A Painful Love: James Joyce and Ballet

Last night, while struggling through another few pages of Ulysses (I am still in the double-digits of page numbers, by the way) I started wondering, “Why do I like James Joyce so much? This is hard and, at the moment, slightly boring.” Thinking about this Very Important problem was probably more of a clever excuse to take a break from the page and rest my horribly incompetent brain, but it also makes for good blogging material.

I routinely name Joyce as one of my favorite authors. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Dubliners in high school and became inexplicably intrigued by his idiosyncrasies and narrative style. I don’t love Portrait and Dubliners the same way I love Harry Potter or Emma. I don’t read Joyce for the story. If anyone reads any Joyce for the story, I highly pity them. I read Joyce for all the many layers beneath the story–for the allusions and the word play and the social/religious/political commentary. Books like Harry Potter and Emma are at once accessible in their prose and vehicles for hidden meanings, allegory and/or social commentary. They contain plot twists and elements of mystery–narrative drives that make you want to keep reading. Joyce doesn’t bother. In fact, he often seems to strive for the opposite. It’s the little things that matter.

After a few minutes of mulling this over it occurred to me that I often ask myself the same question about ballet: “Why do I love it so much? It’s so hard and often painful.” My friend Mia often says that the only reason to dance ballet is because it’s hard. I think she’s right. I also think that’s the only reason to read Joyce: it’s hard and you can do it over and over again and never get it right. I mean, scholars still haven’t really reached a consensus on what Finnegan’s Wake is even ABOUT. (Okay, I’m exaggerating but not by much.) Just like no ballerina in the world is perfect. (I can think of a few that come close, but I tell myself that they’re hiding their gross imperfections to make myself feel better.) I think that’s why I’ve taken to ballet more than any other kind of dance. Like, I love theater dance but it’s so much about the spectacle–the “plot twist” and the performance. Theater dance takes immense skill and technique and years of hard work, of course but not the same way that ballet does. Ballet, like Joyce, is all about those “in-between” steps, the technique, the foundation beneath the performance.

Maybe it’s masochistic but there’s something so satisfying about working so hard at all of the subtle, almost unrecognizable nuances. I’ll never be a Joyce scholar or a prima ballerina (ha) but just as Joyce helped me realize how much I loved English as a senior in high school, ballet helped me recognize how much I loved dancing and performing as a ten year old. As I grow as a dancer, reader and writer both continue to teach me about all the little pieces of perfection.

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2 responses to “A Painful Love: James Joyce and Ballet

  1. And this is why I love you. 🙂 I’ve been meaning to tackle some Joyce myself, but haven’t actually gotten around to it yet.

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