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The Sharon Project

The brain has mysterious ways of healing itself, and this was mine. About a year ago I finished a crafting project inspired by Sharon Needles, and I’ve never shared it with other fans because it was such a personal reflection of my own transformation.

Her courage and integrity as an artist provided a latticework on which I could heal myself during the most difficult, isolated period of my life. The transfusion needle that weaves through the work was its central driving metaphor: Sharon gave me what I needed to heal myself when I was broken.

The brainstorming stage

There’s a reason oppressed groups like gay men in the 40s canonized Judy Garland and Bette Davis… when we feel invisible and hunted, the mind identifies a champion to inspire itself. It chooses someone who’s navigated these waters, then follows them like the North Star until it feels safe and strong again.

In the summer of 2015, I was diagnosed with CPTSD and couldn’t be with my family because of an abusive parent. I’d been ravenously bullied out of my job and community by someone I thought was a friend, and the guy I’d been closest with had ghosted after meeting someone else. It was like I’d been hit by a car and was losing blood faster than I could regenerate it. I felt myself withering and weakening from how badly I needed to be able to trust someone. But everyone I’d trusted– parents, friends, more-than-friends — had left me with such horrifying memories of cruelty that I didn’t trust “love” anymore.

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At this most isolated point, jobless, feeling cursed, I rewatched Season 4 of Rupaul’s Drag Race. Seeing Sharon set her own terms for what a drag masterpiece could be, in wild defiance of every established precept, was the most addictive rush of exhilaration. It’s what I imagine it feels like when a blood transfusion enters nearly empty veins, bringing a mangled body back to life from the edge of death.

But it was learning how she’d handled her career AFTER the show that gave me what I needed… how she’d trusted in her own self-knowledge during a grisly witch-hunt that included violent criminal harassment. Just like a real witch trial, self-appointed social media priests tempted her to confess to sins she hadn’t committed: “Just admit you’re a bad person, we can make this firestorm go away…”

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But Sharon held true to who she was as a person and artist under the kind of pressure and exposure that most of us will never experience. So when the time came for me to be strong in my own small life, I knew it was possible. Not just to survive, but to TRIUMPH.

That triumph began right before I started this project in early 2016. I was invited back to the workplace I’d been bullied out of… not as an employee, but as an emerging arts critic chosen by a ballet company to review their performance and receive mentorship from an established critic. Even with my name on a damn press pass, my body ached with stress chemicals at the idea of going back to a place where I’d experienced so much fear and despair.

Taxidermy had just been released, so I listened to it the whole walk to the theatre. I sauntered back into that place imagining I was as tall, strong, and beautiful as Sharon… I even imitated her laugh at one point! And the jealous woman who’d ravenously hounded me out of that job, who’d known I didn’t have a family and needed to support myself, she had to watch as a publicist and editor escorted me into a board room. She had to stand in her unflattering uniform while I got free champagne and chatted with dancers, critics, and producers… and I thought “This moment of smug, sublime justice is brought to you by Sharon Needles.”

That blood transfusion had gotten me through a nuclear winter of loneliness and betrayal, and the other side was more glittering and beautiful than I can describe. When I heard Sharon was coming to my city in May, I knew I had to pour all this joy and gratitude into an appropriate thank-you gift… so I bought an antique leather train-case, the kind that fancy ladies took on trips in the 1920s, and immediately begun defacing it! 😈

It may have been a gift for Sharon, but I knew I was giving myself something precious: the opportunity to meditate on how I’d rewired my brain and heart to live in a new world without the things I’d depended on before. Crafting, cutting, glossing, poetry-hunting, burning my fingers with hot glue… the project became a series of deep trances in which I solidified a new emotional structure based on what I’d learned from Sharon’s example.

I refrained from ever using a clear image of her– only silhouettes or obscured shots. It had been so upsetting to see those witch-hunters invasively try to tell Sharon who she was, so this project had to steer clear of that. I didn’t want to confuse her drag character with the artist underneath; I respected and admired each as distinct entities. The two compartments at the top of the tray used silhouetted stills from the “Dressed to Kill” video to show both the distinction and the relationship between the artist who channels a goddess.

