This Friday, April 30, Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books will present author Colum McCann in a benefit reading and book signing for the Carolina Ballet. McCann’s subject will be Dancer, his critically acclaimed 2003 historical novel about the life of Rudolph Nureyev. Last week we spoke with him by phone, during a book tour stop in Boston.
The Independent: There’ve been a number of biographies about Nureyev, in addition to his autobiography. What was the need for a [partially fictional] novel about his life?
Colum McCann: John Berger has said that never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one. A story changes with the telling, with the times. It changes when the setting changes, when the people change who tell it–and we know different people tell stories in different ways.
In this day and age, I sort of doubt facts. Facts have become mercenary things: they can be spun, and sent almost anywhere we want them to go. I’m interested in asking what is a fact, what is a texture–and what is the difference between these two things?
Conventional biographies of Nureyev say, “Nureyev’s first public dance was at age 6.” Full stop. Then, “By the age of 9, he was taking classes in Ufa, his home town.” Three years, gone like that. Going through the biographies, I kept finding interesting gaps like that, gaps for a fiction writer to fill in.
What sort of research figured in this approach?
An enormous amount of reading, about the [Second World] War and the time after. The first 10 pages of the book alone took six months to research and write; the biographies, of course. And I spent a couple of months in Russia, in Ufa, Leningrad, St. Petersburg. You can learn an incredible amount just hanging out in courtyards and staircases, watching people come in and out; the smells and sounds of just being somewhere.
I didn’t know anything about dance, not much about Russian culture, not much about the gay culture or the sort of society he moved in–these were all things I had to learn.
If you weren’t already interested in dance, why start a novel on Nureyev?
I had just finished an intimate novel about Northern Ireland [Everything in This Country Must] and a novel about the homeless in the subway tunnels of New York [This Side of Brightness] before that. I wanted an international canvas for the next–which must sound a bit pompous, I suppose. But Nureyev was one of those ‘international mongrels’ of the world. Baby boomers in particular know the type: people who sort of travel around the world, and they’re comfortable everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Iconic figures, who have an incredible influence on so many people’s lives.
Yet you focus so much on his and others’ loneliness in the last part of the novel. Nureyev is described as “loneliness applauding itself all the way down the street.”
Nureyev could go anywhere in the world you might want to go. He could go to Buckingham Palace. He could hang out in Monaco with Princess Grace. He was welcome in Elton John’s dressing room. But the one place he could not go is the place we all need to: home. [After defecting from the Soviet Union in 1961, Nureyev was not allowed to re-enter until 1987.] It’s a condition of exile, a peculiarly 20th-century condition.
He had a magnificent life, that has to be stated. But in such dance there has to be a certain loneliness.
So much of the body and the mind is given to the moment in dance–and it’s a very public moment as well. There’s all the violence that goes into making it look easy. Dancers go through such difficulty to create such beauty–at its center there must be a specific loneliness.
Five dance shows last week (along with four the week before) have kept us in solid motion in the recent past. While scheduling conflicts kept us from seeing Meredith DanceWorks and Inversion Dance in Chapel Hill, at least we get another crack at the latter when Betsy Ward-Hutchinson hosts Cary Academy’s first N.C. Choreographers and Dancers Showcase Saturday, May 1. The lineup’s impressive and the price couldn’t be better–it’s free. (For further details, see the listing in Best Bets. ) And since Ballethnic Dance’s The Leopard’s Tale is the only other major dance event on tap this weekend, prospective audiences won’t be wondering which show out of 12 they should see.
But before that weekend comes the notable Enloe Dance Company presenting its spring concerts in Raleigh. Program A runs Wednesday and Friday at 7 p.m.; Program B runs same time Thursday and Saturday. Tickets are $5 and $3. Questions, call 856-7918.
Robin Harris’ new work, Book of Dreams, will be presented next month in Washington at the American College Dance Festival gala concert at Kennedy Center. Not surprisingly, it proved the centerpiece of the N.C. Dance Company‘s spring concert last weekend in Raleigh. By itself, Marty Baird and Harris’ set almost puts us within the realm of the surreal, with a white claw-footed bathtub filled with water in the downstage right corner of the stage, a white table with 12 full water glasses at center left, and an upholstered chair behind a suspended window pane, upstage right. But dancers Lindsey Greene, Megan Marvel, Katie Ryan and Lauren Scott proceed to occupy no weightless, ethereal wonderland. Instead, they demonstrate that dreams are where the heavy work of life continues–albeit under altered circumstances.
After a brief “foreword,” in which a woman sits weeping, her head in arms at the table, Iris Dement wails “There’ll be laughter, even after you’re gone” at that start of “Bathtub,” the work’s first movement. The song reflects Marvel’s mood as she negotiates the tub of water, slowly sinking like Ophelia, fully dressed, into the pool. On arising, her emptied character goes through motions, stiffly, and still tries to straighten things up a bit at the end–using the hem of her dress to clean the edges of the tub.
In the second movement, Lauren Scott does ballet as best she can–in a pair of old-style wooden water skis upstage right. The comic relief is followed by a series of blackouts that constitute the work’s third movement. In “Waiting,” a woman waits–in postures from languishing in an upholstered chair to face and hands pressed against the window glass.
All women meet in “Crying,” the final section of the work. Seated at the table, while a chorus sings Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, they raise four glasses from the 12–but instead of drinking, they lift them to their faces and let them slowly spill from below their eyes. We see reiterated gestures seen before in different movements, all accompanied here by water, streaming down limbs, faces. Each works through their waking dilemmas–but with so many tears.
By work’s end, the table, the floor is as saturated as the garments of the dancers. Even less comforting, their exhaustion at the end arrives with no indication of progress. I couldn’t help leaving this sobering symbol ritual without recalling the line from Yeats, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
Finally, the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble always presents an abundance of work in the spring dance concerts that come before their annual summer tours of Europe and North America, and this year’s edition last weekend at Durham’s Carolina Theater was no exception.
Highlights? How to choose? Note the witty collaboration at mid-show with a string quartet from Mallarme Chamber players, as a tap trio accompanied Mozart in The Hunt. Include guest artist Michelle Dorrance’s incandescent–but untitled–work at mid-show, in which she filled in as a fourth musician in the ensemble’s jazz trio, trading fours with drummer Matt McCaughan between tap duets with pianist Scott Warner and Robbie Link on bass. Pay tribute to Israeli choreographers Zahi Patish and Danny Rachom, whose Body Beat combines mouth and hand percussion with folding chairs.
Note the new work, skoo-ba-de-bop, set to the battling drum sections from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University and Morris Brown College at a recent football classic, and the still amazing polyrhythms of doom doom bop.
This is not the first year that the audience was exhausted before this groaning board of tap came to an end. The history of tap is broad, and always well represented in these shows. But 20 works in one show–not including the solo-sung selections by host Yvette Glover–is obviously too much for one sitting.
Judicious editing–before the summer sojourns–will likely prove that less is ultimately more.