Take all or as little time as you need.
Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?
–Gene Weingarten (Pearls Before Breakfast – WashingtonPost.com)
Recently a friend e-mailed me Washtington Post journalist Gene Weingarten’s story about Joshua Bell in the subway. You’ve probably seen it: The one where commuters generally ignored a world-famous classical musician who was standing in a Washington, D.C., Metro station playing a 300 year-old Stradivarius violin worth about four million dollars. In 43 minutes, Bell garnered $32.17 in tips (if you don’t count $20 from someone who recognized him) and Weingarten won a Pulitzer for the story.
The story is easy to read as a stinging social commentary—a parable about people too busy or too self-absorbed to stop and smell the metaphorical roses.
But I wonder if I would have stopped to listen? I often give money to street musicians, but I don’t always stop. Actually, sometimes I don’t want to hear more because that one unexpected phrase of music creates a sublime moment, more like hearing a birdsong than listening to a symphony.
In fact, the most sublime moment of dance I saw in 2009 was not on the stage at all, but happened one summer day while I was waiting for TRAX. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement like wind rippling in the grass, and since it wasn’t windy, I turned my head. In the yard of a nearby house, a family of Pacific Islanders was having a picnic, and a group of women had stood up to perform a dance that seemed more like a movement from nature than a deliberate action. After a moment of dancing together they laughed, and the guys who were watching them started laughing too, and just as abruptly as they had transformed into waving grass, they turned back into ordinary women at a picnic.
I think this effect of both blending into the landscape and growing out of it is what professional dancers are after when they perform site-specific dances such as the marvelous one RawMoves did at the Brolly Arts H2O water festival in Sugar House’s Hidden Hollow last May. The stalwart dancers were actually in Parley’s Creek, bravely immersed in galvanized cans filled with frigid water, flipping arcs of water from their hair like a couple of mermaids. Part of what made it wonderful was walking along the shaded path and suddenly encountering mermaids in the creek.
The best photographs can evoke that sublime moment, and in fact, photography can only catch a single moment. If there is any dance form that is truly confined to the theatre, it’s ballet (the shoes won’t work on an uneven surface), but Erik Ostling’s extraordinary photos in the Ballet West 2010 calendar succeed in blending ballet with Utah’s landscape. There’s Christina Bennett as Odile, the seductive black swan from Swan Lake, en pointe against a southern Utah sunset as if she were about to take flight; and there are the demons from Ghost Dances emerging like living petroglyphs from a narrow slot canyon. Ostling’s photos make it seem momentarily possible that a ballerina could exist in nature.
There is a little bit of a paradox here. Street performers will be delighted if you stop to watch (and you definitely should stop if the spirit moves you), but part of the beauty and value of their performance comes from the fact that they are in an ordinary landscape creating that unexpected sublime instant for a few of the people who pass.
And so while I think one moral of the Joshua Bell story is to be mindful of beauty, it’s also a reminder that you don’t always have to hear the whole concert. After all, 27 passersby were moved to put money in Bell’s violin case, even though most of them never stopped to listen-and as Bell himself pointed out, at 40 bucks an hour, “I could make an okay living doing this.”
So here’s my 2010 New Year’s resolution: If I pass Joshua Bell playing a Stradivarius in the subway, I’ll definitely toss a dollar in his violin case. But I won’t feel bad if I decide to keep on walking, because beauty doesn’t have to last for more than an instant. u
Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and a dance enthusiast.