Infinite Hedges, States of Morpheus and Dancing the Night Away, If Possible
Walter Benington: John Maynard Keynes, 1st Baron Keynes of Tilton; Lydia Lopokova, c. 1920s
by Susan Daitch
The Gorgeous Calamity
Snow falling, nutcrackers come to life, swans turning into princesses, women acting like mechanical dolls, all these, in turn, danced across the London stage. For John Maynard Keynes, those story ballets represented the distant island of his childhood, a land made even more obscure by the fog of mustard gas, images of trenches and mangled bodies, the traumatic chaos of World War I that was still of recent memory.
Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, trained his spyglass on modernism, plotless ballets of pure motion with cubist sets and minimal costumes, but he also knew box office when he saw it, and because his Ballets Russes was a touring company that never performed in the country for which it was named, he also presented fantastic ballets that audiences loved, happy to be cast under the spell of Scheherazade, the Firebird, Giselle. Diaghilev, always ready to go overboard, staged a version of The Sleeping Princess with huge trompe l’oeil sets and over three hundred costumes. Courtiers and princes wore jewelled plumed turbans, ladies of the court were dressed in ornate gowns with trains and capes and gold-buckled shoes. The evil Carabosse had bony arms that ended in claws, a long haphazardly leopard-spotted cloak, conical hat, and in silhouette, she looked like a rat. Critics called the productions a gorgeous calamity. In London, in 1921, it wasn’t Aurora, Keynes fell in love with, but the Lilac Fairy, the creature who put the kingdom to sleep, so as to delay the effects of the jilted fairy’s curse. The Lilac Fairy was danced by Lydia Lopokova, and when attendance fell off, he made sure to sit in an empty box where she would notice him.
The Lilac Fairy wore a crown, a short sparkly dress that, unlike the heavy costumes of some of the other dancers, was light and easy to move in. In her time, the role was considered one of the most physically demanding. The strength and athleticism it required stood in contrast to received ideas about gossamer wings and magic wands. The shoes she wore are preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in photographs of her in this role, it looks like her pointe shoes had a much smaller box than contemporary pointe shoes, as if they really ended in some kind of point. They must have been painful to wear until you got used to them, but while on stage, the fairy who granted sleep would appear to have a supernatural ability to fly (without the help of wires), to resist the pull of gravity, at least for a few seconds, and remain airborne, a creature with only a passing resemblance to clomping-down-the-street pulled to the earth mortals.
When the run was cancelled by its major investor, all the costly sets and lavish costumes were confiscated, and Diaghilev had to flee his creditors. While he ended up in Paris, eating in dives with cab drivers who smelled of horses and complained about stingy fares, the performers were left destitute, marooned in London. Lydia had to live by her wits. She would never dance in a major production again, but her life with Keynes, despite Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey referring to her as “an expensive canary brain,” was about to begin.
When Lopokova married him in 1925, British Vogue printed a full-page picture of them, captioned, “The marriage of the most brilliant of English economists with the most popular of Russian dancers makes a delightful symbol of the mutual dependence upon each other of art and science.”
But Bloomsbury said, not so fast, honeybunch. Lopokova’s modernist idiom, according to Clive Bell, was movement, while Woolf and her circle interpreted the world through language and language’s relationship to consciousness. Lopokova’s brand of modernism was as opaque to them as theirs was to her. If that wasn’t bad enough, Lopokova’s speech, a hybrid of English and Russian, was ridiculed as “Lydian English,” an improvised Anglo-Russian, an invented language that telegraphed exile status. When something troubled her, it stood on my head. She asked Maynard, do you go in the evening to dissipated houses? She complained Leonid Massine wants to rebambuzle me, but am not tipsy at all with him. She wrote, the flame of her tongue was flying, possibly referring to Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister. Lydia would continually interrupt Vanessa’s solitude when she was trying to paint which annoyed Vanessa no end. All the Stephens sisters, Virginia and Vanessa, needed to work was a room of their own each, but for Lopokova making art involved a crowd of people, moving and making noise, one more way the process of the two modernisms were at swords points.
Keynes may have been smitten, but Woolf, who felt Lopokova eroded the fencing around Bloomsbury, based the character of Rezia in Mrs. Dalloway on Lydia. Rezia, childlike and foreign, says, “The English are so silent.” They were silent to her, to Lydia. Bloomsbury was open but not particularly welcoming. The sound of boiling water reminded her of samovars.
Lopokova had been known for the height of her jumps, often compared to Nijinsky, but unlike the madman, she was said to land like a dandelion parachute. She was also known for her pranks, walking around the house and answering the door half-clothed, if not entirely naked. She was a bit of a comic, rather than a swan, and when I picture her, I imagine someone like Giulietta Masina dancing on the street in Nights of Cabiria, clowning around in La Strada.
Closings, Lydia to Maynard
I gobble you, my dear Maynard. I gobble you extravagantly. I re-gobble you. I gobble you from head to foot.
