Sound and Silhouette

I had the most amazing experience yesterday, hosting Fashionista: Fashion as Art, a classical music concert which Amici Ensemble presented at Glenn Gould Studio in association with Cecilia Quartet, violinist Lara St John and accordionist Joseph Petric and the Toronto fashion designer, Rosemarie Umetsu who dressed me and three statuesque creatures from Ford Models for the occasion. My thanks go out to Elizabeth Bowman, executive director of Amici Ensemble, for involving me in such an exquisite affair.

The event was a study in artistic contrasts: music on one hand, and fashion on the other as represented by a series of show-stopping gowns, all by Rosemarie Umetsu. In advance of the three chamber pieces selected for the program — one each by the austere Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, the French Romantic/Impressionist Amedee Ernest Chausson and Canadian Alice Ho whose Breath of Fire was a world premiere — models strutted out on to the stage in dresses whose colours, shapes, textures and fluidity of line were curated as having a visual relationship to their accompanying pieces of music.  The idea was to show how the two art forms inspire and relate to each other.

Largely, my job consisted in drawing parallels between the whimsy of fashion with the gravitas of classical music. I began by arguing in favour of fashion as art, which I personally had experienced as a fashion reporter covering the shows in Paris. There, fashion is an artistic pursuit, with designers draping fabrics and wielding colour and 3-D embellishments much like sculptors or painters: Think Issey Miyake, the late Alexander McQueen, or the Dutch design duo, Viktor & Rolf, for instance.

But then drawing on the excellent research done by Mary E. Davis in her 2006 book, Classical Chic: Music, Fashion & Modernism, I showed that the relationship between fashion and classical music as presented by The Amici Ensemble has historical precedents. I cited the example of Paris couturier Paul Poiret who in 1912, now a century ago, was among the first fashion designers to host classical music concerts in his Paris salon, a tradition upheld today by Rosemarie Umestu whose Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu at 198a Davenport Rd. in Toronto frequently plays host to classical musical concerts among the racks of gowns.

When Poiret, one of the most celebrated fashion designers of his day, began associating himself with classical music, society magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue took note. Classical music gave fashion a sense of prestige while fashion lent classical music a sense of glamour and popularity. It was only a matter of time until impresarios like Sergei Diaghilev started seeking out their own associations with fashion designers. It was the new chic thing to do.

Soon after Poiret launched his fashion-and-music evenings, Diaghilev began seeking out couturiers to design for his Ballets Russes. It was because of their association with classical music, theatre and ballet that many couturiers began to enjoy world-wide fame. Among them was Coco Chanel who torpedoed to success soon after she allowed one her hats to appear in 1911 French play. By 1924, her fame had grown and Diaghilev asked her to work alongside the great composer, Igor Stravinsky, to help with the creation of Le Train Bleu which was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska from a libretto by Jean Cocteau.

This marriage between cloth and classical music actually begat a real-life affair between these two icons of 20th century art and fashion. The 2009 film, Coco and Igor, shows the relationship to have been intense, stormy, highly sexualized —  adjectives that could just as easily be applied to yesterday’s Amici Ensemble concert. This is what happens when you pair a side-slit gown with a pointy bow and a pounding piano: sparks fly.

I couldn’t get into all this detail while standing at the podium before  packed house at the Glenn Gould Studio. I had only minutes to convey the joint passion I feel for fashion and art, especially music; judging from the standing ovation the show received at the end, I think I did help, in my small way, to show that they are intrinsically linked: Both offer transformative experiences.

I personally felt fashion’s transforming powers while preparing back-stage in the crowded dressing room. Rosemarie Umetsu had lent me a stunning black-and-ivory gown for the event; accessories designer and stylist Cameron Alexander tied around my neck a stunning amethyst necklace that heightened the feeling of glamour jumpstarted by this one-of-a-kind dress. Ivy Lam and her team then did my hair and makeup, turning me from an overstarched newspaper woman into the belle of the ball, false eyelashes and all. I felt special, like a work of art.

And then, in the wings, listening to Lara St. John with pianist Serouj Kradjian and members of the Cecilia Quartet sail across the emotional waves of Chausson’s mellifluous Concerto in D, I was again transported deep inside a wellspring of emotion. I instinctively moved to this music, my lace and satin skirts swaying to the rhythm. In this moment, music and fashion truly were as one, united by me, a woman in a beautiful dress listening to beautiful music, stirred equally by both.

People Who Told Me No: Thank-you.


I just had lunch with a lovely PR man who wants to help me promote my next book, Ballerina. He asked me about my dance background.  I’m afraid I had not much to tell.

My mother believed that dancing was what you did when the radio is on, so was stinting when it came to dance lessons when I was young. Besides, she didn’t exactly like ballet. her idea of a hoofer was a tap dancer, or a jazz artists, someone more Ann Margret than Ana Pavlova.

Ballet was, for a long time, something I did in my colouring books. From a young age, I had an obsession for ballerinas and used to draw them endlessly, together with flying fish, which also caught my my imagination. Fish who could fly were as fascinating to me as women who could balance on the tips of their toes. The two became intrinsically linked within my imagination.