When it came to the mirror, I couldn’t bear to glue anything down to it. This project was meant to be an expression of the splendour and wonder she’d helped me grow in myself, but I wanted her to be able to see her own face without any of my bullshit layered over it. So I put the hanging astrolabe/navigation metaphor on tiny hooks so she could remove it if she wanted.

Inside the little compartment in the train-case’s tray, I used a dried rose I’d saved since I was a teenager. Turned upside-down, it looked exactly like a tiny little human heart! One of the things that amazes me about Sharon is how she has such an intensely loving heart but is still tough as nails. My own ragged heart needed a stronger screening system based on knowing my own self-worth. So I surrounded the dried rose with an antique lock and chain; an obvious metaphor, but look how pretty!

Sharon’s said in interviews that she got famous with a stage name that refers to “how straight people get AIDS”, but I wanted to use the transfusion needle to demonstrate how inspiring a pun it can be! Sharing needles is generally a terrible idea, but there is one type of needle on the planet that’s designed to be shared, and it saves lives like she’d helped me save mine.

But getting FAKE blood into a REAL transfusion tube…? I thought I could trick it by putting Ben Nye blood into a baggie and simulating a pulse, but this piece of medical equipment was designed to keep blood safe and clean… it was way too smart for me! Once I realized the only thing that would pump any kind of liquid into this tube was my actual heart, I painted it red and moved on. (That was a weird, hilarious day in my apartment, trying to find household objects to simulate a beating heart… including a brand-new Beauty Blender 😂).

Although the “Hail Satan” shtick is just a part of her drag persona, Sharon being so intelligent and individual at all costs reminded me intensely of John Milton’s heroic character in “Paradise Lost”. His Satan can’t pretend to be a complacent, obedient angel, and chooses hell over an eternity of boredom. He states that “the mind is its own place”, which so reminded me of how Sharon resisted being gas-lit by those holier-than-thou witch hunters.

I think she went through a kind of hell to win her creative control, so I wanted this compartment to show how holding true to oneself in the face of uncertainly makes the struggle worthwhile. Sharon’s “unconquerable will” gave me the backbone that years of child abuse had almost taken from me. My insecure, misogynist father had tried to break me like Milton’s God had tried to break Satan, like the witch hunters had tried to break Sharon. We none of us submitted or yielded, myself because I had such a luminous example to give me strength. If she could come out on the other side with a brilliant career, I knew I could too.

Because the tray was such an intense series of corresponding metaphors, I wanted the lower life of this project to be fertile, playful, dedicated to beauty. When she lifted this highly cerebral tray, I wanted a wild, glowing world to be waiting underneath… no coded metaphors or quotes. Just a golden labyrinth, a celestial garden in the sky, and some tiny PBR cans littered in the stars ✨✨

As I said before about the mirror, I couldn’t bear to deface it. But it took me forever to accept that and I made page after acrylic page to hang over it, all to put off permanently scarring such a beautiful part of the train-case until there was a bedtime story of gloss-sealed tissue protecting the mirror.

Something in the proportions of Sharon’s emergence and career has always reminded me of a creation myth. I couldn’t resist identifying her drag persona with the goddess that D.H. Lawrence said was chased out of the western religions millennia ago by jealous men. He argued that this woman, robed in the colours of an angry sun, was integral to the feeling of wonder and splendour that made any religion worth following. He said she shows up with different faces across time and cultures, sometimes a vixen, a bimbo, a witch, a virgin… but always gilded and defiant.

A funny little thing happened right around the time that Sharon Needles’ iconoclastic win was aired on TV… the last Transit of Venus this century will see. Just a few weeks after the world saw an emissary from the artistic underworld be recognized as a visible champion for surface-dwellers, Venus crossed the face of the sun. I’m not saying the two were related, but the world I live in has never been the same since Sharon expanded the scope of drag. I’m glad her moment was marked by such a spectacular event… the stars LITERALLY aligned!

