Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers

A little over a year ago I developed a little obsession with the ballet. I had just seen Black Swan, and left the theater in downtown London wanting to know more about the ballet and the lives of the dancers. I understood that the film was a work of fiction and overly dramatized, but I was drawn to the psychological drama, the monastic dedication to the craft, and the apparent isolation felt by the dancers. I was excited to learn more about the ballet, but couldn’t help but think that Black Swan might be to (some) dancers as The Hurt Locker was to (some) soldiers. That is, an overly dramatic account of a poorly understood segment of the population.

I started to look up reviews of Black Swan, particularly from dancers. Almost universally, dancers disliked the film for similar reasons some soldiers disliked The Hurt Locker: emphasizing popular stereotypes (aggressive, reckless soldier / psychologically distraught, anorexic dancer), errors in the details (wrong uniforms, unlikely TTPs / poor dancing, “ballerina-as-victim” motif). Both movies were critically acclaimed, and the attention that they received because of the Academy Awards raised the conversation concerning each of the films (The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009 and Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010). Soldiers and veterans interviewed for whatever reason were often asked their opinion of The Hurt Locker. And some prominent veterans strongly raised their voice in opposition to the film. Dancers interviewed in newspapers and on morning television shows were often ambushed with the question of how they found Black Swan. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a dancer meeting someone at a party. “What did you think of Black Swan” probably is to dancers as “Did you kill anyone” is to veterans – the follow up question to learning ones’ unique profession.

Interested, I began to dig deeper. I saw the parallels of ballerinas and soldiers – especially infantrymen. A lot of my tougher friends who would be turned off by the ballet by default might not understand the athleticism required to dance. I was certainly oblivious to it. There was a scene in Black Swan, thought, that clicked for me. It was a montage scene where Nina (Portman) was preparing for her role, dancing, and at one point laying on an examination table being assisted by a doctor. Then, there was a scene of her taking a break, sipping water at a fountain and refilling her water bottle. It was at that point that ballet stopped being this airy, flirty thing to me and became a tough discipline that requires hard work and constant attention. It reminded me of so many sessions at the gym, early morning runs, or finishing a foot march and going straight to my canteen, trying to replenish myself before stepping off again.

Since I was in London, I signed up for the Royal Ballet’s ‘student standby’ program for students, which provides discount ballet tickets for students. I went to the ballet as often as I could, and began reading about it in newspapers and blogs. I looked for memoirs by dancers, finding Winter Season by Toni Bentley. Reading it, I made notes on the parallels:

“During the performance, things are cancelled, added or rearranged, according to the casualty level of the performance. If a dancer is injured, the ballet must be re-rehearsed for the understudy…” p. 32 (The mission must be accomplished, succession of command – PL, PSG, WSL, etc.)

“I saw Raging Bull yesterday and of course thought of the tragic sadness and frailty of those whose life is based on they physical – fighters and dancers.” p. 49

“But too often, meeting an ‘outside’ person involves the usual cross-examination: Where are you from? How long have you been dancing? What’s it like working with Balanchine? What did you dance tonight? We have a lot of jokes about pre-recording our answers. Of course people are curious (they’d better be!). We are unique, yet on a human-to-human level, this is very dull and finite in possibility. p. 55 (“What it like over there? Do you have to go back? No? Thank god. Did you ever kill anyone?)

“If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” p. 60 (Train as you fight)

I exchanged emails with the author about these strange parallels. She, of course, demurred to the idea. Anytime someone on the “outside” compares their profession to that of soldiers or their arena as a battlefield or war zone, they attract the ire of veterans groups and political commentators (see Antre Rolle of the New York Giants, for example). As an “insider,” though, it is more appropriate, or at least more socially acceptable for me to make these kinds of connections.

On a physical level, I’m struck at importance of feet in both crafts. Dancers and soldiers alike spend a great deal of time finding the perfect shoe/boot and perform superstitious rituals to make their footwear fit as perfectly as possible. Dancers rough up the bottoms of their dance shoes, soldiers soak boots in water to break them in. Underneath, feet are rubbed, blistered, callused, and torn apart.

I’m not the only one who has made these connections. A new friend, Roman Baca, served as a Marine in Fallujah and is the founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. He’s a fellow with The Mission Continues and recently went back to Iraq to convene a dance workshop.

What this all tells me is that there is something here. There are these two communities out there, dancers and soldiers, who represent a tiny portion of the overall population, hold a unique and grossly misunderstood profession that is wildly stereotyped and exploited in the media, and who often struggle in transitioning from a profession that is largely based on physical prowess to something more sustainable afterwards. Nothing, though, ever compares to the thrill of of doing that job, be it dancing or fighting.

Where this goes, I’m not sure. But it’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year and getting it out there might inspire more thought.

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Remembrance Day

This is an essay I wrote last year while I was in London.

I spent this past Sunday morning standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of men and women of the armed forces, veterans, family members, and citizens to honor the service and sacrifice of those who had answered the call to arms in wars both past and present. These weren’t my armed forces, or my fellow citizens, though. I was standing in central London, where the British gather yearly on the Sunday nearest Armistice Day (Veterans Day in the US). I served alongside the British in Iraq, and this was an opportunity for me to honor their service as fellow warriors.

