by Dean Speer
Lauren Kessler’s Raising the Barre hitting the bookshelves coincides with 2015’s Nutcracker season. It was a read that I was eager to get to and one that I equally devoured over a few, short days. Kessler left ballet training at age 12 after overhearing what was probably well-intended advice to her mother from her ballet teacher. [Smart teachers of today never or rarely out loud predict whether a young student can make it as a dancer or not. I only do so when directly asked, and even then try not to discourage but to encourage potential, as that’s our job and mission as teachers. Students are smart, too, and many figure out and find for themselves, hopefully with sage advice and nurturing, their best path and fit. One truism remains – there are far too many beautifully trained and talented dancers out there for the number of jobs available.]
Fast forward some decades, a writing career, family, and life-changes later. Kessler approaches Eugene Ballet Artistic Director, Toni Pimble, about the possibility of dancing in their production of Nutcracker. Toni says, “Yes,” and so begins Kessler’s nearly year-long mission to whip herself into shape as much as possible for the role of Maiden Aunt Rose.
Kessler’s self-deprecating style is both humorous and poignant as she struggles with re-learning the ballet vocabulary, her sometimes uncooperative body, self-doubts about body image, and confidence. She also finds much along the journey that was revelatory. For example, she discovered how hard dancers work on a daily basis to make everything they do appear effortless on stage. How props, scenery, costumes, and crew all come together with the dance to create the magic of the theatre. How to put on stage makeup, how not beat herself up when mistakes are made, and wonderfully, how for a few of the dozen or so performances she was actually in, she either “nailed-it!’ and/or found herself in the moment being inside the character and finding she could be lifted, nimble on her feet, and express the joy of the dance. Kessler also learned what a great and supportive community dance is – how we all help each other, giving tips, advice, and encouragement, and how we pull together for a common goal.
Enjoyable was how Kessler traced her entry back into ballet class – through trial-and-error, finding the right beginning level adult classes, Pilates, Barre3, Yoga, coaching by teachers, ballet masters, and taking the Company Class itself [one of the requirements of being in the production], although taking “barre” and not much, if any of the center work. Even her stories about shopping for dancewear and makeup were a riot and very entertaining.
I loved Kessler’s story about the difficulties of concentrating on feet, legs, arms, head, and where to look and focus. Music – being on the beat – initially sandbagged her. When trying to work on making her port de bras better, she’d lose traction elsewhere. It’s hard for us to realize sometimes that we were all beginners at one point and the process of being trained in classical ballet takes about 10 years.
Kessler is observant, savvy, and often expresses what a lot of us have either thought, experienced, or felt. Even after taking what’s probably now thousands of ballet and dance classes myself and teaching probably just as many, there is still that nagging feeling and thought of sheer terror regarding the possibility of failure. Or, as she said a couple of times, afraid of “looking like a cow on ice.” This risk-taking is a component of the creative process and of the performing arts in general and is something we all have to grapple with, regardless of talent and training. Hopefully, one achieves more and more confidence, as she did, over time and we find that it’s not an overnight process. As a teacher, I know I’m happy and proud and praise the adult beginners who sometimes seem to struggle, only to find that in a couple of years, they execute and hardly even need to think about things that may have been beyond them earlier.
Another very enjoyable aspect of her book is using her hometown professional ballet company – Eugene Ballet – as the backdrop to tell her tale. I like the local aspect, as opposed to the bigger ballet companies getting all the glory, so to speak, but also from a personal and professional perspective. A couple of years after I moved back to Seattle in 1989, I auditioned to be the ballet master for Eugene Ballet and Toni and company manager Riley [Grannan] greeted and treated me so well, as did the company whose class I taught. While I didn’t get the job, I’ve been a big supporter of theirs ever since and have traveled, when possible, to see this handsome company perform or interview the dancers. These pieces have appeared in these pages and were re-printed in my last book, All Steps Considered. Former principal dancer and now ballet mistress, Jennifer Martin’s work with Kessler, as well as the many others of the village team, are depicted with clarity and immediacy. Kessler is also delighted with the headpiece Martin designs especially for her.
My only squawk about the book is that I wish they had employed a ballet-knowledgeable proofreader. There is one howler – at the top of chapter 5, page 49 – “Balanchine’s American Ballet Theatre” – which should have been, of course, “Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.” This one really made me twitch. While Kessler is careful and good about getting names of ballet steps spelled correctly, she managed to co-mingle the names of Canada’s top two companies into one, but got it correct later when referring to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I’m also not sure that the plural of “port de bras” is “ports de bras.”
I also wish, as I loved them so much, that she’d included more extended stories from the actual performances. These experiences are part of the pay-off for both her and her readers, and so I wanted to revel and be with her in those moments even more. Included were accurate descriptions of the logistics of touring – bus “rules,” eating and finding meals, adjusting to various venues both big and small, audiences [apparently, those in Sandpoint, Idaho are particularly fanatic and fantastic], and enjoying the rewards of glamour, such as having pictures taking in lobbies with young fans and witnessing her own family be very impressed and proud.
Kessler and Eugene Ballet can be proud of her journey and its triumph. Not bad for a Maiden Aunt Rose’s Gallop and Grandfather’s Dance. I only would encourage and hope that after all this, Kessler is open to the idea and possibility of future repeat performances. I know I’d love to see her dance!