Rational modern ladies like myself would never dare say nonsensical things like… maybe she ripped a hole in the face of reality so that millennia of stifled creativity could flow without shame between this world and those beyond and beneath. But there’s a lot we would have said wasn’t possible before she won that crown 😘

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“And she is, of course, essential the scheme of power and splendour which must have a queen” – from D.H. Lawrence’s “Apocalypse”

As much fun as it was to imagine her drag persona as a goddess, I knew that was just heightened, healing exaltation. Something to do with being raised by atheists, being in search of wonder. The grounded reality was simply that I was very grateful to Aaron Cody for not retreating when it would have been human to retreat, not bending when it would have been human to bend, for believing in the beauty of his artistic vision and trusting in how many at-risk people he had helped.

My abusive father had laid the groundwork that made me so vulnerable to that narcissistic, destructive friend (and several other predators over the years). The grand deception of abusers, who prey on empathic people, is that we are worthless, we are losers, we are dependent upon their approval. Because of Sharon, I can never be deceived again.

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Because it DO take nerve (or spine!)

I expected to cry when I met her, but the moment she saw my giant train-case and said “Is that for ME?” I felt so accepted and comfortable. She instantly treated me like a friend, and why would I cry at meeting a friend? We stepped away from the meet & greet to the bar so she could really look at the project, and just chatted for a few minutes about her new album, Cerrone, and how you gotta twist the knife when people try to get you down. She kept making me laugh! Finally she said “I gotta go back to work” so I closed it up and promised to say hi after the show.

My original plan had been to bring the project to her in Pittsburgh. 1. because I didn’t want her or Chad to have to lug it around on tour, and 2. because I really wanted to see her perform in the place she felt the most comfortable. And 3… in the months that I’d been making the project, the boy / friend who’d dropped me for someone else had reached out, and I kinda wanted to show him the project. But while Sharon was performing on stage, I realized that this craft project wouldn’t make that boy want to be with me and I no longer cared.

What David Bowie did for me in my teens, Sharon did for me in my twenties. To see the two unified in this unforgettable tribute changed something in me. When this boy predictably ghosted again after saying he loved me, I shrugged and couldn’t get myself to feel heartbreak. Sharon’s Bowie tribute reconnected me with an internal self-love that sustains more than any of the unreliable love in my life ever has.

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After the show I brought the project up to her on stage. I had no idea one of the most transformative moments of my life was about to happen, but I vividly remember how she acted excited to see me again and actually tongue-popped at me! Even though she was in heels and had been on her feet for hours now, she didn’t seem to be in a rush to wrap up the meet-and-greet. She acted like she genuinely liked talking to me, and that experience has been more validating than any other… including being mentored by the ballet!

She’d told me before that they had a tour bus she could keep it on, so I handed it over and thanked her for the amazing show. She said “But I thought you were going to visit us in Pittsburgh!” I said that was still the plan, but I wanted her to have this now since it wouldn’t be a burden to get it home.

Then I said something like “I have to see a P-Town Bar show because I feel like you in your comfort-zone is more interesting than most people trying to step outside theirs.” I remember her making a happy sound– her hands grabbing my shoulders, her lips on my cheek… and the curse was broken.

You know that moment in “The Little Mermaid” where all hell is loose on the ship, the dog bites Vanessa’s ass and the shell goes saaaiiilllling through the air to SMASH at Ariel’s feet…?

My own voice had been trapped by years of living with an abusive, terrifying parent, of both my parents treating me like a stranger in their home. Years of exposure to that toxicity had swallowed so much of my creativity and confidence. I thought my true self was gone forever, chased away by hatred and the constant threat of violence… but it was just buried, waiting to come back to me.

The moment when Sharon looked at me like what I was saying meant something was just as powerful as that tipsy smooch on the cheek. It smashed open the shell my true voice had been trapped in and let it return to me. I’m not just being figurative; I physically felt that native light I came into the world with settle back into my heart… so easily and naturally because it had belonged there all along.

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Don’t worry, I HAVE discovered eyebrow pencil since this was taken!

Over the years of being a Sharon Needles fan, I’ve observed she has razor-sharp instincts; she can detect bullshit right away and see the goodness in things others overlook. So as much as I might doubt myself, Sharon’s taste has never steered me wrong. If she thought I was worth that little conversation, that tongue-pop, that hug and smooch, then she was correct. Even a year later, in unavoidable moments of self-doubt, I remember the compassion and kindness in her eyes as I chattered about the project. It’s a compassion that neither of my parents had for me, but now I have it to keep forever.

