Gelsey

A dear friend, dancer, choreographer and teacher, Robert Garland, recently shared a video of the renowned ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland, on my Facebook page. Seeing her again led me down a rabbit hole of memory that I thought might be better served as a blog post.

Unfortunately, I only ever saw Gelsey perform on video but even the force of her two dimensional image was enough to change the way I thought about dance. The first time I saw her was in fact in Robert’s apartment. We watched her perform in Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker.” This was back in the days of VCRs and I repeatedly asked him to tediously rewind to her Sugarplum solo so I could etch it in my memory forever.

Among other things, I was amazed at her pointe work. It wasn’t simply that she had the sort of beautiful, high arches that dancers crave. It was in how she used her feet. They were like sensuous tongues lapping the floor in a kind of prayerful reverence with each step.

During my own training, the only note I got at my yearly evaluations was that I had to work on my feet. After seeing Gelsey that first time, I suddenly knew that the feet could become as expressive as hands, as eyes. While practicing, I would sometimes imagine that eyes were at the soles of my feet, seeing, expressing and being seen. Arthur Mitchell, my director at Dance Theatre of Harlem offered rare praise at my transformation.

Around that time, I could often be found studying Gelsey’s videos at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. This reminds me of something Robert used to say: “People often mistakenly assume that dance is not a studied art form.” Well, I can assure you that it is. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time watching dance if you want to dance well. I learned as much from watching great dancers as I did from teachers and I watched them in class, rehearsal and performance.

In Gelsey I witnessed a pure vessel. By that I don’t mean that she was a pure human being. Her struggles with anorexia and drug addiction are well known. By a pure vessel I mean that when she danced, she was in complete service to the art form and to the Spirit that danced her. As such, she elevated ballet to such an extent that nowadays I am often grieved to see it reduced to a kind of soft porn by certain contortionist ballerinas.

For all the Spirit that shone through Gelsey’s dancing, she seemed to have an intellectual center. She was analytical when it came to her work and she needed to understand every moment. It is useless to tell someone with an intellectual center, “Don’t think. Just do,” as choreographer, George Balanchine, once make the mistake of saying. I wonder if one of the reasons Gelsey had to leave the New York City Ballet is because she needed room to be smart!

I do not mean to imply that City Ballet dancers are not smart. All dancers at that level have a kind of genius. I just mean that Balanchine seemed to prefer his women a certain way: young, anorexic and worshipful. Gelsey needed to find a way to worship her own substantial genius.

It is regrettable that after leaving New York City Ballet, that genius was overshadowed yet again by another male, namely Baryshnikov. That would drive anyone over the edge. Nevertheless, Gelsey bestowed her gift to so many, including me, and I don’t think I could thank her enough for all she gave and at such cost.

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A Letter to my Husband

Dedicated to all my Sisters who are married to white men

Baby. Hi. Please hear me on something. If I describe an issue as racial, please hear me openly before you judge. Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: To white people, I am black. To black people, I am light-skinned. And to Latino people, I am flaca. Whereas, to everyone, you are always white.

Consider, intellectually, how complicated that is. Consider how emotionally complicated. How Spiritually and Physically complicated. How historically complicated. How can I reconcile all these voices, all these Ancestors? That is something I have to answer moment-to-moment in order to maintain equilibrium.

Anyway, put yourself in my shoes. And don’t worry, I’ve been putting myself into your shoes since I was a kid and saw Captain Kirk for the first time. You cannot argue with Capt. Kirk, unless you are Spock. I was like, “Damn. I want my own ship…,” and further damn, I want to be Wise.

Get it? There were no black Captain Kirks. No black Spocks. I could not even DREAM without going outside the box. That’s a lot to ask of a child.

If you feel defensive towards my words, then please, just be with that. Be with your defensiveness. What is it you want to defend? If you do all these things, and you still think I’m overreacting, I will accept some truth around Tai-needing-to tone-herself-down. Tai is being dramatic.

I prefer to think of myself as wild. There has always been that in me: a place that will not be tamed, like the forest of trees on my head. I am in the business of reclaiming my power. I am off-key a lot. I am exploring this voice inside me that wants to talk, to wail, to sing her names into the seven winds. I want to be heard. I want justice. I want equality. I want America to come together unlike ever before in the butchery we call expansion. And I know you do too.

So, for example, yesterday, two twenty-something white women rang my front doorbell. They started talking at me with a kind of hidden violence, meant to disarm me. The thing they were trying to sell, in this case, was one of those third-party energy scam policies that are rampant in Roxbury right now. So first of all, I was annoyed by the unscrupulousness of the scam itself. Then I felt irate at the people who took advantage of these young women and finally, I felt mad at the women themselves, for participating in the greed at my expense. They flaunted these terrifying masks of invulnerability.

It was like a bad dream.


Broken, full of dreams

“Summary: First performed by American Ballet Theater on April 22 1948, Fall River Legend is the story of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts spinster who was tried for the ax-murder of her father and stepmother. Although Lizzie was actually acquitted, in the ballet she is convicted and hanged. De Mille creates a portrait of a shy, sensitive but receptive girl, turned into a murderess by her father’s psychological abandonment in favor of his second wife, a sour, jealous, manipulative woman who frustrates Lizzie’s budding romance with her minister. Gothic in tone and deeply perceptive in its depiction of the consequences of love thwarted, Fall River Legend reveals a truth deeper than reality.” From http://agnesdemilledances.com

Fall River Legend is one of my favorite ballets. The masterful choreography by Agnes de Mille was matched by an epic score by Morton Gould. Fall River did the thing that art can do at its best: be a vehicle for feeling. Fall River articulated the hush of hidden things, longings, humiliation, humor, frailty, the dream of the mother.

