Lauren Kessler gives readers a gutsy peek into her life, revealing all her fears and foibles, as she sets a tremendous challenge for herself as a forty-something woman: dancing in a professional company’s Nutcracker.
Kessler’s goal is not a modest one; she isn’t an amateur dancer who simply never danced professionally, nor is she a committed beginner who wants to perform in a local ballet school’s winter show. She’s a non-dancer, having given up ballet when she was a pre-teen who is nonetheless obsessed with the Nutcracker. By her count, she has seen over thirty performances of it as an adult.
After spending a winter season traveling the country to watch various companies perform the Nutcracker – and giving us the lowdown on each one, including the history of each company, a description of its costumes and choreography, and the response of its hometown audience – Kessler decides she wants to be part of one. A mother, wife and college professor, Kessler does have a slight advantage over other women with a ballet goal: she is a journalist and has published non-fiction books that required her to do lots of research and throw herself into something brand new. She’s also a resident of a city (Eugene, Oregon) that happens to have a professional ballet company (Eugene Ballet Company).
The prospect of performing on a stage in front of friends, family and strangers, is a daunting task for anyone. As a teacher of adults, including scores of beginners who’ve never been on stage at all, I know that adults are as fearful of other people’s opinions as teenagers are. We do not become immune with age and maturity; perhaps we become even more afraid. And this is what Kessler specifically wants to attack head on: fear. Not simply fear of humiliation in the face of others but fear of growing older and growing more stagnant, fear of not trying new things, fear of complacency. As a journalist who has attempted all manner of new things, Kessler knows how difficult it is to get the body and mind to stay elastic.
“This is scary but do it anyway.”
Her first step is to contact the artistic director of EBC, Toni Pimble, who is also the company’s resident choreographer. If anyone is going to give Kessler a shot, it’s Pimble. When they meet, Kessler is shocked that Pimble doesn’t dismiss her notion as outlandish; in fact, she ultimately gives the okay, which sets Kessler on an 8-month prep to the next Nutcracker season. The writer in her knows that she must interview experts (company members, teachers, etc.), read (memoirs by Toni Bentley and Gelsey Kirkland, a novel by Maggie Shipstead, biographies of Nureyev and Fonteyn), and watch (YouTube videos, hundreds of hours of Baryshnikov). She applies the journalist’s techniques of research and reportage. She delves deep into the origins of the Nutcracker and its score, its history, its development and its impact on dance companies and audiences across the country.
“This is hope outshouting fear.”
But then…she has to do the work. She has to take classes and build her stamina and strengthen her core. She has to take herself out of her comfort zone and away from her family and friends. She needs to diet! And after months of booty barre workouts and Pilates and Gyrotonics, she has to learn choreography and musicality and staging. She has to hold her own in company class and “work well with others.” There is the tour itself (EBC takes its Nut on the road before coming back to Eugene for final performances) which is a challenge for Kessler, as it would be for anyone to be away from their families for a period of time.
“This is me pep-talking myself into action.”
Through it all, Kessler is humbled by the dedication and passion the dancers have for their art. She is impressed by the hours and hours they spend in the pursuit of perfection from class to class and show to show. And she is grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it.
As a reviewer, I found Kessler’s book to be lively and engaging. As a reader of a certain age, I found it interesting philosophically and inspiring personally. But as a teacher of adults, I found it even more illuminating: it gave me insight to the minds and hearts of adult dancers, particularly those who come to ballet late in life. My students don’t always tell me why they want to take class and it isn’t always apparent when I meet them. Some want community, some want to perform, some want exercise, some want to recapture what they had as kids. Kessler took me through the thought process, one class at a time. She showed me how someone – even with an actual opportunity to perform! – would not go to class regularly. She showed me how a student could feel intimidated in the most basic of classes, how she could find every excuse not to do something that would ultimately help her and in fact, continue with habits that would do the exact opposite. She invited me into my students’ heads and I found that extraordinarily helpful.
Lauren Kessler is an award-winning author and immersion reporter. She is the author of seven nonfiction books, including Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-aging, as well as My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, the Oprah Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Prevention, and Salon. She also directs the graduate program in narrative journalism at the University of Oregon.
You can purchase Raising the Barre here at Amazon or from the publisher, Da Capo Press.
Leigh Purtill is a ballet instructor and choreographer in Los Angeles where she lives with her husband and charming poodle. She received her master’s degree in Film Production from Boston University and her bachelor’s in Anthropology and Dance from Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of four young adult novels from Penguin and HarperCollins. She is the artistic director of the Leigh Purtill Ballet Company, a nonprofit amateur ballet company for adults and she teaches ballet and jazz to adults both in person and online, Leigh Purtill Ballet. Read Leigh’s posts.