I’m fascinated by how a man can conjure a goddess, breathe life into her and share her with others. There’s a mysterious element in drag transformation that I don’t think has anything to do with illusion… in a way, the goddess a queen channels is 100% real in how it affects their audience. What she did for me feels like an act of pure magic, but it’s much more special than that: Sharon gave me a moment of understanding. Of just being present, caring, and kind. It’s made all the difference in how I treat myself.

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I’ve kept the project to myself for over a year, and finally decided to share it. This morning, I had an indirect brush with both former abusers within ten minutes of each other. It brought back a wave of panic, nausea, and rage that left me trembling and trying to find a friend to talk to. When none were available, I reopened “The Sharon Project” folder on my desktop. I think if I share it, the project can continue to help me process my feelings just like it did when I was making it.

I didn’t make this because I think Sharon’s a perfect person; sometimes she’s hard to understand and to stick up for. But the challenge of shutting down haters has made me a more critical thinker and a more patient person; I investigate things thoroughly before having an opinion on them now. You can’t be a Sharon fan for long unless you’re prepared to look up esoteric references, appreciate her risks, and analyze how brilliant and subversive her drag really is.

That’s why I think Sharon-fans tend to be analytical types, who reach for meaning beyond the obvious. There’s something distinct about the way fans talk about Sharon. Our voices get thick with bubbling feeling, our hearts squeeze, our eyes well up, our smiles hurt our cheeks. The drag world is lucky she chose it, because when she dies she’s going back to the same planet David Bowie came from. Transits like theirs come once a century and we lived through both. ❤️

 

 

 

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​I’ve loved the opening paragraph of Collette’s “Bella Vista” for years 💖 So often being single is regarded as a period of inactivity between volcanic diversion, but my most captivating memories and experiences happen regardless of what page in on. And no page of my life has ever been empty. 



The Grand Asymmetry: Misogyny In the 2016 Election

I was born with feminist software preinstalled in my brain. No one taught it to me, no one instilled it, no feminist agenda corrupted my vulnerable female brain. I opened my eyes in this world a fully activated ball-busting feminist and got the word for it later.

My mom tells me how I was practically a Terminator when it came to spotting inequalities, zero’ing in and demanding they be explained or corrected. My Disney picture books are full of pencil markings, editing in “or she” and “or her” to amend every use of the universal “he” or “his”.

I remember an intense need to see the world as a mathematically symmetrical place. As a Canadian child I’d been handed the idea that all people are entitled to equal rights, and long before it was a moral impulse, it was an obsessive-compulsive need to ensure the world reflected that ideal. I was not some angelic child who even empathized with others very deeply; the world felt unsteady if it was socially unbalanced.

Jagged inequalities in language or social structures rattled around in my brain and it felt difficult to even process them as real. The first time I heard about misogyny, I remember not being able to fully process it as a real fact. On an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, women were being murdured and one character said it was due to “hatred of women”.

“Hatred of women?” I thought to myself. “That makes no sense. How could you hate someone because they’re a woman? How could you hate all women? I thought men liked women… they’re always trying to go on dates with them in movies. How can you hate someone you like?”

My brain has struggled to process senseless things before, like the arbitrary cruelties of someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder or parental abuse driven by a hatred I couldn’t understand. I’ve had insomnia for years and the primary cause is that I lie awake at night trying to make senseless things fit into an analytical model that reflects the natural symmetry I still believed the world must have.

Until last night, watching the red numbers stack up on top of themselves like ladybugs piling up in drifts on the beach, I’m not sure I ever fully believed deep down that misogyny was a true part of reality. Even having experienced it personally in a systemic pattern, living in fear of it, letting it chip away at me over the years, reading countless stories of it, the automaton child inside me was still alive, blinking in disbelief that such a grand asymmetry could really exist. The hatred in my father’s eyes as he waved a knife at me for saying I wanted to do my own homework without his help. The violence in a man’s voice when I told him to get his hands off me in a bar. The murderous rage as men follow me down a subway platform… it’s like the software in my brain kept rejecting it as a deviation from the natural SENSE that must indeed govern this world.

