It was the late 1970’s. Most of my classmates were choreographing classical pieces like Swan Lake or Giselle for this exam, but I was choreographing soon to be classical David Bowie – “Fame” to exact.
Nothing like breaking all the rules and throwing caution to the wind.
So in I went for approval of my heretical proposal with an armful of photos, articles and a cassette.
The artistic director had just got back from working with the Bolshoi and following the style there, had traded in her usual knitted teaching garb for a satin slip. We all thought she’d left her mind in the Kremlin. I remember thinking if she’s going to say no to this, better she’s half naked and possibly crazy, at least I’d have a fighting chance.
She listened to the song first.
“There are no violins.” was all she said.
Then she just stared at me with that skeptical one eyebrow raised look, “how are you going to include all the elements?”
Now I felt half naked and possibly crazy. I wasn’t sure how I’d meet all the technical and artistic expectations – I just knew I would.
So I tried to explain how the song felt primal and hypnotic to me and showed her my notes so far. “It’ll be sharp AND lyric – a mix of classical and modern. It has to be because I plan to dance it wearing just one pointe shoe. The other foot will be bare. I’ll be off balance the whole time.”
She gasped as though something had just dawned on her, lit a cigarette and pushed her chair back from her desk.
I could tell she was thinking about her reputation and weighing the odds. All I was thinking about was how many times she’d told us to dance from our souls so I added, confessed really, that there was something about this song that moved me in a way I couldn’t explain. Yes, I was really pushing the limits, but I was pushing me just as much. The board wanted virtuosity and I wanted to do my best. If that meant breaking all the rules, so be it.
I waited and after what felt like forever passed, her eyes softened and she said, “It’s impossible, but I’ll help you any way I can.”
I was shocked. I wanted to hug her, but studio decorum prevailed: I curtsied, “Thank you Madame.” walked into the change room and burst into tears.
It was the most technically demanding piece of choreography I’d ever created. Being en-pointe made me 7 inches taller, but just on one side, so turns, jumps and landings needed special attention – the kind of attention that had me using a compass and ruler and having my father help with calculations about the laws of physics.
I must have lost my footing and fallen thousands of times, but would I change the music, maybe put on the other shoe? Never. I had to dance it exactly the way I’d imagined it.
When I felt just about ready, I asked Madame for help. We worked non-stop – day, night, it didn’t matter. She was a consummate artist – brilliant, exacting, tirelessly intuitive.
She kept telling me to start from soul, to stay true, to disappear into the music, to go deeper, to contract, breathe, rise, to see the shapes and impressions I was leaving behind in the air, to forget gravity and do it again and again and again…
Finally the day came. Truth is, I barely remember the exam itself except for breathing in that first note. What I do remember was dancing through some kind of creative threshold – a truth that changed my understanding of the transformative power of art.
Still don’t know what it was about Bowie or that particular song. Inspiration is a mysterious thing…alchemy maybe?