As the clock reached the eleventh hour, a cannon fired, accompanied by the first chime of the bell, shaking our bodies and minds into silent obedience, urging our hearts to remember with each successive toll those who will not come home. On cue, the slight drizzle turns into a steady rain. Under a dark London sky, the Royal family and nation’s leaders gather together for a few short moments to recognize and pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and died for the Union Jack. The Queen leads the ceremony by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, a memorial originally meant to pay tribute to the British who died in the tragically labeled ‘War to end all Wars.’ Then, members of the Royal family lay wreaths, followed by the Prime Minister and other state officials.  When all the wreaths have been laid, veterans march to the cheer of their countrymen, render a smart salute upon passing the Cenotaph, and exit the parade ground, having captured for another moment the spirit of military service, but no closer to solving its meaning. The ceremony is both somber and appreciative, beginning with reflection and tears, and ending with catharsis, pride, and applause.

I’m not British, but this ceremony struck me more than any I have participated in back home. I’ve marched in the New York Veterans Day parade, whose main spectators are the families of those marching, November tourists, and people trying to cross the street.  Memorial Day is commemorated nationally with mattress sales. Here though, for one moment, people throughout the UK (including all the nation’s leaders) stop to honor those who have fought for them.

But it’s not just Remembrance Sunday that people “do something.”  From late October to mid-November, the Royal British Legion sells paper poppies to be worn on the lapels of men and women to show their support. This is the most well-known charity event in the UK, and you would be hard-pressed to find any public figure caught without wearing the small red flower (Harry Potter and company sported them for the release of Deathly Hallows). To me, this is more than a gesture. It is a sign that they actually care. It is a way for a person to not only demonstrate that they have donated money towards veterans, but to tell the world that their veterans matter.

It would be easy to dismiss the poppy as an empty symbol, like we often do with our yellow ribbons, which were slapped to the back of our cars at the turn of the millennium, and have since faded to white. Maybe some people who wear the poppy do it because it is the “right thing to do” but don’t actually care about veterans. Undoubtedly, this will be the case for some. To declare the entire gesture as empty demonstrates a low faith in humanity, though. I’d like to live in a world where people’s expressions can be genuine, so I take the view that what they wear is what they mean. And to be frank, when I see someone wearing a poppy it makes me feel like my service mattered – especially in a country heavily conflicted over its role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Wearing the poppy is an acknowledgement that taking care of veterans is not a political statement, but a moral responsibility.

Remembrance Sunday is the Super Bowl of veterans’ commemorations. Veterans Day and Memorial day, rolled into one, where heads of state are duty-bound to participate and the country comes together to remember and show its appreciation. As a nation that has asked so much of so few, don’t we owe our veterans the same?

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London Riots

From photoshoplooter

BLUF – if I wasn’t exposed to the media coverage, I wouldn’t know there were riots at all.

I’m not going to offer a hypothesis on “what this all means.” All I will say is there is a lot of graduate-level debate on what appears to be a high school-level issue.

But, as an American living in London, and one who has seen civil disturbance before, I can offer my personal experience and put things in context for an American audience.

I live in central London in student housing. It’s a very nice area that I would equate to living somewhere just outside of trendy in NYC. I live about two miles from Westminster, where Parliament and Big Ben sit. The riots happened (past tense, they are not persistent) no where near me. Think deep Queens if your center of gravity is Penn Station.

Dramatic Image #1

The news coverage has been persistent, though. And there are certainly some dramatic images. Two nights ago, multiple fires were covered by multiple helicopters, often shown on television in a four-block grid, presenting the image of London burning. Newscasters spoke in near-apocalyptic terms. Friends who know I am in London have sent me messages asking about what’s going on, fearing that I may be stocking up on supplies and barricading myself in my room.

But London was not in anarchy. Nor is it now. For those directly affected, the damage and violence is extreme. But the presentation of the riots makes it seem that London is on the verge of collapse.

Walking home from SOAS late yesterday afternoon, there was definitely an air of anticipation. People chatted with light excitement about the riots, the causes, and the expectations going forward. Police sirens could be heard almost non-stop, but in the distance. Helicopters buzzed above, somewhere over there. Small groups of police officers in crisp white shirts walked around. Stores closed early and restaurants pulled their outdoor seating furniture inside to prevent roving bands of rioters from using them as weapons. For the first time since I’ve been here, my dormitory locked the front doors as a “precautionary measure.” I had an online grocery order which was supposed to be delivered yesterday evening which was cancelled “due to events.” That’s the extent to which the riots affected me.

I’m not sure what the discussion is like about the riots in the US, but a lot of the conversation in the media here has been about the crowd control methods used by UK police, with the accusation offered that UK police are too tame. Water cannons and tear gas are deemed “continental” methods, something not appropriate for British police. British cops police through “community consent.”

I woke up this morning and checked the news, curious to know if the world had ended. It appears that nothing major happened last night.

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