I always knew that art mattered. I just didn’t know that it could change your life. But the arts are all around us nowadays, and maybe we are more artistically literate than we were centuries ago, though maybe not as appreciative.
In elementary school we had those music appreciation classes where we played plastic recorder, the tune probably being “Hot Cross Buns” because anything beyond three notes was approaching symphonic difficulty level, and in middle school we probably took a few field trips to the modern art museum and talked about why it was important that some artist could just paint a square of solid color and hang it on the wall—any one of you could be an artist too!—and then in high school there were the school drama productions, maybe a few more concerts, and even an artistic breakthrough in realizing that the things you loved on the fringe, like bands and fashion and computers, well, even those could be art too.
Like I said, Americans are well aware of art. There’s an advertisement Pointe magazine runs every so often that says something to the effect of “most people think that Martha Graham was a type of snack cracker,” and it’s meant to illustrate the profound dance illiteracy of the population. Sure, it may be true that a random sample of the population couldn’t even identify what style of dance Martha contributed to. But then again, many dancers couldn’t even name one of her choreographic pieces.
That doesn’t mean we’re oblivious, just that we’re aware of different kinds of art at the moment, like the latest contemporary routine (I apologize right now to those who cringe at the word “routine”) on So You Think You Can Dance, or what kind of sociopolitical statement Lady GaGa is making with her latest outfit. That’s still valid artistic commentary.
Can art move you emotionally for some period of time, or can it even cause a semi-permanent alteration in your thought and behavior? Should these be the artist’s intents from the outset? I believe that the former should be a tertiary goal of the artist, and the latter is completely incidental. Art should, in fact, stem from the basic urge to create.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the eminent English writer and scholar, calls man a “sub-creator,” someone who takes joy in creating because he is molded in the image of God, the ultimate Creator. Thus creation comes first, and purpose follows. Effect is just a strange, subtle byproduct, something like a pair of socks that show up in your suitcase and either end up being extremely useful or superfluous. Effect happens.
Anyway, up until I was 14, I thought art was just another pronunciation of “enjoyable, but boring.” There was some classical music I listened to; I liked it, but not terribly so. There were some good songs and that was it. I had been studying ballet for several years, but when my family went to Washington D.C. and visited Wolf Trap Amphitheater, I fell asleep during a production of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Firebird. I’m serious. Out there on the grass, around 10 PM, I woke up just in time to see a lavishly-dressed prince hitting a bright greenish egg—talk about confused. I liked to dance ballet, but I just didn’t love ballet, the art form, yet.
However, in 2004, my parents received tickets to see a dress rehearsal for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Serenade/Carmina Burana program, Serenade being the abstract Balanchine masterpiece, and Carmina Burana being a Kent Stowell ballet that was one of the most popular in the repertoire. They came back from the rehearsal with mixed reviews: amazing, neat, a little strange, the costumes are flesh-toned. I had tickets to the ballet later in the week.
It is hard to explain exactly what Carmina Burana is, even in a bare-bones, factual description. The music is by the 20th-century German composer Carl Orff, whose main claim to fame is this piece, based on bawdy poems that Orff uncovered in a monastery and other medieval remnants. (Carmina = song, and Burana = of Buren). The work is about an hour in length, with three distinct sections, and is filled with insistent melodies, timpanis and flutes. The piece ends the same way it begins, with a huge choral ensemble proclaiming, “O Fortuna,” since all text is in Latin and deals with sex, food, fortune, etc.
The ballet is in three sections as well. The choir stands on risers suspended above the stage; they are dressed in hooded black robes. A gigantic golden wheel (weighing 2,450 pounds, according to pnb.org) hangs over the stage, and several metal poles turn the dancing space into more of a room than a plain. Lighting is alternately moody, dappled golds and russets, and brighter aqua and cream. Costumes? Clearly renaissance-inspired, but not strictly so. Peasant shirts. Peach-colored dresses. A gyspy-like Siren costume. Flesh-colored unitards.
These factors combined in performance to create something that, quite honestly, left a deep mark on my memory. I couldn’t move throughout the entire spectacle. I think “spellbound” would be an understatement. Transfixed, yes. Transported, definitely. As I walked out of the theatre, all I could say was “Wow. Wow wow wow.” That’s what I said all the way home, and said in my journal.
On the car ride back I also grabbed a piece of paper and pen and scribbled down various rhyming lines to describe what I’d seen, and on a side note, I think that was also one of the pivotal moments that made me decide I was a writer. I had to find some way of expressing how what I’d just witnessed onstage from the PNB company had affected me, and the beauty of the situation was that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write one thing and be done with it.
Over the years I tried to figure out why Carmina Burana was so, well, amazing. Maybe it was the Latin text, since Latin was the so-called greatest language. Or maybe it was the performance quality of the dancers. Maybe it was the contrast of its raw, primeval energy with Serenade’s refined grace. Maybe it was a deeper meaning, a spiritual struggle of sorts between good and evil. I wrote and wrote and wrote and bought the music and couldn’t get it out of my head.
It had echoes of Adam and Eve, parallels to Lord of the Flies. I really think that it comes close to Richard Wagner’s ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, or a total theatrical experience, where the music, setting, and physical action are so overpowering that you are no longer in your own sphere but inside the artist’s creation.
I saw the ballet again when I was 17. The effect was the same: Wow. Wow wow wow and double wow and triple wow. And that’s when I found out that art can change you. You can step away from it, but it steps with you. I think that Carmina Burana, or at least that performance, was what made me decide to keep on dancing even when ballet got harder than I ever thought it would, because I saw that ballet was more than steps and I wanted to be a part of it. To be a character in a corps; to offer a feeble bit of light in darkness.
And now, I’m still dancing, still trying to understand, and that is what is so wonderful about art. Art defies definition, cuts past sensibilities, and with gravest determination seats itself in your head like a guest who has shown up early for dinner: unexpected, irreplaceable, and charmingly enigmatic. The dialogue can change you.