By Suzanne Gerber for Next Avenue
In her mid-50s, Lauren Kessler was seized by the notion that she might dance professionally — and not just dance, but dance ballet. And not just any ballet. Kessler got it into her head that she could actually perform onstage in her all-time favorite ballet, The Nutcracker Suite. The fact that she hadn’t put on ballet slippers since she was 12 didn’t deter her.
Age 12 was a turning point for young Kessler. She was still living in that starry-eyed world where anything is possible when she overheard the director of her ballet school, a legendary dancer named André Eglevsky, tell her mother that she didn’t have the right body for ballet and that it would be better if she quit.
As she writes in her new book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts & My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker, “I went from oblivious to self-conscious — and from self-conscious to self-critical — in a leap so quick I didn’t know it happened. All I knew was that suddenly I was looking in mirrors and not liking what I saw. There was now this voice inside my head that listed faults.”
In between that moment and the one 43 years later when she was struck by the desire to dance again, Kessler led a rich, full, productive life as a wife, mother and writer. But midlife hit hard, and she went through something like an identity crisis. “This sudden desire to dance The Nutcracker can’t be mere personal divertissement,” she writes. “The impulse, in fact, feels much bigger than that, much deeper… This ballet dream is freighted with, absolutely saturated and dripping with, the stuff of life. And by ‘stuff of life’ I mean fear, angst, pride, self-doubt, arrogance, fragility, optimism, pessimism, discontent, happiness, restlessness.”
And so her quest begins. Kessler brings the reader along on a 250-page journey that’s brutally challenging, hilariously funny and incontestably inspiring as she tries to morph from fit-but-not-ballet-fit mother and writer to lithe and limber Aunt Rose. “The Nutcracker is my cure for middle-aged doldrums,” she avows. “This is how I will not settle into midlife.”
You don’t have to be a dancer, or even a fan of ballet, to appreciate Kessler’s story. Because really, as she says, her story isn’t merely about dancing. “It’s about the decision to take your life off auto-pilot,” she told me in a recent interview. And being someone who routinely tries to do just that, with mixed results, I had about 100 questions for her.
Next Avenue: If this story isn’t, ultimately, about dance, what is it about?
Lauren Kessler: We’re often told it’s never too late to … fill in the blank. Sometimes that’s true but not always, like going back to medical school at age 55, for example. But I wanted to explore whether that was true for me. And for me it wasn’t so much dancing The Nutcracker as thumbing my nose in the face of André Eglevsky.
Why was it important for you to challenge yourself this way?
Comfort zones are, obviously, comfortable, but if we want to continue to grow, we have to stand way outside of our comfort zones. A lot of us have spent a lot of time in discomfort on the path to getting someplace comfortable. It kind of feels like in midlife or in retirement that you should just exhale and settle in. I’m not saying that’s not OK for some people; I’m saying it wasn’t working for me. It’s not the way I find joy. So I wanted to test myself and see what I was capable of.
You’re physically active, competitive and open-minded: Could you be more hard-wired to take on these kinds of challenges? What’s your response to people who say, ‘It’s not worth the risk’?
I would say very straightforwardly: It is worth the risk. This sounds trite, but it’s not about ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing.’ It’s not about that at all. It’s about stepping boldly, even if it’s a very small step. I understand that most people would not try and dance The Nutcracker onstage. But whatever you want to do, you have to talk yourself into being a little brave. And being curious.
We’re all born with incredible curiosity, and I feel like sometimes the older you get, the staler you get, especially if you’re constantly with the same people doing the same things. If you’re happy, that’s great. But being curious and stepping out into the big world and away from the world that you know is so enriching: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually and, for me, physically. It’s just about movement! Because life is about movement; it’s not about being static.
OK, spoiler alert: You actually performed in The Nutcracker last season locally with the Eugene Ballet Company. And you’ll be back onstage with that troupe this month. How has your preparation been different this time?
The big thing, psychologically, is that I’m not petrified. It’s not that “Oh, I’ve got it all down and I’m going to be perfect.” Not at all. But last year, I was so concerned about the stage makeup because I don’t wear makeup and I don’t know how to apply it. I was quite tense when we were touring because I had to do it quickly in bad circumstances. So that’s gone because I know I can do it. And last year I didn’t realize I was going to be dancing in character shoes, not ballet slippers, and they have two-and-a-half-inch heels, and I don’t wear heels in my real life. And I was going to have to be graceful and flitting across the stage and doing pirouette-y kind of things.
The other part was this production of The Nutcracker has gorgeous costumes — to rival New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. And I have to wear one of the costumes that these 20-year-old, L.A.-body girls use. Happily, there are some seams that can be let out, but they can only be let out so much. But now I know I can fit into one.
So which was harder, the physical or the psychological challenges?
What’s the value for other people in doing their own version of dancing the Nutcracker?
Every inspirational midlife story I’ve ever read in a woman’s magazine has to do with women who had to make some major life change, because of what I call the four Ds: death, divorce, downsizing and diagnosis. But for those of us who are privileged and lucky enough to not to have something horrible happen that forces a change, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t force a change — just for the hell of it! Just for the fun of it! Forget that it’s a great learning experience and it keeps you young in your head. It’s just fun to do something new and see if you can do it.
What was your greatest thrill in performing in The Nutcracker?
There is extraordinary joy in losing yourself in a moment — in writing, in art and particularly in the performing arts. If you can get to that moment — which generally takes a lot of hard work — it is a moment of loss of self and openness to something else. Ballet is really hard for people who are 20 and have the exact right body for ballet. For me, who is not and doesn’t, there was a point in one or two of the performances when I was just with the music, and it was a magical and freeing point. The other part: I joined a community, a professional ballet company, as a stranger. I immersed myself in their world and their lives, and getting to know them and travel with them was enormously enriching.
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