Full-bosomed rhododendrons sashay around my mountain yard in a lusty evening breeze. I enjoy their dance from my high deck. Dogwood petals dropped like snow in the last storm, but catalpas in full leaf promise heavy clusters of blooms to come. And I know the tough old crepe will crimp my heart with beauty yet again in six or seven weeks. Birds are everywhere. Hungry cacophony crams the air; a cardinal red as a Camaro poses against a flared purple flower.
Mother’s Day 2003. I am finally home alone. The Asheville Ballet’s last performance of the season, “Giselle,” is over, and the costumes and sets are put away for another season and another story. The last child has called long-distance to say she loves me. I have spoken long-distance with my own mother to tell her I love her.
The sense of isolation, solitude, exhaustion and irrelevance in the midst of all this crowded, busy, oblivious nature is overwhelming. I wonder, why do I do it? Why do I make children and ballets? In 51 years (I started performing when I was 5), “Giselle” is the first ballet that my mother didn’t attend, and the first in decades in which none of my own children took part — a sadness. But I did it anyway and will do it again next year with “Nutcracker” and “Don Quixote.” Why?
Making a ballet is like giving birth to and raising a child. The process begins with falling in love — with a dream, the dream of a dance. At first, the dream dance is bathed in a golden glow. It is the perfect dance, the dance one was always meant to make, the dance one must have.
As with any romance, the initial attraction — compulsion, really — is frought with questions. What will be the cost, emotionally and financially? How will it come out? Will it be worth existing in this world? Will it work? But once the commitment is made, it’s as if choreographer and dance entered into a pact, a sort of mystical union of dreamer and dream. Together they move from the realm of the imagination into the very tangible world of the studio.
Here, in empty space, the crafting begins. The choreographer must nurture and deliver the dance with which she’s pregnant. There are variables; actual physical dancers are real human beings with different shapes, abilities, personalities and limitations on their availability. The time that might be spent on fashioning the dance gets eaten up by other matters: costumes, sets, advertising, fund raising, making a living, doing laundry. The space is limited. The choreography work in the studio is a long gestation period filled with the discomforts of compromise and the joys of expectation.
Finally the dance is made — it is born. Every infant dance comes into the world within the private chambers of a studio, witnessed only by those whose love and skill gave it form. And it never resembles the golden dream dance of the imagination: It is always far, far more lovely.
Then the real work begins — rehearsals — nurturing the infant dance until it becomes a mature piece of art, capable of making a good impact on the people it touches. As with raising children, there are exquisitely beautiful moments that the general public will never see. Sometimes funny moments rock the studio with laughter. Sometimes the work gets so frustrating everyone must take a break. These are the intimate times that will be remembered most, when everything is over, by the choreographer, dancers, costume and set designers, volunteers — and everyone will have a different story to tell.
A dance is never finished, any more than a child is — never ready. But somehow it comes to the point when it must go out on stage alone and survive the glare of the public spotlight. This is the moment when mother/choreographer must let go and trust that everything possible has been done to help it be a good dance — one that gives something important to others, that moves others with its beauty and ideas, that is worth existing.
I like to sit in the audience rather than be backstage fussing. Seated among the people watching, I get a sense of the dance that each of these imaginations is creating in his or her own mind, based on the dance I thought I made. I can feel the relationship my grown-up child has with every audience member. As a member of a community, I can be stirred in a whole new way by my dance. We sit shoulder to shoulder in the dark, being moved separately together.
People don’t make children or dances in a vacuum. Since 1980, I have raised five children and innumerable dances here in Asheville. And like every other concerned citizen, I — along with the professionals associated with Asheville Ballet — have volunteered in the public schools, paid property taxes, voted, served on nonprofit boards, followed local issues in the paper, sponsored Little League teams, advocated for those in need, helped in any way we could whenever called upon, on and on … after all, we are part of this community.
Nor are children and dances made without a historical context. Children are born into the enduring continuum of human evolution. They are a link between the past and future, existing as good and giving citizens in the world community to which they belong. Ballet in Asheville has a long and rich history: beginning with pioneers Alice Weaver and Peggy and Beale Fletcher; continuing with Art Fryar and Linda and Walter Fletcher; and pulled together by me into the strong, thriving Asheville Ballet. But this wonderful company, which could produce “Giselle” in a small mountain city, is not an end product; it is a remarkable link, of which we can be proud, between the past and future. And it too exists as a good and giving “citizen,” serving the community to which it belongs.
So darkness falls on another Mother’s Day, and the curtain falls on another ballet. Dance, like a spring evening in Asheville or like life itself, is transitory. You have to be there to experience it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. But those who were there can still see the colors, hear the birds and music, feel the emotions. So we move from dream to imagination to reality to memory.
Here in the theater of the night, I sit among my fellow citizens — out there in their own homes or on their own decks, dreaming their own dances. Children, seniors, novices, connoisseurs — a wonderful collection of people who need art, whether they know it or not, the way youngsters need good nutrition and education. And now I know why I do it. For them, for my community — the community that gives me so much more than I could ever give them.
The 2003-04 season at our home, Diana Wortham Theatre, begins Sept. 5-6 with the annual Fall Into Dance Festival, showcasing contemporary ballet and modern dance by our six resident professionals and national guests. What would the holidays be without “The Nutcracker,” presented Dec. 11-14? And the season concludes May 7-9 (Mother’s Day) with “Don Quixote,” based on Cervantes’ fantastic novel.
I encourage everyone to support our thriving local company, The Asheville Ballet, so it can continue serving our citizenry for another half-century. And I particularly encourage each of you to make the effort to come meet the terrific dance children we make. I’m biased, of course, but I truly believe they will enrich your lives immeasurably.
[Ann Dunn is the artistic director of The Asheville Ballet, owner of Fletcher School of Dance, has published two volumes of poetry, serves on the Board of the Asheville Area Arts Council, and teaches Medieval and Renaissance history and culture in the Humanities program at UNCA.]