Saturday, 29 December 2018

A Platonic arabesque

An arabesque. Google images

This is likely to be my last post of 2018 and I thought that, in keeping with the festive season's  tradition of immersing oneself in dance through a range of televised shows (as well as live performances of the eternal Nutcracker),  I should write about a couple of those dance programmes broadcast throughout December.  I will not discuss however  the amazing 'Swan Lake' performance by the Royal Ballet , choreographed by Liam Scarlett, shown on 25th December, nor the equally breathtaking An American in Paris, The musical choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and starring former ABT principal dancer Robert Fairchild, also  broadcast on Christmas Day. They deserve a different post.
Darcey Bussell, former star of the Royal Ballet is now the BBC's favourite commentator of anything that relates to dance, thus she appears as interviewer and presenter in all these programmes. She  introduced us to dance in its purest therapeutic form in a documentary  aired on December 2nd on BBC2 and still available on BBC iPlayer.  We were told how dance as a structured activity can help people with mental issues, people with Parkinson's disease, older people now retired who use it to keep well and alert and feel part of a community ( such as the RAD Silver Swans),  and older people with dementia. "I cannot live without dance" said Miss Bussell as she took us on this exploratory journey into dance as therapy. "When I retired I was still able to dance well and this is why I decided to quit"  she said [at age 38 in 2007] adding  that she  missed dancing almost immediately after her last performance,  missed the routine and the company. Eventually she found ways of dancing again without it becoming an obsession, as it had been with ballet. (I will always remember her great performance in The Prince of the Pagodas, which marked her debut).

Silver Swans Factsheet RAD

These are, to an extent, problems that everyone who retires from any profession encounters, but for a ballet dancer retiring at one's peak can be quite devastating -  not having dance in one's life is truly unthinkable. Ballet dancers begin their class routine at an early age and if they show any aptitude and promise continue that routine, increasing the time devoted to training, spending most of their day practising and rehearsing and eventually performing. It takes time, commitment and dedication.
However Miss Bussell still inhabits a dance universe and has become a household name even more so now that she is not a ballerina, through participating as judge in programmes such as Strictly and through her regular TV appearances.  One of her daughters is all set to continue in her mother's footsteps, as indeed she revealed in conversation with Danish ballet star Peter Schaufuss in another dance programme, which was all about the male ballet dancer. This was shown on 26th December and it was quite a treat. Interviews with several male ballet stars were interspersed with footage of greats such as Nureyev, Baryshnikov and more recent ones such as Carlos Acosta and Irek Mukhamedov, the latter two having been Bussell's partners when she danced for the Royal.
I love watching male ballet dancers, I am enthralled by their artistry and athleticism. Whenever a boy takes up ballet you can be assured that there is talent and motivation, more than in the case of girls, who are often enrolled in ballet classes by their mothers and tend to be taken in by the accoutrements - many will drop ballet within a few of years of starting classes. But boys are different. The stigma attached to male ballet dancers has gone and many boys will now regard dancing as 'normal', however  it still takes some guts for a boy to say he wants to do ballet, if no one in his family has been involved in dance.
I was intrigued by the documentaries as they presented two different sides of dance. I fully relate to the idea of dancing at any age and I appreciate the power dance has to bring people together, socially, providing enjoyment and even giving people some confidence - the benefits of taking up dance at any age as an activity are now proven. I also relate to the idea of ballet growing as an art form and forcefully reinstating the presence of a male dancer as more than a virtuoso,  as a true artist , not to be overshadowed by ballerinas, which for a long time had been the norm. I also loved the part of the documentary where in conversation with Royal Ballet resident contemporary choreographer Wayne McGregor, Darcey Bussell hints at a new 'ballet body' for men, with movements  performed by both male and female bodies, something that adds flexibility to male dancers' bodies, in the way only female dancers displayed it until recent times.