I riddle you with words that are blackened with so much ink, against it is simply foxiness just to enigmatize you.
Maynard responded: I want to be foxed and gobbled abundantly.
I wish to be on speaking terms with any bird to oblige me with a pair of wings.
I fear I may become a very good metronom.
To-day spring is so strong that it gives me spring fluids.
Mucous membranes to you,
I am inexhaustibly fond of you, Maynarochka.
I blend my mouth and head to yours.
I detain infinity your warm wet kisses.
I taste your buttons.
Maynard, you surprise me. I never know what is in your head, so much petuatry gland. You possess so much dynamite, please lend me a part of it.
I have tickings and acheings in my heart for you.
PS In the dictionary is only ache but to me sounds not literary with tickings
The Lilac Fairy
The fairy tale sets out to conquer concrete terror through metamorphosis.
— Jack Zipes
Each fairy is allowed one gift only, and Lilac has in mind this: beauty, inner and outer. What else do you give a princess, but isn’t that two things? It doesn’t matter. Her offering gets derailed when the gift of Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy Godmother, turns out to be a death that foreshadows the London umbrella murder of Georgi Markov – dissident, code named The Wanderer – though injections have yet to be invented, still, one prick, and it’s curtains. The Lilac Fairy was an ameliorator, a character who had the ability to buffer curses, to throw hurdles up before them, though not to cancel. The Ambien of fairy tale characters, she grants sleep and has the ability to stop time, if as to say, should this era not suit, let’s try another one, a wish that could be as universally understandable as it is impossible to grant. This wish was not available to émigré Lopokova in walking-around-life, only on stage.
Gunter Kunert’s 1972 version of Sleeping Beauty is short, one paragraph only, and it advises readers, it’s better to fail and get lost. Searchers become impaled on an infinite thorny hedge full of dead birds, dried up flowers, and end up like those climbers lost on Everest, dangling over glacier ridge, better that than to be the one who gets to the prize only to discover the princess is not immortal, but has aged as badly as one might expect. When Kunert, self-defined cheerful melancholic kicked out of East Germany, described the crone corpse princess, he’s not making a very positive comment on women and aging. Listen, everyone who doesn’t die young gets transformed, even those rich princes skewered on spikey brambles. Better to suffer and die with the illusion there’s a reward out there, because actually there isn’t one, says half-Jewish, ex-GDRer Kunert, and furthermore, there’s no clock-stopping way to sleep unaffected by time. That’s the stuff of speculative space travel, a way to survive billions of light years in a state of suspended animation, if you’re lucky, and microchips don’t degrade, circuits go kablooie, or you don’t get sabotaged by a HAL.
The Lilac Fairy Versus The Green Fairy
Sleep as a cure, a way of keeping the passage of time at arm’s length as opposed to absinthe, that promises intoxication, addiction, forgetting, also forbidden since it has been illegal, the effects so damning and extreme.
La Sonnambula, The Sleepwalker, was one of my favorite Balanchine ballets when I was in high school, though I remember it as an abstraction, not a tragic romantic story, no stabbed poet, flirty coquette, or narcoleptic wife. What I remember was watching New York City Ballet’s Suzanne Farrell sleepwalk, holding a lit candle as she made her way across the outdoor stage in Saratoga, pine trees rustling around us on a hot July night. She appeared to be floating, half-dream figure, half-human, but traversing the stage on pointe, as she did, takes a phenomenal amount of strength, nothing gossamery about it. She spins, but the candle doesn’t go out. It’s just one of those things. She never stops moving. In the end she carries the body of the dead man off stage, also a feat of strength. (A reversal, usually the man carries the woman over and over in most all ballets, there are those lifts). Waking up isn’t part of the story, no walking into the trees, heading towards the race track, though sitting a back row with my mother, I enjoyed the illusion that this was possible. Unless there was a full moon, the sky would be so black, the air would turn crisp as the night wore on, the breeze blows down from Canada. Maybe there is no offstage, and the sleepwalking continues unstoppable, all the way to Sam’s Diner, at least, where we might go, too, before the drive home down the Northway.
As an adult, I envy the sleepwalker when the Land of Nod is elusive and hard to reach. No problems are solved at 3 am, but you can try, you can think about a line-up of what-ifs, no one is stopping you. A lot goes on at 3 am. In the backyards behind my small apartment building there used to be a couple of tenants who had loud parties, next door to B’nai Jacob whose lit windows marked the partiers’ brick walls as Friday turned into Saturday, while down the block in an above ground pool, once every so often an animal would fall in, a squirrel, a racoon, as if to say, this is our territory, go fuck yourselves. Helicopters buzz overhead, the BQE hums with traffic that will only accelerate as we head towards sunrise.
