I started following the Dutch National Ballet’s online barre lessons during lockdown, led by a pleasant and exact man called Ernst and his virtuoso pianist, Rex. The comments under the videos came in from all over the world. A sixty-year-old astronomer from Bulgaria who worked in a planetarium wrote that she turned on the classes every morning. She didn’t look at the movements, she said, only listened to the music, did gymnastics, jumped, ran and danced for forty minutes. Just as often as the posters celebrated the energy they felt as a result of Ernst’s teaching, they rejoiced in Rex’s enthusiasm.
I pushed away the carpet my flatmate Nikkitha and I had bought on the internet, laid my computer on the small stand next to the bowl of walnuts, and held onto the edge of the bookshelf.
I’ve never done ballet without someone watching me, and was glad of the privacy afforded by the format of the YouTube lesson. More than a decade after my last class, I was reminded that what is hard about barre work is intellectual: remembering the exercise in such a way that brain connects to muscle. Memorising Ernst’s movements relied on confidence, itself a slippery quantity, affected perhaps by caffeine or being relaxed, or a prior sense of achievement that day. Only in certain conditions could you hold your whole body to another standard of breath while following a sequence: extending a leg, stretching out a heel, bending a knee, folding forward, opening up, doing it to the side and then to the back, then in reverse. Everything was always redone in reverse.
As soon as Nikkitha came into the room I felt that my arms stopped rearranging themselves automatically, and was hyper-aware of the ostentatiousness of ballet as a dance—an art form that is composed of stretching and pointing and extending, rendered all the more ridiculous and powerful, I think, because the dancers do not speak.
I danced every Saturday from the age of three until the September before my eighteenth birthday. The first time I rode the bus alone was to go to class; later, when we moved house I would run home from ballet down a street of brick houses, elated. I never let my parents come to see me in the open lessons, and they didn’t insist. It was part of my identity, the secret skill I could fall back on: “You must be really good at dancing,” my violin teacher said to me diplomatically, when I showed little promise, but perhaps some physical theatre, on the fiddle.
That September before my eighteenth birthday, I had an accident, a trauma, and had to be put on medication until some tests came back. Taking it made it hard to eat. Meals were spent not talking about what had happened. Then school started and I was surprised at how normal everything was again. We learned about how, traditionally, in Shakespeare or Ovid, victims of rape have their tongues cut out or find it impossible to talk about their experience. I wrote about J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, in which a man narrates his daughter’s rape, as well as the violent attack on himself and the animals on her farm. I had university interviews that term, and was becoming increasingly anxious about my ability to speak: I felt I wasn’t able to anymore, though I was still doing it.
A few weeks later, I went back to ballet. I entered the studio, leaving the other students in the changing room, to explain my absence to my teacher. My voice dissolved as I said the words. She gave me a hug and said she had thought it was unlike me not to come to class. I’ve never seen her since.
I remember trying to take ballet up a couple of years later at university and after a lesson that went fine, except for a couple of moments of feeling overexposed in the center, riding back on my bike in the dark, buffeted by emotion, rattled, torn up. I never returned to that class either.
Then without thinking, this winter, twelve years after last putting it down, I picked up my violin and the pieces that came out really weren’t bad, as though no time had passed, and I felt a rush at the continuity between who I was then and who I am now, though half the horse hairs had detached from my bow and pooled loosely in my faux-velvet case. I Googled ballet classes.
There is a lot of talk about whose story trauma is to tell, but in literature, the answer often seems to be “not the person it happened to,” at least not in a straightforward way, or until time has passed. Nikkitha and I both read Ivan Turgenev’s First Love over the cold months of this year. There is a scene near the end of the book where the narrator, Vladimir, and his father go riding, his father on Electric, a “splendid English mare, a chestnut piebald, with a long slender neck and long legs, an inexhaustible and vicious beast,” Vladimir on an unnamed “shaggy black horse, strong, and fairly spirited.” When evening comes, the father dismounts and disappears down a small street, leaving his son with the two horses. The unspeaking beasts lend an energy to the writing as darkness falls, Electric “pulling, shaking her head, snorting and neighing as she went, and when I stood still, never failed to paw the ground, and whining, bite my cob on the neck.” Vladimir looks for his father, finally spotting him talking through a window to the woman with whom they are both in love. He sees his father suddenly lift the horsewhip and strike her. As Vladimir is at a distance, and the girl dies in childbirth in the next chapter, we never learn any more about what happened.