Wayne McGregor. Photo: Anne Deniau

Strangely both programmes managed to gloss over an aspect of ballet in particular which to me is essential and which is what makes me love it. The discipline of ballet is what draws me to it. I love the fact that you can change your body by working on details, learning to integrate an elegant way of moving with tremendous strength. I love watching a ballet performance but I love watching ballet dancers in class or rehearsing in the studio even more, because it reveals the effort and sweat that goes into refining a ballet performance. I love the way ballet teaches you to fine tune your body and turn it into an instrument of expression and the way it also teaches you about your own limitations and how to overcome them, preserving your uniqueness. It's the eternal quest for perfection - which can never be achieved - which you find in every art form. But ballet offers you an opportunity to tailor perfection to your own body. In an article by Vanity Fair staff writer Laura Jacobs which appeared in Pointe magazine in April 2015, the critic Matthew Gurewitsch is quoted as saying “Whereas high C is high C, an arabesque is the arabesque of a particular body. So a 'perfect,' Platonic arabesque may not even exist." But the perfect arabesque for your body does exist and is something you can strive to achieve.
I will pick this up again in a different post, as it allows the conversation to be broadened. As Laura Jacobs says quoting ballerina Heather Watts "“Perfection is a moving target: Each day you begin anew, trying for a higher bar every time you go out on stage." Food for thought. You can substitute on stage' with every time you go to class. or indeed apply it to other areas of your life.
And on this note I end, wishing you all a very happy , prosperous and perfect 2019.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

When friends cross a line

Euthanasia, sometimes referred to as assisted dying,  is a controversial issue. It is illegal in countries such as the UK but admissible in the Netherlands (Dutch residents only) and a carefully worded provision is also in place in Italy, but only in very particular and most extenuating circumstances.  It is however practised in Switzerland and even non-Swiss nationals and people not residing in Switzerland can avail of it, through organisations like Dignitas. The only requirement is that they should be members and sign a document in which they affirm that they do not wish to have their life prolonged, listing a number of scenarios.
An acquaintance of mine - let's call her Becky  - currently living in the UK , still relatively young, in very good health and very clearly in possessions of all her mental faculties, absolutely not depressed and living her life with zest,  recently decided to join Dignitas, in the event she might find herself in the position where 'dying with dignity' would be her only option.  The way she put it was that it was like writing a will: you do not write a will because you want to die immediately, you write it because you are aware you might die at any point in time and you wish to make some provision for your loved ones.  At least that's the idea.
As Becky  lives in the UK it was necessary for her signature to be witnessed - it is not necessary in Switzerland, but since she is not Swiss she had to do it - so she asked a close friend of hers, let's call her Amanda,  to be her witness. Apparently Amanda  refused and became very angry with Becky for wanting to take such a step. She  told her that she (Becky)  had not understood the import of the document she was signing, that the person Becky had appointed as executor wished her ill, that she had no right to think about ending her life even if she was suffering and there was no chance of  recovery. "Your life is not yours to do as you wish" she told her. This angered  Becky who nevertheless tried very hard to calm Amanda  down, explaining that all she was after was her signature as a witness, she was not imposing her decision on anyone else and she had perfectly understood what the form said, thank you. It made no impact.
Yesterday  Becky called me  to ask me to witness her signature, to which I readily agreed. When she told me this story I did not know whether to laugh or cry. She and Amanda  - now no longer her friend, or at least not a close one -  were in a restaurant when all this happened and ended up having a flaming row, in between courses, while the waiters tiptoed around them,  wishing they would leave. I could just picture the scene. They had even exchanged Christmas presents.  "The last straw" she said "was when Amanda blurted out  that I was doing this because I had not found the love of my life.  If I had I would not be thinking about this. And I always believed Amanda was an intelligent woman". I agreed with Becky that it was a very stupid and inconsequential thing to say.   However when people are angry and running out of arguments they may say very silly things. The best thing is to stop and leave. "I did" said Becky. "I thought that mad woman would be grabbing my form and rip it. I took it back from her, paid my bill and left".
There is much food for thought in this story. First of all, like I said, euthanasia is controversial and perhaps Becky should have asked first how her friend felt about it. You do not expect Remainers and Brexiteers to agree on anything, so don't expect someone dead against euthanasia to support your decision to implement it, even if all they have to do is witness your signature. Then there are these absurd misconceptions that a woman can only find happiness if she finds a man, which is what Amanda ended up saying. I will not even begin to comment on this, it is utterly ridiculous. Third I think it is very wise that people should make their desires and preferences known in case of death and make a will if they have assets and even make known their preferences for their funeral - for example I want to be cremated and do not want anyone at my funeral, when the time comes, and that's that, no crocodile tears and falsities, though I also know once I am dead I will not be in a position to decide anything, death has finality.  Fourth,  if people wish to 'die with dignity' so be it. It's a preference. Fifth,  I believe that friends , if they are true friends,  should be respectful and be aware that  lines must not be crossed.  It is a matter of style and true elegance.
Anyway, Becky now has her form duly signed and witnessed - she came round this morning to do it  and has  sent it off. She is already planning her next trip somewhere exotic  and is certainly not thinking about dying at all, she has not signed to be taken to a booth and be given a lethal injection, it really does not work like that. As to Amanda, it will be a while before Becky feels ready to forgive and forget, which she eventually will, as she does not bear grudges for long. 
And the bottom line is: despite all Amanda's  remonstrances Becky is going to do exactly as she pleases.  Should Amanda not have saved her breath?