I think I must have regarded misogyny as an act of insanity… random aberrations in the natural justice that must drive the evolved human brain. I’m looking at that naïveté now as I would a bird that cracked its neck hitting a window: something innocent that died through no natural flaw, but as a result of a human artifice. I’m holding this bird in my hand dazzled by the simple grace that stood no chance of survival in a habitat spotted with unnatural constructions.

Misogyny is not natural. It is a series of beliefs, entitlements, resentful desires, illogical rationalizations, comfortable conclusions, ragged hungers, and terrified insecurity that thrive off of a constructed “other”. It does not fit anywhere into a structure of sense and order. It’s a craggy growth that’s coated centuries of civilization because of the intoxicating relief it offers fearful, fragile minds that bond with one another through contempt. And what else do you expect of little boys but to be that fearful and fragile in cultures that shame them for feeling anything deemed too ‘feminine’?

A small boy who’s called a ‘girl’ or a ‘cocksucker’ for struggling at sports, or having an allergy, or thinking a cat is cute, is NOT mentally independent enough to resist this unnatural relief. It’s like giving him a drug that explains to him why he’s only allowed to participate in less than half of a full human experience. And then when he sees girls allowed to get away with the ‘weaknesses’ he’s punished for, he’ll resent them, himself, and even other boys who struggle to perform this unnatural idea of what maleness entails. This pressure has remove anything “male” from masculinity and turned it into an anxiety disorder.

When he’s a teenager seeing girls being pulled out of class for their collarbones showing, he’ll assume girls deserve to be punished for their bodies. He’ll hear rape discussed as if it’s a natural disaster that girls need to be virtuous enough to avoid. He’ll learn that women’s bodies are defined by their sexuality and do not belong to them, that they exist to be seen and enjoyed men and therefore can be policed. He’ll think it’s okay to shame women for having a sexuality because his teachers, principals, and parents have already done that.

And when he’s grown, maybe he’ll see women as “beautiful creatures” to be protected or used according to how their bodies make him feel. Or maybe he’ll see them as “stupid sluts” who should be dispensing sexual contact since their bodies only exist for men anyways. He’ll see their free agency and free choice as hubristic selfishness, not only because he’s been taught to see them as objects but also because he’s been under unnatural pressure to perform masculinity since he was old enough for Little League.

And when an overqualified woman who’s dedicated her life to public service with years of political experience runs for President of the United States against a grossly unqualified buffoon who ran just to gratify a pathological need to win contests… he will be so brainwashed by these asymmetrical, senseless attitudes that he won’t even register his resentment of Hillary Clinton as “misogyny”. He’ll say it’s because Donald Trump seemed more honest, and he’ll believe that because the attitudes have wrapped around his brain like black mould since he was too young to question their illogical premises.

This grand asymmetry takes different forms in many communities, spreading like a virus that adapts to unique surroundings. Homophobia, internalized homophobia, internalized misogyny, femme-shaming, bottom-shaming, sissy-shaming… it’s all the “same old thing in brand new drag,” as David Bowie put it.

Last night I sat quietly while I watched the numbers pile up. And that bird died slowly, finally, as I saw the attitude I’d regarded as insanity sweep across America like a red plague. It was more than just misogyny; it was every unexamined attitude towards the other, racism in particular. Donald Trump rationalized the mob mentality these fearful people already had, exciting their basest, most illogical instincts.

People said Hillary didn’t excite people. You ought to be fucking SUSPICIOUS if someone is exciting you so easily; that’s manipulation. She was an Apollonian candidate that appealed to our senses of logic, justice, calm-minded fairness and respect. Those things don’t inflame the senses like hatred, fear, and paranoia. Dictators coast into power on these fevers, using ignorance to enflame simmering primitive passions into enraged wildfires.

I’ve been numb today because my brain has been restructuring itself. In the last few years I’ve started learning how to let go of senseless acts of cruelty and abuse. There’s only so much that analysis can wring out of them, which we document in books. Beyond that, the inhumane treatment of fellow human beings is driven by an echoing madness.

Every time I’ve thought of it today, thought of this maniac actually being President, I’ve burst out laughing. The well of horror has overflowed and my brain can only process it as absurdity. I think this must be why women would go “hysterical” in the past. The senseless world defies logic or justice, and then one day you just can’t stop laughing. I feel like if I don’t laugh, I’ll scream.

