Reading at the Library

I’ve spent many hours reading at the library. I’d say that reading in the library has very much informed the person I am today. The habit was formed early: Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss followed by fairy tales then Greek myths and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In high school, the books were more Oscar Wilde and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Those turbulent years of my teenage life were often spent at a library carrel, where I’d anchor myself after school to study and then study again: Books being my salvation, my escape route from all that tormented me at the time, my home life in particular. The library felt often like my true home, and as I’d wander the aisles after-dark, I’d discover new lives and new adventures, if not new cuisines in exotic cookbooks, all lined up of the shelves, inviting me in.

When I got to university I was already well-practiced in being a library habitue, which is likely why didn’t flounder in first year as many of my peers did. All this goes to say that I didn’t have much of a social life. Books were my main companions. At one point I realized that it wasn’t a good way to be. I tried branching out, meaning going to the library less, and trying out the campus pubs more. But at the time, I found real life less safe and reassuring (and inspiring) than my books at the library, so back I went, into my solitude.

In Paris, I even went so far as to live in a library: Shakespeare & Co., on the Left Bank, opposite Notre Dame, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce used to go to read and borrow their books. I lived upstairs, sleeping among books by authors whose surnames began with the letter B. I write about that experience in my book, Paris Times Eight. Which brings me back to libraries again.

Recently, as a result of my book, I was a guest author as part of the Keep Toronto Reading Festival sponsored by the Toronto Public Library. I read earlier this month at the TPL’s Morningside branch, before an attentive crowd. All were library regulars and some arrived late to the reading because they had been busy borrowing books of their own.

Librarian Sheila Yates had decorated the meeting room to resemble a french cafe. It was beautiful, touching and charming.

I read from the chapter detailing my intimate encounter with the late, great dancer Rudolf Nureyev, and also from an earlier one in which I described my first impressions of the city that would eventually inform me, much the way libraries have: From the inside out, inspiring in me a desire for learning, for reaching after knowledge and wisdom and beauty, such as are often described in books.

Campari Consciousness

A drink to remember

As The Globe and Mail’s new cocktail columnist — a major vote of confidence on the paper’s part considering I’m such a lightweight when it comes to drinking — I’m starting to revisit tastes from my more alcohol-prone youth. Among them is Campari, a bitter Italian spirit that I had last week in a cocktail whipped up for me by Moses McIntee at Toronto’s new Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He made it with sparkling wine that he froze with liquid nitrogen (that be dry ice to the rest of us) and served it in a grappa glass with a spoon: A Slushie, Italian-style.  One slurp and I Was instantly transported back in time to when I first sampled the aperitivo.

It was in Siena, where in 1983 I was a summer student, studying art history. An exam was coming up and my friend, Susan Walker, whom I had known since grade seven, a sophisticate beyond her years, invited me to study with her in the Italianate gardens of a villa overlooking the Tuscan hills. It was a pensione run by a couple of old sisters I recall. The name of the place was Piazza Ravizza, the ravishing piazza, and one look at the views and you knew why.

Sue and I sat side-by-side, looking at our images of Giotto: Lots of Christs on the cross, and weeping Marys. The sun beat hot upon our bare legs. Sue suggested we get some refreshment. She called over the white-coat waiter and ordered two Campari, with aqua minerale, sparkling water, on the side. He soon re-appeared with the blood-red drink in two tumblers filled partially with ice, small bottles of water at the side, and a dish of orange slices. One sip of the Campari and I almost spat. It tasted not unlike Lavoris. 

Sue realized it was my first time, and patiently told me to follow her example. She poured a bit of water in, to dilute and then just wet her lips. I did the same. We repeated the ritual again and again over the next hour, or was that two, or three. I lost track of time with the lengthening of that Campari drink. The gradual addition of water seemed to stretch that cocktail indefinitely.

Eventually, we weren’t talking about Giotto any more, but about the colour of the sunset, the elegant sculpted shape of the cypress trees and our dreams for the future.

