The Ghost of Ballets Past


Renaissance Theatre Chandelier

I hear the oboe whine its A in the orchestra pit, and it dawns on me how incredible this is. I’m living in a medium-sized Rust Belt town that actually has its own orchestra and a dance troupe and a grand old theatre that has drawn well over 700 people to see a ballet. The turnout to tonight’s cultural event echoes a different Mansfield, Ohio, an earlier, livelier version. Tonight, my Mansfield is out on the town.

Bobby Wesner, the artistic director of Neos Dance Theatre, has set tonight’s Nutcracker in 1940s Mansfield, and uses projection mapping and other technology I don’t understand to turn the stage into a snowy, glowing, palpable nostalgia of wartime Mansfield. A place I have never seen, that may not have existed, but that I am still homesick for.

I am seated up front in our iconic Renaissance Theatre. Plush red seats, an extravagant crystal chandelier, generous gold trim. The woman behind me gasps when the red velvet curtains part and the set is revealed. For me it’s not the set but the dancers who inspire awe. I watch the woman playing Marie, the main character. Her body occupies the space around her with the grace that makes movement art. The grace that makes humans human. The smile on her face is both sweet and somehow industrial — a part of her machine that will never fail.


Photo by Jeff Sprang; Editing by Steven Au

I don’t know much about dance, but I do know how much practice it takes to be this good; the repetition like a job on the production line, except there was no applause when the factories closed their curtains. Perfection is the expected final product, regardless. Tight arcs, perfect balance, exact calibration. The straight line of her legs laid out in a leap, his hands on her hips as he guides his partner through the air, the tilt of her wrist and extended first finger. The noise of their shoes on the stage — thump, scuff, slide — the only betrayal of their effort.

The young boy playing Marie’s troublesome little brother is obviously enjoying the hell out of himself. His grin is huge and his motions large. There is no disguising this passion. It’s possible he doesn’t have the mechanics of the dance whirring in his mind yet. Can he feel the invisible lines that connect his arms and legs to those of everyone else on the stage, the gearworks that spin them around? What I think he does feel is the incontrovertible power of his body. I hope that, when someone tells him he shouldn’t dance, because that will probably happen someday, he won’t hear it.

Bobby and his wife dance together several times in the last half of the ballet. Their dances are so intimate that I feel almost a transgressor to watch Bobby’s hand slide a practiced path up his wife’s side. The architecture of their bodies together making and remaking one structure after another, the conversation they have with their eyes — it is the knowledge of someone who has been down this path before. Who has walked the alleys of her town for decades. Who transposes the map of history over every scene. Buildings are made, buildings are razed, but the brick still burns the same red at sunset that it always has.

It’s true my town has seen better days, but if you let that stop you from dancing, you’re beyond hope. We keep moving, writing, singing. We keep creating, aiming for the future while dreaming of the past.


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