Sleep isn’t nothingness just because consciousness is somewhere else. Polysomnograms provide all kinds of data. Neurotransmitters race, can’t be turned off, and the chromosomes related to sleep disorders are clocking in.
Little Nemo had no choice but to wake up from Slumberland. Conscious eyes opened at the end of every comic strip, and King Morpheus ceded his kingdom, as Nemo fell out of bed. Befuddlement Hall, however, crosses borders. Its foundations shift from Dreamland to Here You Damned Well Are. When Dreamland, with its temporary visa program, morphs into Nightmare Island, the Sandman, possible apprentice to the Lilac Fairy, cackles.
How the Body Remembers
How does her mind work, soaring like a lark?
– Virginia Woolf (writing in her diary about Lydia Lopokova)
When professional tango dancers perform during brain scans, the primary motor cortex, located at the very top of the brain, lights up fiery orange, yellow around the edges. The performers are lying down inside the machine, but they move their legs on an angled grid, mentally tangoing away, that was the experiment. This is easy for them. They have all kinds of movement memory files, and they know which pattern is likely to follow which phrase of choreography, in the same way a sequence of words is anticipated in a familiar spoken or written language, you don’t puzzle over meaning and pronunciation, syllable by syllable. The part of the right brain that lights up is in a region that is homologous to Broca’s Area, the section of the left hemisphere believed to be the ministry of verbal language. Here, in this oddly named zone, it’s believed gestural language, pointing, making fists, stamping feet, evolved into spoken words.
On stage, performers make calculations related to how the body will move through space, and translate visual information into motor commands, neural impulses travel to the spinal cord and beyond. The dancers’ kinesthetic maps, if these were something that could be seen, would be in high relief, because the curtain is up, but the map would be operating even with eyes shut. The brain’s sensorimotor system thrums away on its own. Positron-emission topography would record changes in cerebral blood flow, finding that the cortex, just below the roof of the skull, is firing away. Without those memory files or access to that language, you would stand still on stage, like watching a movie without subtitles in a language you don’t understand. That was a fear that always kept me from going near a stage. What if you forgot everything?
When Lucinda Childs Company first performed Dance, a collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt, in Minneapolis in 1979, the audience walked out. There was no story, no partnering that can imply a plot, the piece was pure movement. The audience can invent relationships between performers, but unlike Balanchine’s plotless ballets, which often imply the hint of some kind of attachment or breaking away, that would be difficult to project while watching Dance, and none were intentionally choreographed. Childs has said her vocabulary is simple: hopping, skipping, jump turns, fast changes of direction, but while on stage each dancer has to keep track of where they are in the music, where they are in space, and which trio, or duet, or single performer is doing what with whom. The choreography is pattern-driven and has the complexity of an advanced mathematical problem that folds in on itself, sometimes like a palindrome, sometimes asymmetrically. The steps might be simple, but they take a deceptive level of stamina and concentration. I’ve seen Dance three or four times, and in following decades it would get standing ovations. It’s hard not to jump to your feet when it’s over. I’ve been told by performers that when on stage, they never stop counting, otherwise you’d be lost.
The Uselessness of Mirrors
In the passage of seconds, the mirror tells you nothing. It can give you static information, but once you start moving and moving is what you’re doing in class, the information it gives becomes dated instantaneously. You’re constantly correcting: a knee needs to be straight, shoulders down, for example, but at the same time your memory is working, drawing on what you know in order to execute steps in a particular way, following a pattern someone has taught you, and to think and write about all this now seems similar to the act of consciously correcting your speech while you’re speaking.
I used take the painfully slow elevator to the eleventh floor, the top of Westbeth, willing the creaky mid-century (it felt like) elevator to move more quickly, so I wouldn’t be late for class. The Cunningham studio was at the edge of the city, big arched windows looking towards New Jersey, and it always felt full of possibility every time, every class, every performance. There was no other space like it. I would see Merce once in a while, walking in and out of the studio, then he was in a wheelchair, but even then, when he could only dance with his arms, he was worth watching. I’d seen other dancers disabled by age or HIV (Nureyev, hobbled and confused, performing with gravity-defying Sylvie Guillem on the same stage where La Sonnambula sleepwalked.) Sleep didn’t preserve them, there were no expectations that it would, but they still performed and even in a hindered state, as if to say, perfect bodies are only one way of dancing, one of many, a knee joint that doesn’t bend all the way can still communicate. There can be something of value if you hack through the thorny hedge, get to the castle and find a not preserved person in a room at the top.
With thanks to Anna Brodsky, Richard Kaye and Vincent McCloskey
About the Author
Susan Daitch is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, Tablet, Tin House, The New England Review, Bomb, Conjunctions, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, and elsewhere. Her work was the subject of a Review of Contemporary Fiction, along with that of David Foster Wallace, and William Vollman. Her recent novel, Siege of Comedians was listed as one of the best books of 2021 in The Wall Street Journal.
Both photographs are in the public domain.