Since the election last year a number of lists on how to survive the Trump presidency have been making the rounds on social media. At least one of them had “support art and artists” as one of their recommendations. Without really thinking much about it, I accepted this as a reasonable suggestion. Artists and art-related organizations stand to lose funding if the new administration gets its way, from the NEA on down. Private citizens are going to have to try to make up the difference to protect artists and their work. Also, art in all its forms is a way to escape, to be distracted from the problems and crises that surround us. It’s a relief from the relentless bad news, hatefulness, and arguing that seems to constitute public discourse these days for all of us.
In January of this year I developed a tremendous need to go to the ballet, which kind of surprised me. I hadn’t been in many years, and all of a sudden I had to go. Not to just any ballet either. It had to be the San Francisco Ballet, at the War Memorial Opera House, and it had to be a full length ballet. And, there had to be dinner before or afterwards.
This was also in part a nostalgia based desire. Going to the SF Ballet was part of my childhood and young adulthood. Mom took me to see The Nutcracker and Cinderella when I was little. When my brother and I lived in Berkeley in the 1980s, we went every year, mostly when the American Ballet Theater was in town. That was the heyday of ABT, and we were thrilled to see Baryshnikov in Apollo and Martine Van Hamel in Swan Lake. We’d always go to dinner as well, usually at the Ivy, but sometimes to the Hayes Street Grill… No doubt part of this sudden yearning was a desire to recapture a simpler past.
In any event, I contact my partner in adventure, Eleanore, and asked if she wanted to join me. She said yes, as she so often does, which is something I really appreciate about her. We decided on a matinee of Frankenstein, which is a new work by choreographer Liam Scarlett and was having its West Coast premiere. It is a retelling of the classic novel by Mary Shelley, and described in the program as “a meditation on what it means to be human” and “emotionally intense.” I could hardly wait for the day to arrive.
It was a perfect San Francisco Sunday – sunny and cool and clear, not too crowded. The opera house was just as I remembered it, with the wide marble stairways, the pinkish floor tiles in the basement, the green bathrooms. The huge chandelier hanging from the gray-blue ceiling was the same, as were the red chairs and walkways, and the gold stage. The biggest difference I noticed was that now you can take drinks to your seat.
The music came up and the dancing began, and I floated away. It was almost like being in a fugue state caused by the music, the colors of the costumes, and the patterns made by the dancers. I lost track of time, and three hours sped by.
It was a dramatic ballet, with fireworks and lightning and violence and death, and yet afterwards I felt exhilarated. The feeling persisted through an unusual dinner at a nearby Scandinavian restaurant and still persists almost a month later.
Was it just escapism, or the novelty of something different that lifted my spirits? Yes, but it was also something more, something that is really the essence and meaning of art. It is the knowledge, and the reminder, that human beings are capable of creating great beauty, and great beauty that is also meaningful to us.
We are not only about ugliness and hate and racism and anger, not only about despair and fear and hopelessness. We are also about creativity, rhythm, balance, movement, color, harmony, light, precision, and grace. Art is an expression of our highest self, and I really, really needed to see that.