Friday, January 28, 2011


Possibly you’re in need for an antidote after seeing the ballet movie, "Black Swan," which is being hailed as either camp or horror or both.  Definitely erotica.  Well, you’re in luck.  I have the recipe right here:
Take one “Anne of Green Gables” and triple her.
Add a third of a cup of “Harry Potter.”
Sweeten a little too much.
More than a trace of Indiana Jones.
A half-cup of “Poor Little Rich Girl.
A sprinkle of “Mary Poppins.”
A little Moira Shearer but nothing tragic.
Spread, dry to the consistency of “Masterpiece Theatre.”
No salt, but lots of pluck, grit and laughter.
Some will already have recognized “Ballet Shoes,” which was not developed from a fairy tale but rather from an inspirational book written for our grandmothers (well, mine more than yours, probably) about three little orphans full of talent.  Briefly, very rich but eccentric GUM (Great Uncle Matthew) as played by the enormous and droll Richard Griffiths, is pressed to accept into his huge fossil-packed mansion his niece and her governess/guardian/nanny.  Though he objects at first, he soon gets so used to it that when he continues on his nineteenth century style round-the-world journeys, he brings home charming orphan babies.  Finally off he goes again, leaving pots of money, but this time doesn’t come back and the money runs out just as the girls reach consciousness.
A second layer of family forms when the niece and nanny take in lodgers: a committed pair of female professors, an energetic and exotic dancer, and a melancholy young man whose wife and child died.  Anyone capable of holding a crayon could draw the rest of the plot.  One girl is a natural mechanic, a second wishes to act, and the third was the daughter of a Russian ballerina and has her ballet shoes to prove it.
The mystique of toe-dancing ballet shoes is very strong, a meshing of enablement, torture, skill, and distinction.  The mother had already sewn on the long pink ribbons of the shoes -- these are not red shoes nor were they worn.  Working on one’s shoes is a constant preoccupation of dancers but that’s not the level of concern in this story.  Rather the idea is the having good character, excellent manners, and finding something decent to wear.  
Posy, the girl who dances, finds her champion in Madame Fidolia, the Russian owner of the studio.  This book is so beloved of girls in the UK that a couple of distinguished actresses signed on.  One is Gemma Jones, who was our spirited “Duchess of Duke Street,” and another is Eileen Atkins.  I just watched “Equus” (the 1977 Richard Burton version) and was amazed at how young Eileen looked.  She was born in 1934, which is about when this story is supposed to be happening, and she’s still going strong, looking wonderful in full Moscow aristocrat drag with glamorous raccoon eyes.  Born in a Salvation Army Women's Hostel in north London, her father was a gas meter reader and her mother, a seamstress and barmaid.  She’s the real thing.
How real is this story?  Easily as real as “Black Swan.”  What’s the big deal about reality anyway?  Do you know the real life of Lucy Maude Montgomery, who wrote “Anne of Green Gables”?  The wife of a minister who suffered from deep depression, she covered for him while she wrote books to pay the bills, which she didn’t much enjoy doing, and raised their sons (not daughters), finally committing suicide.  Do you know the real life of Louisa May Alcott?  A brilliant but improvident father, a sister who died of TB as did her close friend Henry David Thoreau -- writing heart-warming tales of close family while raising her niece, keeping the family fed by writing, and suffering not so much from a disease as from the supposed cure: lead-poisoning from the medicine which finally killed her.  is an interesting guide to “Ballet Shoes” and how it was the beginning of the type of series that wear out their authors.  Every title in this parade has “shoes” in the title.  (party shoes, circus shoes, etc.)  Emma Watson is in this version of the book, the second or third since there were earlier BBC versions.  No doubt her “Hermione” role from Harry Potter was what financed the film and I hope that it will be a good transition for her -- “rite of passage” if you wish -- as she moves into adulthood.  She said it was really nice to be with women instead of all those boys, but several other Potter actors came along. 
Grandmothers who are authors aren’t what they used to be, though they still write books that have little relationship to reality, being about vampires and true and faithful love forever with no worries except modern problems like drug addiction or parents who can’t stay married or whether they might actually be lesbian.  But the idea is still to offer examples of success in the vein of Oprah.  The more clever writers come up with cat-woman versions like Lisbeth Salander.  (How Louisa May would have loved to wear a cat suit and ride a motorcycle -- I’m sure of it!)  Nevertheless, the basic advice has to be the same:  guts, tenacity, imagination (thanks, Anne) and -- well, the ability to assemble your own family.  
These are not gender-assigned or time-bound qualities.  I suspect the first andros who gave up walking on their knuckles were successful only if they had these traits.  But for a while there when times were changing and Western women were finally escaping generations of constraints as Asian, African and Middle Eastern women are doing today.  They needed the encouragement and examples, unrealistic as “Ballet Shoes” may be.  Today’s book aggregators are swamped with ethnic and white-bread-but-disadvantaged versions of this story.  
A little Googling will yield free streaming versions of this movie plus access to the books and shoes in general.  Watch out for “red shoes” which can grab your feet and dance you into “Black Swan” territory.  You want to stick to PINK ballet shoes.  I think I still have mine somewhere, though Mr. Oumansky said I was not ready for them and he was right, so they’re barely worn.

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