Literary Notes: `People go to the theatre to see themselves'

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The Independent Online
YEARS AGO I read one of those American academic studies from Harvard. It was extremely po-faced and took for its subject: "What is the difference between a man's orgasm and a woman's?" A panel of men and women was commissioned to write down what their personal experience of the orgasm was. A second panel - editors in this case - took out telling references to body parts. A third panel was to sort the edited testimonies into piles labelled "male" and "female".

How did they do? The amazing thing, the incredible thing, is that they got it all wrong. It was impossible to tell which passages had been written by men and which of the passages by women.

This isn't just the case for orgasms either. Lots of things turn out to be fundamentally the same. I once asked the thriller writer Desmond Bagley how much research he did into his exotic settings. "None," he said. I was aghast. He shrugged and explained, "One town is very much like another."

So when I faced a central character who was a pianist - with a piano repertoire which finds its limits at "Chopsticks" - I figured that, if the trick can work with both towns and orgasms, why ever not performers? I used to dance with the New York City Ballet so, if I took out telling details, why couldn't I turn a dancer's performance - the very one I had experienced - into a pianist's?

The hitch with that plan is that Desmond Bagley had actually managed to catch something of the idea of town in his writing just as Harvard had managed to write the orgasm instead of variations on the theme. In order to mimic the pianist, I was to have to find something central to performance.

No less than George Balanchine had gaven me a hint while I was still a student. I overheard him say to a young student of his who was showing him a ballet she had choreographed, "This is very pretty. This is like you, but people don't actually go to the theatre to see you. They go to the theatre to see themselves. That is what you must show them."

Such an odd idea, I thought. Ballet's closest relative isn't music but Olympic sport. How can athletes show a bunch of soft theatre-goers anything of themselves?

Even so, I knew there was something in what he said. Of my beautifully built and technically impressive peers, only one really stood out. And her pre-eminence was as odd as his comment. She was technically no better than the rest of us, and physically she was the least gifted. But, when people came to watch our class, they watched only her. She seemed to move, as I have written previously, "in the grip of a delicate and alien ecstasy, as sensual and yet as innocent as a butterfly's first stretch of its wings outside the chrysalis".

The promise developed too. She stayed at the top of Balanchine's bill for more than 20 years. The rest of us? Forgotten.

Looking back now, I do think that I can make out the difference. The rest of us preened ourselves. We watched the watchers watching us. Are their eyes on me now? Why not? How can I get them back? Balanchine's protegee had no such preoccupations. She was so completely lost in what she was doing that she was barely aware of herself doing it; she was so lost in her performance that the watchers got lost with her. She had the wonder of a child with a kaleidoscope - "Oh look. See the sparkly patterns!" With the rest of us, the eye-piece was cloudy.

There's no word I can think of for the essence of a performer, but in the best of them there's the immediacy, the communion with the heart of things, the raw life energy that everybody hungers for: this is what people saw in her. I'm sure it's what my pianist needed. I'm sure it's what Balanchine meant.

What seemed oddest of all is that if there's anything to this idea, writing is as much a performance art as ballet or music. After all, what's a good book if not a theatre where an audience (if it's lucky) can lose itself, as Balanchine's protegee's audiences did, in the enchantment of its own dream?

Joan Brady is the author of `The Emigre' (Vintage, pounds 6.99)