This story appeared as an Op-Ed feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 14th.
A few days before Valentine’s Day 2009, a friend of mine gifted me two tickets to the Richmond Ballet performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella at the Landmark Theater. I remember thinking: There must be a special council of gods who keep track of such things.
I had assumed the ballet tickets were a divine moment – a kind of karmic turnabout. Only days earlier, I had indulged my then 7-year-old son with his first hockey game, a Richmond Renegades affair at the Coliseum. The game was not remotely a game for the ages; however, it did feature a gorgeously performed first act that included two seemingly choreographed but sloppy fisticuffs set to a crunching speaker-system symphony of bad-ass rock-n-roll. My son was as amused as he was curious.
Admittedly, I was not raised on ballet. (Picture: a family of six sneaking a grocery-sized brown paper bag filled with mom’s stovetop popcorn into a Garland, Texas, dollar-movie theater on Friday nights.) In fact, Richmond Ballet’s telling of The Nutcracker during the 2008 Christmas season provided my formal introduction to the performance art form given its wings in the royal courts of Louis XIV.
Now I was flying off to the ballet with my then 4-year-old daughter. It would be her first ballet – and on Valentine’s Day.
Though it matters to those people who sit around and evaluate the dresses and tuxes at the Academy Awards, what I wore on that shivering Saturday night realistically does not matter. But of course I will never forget what she wore: a red plaid jumper by Gymboree with a red, long-sleeve cotton shirt underneath, brand new white stockings, and brown suede shoes adorned with a red flower-type pattern.
On the way, she also wore a permanent giddiness that got my attention in the rearview mirror of our well-used Honda Odyssey. As we rolled through the Fan heading toward the Landmark Theater, not even the family minivan could persuade my girl that this was not a first date. I only regretted that I could not conjure up Valentinus to ride in the passenger seat and give witness to the unspoken valentines passing between me and my daughter.
We parked along Floyd Avenue near VCU’s University Student Commons. I opened the creaking sliding door for my beautiful date. She took my hand and hopped out onto the sidewalk. She was literally spinning from head to toe.
We sauntered down the jagged-brick “red carpet” laid out before us, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart looking over our shoulders, me watching for cars at intersections, her exorcising her exuberance with the occasional, gangly scissor-kick to the air.
Once inside the theater and looking down from our seats in the balcony, she was enthralled by the stage curtain. When will it open, and what exactly is behind that curtain? Pablo Picasso famously said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” I could see it in my daughter’s burning eyes: ballet was about to become – real.
The curtain opened.
Without warning, she was suddenly hurling questions at me with the velocity of Will Ferrell’s snowball-throwing character in Elf. And she was doing it with a volume more suited to the confines of Joseph Bryan Park. She became especially animated and irritated when Cinderella did not receive a new dress like Anastasia and Drizella. I loved it; she was empathizing with the symbolic injustice of the story.
Well-adjusted to the way that books work, well-tuned to the televised narratives of Peep and the Big Wide World, at 4 she was grasping at ballet. Time and again I found myself hushing and whispering, whispering and hushing. Eventually I was keen to think that this small, dramatic exercise unfolding in our two seats was almost like the poetic lyricism unfolding on stage – music and movement, movement and music.
I barely knew anything about ballet. But within those timely whispers, my daughter became convinced that I contained at least a few answers to the many mysteries of the universe – and with my words no less. More often than not I found myself – ironically – simply turning her head back to the stage and saying: “Watch what happens, dear. Listen to the music, sweetheart.” Of course, this is the way of ballet: It takes time to arrive at the proper frequency.
As I watched and listened beside my girl, I was swept further inside the performance. I realized what I felt intuitively: this form doesn’t demand words. Ballet, as the artists and technicians surely know, seems to achieve in its communication the glory of a language that transcends, or displaces, words. Ballet also happens with a flourish – or with a scissor-kick to the air.
Scene by scene, in between a bathroom break or two or three, the music and the movement of ballet constructed something between my daughter and me. Even now I cannot fully describe it.
But when she is 14, 18 or 24, will I know the difference? Will I know whether to say it in words, or to attempt the chasse and come alongside her, without words, from across the formidable stage? For now, I’ll gladly take that 4-year-old’s questions any day: “Daddy, why is the prince wearing foot-jammies?”
Charles Perrault, who originally titled the Cinderella story The Little Glass Slipper, is heralded for channeling pre-existing folk tales into a new literary genre: the fairy tale. On that night I only regretted that Perrault wasn’t in the passenger seat, along for the ride home. He might have appreciated the sublime Wendy’s frosty I ended up sharing with my inquisitive Valentine’s date – the climax, as the story goes, of our fairy tale.