by Norbert Kovacs
Sally had been a professional dancer for twenty years so knew the dance repertoire. She had performed those by famous choreographers many times in many spaces and now delivered them without flaw. She no longer read the reviews that said she was a masterful dancer since she had been told it many times. She did not regret passing on them, either. Sally had become disaffected with dancing since she was middle aged and even showed it through in her graying, curly hair and crease-ridden face. Her dark-brown eyes, once bright, drooped for the same reason. When she danced, she did so precisely, making it appear she had planned her every step. Her quicker, shorter dances sometimes looked mechanical. If she made missteps in rehearsal, she did it because she wished not to dwell on an arrangement she knew already. To vary what she performed, Sally reworked dances that she had done into new pieces. She spliced together the formal steps of ballet with the fast motions of modern; she used pieces of popular and folk though she felt these last not her style. Her fellow dancers who respected Sally’s experience sometimes performed these dances with her. These novel experiments did not coalesce well, Sally found. The audience clapped for them, the reviews gave some lukewarm praise but not the emphatic kind Sally had received earlier. She was disappointed by it. In coming to rehearsals, she no longer looked at the scuffed studio floor that she danced over the day. She watched instead younger dancers re-create the steps and gestures that she knew. She thought lately she might quit dancing but did not imagine what else she might do. She did not feel cut out to teach.
Sally was brooding over a work she was to rehearse when she read in the paper that a dancer would be performing at a long shuttered theatre in town. She knew that several famous artists had performed at this theatre while it had operated. She recalled a famous actress had been there to perform Shakespeare; a soprano, a program of arias; and a respected pianist, a concerto with ensemble. The theatre had held a reputation for these performances. However, the venue’s usual fare, much less than these, was not enough to continue drawing the crowds and the place had closed several years ago. Sally found it strange a performer should choose to appear there now when many other spaces were available in the city. When she asked her artist friends, they said they had not heard of the dancer who would perform in the shuttered place. Sally, left wondering who the dancer was, decided to go see her perform.
The night for the dance Sally walked the sidewalk from her apartment to the old theatre. She felt guilty as she saw the lazy motion that her legs made as she turned at the street corners. She had the habit to walk so and it had embarrassed her more than once. Couldn’t I walk straight just once: I have the control on stage, she thought as she hurried along. She arrived before the old brick theatre fronted by Ionic columns. The local paper had bragged that the place had "an apt, classic splendor for the fine performances given inside.” She took the long flight of stone steps to the door, no longer veering to the side as she went, bought her ticket, and entered the auditorium where many people had gathered. She could tell several were established figures of the town by their well-cut clothes and suits. She recognized a historian who had written of the theatre in a city history. Near the wall sat a drama teacher who lead a respected studio. Sally took her seat at mid-floor, draped her blazer over its back, and unwound her scarf. Once she settled, the last comers took their seats. The lights over the audience dimmed and the black curtain rose exposing the stage.
The scene was the stage’s original linoleum floor and bare, back walls. The floor had been swept clean but not polished, so that it had an old worn appearance. The single prop to be seen was a pale, green oblong of hard plastic standing waist high at stage center. A plain white light diffused over the scene. There came hurried string music from the speakers above the stage and a woman sped into view. She was a young, lean figure, shorter than most dancers whom Sally knew. She had black hair, face of a cream color, and dark eyes. Her chest was small and rounded, her arms and legs angular at the joints. Her tight midsection tapered at the waist , fit from long practice at dance. She wore a dark blue body suit cut at the elbow and the ankle that outlined her form well. The dancer halted at stage front, her arms bent tensely at her sides, her hands open, the fingers pointed down. At a start in the music, she turned and bolted toward the back of the stage. She leapt as the violin music broke and landed facing the stage back. She ran again with arching steps toward stage left, leaped again, her legs kicking in the air and landed quietly before the wall. Sally thought it a strange way to open a dance. She asked herself why, for one, the dancer did not look toward the audience. As Sally watched, the dancer moved by more short bolts and leaps around the stage, her face turned always from the crowd.
