Dancing the Divertissement
Rainstorms had pelted New England for nearly a full week, taking their toll on the airline schedules. As I took the turn into Burlington Airport on a late weekday night, I beheld an airfield moorlike in its vaporous drizzle. United’s website said my guy’s flight was on time, but I was doubtful. Fingers crossed, I entered the terminal.
“It’s circling,” said the ticket agent at the counter when I gave her the flight number.
“Oh, crap,” I groaned. “So they may divert?”
It’s called “customer service,” but after a long day contending with disgruntled — if not hostile — customers, the service aspect can wear thin. “What can I tell you?” the blue-uniformed woman replied, her impatience seeping through. “Some of the flights have managed to land, while others have diverted. With this weather, it’s minute by minute. The ceiling keeps changing.”
Fair enough, I thought. In my job, killing time at the airport comes with the territory. But the next moment, I heard the muffled rumble of a plane dropping onto the runway.
I scooted over to the United arrival gate and took up my position, sign in hand: “T. Harrington.” Ten minutes later, a handsome and stylishly dressed black man, perhaps 30 years of age, came through the doors and made eye contact. “That’s me,” he said, extending a hand with a smile. “I’m Trevor.”
As we shook, I said, “I’m Jernigan, and I’ll be taking you to Goddard College.”
There was no speeding on the wet and foggy roads, so I settled into a leisurely pace for the ride out to Plainfield. Trevor sat on the right side in the backseat, texting on what looked like a BlackBerry. As we eased onto the interstate, he laughed and said, “Well, my partner wanted me to tell you to drive carefully.”
“Always,” I said with a chuckle. “So, are you taking classes at Goddard?”
“Yes, I’m working on my BA in the arts. They offer a low-residency program where I only have to be on campus a few weeks a year. This is perfect for me, because I’m a professional dancer and choreographer.”
“Sounds great. What kind of dance — modern, classical?”
“Classical ballet. I’m based in Chicago, but I’ve danced all over the country. The world, really.”
“Well, I am impressed and jealous. When I was a kid, for a couple years I wanted to be a dancer after seeing the movie West Side Story. You know — right after the credits, where the guys in the gang are hanging around the school yard, and then, as they walk down the street, one by one they break into dance. I thought that was the coolest thing I ever saw.”
In the rearview mirror, I watched Trevor break into a knowing smile. He said, “I’ve heard that story many times. That was the great Jerome Robbins who schoreographed the dance pieces in both the play and the movie. He’s responsible for inspiring many a would-be dancer.”
“Hey, I’ve always wondered about the creative process of choreography. Do you, like, sit in a room thinking up the dance routine and somehow transcribe it onto paper, or do you get with a bunch of dancers and create the dance with them? You know what I mean — moving ’em around like pawns on a chessboard.”
Trevor chuckled and said, “Different choreographers work in different ways. I tend to work with the dancers right from the beginning.”
“Do you have one special dancer who is, like, your muse? You know — like Gwen Verdon was for Bob Fosse.”
“I do. I work all the time with a dancer who is … how can I put it? … inside my skin. We don’t even have to actually talk; she just knows exactly what I’m going for. It’s quite wonderful.”
It remained foggy through the Bolton Flats, but not so thick as to render the high beams counterproductive. I’ve been driving this highway for so long, I know every curve and dip like it was my driveway. On such a dreary night, it was nice to share the vehicle with a friendly soul like Trevor.
“Could I ask you about casting? Ballet is so bound in European tradition; have you ever felt like you’ve lost roles on a racial basis? Or are things more enlightened these days, and they cast color blind?”
“Interesting question … I’ll tell you what — I just don’t give it much thought, because the casting of a part is all so subjective. I will say that black men are in major companies dancing leading roles all over the country. The problem is with black women. There’s Aesha Ash and maybe one or two others. It’s really a shame. I think the casting people are stuck in stereotypes that black ballerinas can’t measure up to, like, they don’t embody some supposed ‘ethereal quality’ or ‘purity.’ It’s really all bullshit.”
Trevor didn’t come across as angry; he was simply breaking it down for me. Life is a hard road for every one of us, often cruel and unfair. But, as a person who gets bent out of shape if somebody looks at me the wrong way, I can’t even imagine what a black person in our culture has to transcend on a daily basis. With my thin skin, I just know it would drive me to despair.
We exited the highway at Montpelier and took Route 2 through East Montpelier and into Plainfield. The sign for Goddard College is a piece of canvas stretched between two poles; not exactly Ivy League, but at least the school is hanging in there. And, if my customer is a representative example, it’s doing a good job by its students.
Having been on campus a few times before, Trevor was able to guide me to the dorms. Before he got out, I asked, “Hey, what about you? Have you danced the leading roles?”
“No, for whatever reason, I’ve not been cast that way. But I have danced most all the secondary roles, which are known as the divertissement. The lead dancers can’t possibly carry the entire performance, so most ballets contain a break from the main action with solo pieces that often relate to the overall plot. That’s where I come in.”
I nodded my head and said, “I bet you bring the house down, man.”
Trevor laughed and said, “Oh, I’ve been known to, from time to time.”