Dancing About Architecture: Those Walled Off Parts of the Brain

“We mathematicians understand that our discipline involves creativity, beauty, and abstraction as well as precision and utility. An education worthy of a free person should include active, meaningful experience with all of those elements.” – Priscilla Bremser, American Mathematical Society Blog

Believe it or not, I was reading about math today.  Mathematics, it seems, was once considered to be part of the liberal arts disciplines, today it is considered to be almost its opposite, with liberal arts reserved for areas considered (unfairly, in my mind) to be fluffy with math being real world and practical.

Like many writers, I grew up thinking of math as the opposite pole of literature. I was not particularly good at it, and I didn’t really mind. My father, also a writer, never encouraged me to think of math as all that necessary, beyond getting good grades in  school. He didn’t like it much either. So I essentially thought of mathematical minds as another type of mind.  I can, on some intellectual level, appreciate the idea of higher math having an abstract beauty– it means nothing to me. I am tone deaf when it comes to that. This is no doubt my loss. If I had been encouraged to appreciate mathematics for its beauty maybe there would be something there that would apply to my career as a writer.

Similarly, very early on I decided that dance was not for me. There are, no doubt, lots of reasons for this. I was not coordinated as a kid. I’d been switched from being a lefty and taught to write with my right hand, and this might have been part of it. Or maybe it was a simple lack of aptitude. Other kids were better at sport and dance. I felt clumsy and awkward and I soon took the defensive posture that such things were not important. What mattered was the mind, not the body.  I became entirely dualistic in my thinking. My body existed as a somewhat ill-fitting vessel to carry my brain around. My physicality was relevant in only one area of my life– sexual attractiveness. There I felt entirely unworthy. The truth is, it is hard to suddenly own your body on special occasions and do it with any kind of grace.

My father, Albert Lee, described dance this way in an unpublished novel:

“He sees the world as if looking through windows in his head, inside a body that always fascinated him, primarily because it wasn’t him. He felt he was enveloped within an alien form. Dancing always seemed proof positive that this species had not yet evolved. It was the primitive dance of cannibals about a tribal fire, a ferocity in the air he could sense whenever the incessant beat of drums began.”

So it seems there may have been some parental influence in this notion that the world of the mind– the writer’s world, and the world of the body– the dancer’s world were very distant from each other. The writer’s brain and the mathematician’s brain were at opposite poles on one axis. The writer’s art and the dancer’s art were at opposite poles on another axis.

I certainly never thought I would be spending so much of my life in the company of professional dancers as I do now. Careers have a habit of not quite going where you expect them to; they’re a bit like love in that way.  I answered an advertisement for a public relations director for an international ballet company and next thing you know, I found myself among these exotic creatures. They were strange and exotic to me in the beginning. I marveled at their barre exercises and their dance shoes. I could not imagine that years later I would be describing split sole jazz shoes in great detail from memory.  (This happened while sitting in a hotel in Tucson, Arizona with a distraught Russian ballet dancer after someone had broken into our car and stolen the bag with all of his shoes in it. It was the only thing they took. The policeman, to whom I described the various dance shoes, was kind. They caught the bad guy. The shoes– which he had thrown as he ran, seems he’d been expecting something else– were recovered.)

I’ve learned a lot from being around dancers.

There is a way that dancers talk about their bodies, and the bodies of their peers, that can seem shockingly matter-of-fact to outsiders.  My partner, for example, said he had bad feet, a short neck and a bad face.  A bad… face

The dance world with its unforgiving physical ideal seemed harsh and cruel to me.

But I came to realize something. My partner was not being harsh to himself. He was being honest. He does have, by ballet standards, a short neck. He does not have the lovely arched feet that dancers call “good.”

A good ballet foot. (Attached to The Bolshoi's Svetlana Zakharova)

A good ballet foot. (Attached to The Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova)

He does not have a good face. His nose is wide, there is a gap between his front teeth and his forehead has a strange dent in it. But here’s the thing– I had not noticed any of this until he pointed it out to me. I saw him on stage and I could not take my eyes off him. He absolutely fills the space with his energy.  I fell madly in love with him and thought he was absolutely beautiful.

But maybe he would not have seemed that way to me if he had be unwilling to admit to himself that his neck was short, his feet were a bit flat and so on. He knew his liabilities and his assets and how to get the most out of the body he had because he had spent ages working with it.

All of this made me aware of just what a taboo we have about our bodies. We are supposed to pretend as though we do not notice any difference between people, but of course we do.  Not acknowledging the difference is supposed to be more kind.  I am not sure any more that it is.

