself.”

I hear what they’re saying – and I agree — but I don’t know how to do it. How do I “have fun”? Immediately, I defer to the way I approach just about everything: I make a mental list. How To Have Fun While Dancing: Listen to the music. Relax your shoulders. Lift your chin. Smile. Oh wait. I am replacing one set of instructions with another. I just leapt from my rigid “Just Do It” mantra to an equally lock-step “Just (Look Like You Are) Enjoy Do(ing) It” refrain. But that’s not how one enjoys something, is it? How does one find joy without working to find joy… which takes the joy out of the joy. This rehearsal has morphed into a life lesson. A life lesson delivered to me by two twentysomethings. Which makes it a double life lesson.

Eugene author Lauren Kessler.

I walk a few paces away from them, turn my back and close my eyes. I call up an image of the party scene. I’ve seen The Nutcracker so many times over so many years in so many different venues that the image immediately materializes, clear and bright: the elaborate set, the fanciful arrangement of props, the soft lighting, the stage full of dancers in elegant costumes. It is the holiday season, and the people out there beyond the footlights — the mothers and their daughters, the ones who dream of being dancers, the ones who’ve never seen a ballet before — they are all ready to be charmed and entertained. This ballet, this night, is part of their holiday celebration. The audience wants – deserves – to see their joy reflected in the faces of the dancers. “The stage is not the place to remind the audience that one is human,” Suzanne Farrell writes in her memoir. “Illusion is what they are paying for.”

“Let’s do it, sistah!” Mark calls from across the room. Danielle touches the iPad and restarts the music. And we dance the Grandfather dance, and I forget that there is anything else.

Lauren Kessler (laurenkessler.com) is the award-winning author of nine works of narrative nonfiction. She runs a writers’ group at Oregon State Penitentiary and is a writer-in-residence during the winter at the University of Washington. Raising the Barre is available from Powell’s, Amazon, and other booksellers.

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