Volume 1 Number 2
Summer 2006

 

The Necessity for Beauty

Gary Holthaus


I have now wept much during my life, even in the presence of others’ weeping. In recent years, tears have come more often, and they seem to come less frequently from sadness or tragedy and more often from beauty of grace.

Till recently that beauty has come in different forms: a small landscape or sublime vista, the easy grace of a wild animal, some unlikely expression of human compassion. These days I am moved more frequently when beauty springs from human origins. What is also different lately is that I am struck by beauty at random moments impossible to anticipate, and moved more deeply. It is as if my perception of beauty had shifted. I may see as beautiful now something that would not have appeared so, or so forcefully, a few years ago.

What occasioned this speculation has roots a decade ago, seeing “Granny Dances To A Holiday Drum,” a concert presented by Dever’s Cleo ParkerRobinson Dance Ensemble. It was the first time I’d shed tears in years and I have puzzled over it since. The Ensemble is an exceptionally disciplined dance company, full of enthusiasm, and grace. That Christmas concert included students and children, and there were dancers of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Ms. Robinson performed, and tow storytellers, Martha Barnard and Opalanga, rounded out the program. Though cleo Parker Robinson is justly famed, these performers do not live and work at the world’s centers for dance, drama or other arts. Though they have traveled internationally, they are rooted in Denver and perform in an old church refurbished for use as a dance school, offices, and theatre. The church is located in five Points, the heart of the black ghetto. This holiday performance was not an anomaly; I have never attended a cleo Parker Robinson performance that failed to strike me profoundly by its beauty; but never had this beauty moved me to tears.

I sat among others who were clearly enjoying the performance. At certain times of obvious intensity we were all in it together, everyone moved, touched, excited. Sometimes white tissues picked up what light there was in the darkened hall. But occasionally, while others were simply smiling, moving slightly in time to the music and the dance, even laughing. I found myself adjusting my galsses on my nose with a finger, and surreptitiously wiping a corner of my eye. this left me feeling disconcerted. at one point Rick Vollertsen, an attorney from Anchorage who had come to the program with us, leaned over in the dark and whispered, “Look out, Holthaus, your macho’s leaking. You better stop at the service station and have your macho checked.

Thinking about it later, and at similar times since, I’ve come to believe that what got to me was beauty of several kinds. There was the beauty of the music, the beauty of supple bodies in motion, the beauty of color: lights, costumes, skin colors. There was the beauty of the entire spectacle: sound, sight, energy, movement and color. There was the beauty of an entire audience lifted from the world, taken away from the everyday. Surely someone in the audience was facing real tragedy, some were simply bored with their lives, frustrated by an unrewarding job or difficult boss, and others worried about their children or their spouses or aging parents. Yet here we were, all of us offered a moment of surcease, transfixed by an act of beauty, taken out of ourselves.

But there was more. I know little about dance and therefore do not have the vocabulary to give dance movements their proper names. Surely part of the beauty had to do with another sense of what was happening right before my eyes: commitment, risk, and compassion. Whether a kick or leap was perfectly executed was not the issue here. Everyone on stage and behind the scenes was giving their best; they were pushing hard against their own limits physically, intellectually, emotionally, and running all the risk that implies. all were operating at the limits of their capacity. There is an element of fierce beauty involved when operating at this level. The performance becomes a gift of compassion to the audience. This compassion was co-mingled, as it often is, with courage. The striving to give of oneself, with all the attendant risks, is what moved me.

I believe what I saw on that stage transcends training. Dancers, I presume, are trained like actors to reflect the emotion that the scene the scene requires. But the energy and expression emanating from these dancers represented more: deliberateness, determination, discipline, intelligence, pride, a profound satisfaction in the work, in being able to give others something of one’s own bright pleasure in the rhythmic task at hand. For me that all translated into sheer unexpectedly struck, caught off guard, either holding back tears or wiping my eyes.

Part of what created this beauty lay in the notion of appropriateness. There was no pretension here, no pseudo-sophistication. this was a rich company with abundant financial resources. They have grown over the years, yes, but the costumes and sets reflect imagination rather than wealth. They are appropriate not only to the demands of the program; they are appropriate to the resources available. The ensemble may sometimes, maybe often, wish for more, but they make what they have work for their purposes, and it all comes together to far surpass mere adequacy.

Another element in my being moved had to do with the very humanness of the performance. Video or film would have edited our view to create and illusion of perfection that would have simultaneously made the entire production inhuman. This was not just “live,” it was life, straining with desire to create beauty, and there was nothing between the dancers’ absorption in creating that beauty and our own absorption in it, nothing between us and grace.

Perhaps the strength of my response was only a sign of more years sloughing by, a sensibility made more tender by the losses that inevitably accrue over time. But there is a confusion buried here: loss may make one more tender, but it may also steel one to be less tender, or make one angry, bitter or despairing’ loss itself is clearly no guarantee of tenderness. Perhaps at some point we drop our guard, the poise that grows as one matures begins to slip as one ages further. In reality, I suspect we see beauty because we need beauty; we come to the theatre, the gallery or the reading, because we need beauty; unconsciously with an urgent necessity for the presence of beauty in our lives.

In my lifetime, the world has known some preeminent seasons of pain and terror, the absolute zero that marks events devoid of all compassion. Perhaps we have never been witness to greater pain in the world that nust now, witness to so much that destroys beauty, would thoughtlessly wipe it out, or ruthlessly destroy it even after deliberation. The malnourished children, the mass graves, the tortured bodies, the polluted streams and clear-cut hillsides lie before us everyday. The deliberateness that creates them is horrifying as the deliberateness that created the dance is beautiful. The horror reminds us that the necessity for beauty lies in beauty’s immanent compassion, for there is a compassionate core at the heart of all beauty, an absolute essential. there can be no beauty without it. In that compassionate core lies beauty’s capacity for healing.

What also strikes me forcefully about such humanly created beauty is the recognition, borne home by both personal experience and observation, that not much is perfect or apt to be; that T. S. eliot was right: “Between the idea/And the reality/Falls the shadow…” When once has an opportunity to observe an effort toward perfection made by persons unfailingly human as we all are—that effort, no matter how homegrown or sophisticated, takes on a tragic aspect. Beauty achieved, then, and offered to others, is a gift, an act of compassion like offering water to the wounded, and it can bend the heart to breaking, or lift it so quickly it swells as if from decompression sickness.

An old word for the bends is “caissons disease,” a name that came from men who worked below the earth in caissons or tunnels and then rose to the surface to quickly. If that is an apt metaphor for what I feel in the prescence of real beauty, then maybe I am simply too far down in my own life, burrowed in like a mole. Or perhaps we all live under the weight of a world too filled with travail. When confronted with the light that beauty offers, the heart explodes—an explosion that reveals an alternative world, a different view of how we might live our own lives, and of the world we might create when we live at our best.