And those goddamn consecutive pirouettes, from fourth-to-fourth, that changed direction. Fall forward! Put on the brakes!

For me, Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem, defined the role of Lizzie Borden. Of course, she managed to make those damn turns look easy, as one skipping into the throes of first love. Those turns…not perfect, never perfect, but so fully alive. Virginia spoke to us in how she picked up the axe. Picked it up and hid it in her skirt. The horror of realization. The chill up the spine.

How does one make sense of the need for sexual love in a world like Lizzie’s, that is, 19th century religious New England? How does one meet that need within when something about you doesn’t meet the society’s standards of worthiness in that area? How does a spinster feel good about her need for sexuality, when, at least externally, she has been stripped of it? How could Lizzie love herself when love was not reflected to her? How do you see past the reflection, or without a reflection? These were some of the underlying issues that Lizzie faced. I was fifteen the first time I saw Fall River, hardly a spinster, but for different reasons, outcast. As such, I was also desperate to make sense of those questions.

Lizzie falls in love with the pastor, and in doing so, reveals herself to be more than her pain. She is a sexual being. For this, she is punished by others for reflecting what they had denied in her and denied in themselves, through her, which was of course, her beauty. Her beauty, unique in this world. Her beauty, broken, but still full of dreams. Just like all of us. (Blade Runner 2049 airhorns!).

Where was I? Lizzie was punished by the preacher, whom she felt betrayed her. She was punished by her jealous mother-in-law. Lizzie was punished by her father’s indifference. And it doesn’t end there: she was punished by a community that tried to console, but lacked the togetherness of spirit and rituals that give a warm coat to the cold night of grief.

Lizzie kills her father and step-mother. Please, understand, I am not advocating killing anyone, but why is it, that when men kill the bad guy, they are seen as heros, but when women kill the bad guy, they are labeled, shunned, imprisoned, burnt at the stake?

The towns-peoples’ rejection of Lizzie is a rejection of themselves. They are unwilling to look at their own failure in the matter, or to even recognize that they have a responsibility towards Lizzie, and so they chose Lizzie as a scapegoat. In other words, they choose to reinforce an idea of separation between themselves and the “other.” That’s how we hate. Lizzie had no one. Her tragedy points us in the direction of love.

I could not have articulated all of that upon my first viewing of the ballet in 1985 at age 15, but I could feel the mystery that it stirred within me. That first experience of Fall River was one of the few examples I remember then, of seeing a complicated, thoughtful woman character, through the medium of art, that looked like me, inside and out. For the first time, I saw myself onstage, especially through Lizzie, but also through the predominantly black community portrayed by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s version, dealing with issues about being human in the way that only stories can.

If you’re not in the story, you’re not fully in the collective consciousness. So art, and in this case, Fall River danced by Dance Theatre of Harlem, put me in my own narrative. Dig that.


July 4th, 2018

Firecrackers so close
a gun to the ear of every teacher,
our poor and unprotected.
I want to run inside
the house I blessed just yesterday with Carmen and Coco.
WHERE’S MY BABY
Hey America!
Remember your Sleeping Beauty?
The power you betray
will come back and curse you.
Only love will awaken, but
who wants that, right?
And still, with Donald Trump,
we suffer your guilt
on top of it all.
Enjoy those hotdogs.


Coffee-Cigarettes-Snacks-Soda-Lottery-ATM

Your 24-houred openness pulses
artificial light like an oasis
in the New York night.

Boston has many beautiful things:
rowing clubs, turkeys strolling the esplanade
and artisanal donuts,
but I miss you, New York bodega,
your consistent comfort
of coffee, regular, in paper cups.

Remember that time my bougie boyfriend came to Harlem?
We went to a big bodega up by 145th.
He said excitedly,
like an anthropologist in the throes of discovery,
“They even use their own money up here!”
I said, “Nigga, those are food stamps. How you livin’?”

He broke up with me and moved to Oregon
to design sneakers.

Bodega, mecca of American cheese sandwiches,
you taste the same all these boyfriends later.

Can I get some Raw pre-rolls,
a strawberry condom
and some evaporated milk?


Ant-Bird

Number, where been, ask her.
His what. There any all?
Three, and give not an out.
How tell food for two when want?

Have follow us know:
make like in you.
Do show it, woman,
and who work before read?

Get day, great people!

Me, my, with water too
but went large and it way will.
To am, the of of this,
this or think him put of mother.
Father, friend up could are.
Come on, Ant Bird.
Yes, by they about a big? He.
And it way will city went as mother.
Their learn of uncle story were this:
are One, every she.


Ether and Ore

Dedicated to my grandmother, Tilly Mendez, who instilled in me a love of science fiction.

In “The Last Jedi” she did see
herself stretched to infinity
and turning, seeking answers, found,
in her dismay she was to drown.
Disappointment turned into fright.
Her parents were nowhere in sight.
On herself only must depend
through space and time without an end.

She wanted him. He wanted her
to colonize into his dream.
She wanted him to come away
from the darknesses’ demonings.

Admiral Holdo does divide
the darkness from the winning side
and drives with light to wedge between
defending her rebellious Queen.

Just then the sabor split in half.
Balance resumed to blow the mast.
Our heroine did exit quick.
On her his dreams he failed to stick.
For she does know the hidden gem
found inside her heart’s diadem:
To her own self she must be true
or suffer the rebuke of two.

Luke Skywalker bestows his gift
then disappears into the mist
to Yoda and all masters past.
He sits among the Saints at last.


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