Lauren Kessler

‘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.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: a Nutcracker for the ages (all of them)

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s three days until Christmas, and the day after the winter solstice (the day of, if you’re going by Greenwich Mean Time or its less elegantly named successor, Coordinated Universal Time), and that means that visions of nutcrackers keep dancing in our heads. This is not entirely voluntary – “inescapable” might be a more accurate word – but it’s not entirely unwelcome, either. As much as the inevitable annual return of The Nutcracker to ballet stages across America prompts world-weary calculations of budget-balancing and traditions gone wild, it also makes us think about why the thing’s so undyingly popular.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara's Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara’s Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Tchaikovsky’s score, steely and lush and brilliant, has a great deal to do with it: I’ve been known to give recordings of it a spin in mid-July, entirely out of season, and will put on Duke Ellington’s jazz-suite adaptation at the snowdrop of a hat. The ballet’s odd construction provides a neat children’s-perspective view of the season: the hubbub and excitement of Christmas Eve, with its scary visitor, fierce mouse army, and sibling spat, in the first act; the sheer pleasure, as the parade of divertissements rolls out in the second act, of opening all the gifts on Christmas morning. The ballet may be Russian and German in origin, but it’s also the height of Victoriana at a time of year when Victoria still rules. And if its story is less dark and enthralling than E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the ballet more than compensates with its music, dancing, and visual spectacle: I still miss Campbell Baird’s exquisite designs, based on Fabergé eggs, that Oregon Ballet Theatre used for several years in the James Canfield days.

The writer Lauren Kessler has long felt the enchantment, and unlike most of us, she did something about it. Kessler, long past ordinary ballet age, decided she wanted to perform in The Nutcracker, and so she cold-called Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, looking for a chance to audition. As Angie Jabine notes for ArtsWatch in her fascinating review of Kessler’s book Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest To Dance The Nutcracker, Pimble said “sure” (or words to that effect), and Kessler set out to pursue her dream. Oh: and to write her book.

That meant, partly, getting her middle-aged body in shape. As Jabine writes: “Like Rocky Balboa in a leotard, she trained. All her previous weight lifting and track running and bicycle spinning had given her strength and endurance but had also shortened her hamstrings and bulked up her muscles. Now she would need to stretch out those hamstrings, develop her leg extension, and totally redefine her carriage. In early spring of 2014, she plunged into yoga, Pilates, water-jogging, and a machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics—along with ballet classes, of course. All this, she notes, was just ‘prep for the prep for the real work.’”

In The Nutcracker, miracles happen. And so, gentle reader, Kessler did go on stage, as Clara’s Aunt Rose, last year and this year, too. And that, as both Kessler and Jabine tell it, is a pretty good story. Meanwhile, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s own Nutcracker, the George Balanchine version, continues through Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. You could watch the Christmas tree grow.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

*

A couple of weeks ago the celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma was in town for a solo gig at the Schnitz sponsored by the Oregon Symphony. And there, before curtain time, he ran into a group of young musicians called the MYSfits – that “MYS” stands for Metropolitan Youth Symphony – who were providing a little pre-show music from the second-floor landing. The kids didn’t have tickets for the show (they were scarce, and expensive), but the chance to play at the Schnitz before a major concert was too good to pass up. And then an older fellow showed up and asked if he could sit in for a bit, and then … but don’t let me spoil the story. Read it yourself, as ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell relates it. Something extraordinary, and entirely fitting the season, occurred. You’ll remember this story. You might find yourself retelling it to your friends.

*

Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Lennon and McCartney wrote, and Rachel Tess is taking it a few steps farther: On Monday, she’ll be dancing in the dead of night. At 5:30 in the morning, to be precise, when it’ll still be midwinter dark, on the sidewalks of the still-sleeping city, outside 1210 Northwest 10th Avenue in Portland. She and choreographer Peter Mills will collaborate on RACHEL, a performance for the dead of night, which will keep its audience out-of-doors for up to an hour, so bundle up. Reservations are required; make them by emailing rtess@rachelvtess.org. And set your alarm.

*

Also on Monday, at a likely more conducive hour (10 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon) the Portland Art Museum will be open. The museum is open most days, of course, but it’s almost always closed Mondays, so this is something special. If you still want to walk off Christmas dinner and you don’t want to join the mob at the new Star Wars movie, this is an excellent dish to add to your plate. No need to set your alarm.


ArtsWatch links

 

The Mousai review: the importance of now. Ah, that’s more like it, Tristan Bliss writes: a concert made up entirely of work by contemporary composers, “the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now.”

The Moth: close to the flame. “The only thing missing was a campfire; and maybe some animal on a spit; otherwise, we were at home with our ancestors,” Christa Morletti McIntyre wrote about the celebrated storytelling program’s recent visit to Portland.

 


 

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The Snow Queen Cometh: Lauren Kessler’s ‘Raising the Barre’

Eugene writer Lauren Kessler braves the hazards of ballet and 'The Nutcracker' in her new book

By ANGIE JABINE

Once upon a December, back when my daughter was still a baby, I offered to take my daycare provider’s seven-year-old daughter to see the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. She had never been to the Keller (then Civic) Auditorium. I’m not sure she had ever been downtown. She wore a summer party dress over her acrylic knee socks and scuffed sneakers, and she was more nervous than excited, like this excursion might be some sort of punishment. Her agitation came to a head as the Waltz of the Snowflakes began. All that fake snow trickling down on all those twirling ballerinas had a predictable effect on her bladder, and the peak of the pirouetting found the two of us jostling past a long row of annoyed balletomanes.

Raising the Barre book coverThe point of this little anecdote is not that no good deed goes unpunished, but simply to illustrate one of the things Eugene author Lauren Kessler learned on her Nutcracker odyssey: everyone has a Nutcracker story. Somewhere along the way, the Nutcracker has become the most-performed ballet in the world. It helps fill the coffers of ballet companies every year. For instance, it accounts for 44% of the Eugene Ballet Company’s annual earned income, and that’s a pretty typical number. And for most people, The Nutcracker is the only ballet they will ever see.

For Kessler, it’s most likely the only ballet in which she will ever perform. Her new book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker (Da Capo Press), is a record of her audacious and frequently hilarious mission, which culminates in her dancing the part of Clara’s Maiden Aunt Rose. Sure, it’s not the Sugar Plum Fairy. The part doesn’t even call for dancing sur les pointes. But still—it’s The Nutcracker!

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Dance Weekly: We’ve got ‘Nutcrackers’!

Yes, it's 'Nutcracker' season again, and there are lots of other dance shows, too

Winter is fast approaching and the holiday season is upon us and with that comes The Nutcracker, whether you like it or not.

When I was little I owned a Nutcracker record that was conducted by Ernest Ansermet with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande recorded in 1959 with an awkward looking 60’s ballet couple on the cover, drowning in a sea of larger than life sweets, and a huge, scary Nutcracker prince looming over them. I played my beloved record over and over and over again to the chagrin of my poor parents-it was the background music of my early childhood-for all of the tea parties, the dressing up and the impromptu Isadora like dance performances I gave often to my parents. I wasn’t a ballet student and I didn’t actually see a Nutcracker performance until I was much older, but the music was so colorful and magical that it ignited my imagination and gave me inspiration for years.

For award-winning Eugene author Lauren Kessler, The Nutcracker had a similar allure. 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.

This week’s holiday performances

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