Flash forward about a decade, and I am a pimply-faced teenager, mad about anything to do with dance. I had an image of Judith Jamison, the Amazonian principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, magnet-ed to the refrigerator — much to my mother’s chagrin. I watched dance movies, especially those with Cyd Charisse, one of my favourite dancers.

I started to write impressionistic poems about dance and then started writing on dance itself. When I was in my final year of high school, the guidance counsellor asked all students about to graduate to tell him their career ambitions. I walked into his office and matter-of-factly said that I would be a dance critic. It made perfect sense: I loved dance; I loved to write. Ergo, I’d be dance critic.

But the pronunciation seemed deeply to offend him. He was a big guy, with a dark mustache, a biker dude in a polyester suit, and he immediately chastised me, saying it was an unrealistic aspiration.  He said that no one would ever take me seriously. “You have to know the topic; people have to trust in your knowledge. ” I recall him saying, his face growing red.  He then told me to march myself down to the library to review the stats on unemployed journalists and he told me to come up with a new game plan. I did what he said. Sort of. I marched, or I should say, stomped, my way into the library — I was that  angry. I asked for the binder on unemployment figures, and once it was in my hands, I suddenly asked myself, What was I doing? I could care less that other people couldn’t find work as writers.  I wasn’t them, and they weren’t me.  And contrary to what he had said,  I did know about dance, and even if I didn’t know everything I was eager to learn. I had the passion and the desire. Nothing and no one was going to stand in my way.  I huffily handed the binder back tot he bewildered librarian. I ‘d show him.

Flash forward another decade: I am the dance critic for Canada’s national newspaper: I am nominated for a coveted National Newspaper Award for my coverage of the National Ballet of Canada; I am also writing for dance Magazine in new York and am a contributor to The International Dictionary of Ballet, published out of London by St. James Press. I am an internationally recognized dance expert.

This might sound like gloating, and it’s not meant to be. But I’d like at this moment to say thank-you, Mr. Schmidt, for telling me no. Because of you, I became more determined than ever to realize my dream. I made something out of my life, and in partnership with the thing I’ve never ceased to love — dance.

I also grew up to see flying fish soaring above the ocean waves, a sight as amazing as I always thought it would be.

May all your visions have wings, as did mine.  



Getting Older (But Not Necessarily Better)

Well, I’ve been absent from these pages for a while. I feel I need to explain myself. I wrote a second book. To do it, I had to stay glued to my chair for months on end (six months to be exact) and I couldn’t even think of writing anything other than it, and of course, the articles required as part of my day job as a national newspaper reporter. So it’s done: a backstage history of the ballerina from the court of Louis XIV until the present day. The working title is Ballerina. In it, I examine the dirt beneath the satin slipper, so to speak, all the ugly pracatices committed in the name of art against these iconic women of the dance. It will make me very popular with ballet companies (not!) I’m fluffing my tutu as I write (double not!)

So the good news is I did it, I killed myself for something lasting, and, in my opinion, owrthwhile. The bad news is that my eyes are now so weak I can’t read my own nesaper without a magnifying glass. Also, my legs hurt from sitting so much, and I appear to have a popped rib right under my colar bone due to excess mousing. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds. I feel like one of the ageing ballerinas I write of in the book — wasted before my time. 

It’s my birthday soon and while I’d like to blame my injuries on the book (another female casuality of ballet!) I must face the music and chalk it all up to advancing age. I am that much closer to the grave, thank-you very much, as practicaly  every time I meet — all of them distressingly younger — seem to be  out of their way to emphasize. I’ll give you a depressing example.

So, there I was, in New York City, out on the town with a gaggle of groovy gals (a media trip to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Kiehls, the luxury beauty brand). We were sipping Manhattans and nibbling on tiny carrot sticks placed before us in shot glasses on the table at The Waverly Inn, the new happening resturant owned by Vanity Fair editor (and fellow Canadian), Graydon Carter. I was having a lovely time until I turned to the Amazonian brunette beside me, a former MuchMusic veejay turned morning telwevision hiostess with the mostest in her barely there minis, and said, “Doesn’t it remind you of our parents sdays?” She froze her upteenth glass of red wine in mid air and  turning to look at me (but slightly) answered, “You mean, our grandparents.” It was an epiphany moment as devastating as that experienced by Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of an Artist as Young Man when he discovers that his girlfriend reveals more of her soul to the priest than to him: an instant relationship breaker. In that moment, I realized I had somehow skipped a generation. I was hopelessly out of touch. 

Adding insult to injury, the next day I suffered a wicked hangover, and all I had was  half a drink: my liver had shrivelled up (along with some other things too painful to mention). It’s official: I am now well past having fun. Or at least the kind of fun I used to have when I was, well, young. Sigh.

Well, at least I’ll have a good book to curl up with once Ballerina is published in the fall. I’ll be reading my own copy with spectacles on as well as apair of old socks to keep me warm late at night under the sheets. Dancing in my dreams.