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Grey hair: we have come a long way

Me with the 'fake' silver streaks in 1997

When I was forty I decided to stop colouring my hair which was long and dark brown but with very grey roots. I bought some silver spray and for a couple of weeks I went around with silver streaks. It looked good but  fake, as indeed it was. A friend even asked me whether I had been trying to colour my hair light blue!
Then I went to Slovakia to attend a conference - I was a full time academic at that point - and the day before I was due to read my paper I walked into a salon in Bratislava and had it all chopped off. A colleague commented that it was a novel approach to presenting a paper. 
My hair was really short and the grey mingled at once with the dark hair.  It  grew quickly and it looked good with real silver streaks. I had it restyled by my usual hairdresser (I am still a client) and the cut was gorgeous. In those days it was very unusual to embrace one’s grey. I used to be stopped by strangers all the time and people complimented me about my hair. I did not start growing it long  until much later, having been inspired by a commercial for a hair brand in which they featured a model (a ‘real’ woman, as in the early noughties models were only of a particular body shape and age) whose hair almost reached her knees and was an amazing silver colour. 
I never found out who she was but she was a real inspiration to me. My hair grew even longer and by 2007 it was well below my shoulders. I was a newbie model back then and was persuaded by a booker of an agency that no longer exists to cut my hair in a bob to be a kind of Anna Wintour. I remember telling my mum who was still alive that I was unhappy about cutting my hair and her pragmatic answer was "it will grow back". Cutting it was a mistake, professionally. I never booked  any job while sporting that bob. Thus I resolved to let  my hair grow really long and that was it. It became my  'look'. I will not bore you with details of what I did, as a model, after that. I am writing this  post because wherever I go I see that many more women are happy to go grey and they are proud of transitioning. 

Photo: Martin Robinson

Among high profile women there is of course the amazing supermodel  Erin O'Connor who has unabashedly embraced her grey documenting her transition - and transitioning is so difficult - through her Instagram feed (I cannot imagine Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell, who constantly wear wigs, ever doing the same). There is Sarah Harris, editor at Vogue UK, who sports the most beautiful silver hair in the fashion world. And there are countless models with grey hair... 
But there are also many ordinary women who are more than happy to go grey. I was on a bus today and spotted several, all in the midst of their transition. Grey hair is a colour, now, it never used to be. Millennials are so blasé about grey hair. My son's girlfriend, at 37, has grey streaks and she would not dream of colouring her hair. My son is 32 and slowly turning into a silver fox. But it's different for him, he is a guy, there has always been a double standard, OK for men, not OK for women
Who would have thought? In my mother's days going grey was a taboo, you only did it, if you were a woman, after the age of 70. It's different now. Like I said, we have come a long way. Grey hair is so common now as to have become...well, nothing special. This is how it should be.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Financial exploitation of models

