consuming art in isolation
We went to the Houston Nutcracker at least once every two years growing up. I always sat next to my mom, we always snuck a bag of M&Ms back into the theater after intermission, and I always knew that if I looked at her during a certain part of the pas de deux at the end of Act I, I’d see the glint of a tear shining on her cheek in the stage lights, made especially bright at that moment by the white, fake snow starting to fall on the dancers a hundred yards away. When I was little I mistook this for some adult sadness she had that I, as a kid, wouldn’t understand, and the crying was distressing to me; I wanted to comfort her. As a teenager, still not quite understanding it, it made me embarrassed to see her crying like that in public, even if no one could see us.
I got older and moved to New York City and in one of my better ideas to come out of a depressive episode, developed the habit of listening to the entire Nutcracker suite on long, meandering runs around even grayer neighborhoods in the winter. I was running up Graham once on a cold but sunny Saturday afternoon and the second pas de deux, in Act II, came on, and I felt stinging and then warm tears in the pockets my eyes. I was already out of breath, still not used to the counterintuitive mechanism of sucking in thin, cold air, it was the most inconvenient moment for my breathing to be disrupted by the staccato of crying. I couldn’t help it, it felt like the music was pulling some hidden warm goo out of my chest like taffy warmed up between your palms. I cried and kept running, glad it was cold enough out that my tears and scrunched face could be mistaken as symptoms of the weather.
The dancers in the video on my screen are two inches tall and not exactly pixelated, but flattened into the background by the quality of an iPhone camera and compression of Instagram’s platform. They’re in apartment living rooms with their midcentury modern couches. They’re in those buildings where whole walls are made of windows, the ones you pass by on the sidewalk and think, Who could live in a place like that, where everyone can see in all the time? They’re next to their babies wriggling around in car seats on the floor. They’re on rough, unfinished rooftops you’d break your lease for stepping on. They’re on the only square of unfurnished space in a tiny bedroom. Sometimes they’re outside in a patch of grass that’s just started growing back in the warmer weather. They’re all alone, the only dancer in the frame, their movements stitched together with another dancer who’s alone somewhere else.
I watched the video in the middle of the day at the desk I bought to work from in my room, “until this is all over,” and I can go back to an office (if an office will still have me). The first time I feel tears burning is about two-and-a-half minutes in, when the music swells and the video shows a man dancing on his graffitied roof on a sunny day. The second time is when a woman scoots on her knees across her floor, smiling with teeth, the only dancer in the video who smiles. The tears stay behind the vault of my eyes like this until the end, when horns flare and one woman dancing in a field that looks like it could be in my grandparents’ pasture turns into many people dancing in tiny frames, alone in different places: on suburban sidewalks, in kitchens, out of garages, in front of rivers. That’s when I lose it and start to sob. That’s when it’s streams of tears down my cheeks, and feeling like I have to just laugh at it all, because. Oh, my god?
One time, driving back home from the Nutcracker, I asked my mom, “What about this makes you cry?” And she told me it was the way the French horns sound at that particular point in the music; she’d played the instrument all growing up, and something about the sound there was still touching to her. It felt like one of those answers grownups give you when there’s something more to it that you wouldn’t understand. Usually that feels like smoke and mirrors, a tactic to distract you from asking more questions. Sometimes it feels like it’s because they don’t have the answer themselves.
Throughout this whole ordeal I’ve kept it relatively together. I cried a little in early March, when I realized my birthday, on the 20th, would be spent without my mom and without most of my friends. Since then I’ve tried to adapt to these rules. I stay in my apartment and only go to the grocery store when I need to, which is to say, a little too much. I run outside but in the middle of the road; just like I knew would happen, the sight of closed stores and empty streets is normal to me now. I stick my arms out of my window at 7 p.m. every day and clap and watch the neighbors beat their pot a few windows down. Even then I don’t really cry because I’m too distracted by all these people. Look at all these people.
I want to say I cry because: I’m touched, beyond measure and words, by the idea of dancers dancing to music playing from their iPhone speakers, in their living rooms and rooftops, around the world but mostly in New York City. I imagine all of them dancing at the same moment in time, even though I know that’s improbable and they probably did it when it was convenient. This makes me cry more. It feels like someone is putting a warm blanket around my heart. I want to say it’s that: The thought of people making art right now is too much for me to accept. It’s a gift I don’t deserve. It’s a gift I don’t understand, having been stunned so thoroughly by what’s happening that I can’t even journal, like my grandparents and parents keep telling me to do, and can only manage stoic fragments.
I sent a link to the video to anyone I figured I could reasonably text without getting an odd reaction. I sent it to my roommate in the next room, the only earnest text in a string of TikToks and memes. I dropped it in my work Slack not once but two times. I sent it to people I only barely know on Instagram. if u haven’t seen this yet u gotta watch it. I sent it to Lauren, “Join me in cry This killed me” She sent back a sob emoji and reminded me of this time we saw a dance performance together, sometime last year: “Seeing Alvin Ailey was great but was the best with you. Because u get so pumped.”
To cope or maybe because I’m stupid, I’ve thought, Things are fine, I miss less than I thought I would. But what I miss is this: I miss the feeling of electricity between your arm and your friend’s arm in the small seats of a dark theater, when something beautiful is happening in front of you and everyone is looking at it, feeling different things but feeling them together. I miss Kelsey touching my right arm and telling me why one painting is goopier than another. I miss Lauren telling me about how they kept destroying the big red canvas so many times, inexplicably enraged by it. I miss walking the same few galleries in the MoMA with different people, seeing how it felt to look at the big Pollock or the recording of Frank o’Hara reading poems on the little TV screen, together. I miss the way people bump into you and step on you heels in the pit of a concert during your favorite song, jumping around in a way that would be violent if it weren’t perfect. I miss looking at something and thinking, It’s this, isn’t it?, with someone you love very much.
I want to say, I don’t know why I sent this five minute video of dancers I don’t know to everyone I could appropriately send it to. I do know. I wanted someone to reach through their screen and put their hands on my shoulders and say, “It is so beautiful.” I wanted to look at each other with big pupils and shake our hands at each other and say a bunch of nonsense, amounting to, “Wow.” I wanted that feeling where you’re walking out of the air conditioned theater or museum or bar and into a warm night with your friend and both of you can’t shut up. I’m stunned by this feeling in the good way. I am in awe of this feeling, in reverence of it. How do we deserve this? It’s a miracle each time we get to have it. I can’t believe we ever get to have it.