George Balanchine once described dancers as "poets of gesture." With that evocative line in mind for our 19-20 Season, we invited a group of poets to explore the ways in which the stage and the page unite in a series of commissioned poems, including this piece inspired by George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, from poet Dorothea Lasky.
The Golden Hour
After Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2
At the end of time
It was the Golden Hour
Where in the golden light
The supper was placed in a row
Spiced hams, tiny cherries
The very large pineapple air
Language is a water
Or is it a rose
I sat so quietly
So that no one would notice me
I still remember the time
When we were dancing
All of a sudden
The lights dimmed
An arch of arm and walking like
We were at war
Dim grey curtsies
And the icing of grey bones
No one could answer
How horrible it was going to get
The clown in his red wet suit
Hiding in the corner of the stage
All in every movement
The fallacies of each age
In every small and subtle jump
To lift one’s arm as one lifts a line
And to cut off movement
As one cuts off the poem entirely
As one cuts off speech entirely
The world itself, filling with smog
Cleanly moving into balanced lines
Reconvening in grey valences
Edging out in smoky grace
All the stresses of my lifetime
Written into as few words as possible
And when all of this is over: I will be so silent
No one will see me anymore
Or hear me either
I will be so quiet
I will fade and fold
With the mistakes of my age
We stopped dancing so long ago
I can hardly remember
Subtle and smoking applause
The clapping of the eternal grave
It was all of this and more
The dancers exiting
I was certain then
That you loved me
What did we used to believe in
All of a sudden the lights dimmed
What is this forever
We were in lines together, with the lights off
Besides being published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and a host of other well-known publications, Dorothea Lasky has also published five full-length collections of poetry. After earning her MFA and PhD, Lasky taught at numerous institutions, including NYU, and now serves as Associate Professor of Poetry at Columbia University. Read our exclusive Q&A with Dorothea to learn more about her creative process below.
What exposure have you had to ballet in the past? If you haven’t attended a ballet before, what did you know about the art form?
When I was little, it was my dream to be a dancer. I never got very far, but I did take ballet for a year at a small dance school near my house. I love dance in general and ballet especially. I associate grace and glamour with ballet and when I attended the performance to collect language for my poem, it had both of those qualities, although amplified. Ballet feels holy.
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
Although I was so excited to be in the beautiful performance space and in a good mood, I felt immense sadness watching the piece. It felt as if the dancers were working across another field of time, which in many ways they were, as the music was not contemporary. Everything about the dancing had a divine and eternal – and apocalyptic – air to it. When I wrote my poem after attending the ballet, I tried very hard to recreate this feeling for the reader.
What was your process for this particular assignment? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
I took so many notes during the performance and then drew from them when writing the poem. This is different than the way I usually write poems, as I tend to write freely "in the moment" and let the poem take its shape immediately. In writing this poem, my approach was more measured and grounded in real experience. Overall, I found the process to be a lot of fun and I would love to do it again sometime.
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
I absolutely agree! I have long thought that poets and dancers are after the same sort of end goal with their art. Many years ago, I collaborated with a dancer and she made dances out of my poems. Ever since then, I have seen poets and dancers as kindred. Perhaps it is the case that for both poets and dancers the expression of pure emotion is most key to what they do. Both work and practice relentlessly to make a gesture or line that is brief, seemingly fleeting, and that has deep emotional impact.