A wilting, sad line of horns and oboes transformed the music. The dancer strode by long, graceful steps in a diagonal across the stage, then back. She moved in figure eights, each time stopping farther from the stage’s corners. Her motion was tight, never straying from the shape of the eight. On her third figure, she slowed, rolling her torso before she turned and for a first time faced the audience. She crossed the stage, curling midway, returned to front left, and circled herself in a loop. Sally found the turns out of place with the woman's former flow of movement; it was as if her dance was falling apart when it only had started. Sally's confusion grew as the young artist slowly confined her motion to the stage front. The dancer turned in small loops, crossing her own steps. These steps shortened until she circled once before the oblong. Her motion had became extremely tight. Sally thought it a difficult, over-controlled sequence to maintain. At last, the young woman drew her arms to her chest, bowed her head, and held still.
The oboes and horns in the music fell quiet and the sound of flutes began cautious and low. The dancer opened and unbent her left arm, the wrist catching the white light from overhead. She curved her limb and let it sink, slow and snakelike toward her tight stomach. Her arm moved with a lazy, idle languor that she studied with interest. To Sally it seemed the dancer had forgotten her earlier movement; the young woman hardly moved, absorbed as she became in her self-study. The dancer next arched the left side of her body, her shoulder suddenly slumping. A sinuous clarinet started in the music above the flutes and the woman swept her left leg low over the floor. She made it go long, close to the linoleum. Sally considered the cautious, reflective way the woman maneuvered, more as if she demonstrated a motion rather than dance in any sense.
As the flutes performed lazy measures, the dancer arched and curved her leg with the knee into a sharp peak, and drew it to her side. As the dancer repeated the move, Sally wondered what the young woman aimed for doing it. She watched the dancer bend and unbend her arms a second time. The woman curved them like an S, all while following this motion curiously with her eyes, as if with surprise. The motion seemed strange, unrehearsed. Finally, she jostled and loosened each arm, dropping them. She had relaxed from her early stiffness.
A high-pitched violin and a piercing oboe took over the music. The dancer rippled from her left shoulder to the right, then down her arm and back across her body. She sent wave motions across her legs, arching and twisting the limbs. Sally smiled helplessly. She enjoyed these new, complex moves ; they made her think of a usual dance, though she knew this was no usual one. The dancer next sent twists from her leg across her torso. She gyrated her waist, and curved her arms as she studied the moves, flowing and bending. Her legs rose and descended. It’s like she is moving freely for the first time and not according to a formula, Sally thought. As Sally watched, the dancer combined motions, curved arm and leg at the same time, bent and unbent her torso.
The dancer looked intently at the audience whenever she now shifted her body. Her expression seemed to ask something as Sally came to feel. She felt the question behind the look, whatever it was, more insistent each time. Sally puzzled why the dancer should want to ask anything and followed the performance seeking an answer. In one part of the dance, the young artist shifted to a side and promptly raised her eyes to the audience. Sally had a strange idea of a sudden that the dancer was asking a question of her rather than anyone else. It seemed bizarre to think; the dancer could have been studying anyone just as well. However, Sally realized she very well might be right. The dancer's line of sight crossed through her; she could have been looking only at her. But what then had the dancer meant to ask? Sally had no answer as the young woman stepped elsewhere.
A quick, bright oboe and violin announced the next lines of the music. The dancer struck a full body pose at stage left, her back arched, her arms high, studying the spot she had departed a moment earlier. A pride entered her dark eyes, as if she reflected on a great feat she had achieved. Letting go the form, the dancer hooked by quick steps to mid-stage. She halted before the large oblong and raised her arms as if startled just as several violins sounded a dark, ominous bar from the speakers. The sound worried Sally and she froze in her seat as the performer did on stage. However, the young dancer relaxed and leaned against the green oblong, arching her leg in the air behind her. She seemed she was engaging the object, which she appeared unable to earlier. The dancer brought her entire body onto the block, balling her form, and rolled onto her side. Her motions, mimicking those she had done earlier, came now at the ready. By a small effort, the dancer raised her torso and snaked up her body. She arched her arm upward, following it with her eyes. Sally realized the woman was building up her performance. She was drawing on the motions of earlier, of curling her arms, bending her legs, to master the oblong space. She figured it neatly, in fact. A flute sounded light, easy, and flowing. The dancer rolled again on the oblong, curling a leg, then an arm. She looked at the audience, her eyes on Sally. The same question came from her as earlier and Sally recognized that she was being asked to respond. She looked on, fixed by the idea. The dancer rolled again and raised her head. She bounced up, stood on the pale oblong, and faced the ceiling.
