a night at the ballet

I’m surprised I haven’t written about ballet before.

(There’s an opening line you won’t read anywhere else.)

It turns out I’ve made only a couple of the most brief references to it in this space. A few years ago, it was briefly the subject of a longer essay that accompanied a keynote address. But that’s all I could find. I’m not sure which is stranger: that I haven’t written about the ballet as much as I’d thought, or that I’m surprised by the fact.

So here goes:

There are a few things we humans do that I’m particularly impressed with. One example is the ability to imagine and create the collision of two protons. This, it turns out, is crazy ridiculously hard. We make first year physics students calculate the forces between a couple of these individual charges, and it quickly becomes apparent that these things don’t just happen. But, if you make them each approach the speed of light and head exactly towards one another it can be done; and it has been done just recently under the dirt in Europe. But you have to get all the magnets just so, steering these individual charges so that as they approach the speed of light as they round the bend of a circular path that’s 17 miles around. Every piece of this has to be just so, and the experts involved probably each know about the number of coils in one particular magnetic coil, or the acceleration of a proton in a particular region, or the detector efficacy at one particular spot. And then they put all their heads together and “poof” we do something and know something we never could have known before. In fact, no one person could have pulled this off by herself. The heads had to be together, not simply knowing their one particular things but knowing how to orchestrate all the stuff so that it all became coherent.

Another thing: Education. I think we take it for granted that “education” exists as a system. But when you think about it you realize that there was some thinking and some decisions that had to go into all of this education stuff. What you do in first grade impacts what you can do in second grade. How you educate the populace is a decision that is arbitrary — there’s no law of nature that says it must be one way — but it is also incredibly deliberate. And, holy Jesus, it works. Sure, we can argue that it can be better (surely it could be better), but my 7-year-old can spell and my 9-(almost 10)-year-old can multiply, and I had nothing to do with it. Moreover, there are countless children that can do these same things, and they grow up to become mayor, or a truck driver, or an engineer, or your doctor, or a teacher themselves. That, to me, is one of the greatest things we could have ever come up with. We’ve put it into place as a required piece of our society because, well, because we said so. Good idea. An amazing idea, actually. I think it’s even more extraordinary than those protons, and probably less likely.

But, truly, the most extraordinary orchestration of genius and creativity comes through in my annual enchantment with the ballet. Here’s where I stall. I can’t even begin to describe how amazing The Nutcracker is. I recently made a comment that “I love the ballet and I’m not afraid to admit it.” A friend commented back that this was perfectly understandable, considering all the scantily clad and incredibly fit people dancing around. True; but this completely misses the point. I’ll fall short trying to explain, but, again, here goes:

Yes, there’s the dancing. Each one of these humans is doing something incredible that took a lifetime of effort to accomplish, ranging from spinning around like a top to flying through the air to holding perfectly still. A woman imitates the jerky mechanics of a wind-up doll; a man leaps over a fellow dancer and then begins to swing his feet around in a circle while one hand at a time holds him above the floor. And then they are doing things in perfect synchronization with one another, often a dozen people on the stage in some perfect, dynamic alignment. And then someone decides that snow should be falling from the heavens, and there’s a stage and artwork and costumery that has all been created to exactly fit a particular scene and its essence. And then . . . well, please forgive me, I can’t explain. But, it’s true, I’ll admit it, that when the first strings of the music begin to vibrate, all together in perfect unison, I believe in God and love and beauty and goodness all at once. This is silly to say. It’s over the top. It’s exactly true, but doesn’t say enough. There’s something so much more to hearing the combinations of the strings and the woodwinds and the brass in person, somehow mixing in a way that physics describes just right and so completely inadequately. Call me crazy at this point; fine. But stay with me long enough to imagine that someone else had to imagine the artistry of the snow and the stage and the dancing and the music, all together, in the same place and at the same time. And then: people, humans (some of them dressed up as mice, some of them in tuxedos, some of them in tights), put this all together. And then they did it, Friday night, right before my eyes and ears. It’s a miracle.

So I have to believe in miracles, because I’ve been to the ballet. Smash protons, build a city, detonate a clump or uranium, educate a lawyer, it’s all small change next to a night at the ballet. Best of all, the ballet gives me hope. If we can work so hard, be so coordinated, imaginative, thoughtful, and determined as to put these things into one piece, then I can have hope for other deliberate miracles.

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