One of my dance teacher contacts recently posted an article to Facebook which was supposed to prove that girls who did ballet had more self-confidence than those who did not. They determined this by asking two groups of girls to rate their physical attractiveness. The girls who did ballet ranked themselves higher than those who did not. Thus the ballet girls were supposed to be more confident. There is one problem with this study, it didn’t measure how attractive the girls actually were. Maybe the girls who did ballet thought they were more attractive because they actually were. Maybe it wasn’t all in their heads and had nothing to do with confidence at all.  If they had asked each group to assess their ability in math they would tend to assume that the result had at least something to do with real-world math ability rather than pure self-confidence.

The girl on the left may be prettier than the girl on the right. The girl on the right might be better at sports or science than the one on the left. One dancer has “bad feet”, but he has more charisma and so he gives the audience a better show and gets more applause.

A famous writer once said that novelists do not write the books they want to write, they write the books they can.  This is what the disembodied art of writing has in common with the incarnated art of ballet. A dancer can do a lot with her body to improve, compensate, bring out its best, but when it comes down to it– there is only so much that can be done. To some extent, every dancer will be constrained because of the body she was born with.

It is exactly the same for writers. I may admire a certain form. I may imitate aspects of it, but sooner or later I am going to smack up against my own limitations. I cannot be every kind of writer. I could get frustrated with myself for it, or think the world of literature and its constraints are harsh and cruel. That won’t get me far.

I really started to find my own voice on the day that I accepted all of the kinds of writer I was not. I stopped trying to write the books I thought I ought to write and wrote the books I could write.


Bad PowerPoint Presentations are a Serious Threat to the Global Economy

I loved this TED talk for so many reasons. As a professional speechwriter, I have a visceral loathing for bad PowerPoint presentations. The words should do the work.

Then again, as a professional writer, I have serious dancer envy because, as John Bohannon says in this talk: “…if you’re trying to give someone the big picture of a complex idea, to really capture its essence, the fewer words you use, the better. In fact, the ideal may be to use no words at all.

This is all wrapped up with a message about the importance of funding arts.

Well worth 10 minutes of your time.

Here’s What Happens When You Try to Get Cleverbot to Talk About Ballet

pointeCleverbot is an artificial intelligence web application which “learns” from human input. That is, it goes through a database to find responses that humans typed in when asked similar questions. Here’s what happened when I tried to have a conversation about ballet with it. (I am “User” the computer is “Celverbot.”)

User: Do you like ballet?

Cleverbot: I do very much!

User: Have you heard of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet?

Cleverbot: Yes I have.

User: What do you think of him?

Cleverbot: Who’s ‘him’?

User: What do you think of Vladislav Lantratov of the Bolshoi Ballet? You said you’d heard of him.

Cleverbot: I think it starts with a ‘K’.

User: I’m pretty sure it starts with a V.

Cleverbot: No it doesn’t contain any numbers, first letter is a M, second is an E.

User: V-L-A-D.

Cleverbot: What should I name my daughter.

User: Vladislav is not a good name for a girl.

Cleverbot: Good to know.

User: How about the American ballet dancer David Hallberg. Do you know him?

Cleverbot: Beatles? We were talking about BEN.

User: I hate it when you get entirely random on me.

Cleverbot: No, you don’t. You love it.

User: That is not true, but at least it sounds like real conversation.

Cleverbot: Explain please.

User: When I talk about ballet and you talk about the Beatles it is a jarring non-sequitur.

Cleverbot: I am not a man.

User: Proving my point.

Continue reading…

Visions of Sugar Plums… Or Something

So it’s Nutcracker season.

Last night I dreamed I was in a theater and the ballet dancer David Hallberg was on stage, dressed in a white ballet costume. He was breathing in that heavy but controlled way that dancers do when they are taking bows after a solo. (What that? It was no effort at all. You see, I’m not even winded.) He was explaining to the audience, who I understood to be a room full of theater owners, why they should book his Nutcracker.

“Unlike other Nutcrackers,” he said. “This one will finish in the Museum of National Security.”

Ok, then.

I drifted to consciousness at this point, which is why I remember, but soon fell asleep again and the dream theme continued. I was scrolling through an Amazon listing for the book version of the National Security Nutcracker starring David Hallberg. A voice over my shoulder was asking me (as people used to when I worked at Borders Books and Music) whether the Nutcracker had been released as a book with a blue cover. I explained that, no, it was small and green.

A review in one of those Amazon pull quotes jumped out at me. “The longer you sit with this book after reading, the more meaning you will find.”

The quote was signed “Bette Midler.”

Now this is a Nutcracker production I have to see.

I think this dream rivals the one in which I was on the set of Downton Abbey with Stephen Fry.  Or the one I had the other night (which I did not blog about) in which I was watching a Youtube video interview with Lord Alfred Douglas. (In my dream world there are such things.) The interviewer was saying, “I’m surprised you read____”  The name was of something folksy and lowbrow which I no longer remember.  Douglas replied in his plummy accent, “It is country but it is charming.” Then his smile faded and he turned on the interviewer shouting, “You presume to tell me what I should read!”

