A Serious Poem about Butter

Remember when butter
came wrapped in quarters
with an expiration date
a year and a half,
a full Year and a Half!
from its date of its purchase?

Imagine that–
good butter
from July to the January after next,
and things even more wondrous than that:
water melons at Halloween,
people whose only job it was to deliver couches,
ice cream for dogs
and factories whose only job,
whose only job!
it was to make tiny, tiny, tiny
plastic toys.

Oh, you should have seen the toys!
Rainbows on every surface,
lights so bright you could spend a lifetime
never knowing a star
and music that you could swallow and swallow and swallow,
and never feel full.

Do not cast blame when it comes.
We all ate of that easy butter
like it was nothing.

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Poem of Awakening

Oh Boston!
You are my lost city of sorrow,
lost city of light,
of illuminated minds,
illuminate our hearts.
Calling all cars: hear ye! Hear ye!
You make movies of mobsters
with whom we’ve fallen in love
because we see ourselves in them:
We are the underdogs of life.

Oh Boston,
You teach me to look down
when passersby pass,
to pretend we are invisible,
but I see your hidden heart in parks,
in the corridor of London Planes that line the Charles in witness of
your sad soil, your grit and insistence, armies of wasps,
your tribalism and no-nonsense attitude.

Today I was awakened at the Fort
beneath Rapunzel’s tower,
listening to the Grandmother-wisdom of willows.
I witnessed my own mobster movie of rebellion unfolding
from within.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I never thought I could love you,
your fields of broken glass
where things still grow.
Four years ago
I saw a woodcock
undulating in the shade of the
massive puddingstone of Thwing Street.
Our eyes met for a second and
I thought I saw the gaze of my teacher.
The keys, hidden in plain sight.


Finding Your Voice

“The final statement is not a deliberate one. It is a helpless one.”–John Cage

I’ve always been drawn to visual art. As a child, I poured over my mother’s art books. I had an ability to project myself into a scene, to inhabit its world and to immerse myself into a story. This was during a time when we were not so innundated with images. Art was an entry into the magical parts of my own being. It allowed me to experience emotions that, at that tender age, had yet to be named. I think the way art stimulated my imagination served me as a dancer.

There were two paintings in particular that captured my attention: Rousseau’s “The Dream,” and Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In the first painting, I was drawn to that mysterious woman lying on a couch in the jungle with the tiger lurking in the bushes. It appeared playful, sensual, yet dangerous. It was very exciting to my young mind. I wanted to know what was about to happen. I wanted to be the convergence itself of woman, jungle and tiger.

The Bosch was more complicated. I couldn’t figure out, based on its vision, if the world was a good place or a bad place. It seemed to be both. This terrified and confused me. I stuck with it because I so desperately wanted to understand the nature of things and this painting seemed to hold some kind of truth to my own life.

Both of my husbands are artists. I took a course in art history at City College with a fabulous lady named Cher and have even recently taken a drawing class. That is all to say that I fancy myself as having an informal education in art.

Now, in the art world, from the beginnings of one’s education, the necessity of finding your own voice is emphasized. You can’t go around doing splatter paintings and expect to be taken seriously. Jackson Pollock did it already. You can be inspired by Pollock, but you have to dig deep into the recesses of your own soul and speak from there.

As dancers, however, this search for one’s own voice is rarely emphasized in traditional training. Most dancers, it is assumed, will be interpreters of another’s vision, namely the choreographer. We are trained, rather, to take direction. To listen. To fit into the line and stay there. To match a previously held standard.

This is especially the case with ballet training. I have a naturally rebellious streak and always insisted on doing things my own way. This often got me into trouble until my dear teacher Madame Darvash taught me an invaluable lesson: that it was my job to learn at least one thing from every teacher. So while I grew open to learning, to being smart about the process, to staying in line, I never quite lost my need to say things my way.

As a teacher of ballet, I try to encourage this individual expression. In my attempt to do that, I have to take a moment to apologize to the great ballerina Sylvie Guillem whom I’ve often used as the butt of a joke: I will often quip that her perfection of line and extension ruined it for everybody. But now I look at Sylvie in another light. I’m grateful for her contribution. She has in fact freed us. I’m not saying you should not get your legs up. I’m saying don’t try to be Jackson Pollock. Leave your own mark.