I remember a guest inside the villa started to play Chopin on the piano inside an ornate drawing room, just before the dinner hour. As we sat there outside on an ancient stone bench, nursing our Campari, listening to that divine gift of music most sublime, we both fell in love with the moment: Tuscany at dusk, the skies as red and glowing as the drink in our hands, two young women on the cusp of adulthood, their friendship sealed wi the clinking of the glasses.   


My Up Do Might Have Been a Big Don’t (But Sue Me, It’s Fashion Week)

I was having a bad hair day at LG Fashion Week in Toronto yesterday where all the week the graft has been flowing. I got a nifty notebook from the people at Korhani, the rug makers who showed their wares on the runway yesterday, which was a lot more exciting than you’d think, pure performance art: Gotta make carpets exciting somehow. I also got this sparkly key chain in the shape of a stiletto that I promptly put back in its box.

But for me the most exciting freebie of all is the hair and make-up applications by the team at L’Oreal. They are set up centre floor at the Heritage Building inside Exhibition Place where the shows are being presented this week, with all their tools of the trade surrounding them — curling irons, coloured pots of powder, foundation in every hue imaginable. Yesterday I took advantage of all the gratis primping.

I let make-up artist Julia Hofer make my eyes look bigger with a deft application of liner and gold shimmer on my lids: “Never use dark shadows,” she admonished me with her French-acccented English. “They make your eyes look small.”

After my face was done,  I headed in the direction of the hair team. When the shows are on all night, following a full day at work and hours in between shutting the kids between home and school and their myriad after-4 lessons, I haven’t had a inute to wash my hair,. I twas looking pretty lank when I first sat down on the white leather stool manned by the hairdresser-known-as-Stephen, he of the arm tattoos and a big boar bristle brush. He squealed when he looked at my hair. But not from horror. “Oh, it’s so perfect for an up do,” he said, underscroing what I’ve always been told, that dirty hair is better for working with than clean: it bends, it mpouilds, it doesn’t lose its shape. “How much time have I got?”

 The line-up was already forming in front of me for the aforementioned Korhani show, featuring jewels by Montreal’s Anzie family. But I knew I had a reserved front row seat and so didn’t need to hurry. I told him five minutes.

‘That’s all I need,” he said, and immediately commenced back-combing my greasy locks into a halo of brunette potenatial at the top of my head. 

He then quickly tugged and twisted and pinned my hair into an Audrey Hepburn-esque side-part, heavily hair sprayed beehive. His work done, he stood me up out of the chair, handed me a mirror and told me to feast my eyes: I was transformed.

But the image looking back at me seemed uncannily familiar. That’s it. I looked like my mother, circa 1968, in the days when she religiously used to go Saturday mornings to the hairdresser to get her hair backcombed and pinned into a helmet of hair that would last her the week.

I remember all too well how she used to sleep on it, gingerly and perhaps not all that well, considering hiow she used to yell at my brother and me, all the time. 

Later that night, I got several compliments in the darkness of the catwalk by some fellow members of the media. I think I was probably quite striking looking, in a mad, theatrical, what-the-hell-is-she-doing kind of way. I knew they were just trying to be nice.

Stephen had he told me to take it all out when I got home. He said I was to come back to him so he could do my hair again, foe each day remaining in LG Fashion Week. 

But I slept on my do last night, thinking of my mother but also of what might happen if  I took out all those bobby pins: My hair would look shocked, as if I had been electrocuted. It was late. I didn’t have time to wash it out. 

So I lay on on those pins, penance-like, waking up several times in the night when I felt them poking into the skin on my scalp.

In the morning, I did what I remember what my mother used to do: I got the pointy end of a comb and smoothed the strays back into place, pinning them down with a few more pins I had of my own.

I am at my desk right now, yawning, exhausted from my night of beauty-interrupted sleep.

But my hair’s awake, fully on: I feel every inch my mother’s daughter.

