I grew up watching Lucky and Penny spin about the dance floor. I knew their every line, and, more importantly, their every move, and their every move’s lines. Studied on a Beta video and later a VHS, their moving forms were so familiar to me. And perhaps through my repeated viewings I’d hoped for some sort of talent transference through the screen to me lying in Cobra on the floor, my chin resting in my hands. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett and Penelope ‘Penny’ Carrol, in George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), were my idols in Primary School. They were natural and joyous to watch when they danced, and it was for the dance that I watched Swing Time.
They knew how to move and glide, and were utterly in tune with the other. Their mutual delight drew me in. They danced for the audience, and for each other, and at the end of each number they appeared to share a look of mutual respect that was outside of their characters, a sort of private yet public ‘thank-you for the dance; you were great.’ Thanks to Astaire’s insistence that all dance pieces should be filmed in as close to a single take as possible, with the whole of the figure visible, the effect now, as was then, is just like watching a live performance. The figure uninterrupted is free to tell its truth. Jean-Luc Godard would later echo this unbroken line sentiment in his films: “the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.”
Watching Swing Time, or indeed any Fred and Ginger film, it feels entirely plausible that dance numbers should spontaneously spark into being. That’s how people communicate. It all makes sense. All you need is a body, and we’ve all one of those. Though some, why, some can move with grace and rhythm as they speak their truth. As Martha Graham advised (and we’d all do well to adhere to): “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action [when you dance/make/do], and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
And so, as I sit now before the keyboard looking back over what I have seen this year, the pieces I recall are those that conveyed honesty and “an energy.” Unfeigned, full-hearted, call it what you will. With my eye, Godard’s camera, my life coach, Graham, and the effortless hover and charm of Lucky and Penny only in dream, let’s look back at 2016.
Vaslav Nijinsky could hover in the air, such was his art; such was genius.
His name is synonymous with movement, yet no moving footage exists of him performing. The images of fashion photographer Adolph de Meyer are perhaps all the crueller and more static for this. We can only imagine how Nijinsky slithered, leaped, flitted, and prowled.
We have words and pictures. Luminous pictures by no less than Jean Cocteau, Léon Bakst, and Oskar Kokoschka; and the plaster and bronze works of Georg Kolbe and Auguste Rodin; all seeking to harness the ephemeral and in turn activate, in a different medium, a little of the energetic burst that was Nijinsky. Written accounts from history, Nijinsky’s own diary (published in 1936 and partly censored by his wife, Romola), and the treasured pieces of memorabilia in collections both public and private can help animate his form, but it will never quite be like sitting in the theatre, seeing him become the Golden Slave in Scheherazade. Such was and remains, the allure of Nijinsky.
"There are no days more full in childhood than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book. I remember waking out of one such book beside the sewing-machine beneath the window on the river in the barrack living room to find my sisters all around me. They had unlaced and removed one of my shoes and placed a straw hat on my head. Only when they began to move the wooden chair on which I sat away from the window light did I wake out of the book, to their great merriment.”
This “strange and complete happiness when all sense of time is lost, of looking up from the pages and thinking it is still nine or ten in the morning, to discover it is well past lunchtime” author John McGahern describes mirrors my own “pure, unfathomable joy" when adrift within a ballet performance. For my pleasure’s own sake, it feels, the structure of time is turned on its head. A close solidarity is formed in the theatre and my affection grows with each visit. I have, in the space of a very short time (but, time, what is that?) become a balletomane (though what to do with that clunky ‘t’?). A devotee of ballet, it requires less self-discipline than a dancer, and all of the gratification.
Opening on Tuesday the 15th of September, an exhibition of modified French cuffs, including our unique state artists' book, Beneath my suit, I am..., at Lord Coconut.
Art of the Cuff
As part of Melbourne Fringe Festival, 2015
Wednesday 16th of September – Saturday 3rd of October
Level 4 Carlow House
289 Flinders Lane, Melbourne