Abject of Beauty

…and the beauty of the leaf was not lost on him.—from Blood Meridian

Little children have a capacity for pure joy because they don’t yet know that everything is fleeting, mortal. They are still reverberating with the pulse of the other world. You can see it on their skin and on their eyelashes, like dew, and in the perfect, clear whites of their eyes.

As we grow, we inevitably come to realize the fact of death, and it forever shadows our experience of joy; true beauty has an element of sadness because we know it will not last.

I wonder if this is the reason why, in our modern culture, we have fabricated a sort of fake, superficial, soulless standard of beauty with our Kim Kardashians, our shopping malls, our manicured lawns, our home theaters and botox parties. It’s an attempt to experience beauty without its aftertaste of loss.

Of course it doesn’t work. But we will keep pretending.

It’s no wonder that art is a constant threat to a culture that cannot grieve.

The latest thing in Boston is that everyone is perpetually in exercise clothes. Customized sneakers and Lulu Lemons have replaced boat shoes and khakis. People are running along the Charles with a possessed gleam in their eyes. I suppose they are slimming down for their Match.com photos. They are polishing their armor with each stride.

I don’t get it. I walk slowly in the midst of things. In the mist. So I don’t miss. Things. The Is-ness that is everywhere. And my footprints become caked with the blood from my bleeding heart while knowing, damn well, it is the nature of a heart to bleed. It means you’re alive.

I look at my little one with awe. She is two. Her beauty has a translucent, shimmery quality. At times it seems that she is made of magic. While watching an episode of surprise eggs on youtube, she said with perfect articulation and fake exasperation, “It’s so boring. I want a cup of tea.”

I felt that familiar twinge between laughter and tears that only the coyote can speak. So, I texted our daughter’s words to my husband but something of the miracle of her budding language buds was lost in the writing of it which was probably for the best. My husband is at work and work is not a place where you can get all verklempt about such things.


Follow-up to the Peter Martins Letter and a Special Offer

get-attachment-1.aspxWell, it wasn’t that deep, actually. SAB sent me an email saying that mine was exactly the kind of feedback the committee was interested in. Did I still want to join? I responded, respectfully, no, but please feel free to contact me with any questions, etc.

As to the issue I presented, of me teaching at SAB, that was just a ruse. I could never teach there. My approach to teaching ballet is too different from theirs. They want to create dancers. I want to create an ecstatic moment of dancing. They teach one to master a certain style and technique. I teach dance as a tool for self-mastery. They teach people how to squeeze themselves into a certain look. I teach people how to love themselves as they are and to dance from there. They promote an ideal. I expose the myth. They teach competition. I foster community. They teach hierarchy. I restore sovereignty of self. They pick favorites. I acknowledge everyone’s medicine and stir it up good.

And sometimes, I play hip-hop. SAB ain’t ready for this jelly.

Anyway, some time ago, my dear friends, Kate Penner, Jun Toguchi and I put together a ballet class DVD. I thought, perhaps I can use this DVD as a tool to connect with students far and wide. Here’s my idea: I will mail a copy of the DVD to the first 100 people who ask. Then, you can upload a video of yourself on YouTube (it can be a private channel) and I will give you some personal feedback. It’s not the same as being in class, but it’s something, and it could be fun.

This is a free service, but small donations are welcome.

Please write to me at Piyung@aol.com with “Class DVD” in the subject line, and please don’t laugh at me for still being on aol. Ok, go ahead, laugh.


Letter from Peter Martins (and my response)

April 6, 2015

Dear Tai,

Greetings from the School of American Ballet. I am writing to invite you to become part of a very important program at SAB.

As a new component of our ongoing diversity initiative, we are currently in the process of forming a committee consisting of a select group of alumni who are active in the dance world. Members of the SAB Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity & Inclusion will be asked to provide input to help shape and enhance SAB’s ongoing work to broaden recruiting, outreach, and student life programs, with the ultimate goal of increasing diversity on ballet stages around the globe.

I believe that your experience and insight into SAB and the broader dance world will be an invaluable addition to our efforts and sincerely hope that you will accept this invitation to become a member of the Committee for its 2015-2016 inaugural session.

