Last weekend I went to see Scottish Ballet’s 50th anniversary performance of ‘Spring!’ (billed with an exclamation mark). Ever since, I have been fixated with and thinking about the human body. I’m doing it now: sitting in the window seat of a café watching a woman walk past carrying three striped hula hoops: yup, she’s shaped like someone who regularly wiggles her waist – she has the curves of an ornately carved balustrade. Behind her, a middle aged man with bulbous thighs, has dismounted to push his bike the last 50 yards to the shop, and coming towards him is a purposefully built woman wearing brightly coloured yoga leggings and walking with a distinct lack of purpose.
Longs legs and short backs, bull necks and willow arms, the lolloping stride of a dandy or dragging ones feet like part of a chain gang, we are all cut from a slightly different pattern and the way in which we move is as distinct to us as our voice.
It was those two-dozen dance specimens who got me thinking: all of them exquisite samplings of what a pared back human form can look like. Their opening performance was an exploration of the dexterity and power of highly conditioned muscle, flesh and bone as they made leaps and jumps and springs, hops and twists and distortions that should not be possible. I watched one man propel his body in an upward flight, reaching an impossible height with the aid of nothing other than nature’s turbo charged gluteus maximus, medius and minimum (his bum), his chiselled thighs, and invisible blast-off launching pads in his feet. He appeared to hover like a kestrel high above a field mouse, then land with the lightness of the last leaf in autumn.
After the interval came ‘Elite Syncopations’, a name I kept forgetting, as to me it sounded like something esoteric, something I wasn’t going to understand. I needn’t have worried; it was like pulling the curtains back and peering in on a joyful festival, an exultant carnival, a riotous celebration. Had their batteries not run flat (and who could blame them?) I could have watched all night. It was ballet’s take on 1920s dancehall ragtime, performed to the music of Scott Joplin.
Before there was even so much as a deltoid rippled or a quadricep flexed, I was hypnotised. It was the costumes; so slick were they to the dancers’ bodies they looked like they had been painted straight onto skin, every sinew and muscle visible. Colours clashed – pink and orange and mauve and mustard. Designs were patterned with stripes, stars, buttons and bows. Leggings were printed with hearts and chequer boards. Some dancers had waistcoats, others braces stretched over their chests, and some suspenders snaking up their legs. Everyone was different: pleats, baubles and tassels; turbans decorated with fruit and boaters bedecked with ribbon; capes and corsages and a crown akin to that worn by the Statue of Liberty. A stage filled with dancing dolly mixtures, it almost would have been enough to see them merely swagger around in their edible costumes, but they danced, oh they danced! (And the use of the exclamation mark became clear to me). I have never seen such elegant strutting, such expressively extravagant bends, such graceful arm flourishes with limbs extended inches beyond where it seemed they should be able to stretch. Yes, it was ragtime, but not as I’ve ever seen it: high legs, shuffles, lifts and holds, bodies that poured like soft sand and moulded around each other like yielding clay.
We clapped until our hands hurt and then we kept on clapping. Aren’t humans amazing? I left nurturing a new ambition: by the end of the summer I shall be able to touch my toes!
I Sing The Body Electric, by Walt Whitman (excerpt)
‘…the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stript that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.’