Last summer the Model Alliance in New York launched the RESPECT programme, which is meant to safeguard models from sexual and financial exploitation. It is a most commendable initiative and I think a great number of people in the industry will go along with it, especially with regard to the sexual exploitation, in the wake of the #metoo movement. Who would disagree with the idea that models should not be sexually exploited?
Sexual exploitation aside, I am very concerned with the other bit, the financial exploitation of models. Unfortunately, it is rampant. Unfortunately, even progressive brands, purporting to be inclusive, are guilty of it.
What is definitely making things worse is the idea of using real women and real men, in an attempt to fight unattainable beauty standards. That's fine, I am all for it. Except that these real women and real men are actually models doing a job and therefore should be paid. It's not all right for brands to get away with periodic calls for real women, 'our real customers', as they put it, and arrange unpaid photoshoots, with no mention of buyouts for usage. 'We are all on the same side of the fence' they will tell you. 'You will get tremendous exposure bla bla bla'. Except that these brands are businesses, they are not charities. They make a profit and save money on models fees.
I too have modelled for free. I too fell, countless times, for the lure of 'beautiful images for your portfolio' and the chance to be seen. I was a newbie too, unaware of what actually happens when you agree to the use of your image with no time limit ie in perpetuity.
Not anymore. Many new models don't know any better and are so keen on having pictures of themselves put on websites or instagram they will forego payments altogether. 'We do it out of friendship'.  Actually if you model for free you are being exploited. You are declassed to non-pro.
Newbies are so keen they sometimes will tell a casting director they love the job so much, they would do it for free. Never put such ideas into a casting director's head. It's already standard practice that editorials should go unpaid, I am not even sure how or when that happened, but it has, and most magazine editors will happily tell you they have so many people queuing up to be featured, who needs to pay them? Let's not do that for  commercial jobs too.

Mature models are particularly vulnerable to financial exploitation. As Grey Model Agency managing director, Rebecca Valentine, says in an interview for the Sunday Post  " My HUGE criticism so far  is the inequality in fees for mature models which have no comparison AT ALL with their younger counterparts. Mature modelling is viewed as a hobby, models should be grateful for being given jobs and the surge in the current Instagram trend that anyone can be a model is having a great impact on this with ordinary people agreeing to do shoots for free for a quick minute of fame. Professional models work very hard across all ages. It is  not a job for the faint hearted."
Let's end the culture of free shoots for brands, even though they may be ostensibly progressive. When you are asked to model please ask yourself  'What's in it for me' apart from the images being shared on social media. Modelling is a job, not a hobby. At all ages.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Ageing disgracefully

The agency I am signed with, Grey Model Agency, has come up with the idea of an Advent Calendar. Twenty-four of its  models are featured in short videos, released on each day in the run up to Christmas on the GreyModelTV  YouTube channel, with a shorter version on Instagram. 
I am number 1, so the video is out today. It may not be immediately clear but one of my tasks is to explain the significance of the number I am associated with. To me 'one' is the self, myself, and this is what I say.
As the video had to be edited to last only a few minutes, some of the answers seem disconnected but one of the things I do  is to query the concept of 'ageing gracefully',  I feel that one has every right to 'age disgracefully', whatever that means.
I do increasingly  feel that the idea of a 'timeless beauty' and the plethora of advice given about  how to age is a bit much and it is putting too much pressure on older men and women. For some it is just about being healthy, a very worthy goal. I certainly would not advocate a life of excesses, but I am loath to  tell people how they should live their lives. From a very young age we are constantly told we should be of this body shape, of this ideal height, of this ideal weight, our teeth should be this luminous shade of white and perfectly aligned, our complexions should be glowing,  our hair name it.  Please give me a break! I do not want to grow old constantly worrying about my looks and feeling inadequate because I  do not match the ideal.
I am now in my early sixties and more than the way I look I am concerned about Alzheimer and dementia for which there are genetic causes as well as environmental ones - I have seen it in my family and it is not fun to witness the decay of a loved one. I occasionally worry about being able to make an informed choice about what to do if I turn out to be affected. I also do consider my limitations  more frequently than I did in my youth and more objectively because whether you like it or not we do not live forever, I would not even want to if it were possible!
Thus I can't help feeling some irritation by what is turning out to be a pressure to age in a certain way.
I think that ageing gracefully and ageing disgracefully are a continuum. sometimes in life we are graceful, sometimes we are not. There should not be any qualifier attached to ageing. We just age.