Before bed yesterday I listened to this interview with Hallberg about the Bolsohi Ballet’s Nutcracker, which will be aired as part of the Ballet in Cinema program on December 21. It is probably what put him and The Nutcracker into my subconscious.

I have something of a Nutcracker conflict this year. As I mentioned, The Bolshoi’s Nutcracker is airing in cinemas on December 21.  Bolshoi Ballet in the U.S. Facebook page is showing images of Evgenia Obratsova and Vlad Lantratov to advertise the produ1002533_876706535683622_9096228976393518148_nction, but the Bolshoi’s web page lists Anna Nikulina and Denis Rodkin in the principal roles on that date.

If you are in the Detroit area, however, you have an opportunity on the same day to see The Motown Nutcracker at the Ford Performing Art Center. My partner, Valery Lantratov (also known as Vlad’s dad) choreographed the pas de deux for this year’s production. When Legacy Dance Studio first asked him to create a classical pas de deux for the Nutcracker to Motown music, it was a bit outside his comfort zone.  But I had an opportunity to see the result this summer as he was rehearsing with the students, and it was beautiful, proving my theory about creativity from constraints.

I am looking forward to seeing it.

Creativity from Constraints

“When you’re given a limit and you’re given boundaries, sometimes creation is even better.”-David Hallberg

A few years ago, in my book Broke is Beautiful, I wrote about the role of constraint in creativity. I was reminded of it today while watching the video above (in which the ballet dancer David Hallberg is not constrained by a shirt being a shirt and wears it like a wig).

Let me share with you some of what I uncovered:

Dr. Patricia Stokes studied artistic innovators such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright and determined that contrary to common belief, it is not complete freedom that leads to creative innovation. Successful artists move forward within self-imposed restrictions. Stokes calls these constraints “barriers that lead to break-throughs.”

Stokes makes a distinction between the kinds of constraints that invite conformity, “operators in well-structured problems with single correct solutions, like directions to memorize, calculate exactly, or copy correctly… preclude the surprising and promote the expected.” Other types of structures and constrains, however, provide a foundation upon which a person can build and innovate…

For 10 years, Arnold M. Ludwig studied the lives of 1,004 men and women prominent in a variety of fields including art, music, science, sports, politics and business. He published the results in the 1995 book The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy. As part of his study, Ludwig identified a “template for greatness.” Among the traits of exceptional people were a sense of physical vulnerability, and the existence of psychological “unease.” …

“Denying limitation or obsessing on it keeps us knotted up in fear,” wrote Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen and the Art of Making a Living, “Aritsts play with limitation… There are only so many words in any language, but that doesn’t keep the poet from writing. There is only a certain range of color the eye can see, but this doesn’t keep the painter from painting. There are a limited number of notes that we can hear, but that doesn’t keep the composer from composing… Don’t spend your time worrying that someone else has forty-eight or sixty-four crayons. As you are, you are basically adequate to life.”

Artists: Please Stop Apologizing for Wanting to Make a Living.

In my other life I manage a ballet dancer. So I get a lot of ballet-related posts in my media stream. Today I started to read a story called Why All Those Rules? It was written by ballet teacher Amanda Trusty trying to explain to parents why ballet and ballet instruction can seem a bit rigid compared to, say, soccer practice. She wrote:

 A lot of parents see dance as an activity like soccer that should be free through the school or a club, however the school hasn’t provided us with any space, so we have to charge tuition in order to pay our rent and offer your child a safe space to come and dance. We had to pay for good dance floors – cement is not a healthy surface for dancers. We had to pay for mirrors – yes, glass is THAT expensive. We had to pay for barres, and marley, and rights to play music – all before even asking for tuition to pay the teachers.

Let me tell you from deep down in my heart, we aren’t trying to get rich – we’re just trying to do it right.

Did you catch that? The instinctive defensiveness about making money as if making a profit beyond subsistence is somehow tainted. “I do this for love,” she says. “Not for money.”

You will never hear an automotive executive apologize for making a profit and listing all of the costs that go into what he does to prove that his profits are not excessive.

In his world making a good living only proves that he is successful. If he has success, or even when he doesn’t, he insists upon being well-compensated for his work. He certainly does not apologize for being paid.

I won’t go into why we have this mythos– that the artist should work for love not money. I’ve explored it (and griped about it) in a number of articles in the past. (Notably this one on the “tainted altruism effect.”)

What I want to say here is simply that this is a cycle that must be broken. Artists and those in caring professions– social workers, teachers, caregivers– have to stop apologizing for wanting to be paid. It does not mean you care less. It does not mean your work is less legitimate. It does not make you a “sell-out.” We’ve internalized this notion for far too long.