The Lark Ascending

4 Nov

Three is a really good number.  Trio is a pretty word to say.  Triangles are an aesthetically pleasing shape.  The Triforce is the sacred shiny of the Zelda games.  And my favorite salad in the universe, a recipe invented by yours truly only requires three ingredients, that could never be present in the same space under natural circumstances.  It is during the later autumn months that this salad can even be invoked; a short but special time frame that I look forward to every year.  The greens of this salad are just your average leafy spring mix, and the other two ingredients are cubes of mangoes and an abundance of fresh pomegranate seeds.  I came up with this concoction because I have a supernatural sense of taste (due to a weak sense of smell…a few years ago when I was living in an apartment I didn’t smell a gas leak), and with that comes a certain aptitude for identifying flavors and knowing what works and what doesn’t.  Translation, I’m a picky eater and if you even forget one ingredient in a favorite dish of mine, I will ALWAYS know.  Anyway, the reason why this salad could not naturally exist is because pomegranates hail from arid, dry areas while mangoes come from lush, tropical regions with plenty of rain.  Not only that, but mangoes are a summer fruit while pomegranates are part of the autumn/winter season.  Thankfully, while the pomegranates are in season in the Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere countries that produce mangoes are at the peak of their season so a trip to the grocery store should yield some mangoes (either from Brazil or Peru…I think the ones from Peru taste better).  I figured dancers would probably be interested in such a salad, because they’re always looking for healthy things that taste great, and this salad is like crazy high in antioxidants.  You have the bitterness of the greens, the duller sweetness of the mango and the tart sweetness of the pomegranate arils which are so juicy there is NO dressing required.  Not to mention the fact that the mango is an evergreen with alternating leaves and the pomegranate is deciduous with opposite leaves.  There are a lot of forces at work here that make this salad sublime. 

salad

If you are a dancer that needs more protein in your diet, occasionally I'll sauté some chicken in olive oil with a little honey and add that. It isn't necessary, but makes for a more complete meal if you aren't getting the protein elsewhere.

Due to transportation costs and seasonal issues this is far from a practical dish, but ballet is far from practical too, as are all of the arts.  But they all taste so damn good, isn’t it worth it?  I think we’re often faced with the question of why the arts are important, especially in a struggling economy, which is an issue I’ve never been able to rationalize because the arts are so ingrained into my very existence.  However, the one conclusion I always seem to come to is that the arts are what make us human.  People may wear suits, work in offices or whatever, but ultimately the purpose of that work is the same as the work animals do, which is to provide food and shelter (even if homo sapiens are far more indulgent than animals as far as luxuries are concerned!).  Animals can do anything we can do, like build houses, sport, communicate verbally, educate their young, show compassion, and if you’re a dolphin, have sex for pleasure.  Animals can sing and dance too.  But is it art if that singing and dancing has a practical purpose like attracting a mate for procreation?  I say no…and that’s why the arts make us human, because we can stage a dance or paint a picture to convey a message that is not “let’s get it on.”  Likewise, we can appreciate an artist’s work in a way that doesn’t mean “I want to jump your bones.”  Trust me when I say that a compliment to a dancer from me has no procreative motive!  And I like that that makes me human.  Because we have this capacity to appreciate aesthetics that have nothing to do with passing on our genes, I feel we have a responsibility to ourselves to exercise it and ensure that the arts are always prioritized.  Otherwise, we will lose the essence of what makes us human.

Another thing animals can’t do, and in my opinion a lesser appreciated art is maintain a history.  And yes, I would essentially categorize history as a branch of the arts.  To me, writing and especially storytelling are arts, and that’s pretty much what history is.  Argue if you must, but the point is, words can have a lot of influence on dance that is often overlooked because we don’t see or hear the words on stage.  This brings me to my dance thought of the day, which is mostly grounded in a particular piece of music entitled The Lark Ascending, by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It was inspired by a poem of the same name written by George Meredith, which is this melodious ode that invokes visions of vast skies and for Williams, images of a pure, English countryside.  It’s quite long…but you have to read the entire thing otherwise you’re going to miss the whole point of this entry.

The Lark Ascending

George Meredith (1828-1909)

 
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,         5
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,         10
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,         15
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her musci’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air         20
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill         25
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,         30
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright         35
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,         40
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives         45
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,         50
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,         55
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,         60
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
 
For singing till his heaven fills,         65
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:         70
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;         75
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,         80
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say         85
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,         90
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns         95
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
 
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,         100
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,         105
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,         110
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,         115
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,         120
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Don’t you feel like you’ve been awakened and renewed?  I do.  And if you think about it, had you just purchased a CD with the orchestral work or heard it on the classical station as I did, you would never have known all the above was behind it.  Chances are a dance to this piece would not feature the entire poem in the program notes either.  Regardless, it has long been one of my favorite pieces of music and the most notable dance I know of to it is a modern ballet pas de deux choreographed by Alvin Ailey, retaining the title of The Lark Ascending, and it remains in the Ailey repertory today.  Unfortunately, there was a video of this on YouTube a couple of years ago that is now gone because the powers that be at AAADT are similar to the Balanchine Trust, and have to remove complete works to protect their copyrights.  It’s also not available on DVD, only an archaic, out of print VHS as usual (Alvin Ailey: Ailey Dances, if you must know).  There is however, part of a contemporary ballet choreographed by DA Hoskins and performed by Ballet Kelowna.  It’s not the entire work (Lark is a LOOOONG violin concerto…the Janine Jansen recording I have is under fifteen minutes, but Nigel Kennedy soaks up almost eighteen), but it is a substantial portion that I find divine.  I love the simplistic costuming (light blue is a must for this song…it just is) and I really like the one set piece being this silvery, urban element.  Each dancer was a tumbling, amorphous cloud, which had the risk of becoming repetitive and yet it maintains interest with slight differences in facings.  At one point, one dancer is echoing another, as if following the same current of air, but they are different people, and unique as all clouds are.  I really enjoyed what I saw, with my only complaint being that the battement at the 4:40 mark, where the orchestra blossoms with this luxuriously warm note was nowhere near enough impact.

Isn’t it sensational though, now that you have read the poem you have all THREE things working together here?  The greens, the mangoes, and the pomegranates?  Now you have the full flavor of The Lark Ascending.  I really hope that a ballet to this piece makes a bigger name for itself then it has at this point.  I really wish MacMillan or Ashton did something with it, and I guess they either didn’t care for it or never heard it to begin with.  Williams did write a handful of ballets, none of which were particularly famous.  I researched his ballets a little and didn’t find anything, although I did happen upon an archive from an online forum, back in 1996 where someone was looking for songs to dance to, and someone had recommended a Williams ballet (The Bridal Day.  If I can find more information on Williams’ ballets perhaps I’ll return to him as a topic someday, but prospects aren’t hopeful).  However, what REALLY caught my eye was a comment by Allen H. Simon, some guy who does choral work in the Bay Area (who is probably a big deal for all I know).  He compiled a synopsis of works people were recommending and check out what he had to say:

I notice that most of the suggested works were not written specifically for dance; obviously dancers don’t have the obsession with historical performance that we musicians do.

OH NO HE DI’NT!

I’m not even sure why that offends me, only that I’m pretty sure it should so it does.  Game on, Mr. Simon…GAME ON.

PS.  I almost forgot!  Here are videos of a live recording of The Lark Ascending in its entirety, as performed by Janine Jansen.  Enjoy…she’s fabulous and I promise you will get chills.  Final cadenza? SWOON!

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