Roses Have Thorns: Time, Love, & Mortality in “Sleeping Beauty,” “Hamilton,” Poetry, & Life
CONTENT WARNING: Death, Mortality, Tribulations [but with the intent to create greater meaning and motivation in life!]
To Free the Heart by Francis C. Anderson, Jr.
Through dreary sodden days
The field sponged up
The greying skies.
And now the sun
Lies soft as birth again
As if the earth had just begun.
And blossoms on the vines
Designed in spring
Come out to sing again.
And everywhere the ripening
Pushes falling leaves apart
To free the heart
As through the seasons
Of our years
Often waits the nourishment
Indeed! Becoming is a plant fed with tears, it requires great strength, and it can be scary to face the changes that time inevitably brings. This time of year, late winter just flirting with spring (depending on your locale), is bittersweet, loaded with possibility and waiting and patience.
Our becoming depends on time, which, along with space, provides the fleeting field in which we live. In a future blog, I’ll cover more about time as an Element of Dance, and music, too, but today, I’m meditating on our relationship to time and our human mortality, and how the blink of an eye that is our lifespan is reflected in performance and poetry and how we can respond to our awareness of this fact.
Sometimes, time seems to pass slowly, sometimes a season is gone in the blink of an eye. Some of us feel as if we can never get enough time to live the life we desire, and some feel as if they must endlessly wait for life to begin. Some times are filled with trials, some produce great masterpieces.
Hamilton’s non-stop approach to time
“Why don’t you write like you’re running out of time,” goes the title of a “Hamilton-”inspired blog on Medium, responding to Alexander Hamilton’s drive to write and their own difficulties in doing so. Truth be told, I relate somewhat to Hamilton’s endless desire to express! In the musical, Alexander Hamilton is seen tirelessly, incessantly writing his ideas in letters and pamphlets and manuscripts, and those around him struggling to catch up. Unfortunately, his relationships suffer, but his lasting impact can’t be denied.
What is your relationship to time and to your own mortality?
I seek to fill each day with actions that I believe will make a difference in my life and in the world. My legacy, if you will, though that sounds a bit grandiose. Not that I bother to hope that my specific name will somehow endure or my particular story remembered. I have no illusions about that, as I don’t believe any one history can truly be remembered “for all of time.” Rather, it is my wish that the joyful, healing energy that I send out will, in effect, continue to radiate forever, having come from before and beyond myself in the first place.
This mortality/death/rebirth idea has been hovering, amorphous, on the edges of my mind. It’s a little like a hummingbird- I can hear it and vaguely sense it’s movements before I can spot the bird itself. It’s doubtful that I can scratch the surface in one essay, one blog post, or ever quite capture what it is that is niggling at me to say. But I might as well get started, as a way to reflect on the loss and grieving I experience (we all do, and are) and connect about this universal experience and ways we may respond.
Synchronicity and pulling the Death Card in Tarot
While I’ve been ruminating on time, death and mourning, mortality, gratitude, blessings, “Sleeping Beauty,” “Hamilton,” and the fleeting nature of my own life, what with my 40th birthday approaching and the recent loss of two people in my circle (a best friend who we visited with often and is my age, and my girlfriend’s 105 year-old grandma), I was considering when I want to try to formulate some of these ideas into writing. I considered focusing on the dance technique topic of flexibility and working towards the splits first, but that is now planned for next week, as I then pulled the Death Card as my Tarot card of the week. So that was decided 🙂
This means big change (planned or unplanned), including loss and grieving, but ultimately light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no way out but through, but it’s helpful to have supportive resources on the way! By the way, I use Tarot Cards as a way to understand timeless archetype, access my own intuition and awareness, get perspective, and problem-solve, not to somehow predict my future from an external source. And it works nicely for my purposes!
According to Michelle Tea’s guide, Modern Tarot**, “Though the Death card, a difficult, almost uniformly painful card to draw, deals primarily with change, transitions, and transformations, it is largely the primal fear of death at our core that makes these and so many other endings excruciating for humans.” (p.96) Rather than being about physical, corporeal death, it can be helpful to think of it as some type of symbolic bereavement.
As Tea writes, “Sometimes I think the Death card would benefit from being renamed Grief, or Mourning, for that is the real heart of the card. There has been a profound loss, and whether you are grateful for the loss or devastated, a time of processing is upon you, of consciously letting go. It’s a time of feeling your feelings, your anxiety, or raging and making peace.” Modern Tarot** (p.96)
It is a time to come to grips with fear, and put in place helpful coping mechanisms, while realizing that we can’t bypass our current situation, painful though it may be: “You’re not going to be able to pray-meditate-chant-yoga-cleanse-crossfit your way out of this one. While those pursuits are killer support systems, tools to help you through this moment, sitting down to meditate in the hope that you’ll be lifted away from your pain is (always) incorrect. Meditate in order to bring yourself closer to the razor’s edge of fear. Look it in the face. Accept it and make peace with it. If the fear of death underlies all fear, and fear is what stops us from acceptance and letting go, then getting into a practice of accepting that you’re going to die will have the ripple effect of assisting you with all loss.” (p.97)
I didn’t expect to find an explication of meditation in a book on reading the Tarot, but I think that’s as good an explanation as any! Meditation is facing exactly what is and learning to deal with it calmly. It can be very uncomfortable, and these are not necessarily easy truths to accept, but they can be paths to wisdom.