SAB’s Diversity Program Manager, Leah Qunitiliano, will reach out to you next week to discuss in more detail the goals and expectations….etc.

With warm wishes,
Peter Martins
Artistic Director and Chairman of Faculty

*

Hi Leah. I have been giving the matter of whether or not to join the Diversity Committee some thought. With all do respect, if the School of American Ballet is serious about diversifying, they can start by hiring me as a ballet teacher. I am great.

This is not about me, and it is about me. Please tell Peter Martins that true diversity means the whole structure has to change. Is he ready for that?

Sincerely,
Tai Jimenez
Former Principal Dancer of The Dance Theatre of Harlem
Former Principal Dancer with the Boston Ballet


Artist Challenge: Part II

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.” –Rumi

“When you are dancing, you are moving towards divinity.”–Swami Nityananda

I was recently invited by a former student to speak at a local university in support of the understanding that dance was more than just our bodies, that it qualified as an intellectual pursuit.

Certainly, there is room for everything. There are times when, for example, I walk into the studio to teach and have not the foggiest notion of what I will give in class. Then I flick a sort of switch inside and my mind goes into a hyper-focused, computer-like mode where it starts making up steps.

I’ve wondered if it’s a kind of channeling. Sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen peeling oranges or whatever when the ballet screen suddenly flicks on and I’ll start seeing steps. I go into a kind of step-trance. At first this alarmed my husband but he’s grown quite used to it. For me, it feels perfectly ordinary, though I’m aware that it’s not such a common thing for others.

There is a kind of delicious arithmetic to composing ballet steps, the satisfying click of it. Though I have notebooks packed full of classes, I’m always amazed when a new step pops out. They just keep coming and coming. When I land upon a particularly juicy one, I will often write it down. I have slips of papers with my own ballet shorthand in every corner of the apartment, as page holders in books, under tea cups, on my iPhone. Maybe one day I’ll do a Vaganova and compose a syllabus.

Step-trancing is my intellectual branch of dancing, but it’s like a side office. It’s not where I spend most of my time. I spend most of my time in the temple. Dancing is life. So to suggest that dancing is more than just our bodies is to suggest that we are more than just our bodies. Well, that is the great question isn’t it?

I can’t prove that we are more than just our bodies. If I could, I’d be some kind of millionaire. Rumi says that our longing is the evidence we seek and for many years, I danced that longing.

Some argue that ballet can be lacking in emotional depth and that is often true. However, the adagio is an exception. It is the balletic expression of longing. For a long time, I hated it, but eventually gave into it and even came to love it. It is, for most dancers, through the execution, and for teachers, in its composition, the hardest part of class. There is a lot of stillness in this exercise and it requires a great deal of strength and balance because you are holding your leg in the air without the aid of momentum.

I find it an interesting commentary on today’s culture that the longing of the adagio has been usurped by the current fashion of ultra high gymnastic extensions. It is possible to express that longing with a high extension, but more often than not, the gymnastics tend to mask the expression of vulnerability.

When we get to the adagio in class, I usually see a kind of fear come over people. Since most are lacking in the very high extensions that we see plastered all over the dance media, they have come to feel that the expression of their longing is irrelevant. I say, not so. Let us have your longing. We must practice validating our own experience.

What makes one’s dancing compelling is one’s love for it. What draws the eye is the ability to watch someone having a profound internal experience translated into the external physical world. As a dancer, you are a kind of translator for divine energy, the non-verbal prayer.

To me, it’s not a question of whether or not we are more than “just” our bodies. Rather, I look at the body as the most recent train stop on a journey that started a long time ago. It is part of a continuum. It is the physical expression of our being and as such should not be looked upon as separate or inferior to other parts of the self, such as the intellect, the emotions or the soul.

When dancing felt best to me, it was when all parts of myself, some I could name, and some I could not, danced together, without hierarchy. And though I am not a religious person, I had what I’d call spiritual experiences while dancing. They were few and far between, but just a taste of that was so sweet, it kept you wanting more. Such moments absolved the question and the questioning. But like any high, it couldn’t last forever. Chop wood. Carry water.

Nowadays, I dance a little when I teach. I dance with the baby, but not like I used to. People ask me if I miss it. No, I do not. I don’t need it the way I once did. I no longer run from the question. I exist inside it.


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