Even in books written by the person who experienced the trauma, the experience is often taken out of their own mouths. In Edouard Louis’s A History of Violence, the author’s sexual assault is told by his sister to her partner while he listens through the part-open door, an account that is supplemented by Louis in narrator mode. In Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, Despentes describes her unwillingness to say the word “rape” after she was raped by three young men one day while hitchhiking decades before. It is as though these people start to live life through a filter of other peoples’ narratives.
Perhaps these texts explore the way people can become separated from narrative, how if one is more dissociative, cautious about exerting control, even suspicious of one’s own judgment, narrating can feel unnatural. This is, in its own way, moving. People are composed of their social attachments. Owing to this, if someone else tells our stories, as Edouard’s sister does, it goes some way to addressing the dissociation, fear of control, and suspicion we may feel.
In lockdown I’ve been missing thinking and feeling alongside people, how the alchemy of just being in a room with a certain individual or walking alongside them, makes us produce thoughts in a different key, as though there were a kind of aura that we each carry about our person and periodically collides with that of others, causing a reaction, giving light and heat. This process of mutual generation seems like it could be related to how it’s easier to write well, to have a sense of direction and dispense of false starts, when you have someone to write for, or maybe to what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty called “intercorporeality”, embodied interactions between people.
On one such walk recently, when I felt like mere proximity to another person was taking me somewhere new, a friend and I were talking about how it’s possible to leave others with our own unresolved emotions, for example how if a man calmly tells his friend about being hit by a careless driver, the friend might become angry on his behalf. Is that kind of what ambiguity does in art? my friend asked. If so, my friend continued, would that be an argument for clarity?
In normal life I hope there is some give and take in my relationships when it comes to offloading emotion, I replied, feeling personally targeted. And in art, ambiguity is not a problem, I argued, because it’s consensual and the audience is being directed by someone who is always experimenting with unresolved emotion. I think of art more like making something out of fragments of emotion than a process of offloading one as fully or as confessionally as possible. Not just passing emotion on, but using its residue, for example the sentence shapes left behind after you’ve been angry or lustful or ashamed, as the raw material to assemble something else, like a series of movements being pulled together into a choreography.
There are subtleties to not articulating something. Hitchcock famously distinguished between suspense, where the audience knows more than the characters, and mystery, where it knows less. Without making a fetish of inarticulacy, being elliptical, indirect, or ambiguous in theory all produce different effects on a novel reader. Ambiguity that is rich is different from silence that is a kind of numbness, even though, as with memorising dance movements, a different person in a different mood might have more or less success filling in the meaning of something left unsaid.
I have long been at home with wordlessness and to some degree I accept it. Even before the autumn I stopped dancing, I was often conscious of not saying things to my own satisfaction. My mum is French and I feel like there’s a very ugly and incomprehensible middle-language I live in most of the time, between French and English. When I write, words come in the wrong order and I don’t prefer the Anglo-Saxon words that are sometimes valued in English literature (brimstone, chapbook, wag and co). I went to school in French until the age of ten. Perhaps consequently when I speak my mother tongue, I feel like a child. I work for a French newspaper now and recently a colleague teased me, not unkindly, about my “little accent.” Over our chat app, another colleague teaches me slang I don’t know and I find him the English equivalent in return. I sometimes suspect English is a less emotional language for me—the language of secondary school and university. I revert to French with cats and small children, or faced with an exciting football game. But sometimes in French I have a feeling of not being able to say what I want to, of having been led astray by my simplistic phrasing. The other day someone thought the book I have just written had been translated, which I took as further proof I’ve been swimming vaguely between two languages.
In my living room, as I returned to ballet after more than a decade, it was intense focusing on the ordered, precise movements, and being so fully in the moment.
I had to take breaks, sit on the arm of the sofa, and wait for the warmth in my body to clear. It seemed to be spreading across me like water running through a network of interconnected furrows, gathering and coursing faster.
And I wondered: could my whole life feel as warm and pointed and powerful as how it felt when I danced with Ernst and Rex? As real?