Memento Mori with Socrates, the Stoics, and Ryan Holliday
In Modern Tarot**, Michelle Tea summarizes: “No one outwits death, and no one outwits change.” (p.96) This sentiment echoes the practice if Memento Mori, or reflecting on the inevitability of our death.
As Ryan Holliday of The Daily Stoic explains: “Most often, our ego runs away from anything that reminds us of the reality that sits at odds with the comfortable narrative we have build [sic] for ourselves. Or, we are simply petrified to look at life’s facts as they are. And there is one simple fact that most of us are utterly scared to meditate, reflect on and face head on: We are going to die. Everyone around us is going to die. Such reminders and exercises take part of Memento Mori—the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is ‘about nothing else but dying and being dead.’ In early Buddhist texts, a prominent term is maraṇasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’ Some Sufis have been called the ‘people of the graves,’ because of their practice of frequenting graveyards to ponder on death and one’s mortality.”
This awareness has the potential to give a sense of urgency to our actions, as we don’t know how long we “have,” and no one can! Sometimes I myself feel fearful about it, sometimes sad, sometimes in simple wonder. The ego doesn’t want to imagine it’s non-existence. I’m really quite attached to this life of mine, which I love! I find the experience of living glorious, precious, worthy of celebration, moving beyond words, as well absurd. But one thing I’m sure of is that I want to live my life the best that I can.
Making the most of the time we (hope to) have
We all have much to contribute to the world in our time. I have heard the tragedy often cited of “going to the grave with our music still inside of us.” Who said that? I had to look it up, and according to Poynter.org: “While Henry David Thoreau is often credited with variations of the aphorism ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them,’ that is not what he wrote in ‘Walden.’ He merely said, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ So it’s not clear who pointed out the tragedy of passing before we have given the gift we are meant to give to the world, but presumably they made their mark as the motivating idea resonates still.
A few years ago, I learned of the idea of estimating (based on average life span for your demographic) the total number of days of your life you might hope to see, then calculating where you are now to determine how many may be left. You also consider how much time goes into everyday activities and how much you’re spending on your important priorities, the idea being to be present to the finite nature of this life and need to appreciate and make the most of the present. It’s a little bit of a horrifying, yet enlightening exercise.
I do not think this means that we need to be “Non-Stop” like Alexander Hamilton, nor is it healthy to work without ceasing, as breaks are necessary to avoid burnout and maintain a healthy, balanced life. For example, taking 20 minutes per day to meditate and do “nothing” could be a step on the way to enlightenment and the ultimate. Who knows? Do you value balance and calm in your life, or do you prefer a go-go-go productivity fest?
“Say Yes” like Andrea Gibson
If it inspires you, then by all means run with the idea to write, create, find your voice, your expression, what you are here to do or say or teach or be–go for it, during whatever time you may have! Whatever you dream of, live into it in the present moment.
Consider, as poet Andrea Gibson demonstrates, saying yes and playing your music:
Sleeping Beauty’s Love Through Tribulations
Speaking of fear of death/being forgotten/left out, love, waiting, blessings and curses and other intertwined themes, in Podcast “039: What is the Moral of Sleeping Beauty?” I talk about what the classical ballet “Sleeping Beauty” means, from the point-of-view of choreographer George Balanchine and Francis Mason in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets** and my own perspective on productions, literature, and teaching.
For more about how I teach this particular ballet with children and adults, I also created a video on my YouTube Channel, below, and Playlist with example tracks on Spotify.
Of course, many ballets feature death of characters, death and loss as a theme, or even as a character of it’s own, but at this time of looking ahead to spring while going through the dark time of Lent and also continuing to face global pandemic and personal loss, I’m fascinated with the connection of all these themes with The Sleeping Beauty. As Balanchine and Mason point out, it can be a little tricky to suss out a meaningful or uplifting moral:
“Most of the fairy tales that adults go to the theater to see again and again–Swan Lake, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, the Ring–symbolically enshrine truths about human experience and human behavior to make their pleasures more than incidental. Swan Lake, for example, is a drama involving conflict and character; it gives scope for dramatic expression, for acting, and for diverse striking interpretations. By comparison with Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty is a cipher. What does he do to deserve his princess? The briar thicket surrounding his bride is no dangerous Magic Fire through which only the dauntless can pass. And similarly, by comparison with the brave, pathetic Odette and the formidable temptress Odile, Princess Aurora is a passive heroine played upon by circumstance. Can we find a moral in The Sleeping Beauty beyond that guest lists should be kept up-to-date lest awkwardness result?” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets** p.553)
Charles Perrault, author of the fairy tale on which the ballet is based, explicitly spelled out his own moral for the story in poetry:
“Many a girl has waited long
For a husband brave or strong;
But I’m sure I never met
Any sort of woman yet
Who could wait a hundred years,
Free from fretting, free from fears.