All my life I’ve heard that women are illogical, untrustworthy, materialistic and too emotional. And it has always baffled me given how often I’ve seen men’s faces twisted with rage and hatred, spewing crazy nonsense to rationalize their internal narrative. We can all be illogical and untrustworthy; those are gender-neutral qualities.

But last night I saw a woman with Apollonian composure lose to a man driven by Dionysian fevers. We just saw how important logic and reason ACTUALLY are to people who would rather not examine their misogyny and racism.

I sat next to a friend I’ve known for over ten years last night. A cis, white man. The female MC at the bar said into the microphone that clearly people still hated a woman more than they hate a racist. He dismissed her with disgust, saying “Shut up.” A woman near me was near a breakdown, singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it” as she cried. He also sneered her off as a drunk. I held my hand out to her, expressionless. She looked at my hand warily, maybe confused because of how unemotional I looked. Her face was red with crying and I was blank as stone. It took her a few seconds of inspecting me before she took my hand and we hugged each other.

I realized I was making myself numb so that this friend wouldn’t turn his contempt on me. I think he was anxious about the result and maybe was processing it by acting like he didn’t care. But he said “I’m excited” and “I’m not going to let this break me” as if it wasn’t about the lives, safety, and dignity of millions of people just south of our border. And I thought to myself “How relaxing, to be a white man. You can just be float on the surface of other’s anxiety without it applying personally to yourself.”

He poked me and said “You’re not going to cry are you? Whatever happens, be classy.”

I replied “Don’t ever say that word to me again.”

Even my blankness was offensive to him. It reminded of when I was a teenager and my father would come into my room to rage at me. After a while, I started going emotionless as a predator-prey response. I would go as still and quiet as a squirrel does to avoid detection. I would stare at him blankly while he insulted and intimidated me and think how even if he beat me, I wouldn’t react. It doesn’t work for humans, though. He would get even angrier when he couldn’t frighten me into crying or cowering.

Maybe my friend thought he was trying to cheer me up. I could tell he was dealing with his own anxiety by trying to control / dictate how everyone else ought to feel about it. But I spent over half my life under the power of someone who tried to control my emotions or make me responsible for his. I’m bulletproof to such things at this point, and I soon got up to leave.

I lay in bed later, unable to make myself cry. I’d seen women crying in the bar, holding one another. I wished I’d had someone I could cry with, instead of a man demanding my emotions conform to his. Someone who had spent her life living this insult day-to-day. Who then had to watch it confirmed publicly through numbers that we are truly seen as inferior because of our sex. The nightmare that we’ve only just begun sharing with each other through Reddit and social media reared up as tall as a tidal wave for everyone to see.

I sat alone in my apartment an hour later, still numb from the bar. I watched the CNN livestream and wondered if this was just the most lucid nightmare I’d ever had. I have nightmares all the time about my father finding the home I’ve made for myself and kicking in the door to finally kill me; those felt about as real as this did. I pulled a blanket over my head and spoke to my drag self in the dark.

“Heresy,” I said, “How do I bear it? It’s too senseless. It’s too absurd. How is this real?”

She took my hand in the dark. Heresy has watched monstrous spectacles, seen kings beheaded, felt the heat from innocent women burned as witches. She is a diver in my well of horror and nothing shocks her. Not even this. And squeezing my hand, I let her speak with my mouth so I could listen.

“History is a not a path that progresses sequentially stone to stone. It’s a wheel. The weight of the high point draws up the low. We saw it with Weimar Berlin; the joy, freedom, and communion was counterbalanced by the resulting backlash of fear and hate. The cruelty of the wheel is that we think we’re safest when we’re highest, only to have our very joy provoke the hatred that will pull us down again.

“So remember the joy. Remember the communion and clarity that has been fought for in the last few decades. Remember its apex, not its fall. The untarnished memory of our greatest freedom, our greatest reason, will help us find our way back up around this wheel.”

The problem with having preinstalled feminist software is that my brain feels confounded and scrambled by inequality and injustice. That’s why I need Heresy’s voice to get me through times like this where I feel like I could break from trying to fit reality into a framework that makes sense. Heresy doesn’t need to make sense of senseless things. She watches them like a bird of prey, outside their power. And with her help, I’m going to find a way to live in a senseless reality without going mad.

