Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mr. B

For any dancer of a certain generation (or two), there was only ever one "Mr. B," and that was Balanchine. He was ballet master extraordinaire, and before I was double digits in age, I knew enough to know that he was the surrogate father to please; the signposts of my nascent life read "NYCB or bust." Not that I needed another father—mine was wonderful—but Mr. B was the man whose vision shaped the ballet world, and that was the world I wanted to claim. I read biographies of Balanchine and autobiographies of dancers who were lucky enough (they must have been lucky, mustn't they?) to have inspired him to make ballets. I wanted, as did all my peers in the ballet world, to be the next Suzanne Farrell, the next muse, if only time and luck would be on my side. But it was not to be. Turning fifteen, attending NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts), I already sensed that something about my dreams and my reality were not matching up. I saw the New York City Ballet, and Mr. B, slipping away. At this school that would make or break me, however, I had another Mr. B: the tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Ballard. It should be said that, in this setting that existed almost exclusively to groom professional dancers, academics were at best a necessary evil—the quid pro quo of getting parents to bankroll their sons' and daughters' chosen career paths. On the first day of that tenth-grade year, I didn't know that I would be making a drastic and permanent life change in a matter of months. I couldn't possibly imagine what I'd do with myself if I wasn't dancing, and I never would have guessed that I would pursue a vocation in which the eccentricities of this Mr. B would aid me far more than Balanchine ever would. (I wasn't yet willing to give momentum to the latent suspicion that I was coming to the end of my dancing days.) Thinking about it now, I'm sure that the jobs of the academic faculty at NCSA must have been somewhat frustrating. It had to have been clear that none of us cared much about any subject of study that didn't involve adagio, partnering, or rehearsals for some production or other. But some of the teachers, Mr. Ballard included, stood stubbornly fast in the seriousness of their own disciplines. Now, of course, I am thankful this was the case, and I credit my knowledge of the finer points of language mechanics to this short, somewhat affected man with wild white (or blond? dyed?) hair; a man who was completely obsessed with two things: English grammar and the actress Vivian Leigh (in his house in the backwoods of campus, he had a framed swatch of the "Twelve Oaks Barbecue" dress worn by a costumed Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind). I remember he would bar the door to his classroom with his arm, and as we students arrived for class, perspiring and preoccupied with the counting of tempo and steps, he would make us purchase entrance with a preposition, a conjunction, or a rule about comma use, repetitions not allowed. Once inside, he made us diagram sentences, and although I did not particularly want to, I saw in the logic of syntax, the complex dance of clauses (commas only before non-restrictive modifying clauses, please, not before restrictive!), a pas de deux of language. Now, on a daily basis, I ply my editing trade and I often think of this unexpected mentor, this stand-in Mr. B, and his is the voice I hear, urging precision not of the feet but of punctuation. To him I tip my hat and recite, across twenty five years of memory: two independent clauses are joined by a comma and a conjunction, or else by a semicolon. Reverence.

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