Now, our story seems to show
That a century or so,
Late or early, matters not;
True love comes by fairy-lot.
Some old folk will even say
It grows better by delay.
Yet this good advice, I fear,
Helps us neither there nor here.
Though philosophers may prate
How much wiser ’tis to wait,
Maids will be a-sighing still —
Young blood must when young blood will!”
[https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault01.html Source: Perrault’s Fairy Tales (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969), pp. 3-21, translation from Old-Time Stories told by Master Charles Perrault, translated by A. E. Johnson (Dodd Mead and Company, 1921), translations of the verse morals are from Perrault’s Fairy Tales, translated by S. R. Littlewood (London: Herbert and Daniel, 1912).]
As I mentioned in the video, I personally enjoy the symbolism of sleeping and awakening again in relation to our travel through the seasons of the year, but “In a preface to the Penguin edition of Perrault, Geoffrey Brereton remarks that it is ‘tempting to adopt the nature-myth interpretation and see the tale as an allegory of the long winter sleep of the earth’–but adds that ‘the allegory, if it is one, is obscure.’” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets** p.553) This is alright with me, as we can enjoy any interpretation of these works of art that makes sense, and make any creative connections we like!
Balanchine and Mason continue by describing the composer of the ballet’s score’s, take on the meaning of the tale: “Tchaikovsky’s interpretation was simpler. His Sleeping Beauty is a struggle between good and evil, between forces of light and forces of darkness, represented by the benevolent Lilac Fairy and the wicked fairy Carabosse. The prelude, a straightforward exposition of the music associated with the two characters, suggests it; the consistent employment of melodies related to or derived from these themes, –The Lilac Fairy’s transformation of the Carabosse music at the close of Act I, the Carabosse figuration that propels Aurora’s dance with the spindle, the opposition of the two themes in the symphonic entr’acte that precedes the Awakening–makes it clear. These two forces shape Aurora’s destiny, and although she initiates nothing, with just a little stretching of the imagination we can accept the declaration of the Russian composer and critic Boris Asafiev that the heroine’s three adagios (the Rose Adagio, in E flat; the Vision Scene appearance in F, the Grand Pas de Deux, in C) tell ‘the story of a whole life–the growth and development of a playful and carefree child into a young woman who learns, through tribulations, to know great love’.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets** p.553-4)
Betraying their own perspective on the artform as well as appreciation for the complexity of meaning in balletic performance, Balanchine and Mason point out that “The question ‘Can we find a moral?’ prompts others.” They ask, “Is it right to look for one? Does the ‘meaning’ of The Sleeping Beauty not lie simply in its patterns of movement, as does that of, say, Ballet Imperial, Balanchine’s homage to Petipa and Tchaikovsky? While spectacle, pure dance, expressive dance, narrative, and symbolism must mix in any presentation of the work, what importance should be given to any single ingredient? Different productions have provided different answers.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets** p.554)
Yes, different productions provide diverse perspectives on the tale, and how rich is the material that has emerged from this surprisingly complex fairy tale!
Speaking of love, life, roses, and poetry… Emerson and Shakespeare!
In his essay, “Self-Reliance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoes to foresee the future. He cannot be happy until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays and Lectures** p.270)
All this talk of roses, love, and human mortality is recalling to me Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXXV, which was one of the selections that guided my MFA thesis choreography:
Sonnet 35: No more be grieved at that which thou hast done
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence.
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessory needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
Thanks for sticking with me until the end, and I hope these poems, classical ballet, musical, and philosophical distinctions have brought some perspective and inspiration to your life, despite the morbid theme. As Michelle Tea concludes at the end of her chapter on the Death Card: “We can’t leave this card without speaking about the […] chic black flag embossed with an enormous, elaborate rose. What could be more beautiful? And truly, as sure as the sun setting in the background will rise again, there is beauty at the end of this struggle.” (Modern Tarot** p.99)
For now, let’s find motivation to “play our music” in these ideas and interpretations, and in the future I’ll cover related topics of time, phrasing, musicality, how all of this contributes to yoga practice, choreographic inspiration, and more!
Blythe Stephens, MFA
she/her or they/them
** This blog is not sponsored. Amazon Affiliate links potentially give me a percentage of the purchase price.
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