The music became all violins, high in pitch, quick in tempo. The dancer stepped from the oblong by eager steps, hooked by the wall of the stage and leapt with it at her back. The vigorous move sent a jolt into Sally where she sat in the audience. The dancer turned her leg, arched her arms, jutted forward her knee. In this leap and those that followed, Sally felt the young woman had brought the program completely around from the beginning. Everything in her movement showed energy and a sense of command, even a feeling of success. The dancer circled the stage, then bound to its front. Excited violins, horns, and trumpets rose in harmony within the music. The mood infected Sally, lifting her. The dancer raised her arms high, her legs stretched. Then she arched arm, leg, torso. Her body rolled. She faced the audience. She faced Sally. She splayed open her arms and rolled her head. She let her shoulders flow loosely. A heavy drum beat sounded from the music speakers and the dancer halted. The music finished and there was silence. The dance had ended and the theatre’s black curtain fell.
When the theatergoers rose to leave, Sally saw the confusion in their faces. She watched a suited man turn to his sequined wife and ask, “What was all of that?” An elderly man and two aged women exchanged puzzled faces; the more simple looking woman of the two said, “Could you make anything of her?” The dance had mystified them and few seemed to accept, let alone have liked, the performance. Perhaps, Sally thought, an art critic, if he were among them, would write a poor review, contrasting the dance to the long idolized appearances by the actress and the pianist in the theatre long ago. Sally appreciated why they might reject it. She herself liked the established and the standard: it was her repertoire. However, she felt she understood the basic meaning of this night’s dance unlike the rest of the theatergoers. It was that the young dancer had seen the old forms of dance and decided she must create a new one for herself. Sally felt this stated the point exactly. The stark dance had played at boundaries, experimented with motions, and combined and re-combined them in a new light for the sake of doing it. And in doing so, Sally felt, the young woman had rejuvenated the space of the old theatre. She had given a performance equal to the actress and the pianist, if not more in her daring. Sally sat reflecting happily on the idea that this could be so as the befuddled theatergoers trailed out of the building. At last, she gathered her blazer and scarf in the silence of the empty theatre and left.
Sally found the stone flight of steps to the street outside empty, the last person having departed the theatre long before. As she thought of the night’s dance, she recalled her own performance that she long had accepted as polished and perfected. She felt now she might try to change it. She would make her dance new again, as the performance tonight had been. Going down the first steps, Sally saw her legs wander to the side with the off movement she had made walking to the theatre. She slowed and watched her feet make two, then three of the steps. She liked the motion for the first time. She thought it had its own kind of grace, one she had overlooked in her self-chastisement. She took a few more strides right. She held still and treaded back. She took a few paces down again, watching herself carefully; without turning, she shuffled back up the steps. She lifted her foot to make a new advance. But an idea struck her. She raised her leg and arched it down to the stone. She descended a short way and curved in her path. She saw her legs cross neatly before each other.
Sally reached the broad sidewalk, circled in a small loop, and bowed a leg over the concrete. An old man in a costly blazer, advancing along the sidewalk, stopped a short distance away and stared at Sally. His puzzled face pleaded the question why Sally was acting so on that deserted street on a cold night. Sally looked back at the old man but, rather than speak a word, she curved her leg and took a bounding step to the side. Her dance was the answer to the old man and, as she thought of it, the question the young dancer had asked.