 


In its Original Russian: Translating Kudelka’s Nutcracker

Interpreting the iconic is James Kudelka’s specialty: from Johnny Cash to Tchaikovsky, he can personalize stories and music that audience members think they already know by heart. When even people who’ve never seen a ballet can hum along with the orchestra, how does a choreographer catch us off-guard? His disarmingly heartfelt production of The Nutcracker, celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, explores the mystery of what’s found in translation, from a massive cultural scale down to how children interpret their surroundings.

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The performance opens with young siblings Marie and Misha helping their servants catch a rat in the stable. Before the gauzy scrim even rises, we’re dazzled by the luscious set and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto to recall both the intoxicating splendour and ethnic identity that existed side-by-side in Imperial Russia. The Romanov aristocracy was famous for imitating Europe to distance themselves from their Slavic roots, perceived then as too savage for polite society. And so in Act I of Kudelka’s Nutcracker, there’s a significant contrast between the children’s fashionably European parents and the serving class who remain traditionally Slavic in fashion and custom. But mothers in the audience will quickly note who is actually raising the children in this world.

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Danced by rising stars from Canada’s National Ballet School, Misha and Marie are corralled, comforted and corrected exclusively by their governess, Baba, and the stable boy, Peter. While they participate in a coldly formal dance with their stylish parents, they also disrupt it, and show far more engagement in the passionate community spirit between servants and townsfolk. They are also entranced by the dancing bears and horse conjured by Uncle Nicolai, who practices a yet untamed ethnic magic and chooses who enters the enchanted world of Act II.

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When Marie and Misha are spirited away to the Palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the contrasting elements between their two worlds flow together harmoniously into a breathtaking spectacle that celebrates nobility of spirit over nobility of birth. Are they dreaming? Is it a subconscious blending of their two cultural realities? Or do the children earn their passage into the enchanted world by proving themselves in a battle with the Tsar of the Mice?

Roles are reversed in this battle as Marie and Misha protect an incapacitated Nutcracker. Kudelka takes special care with Peter’s characterization in Act I to show why he is ennobled as the Nutcracker in Act II. Danced on opening night with glorying vitality by principle dancer McGee Maddox, everyone in the barn is enchanted by Peter as surely as the animals are enchanted by Uncle Nicolai. Serving girls and Baba line up to dance with him; the children obey him in everything; even their prim mother flirts with him before she is whisked away by a stern husband. Despite his low position in the Imperial hierarchy, a joyful Peter exudes nobility in how he treats others. There is a reason that Peter is chosen to share in the magic along with the children: he is more a prince at heart than the aristocrats who employ him.

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The court of the Sugar Plum Fairy honours the travellers when they arrive in Act II. Danced with astonishing grace by an angelic Heather Ogden, she retreats into her gold Faberge egg after a delicate solo. But it is Peter’s respectful touch that opens the egg again, and she re-emerges for a softly, sincerely romantic pas-de-deux with him. There are moments adults in the audience will notice more than their children, such as when Peter leads the fairy in a turn balanced on his arm, and then significantly turns his palm upwards for her to hold before repeating the same step with new meaning.

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Unlike their restrained and controlling parents, Marie and Misha witness a deeper connection blossoming between two characters based on mutual respect and affection. And unlike other traditional balletic heroes, Peter does not win the Sugar Plum Fairy’s heart with stereotypical masculinity; he can’t even win a battle against mice. Not a soldier, Peter is valued for being caring and trustworthy. Kudelka creates a world where characters are rewarded for playing against type: courageous children protect the adults and men become heroes through gentleness.

This version of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas tale integrates a historical texture into the story that asks if the children are envisioning an idealized version of their world, where beauty doesn’t come at such a high price. The Romanov era ended with the violent deaths of royalty as young as Marie and Misha … but in their dream, the contrast between classes does not result in horror. Rather, the magical realm elegantly merges the two worlds the children live in, bringing harmony to separation.

Twenty winters on stage, Kudelka’s Nutcracker still makes an icy breeze feel like a thrilling, redemptive brush with a gentler world.

 

The Nutcracker runs December 12 through January 3 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For ticketing information, visit national.ballet.ca