Mary McCartney — From Where I Stand (mini review)

Lighting Up



Yes, that McCartney — as in first born child of Beatle Paul whose late mother Linda was a photographer who influenced Mary to pick up a camera in the first place. And she’s good, very good, actually, as demonstrated by her first book of images collected backstage at sister Stella’s fashions shows and at the family farm in Scotland. There are others, of famous family members and their equally famous friends: Chrissie Hynde, Helen Mirren, Dennis Hopper, Sir Peter Blake, among them.  But the more interesting are those taken in the cramped and cluttered dressing rooms at the Royal Opera House. Operating like a modern-day Degas, McCartney focuses her lens on members of the corps de ballets, that anonymous rank of classically-trained dancers, and reveals the grit, the grind, even the boredom of backstage life. Her sharply edited collection of black and white and colour photographs also includes rockers, fashion models, and assorted Diane Arbus-like unknowns on the streets of London. Each is riveting, exhibiting compositional complexity as well as sensuality anda  sly sense of humour. Shots of celebrities like Joni Mitchell, Madonna, and a particularly compelling one of Bjork are interspersed with homey images of brother James amid the roses and children showering or jumping in the pool at Long Island. Then , of course there’s dad: but depicted as a creature of benign domesticity, and not as the famous rock star he is. McCartney’s title for her book underscores what’s most compelling about it: its intimate point of view. She has a unique take on the rarefied worlds of art and fashion and pop culture in which she inhabits. A book to savour.  (Abrams, 192 pages)

Russian program, National Ballet of Canada

There’s a new ballerina on the block: Moscow-born Elena Lobsanova. I saw her dancing last night at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in the National Ballet of Canada’s mixed program of three Russian-themed works. She took the sparkling female lead in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations opposite partner Piotr Stanczyk, himself no slouch in the virtuoso department.

It’s probably a coincidence that a Russian was at the centre of last night’s dizying choreographic universe. Lobsanova wasn’t exactly parachuted in for the evening.

She’s already a second soloist with the Toronto-based company, and was trained at the National Ballet School, so she’s no stranger to our shores. She took the top prize for a female dancer at the 2009 Erik Bruhn Competition. She’s getting more of the spotlight in the company right an, and and mark my words, she’ll be promoted at the end of the season. She’s got winning stage presence, and a solid technique she softens with a light-as-a-feather porte de bras and a  lovely, gentle smile. She’s obviously working so hard up there on stage but she appears not to break a sweat. Poise and elegance are already her trademarks. She needs, to my mind, to rise higher on her pointes, extend herself more through the arch of the foot to give her a bit more oomph, a bit more born-to-it majesty.

So far, she’s riding on pretty, an unoffensive dance quality also evident in her performance of Russian Seasons, an ensemble work by former Bolshoi director Alexei Ratmansky’s that was a company premiere.

Originally created in 2006 for New York City Ballet where Ratmansky’s now based, this rainbow0hued romp of a work combining folk dance, jazz, live voice (soprano Susana Poretsky) and a feverishly played live violin (Steven Sitarski) as part of  the self-named score by Leonid Desyatnikov, Russian Seasons is described in the program notes as a series of vignettes centered loosely around the Russian Orthodox liturgical calendar, but you’d not know just looking at it, the religious aspect isn’t obvious.

Lobsanova played a nameless role (just like the other 11 dancers in the piece), but was dressed in purple, and so stood out, and not just because of the garish (and that’s the word to describe the unfortunate costumes with their airline hostess hats by Galina Solovyeva — what was she thinking???) colour she was forced to wear. In contrast to the others who seemed to be rushing to keep up with the work’s break-neck speed, Lobsanova appeared comfortable and relaxed, as if the work were created on her. It really was remarkable, how she seemed to glide through it, seemingly even enjoying the complex pastiche of acrobatic moves that her colleagues strained to make look natural.

The work wasn’t my favourite of the evening. I felt there was far too much going on, and don’t get me started again on those horrible Smartie Box dresses!  It was as if Ratmansky felt compelled to say all he ever wanted to say, in one ballet, and the result was kinetic overload: ballet on Ritalin.

Calmer by far, and deliberately so, was the opening work on the program, Balanchine’s Apollo. celebrating the god of art, music and song, the work is a paean to cool, classical control, what the Greek god, often presented in opposition to his more lusty, more ribald, more chaotic kinsmen Dionysus, also represents.

Created in 1928 when Balanchine was a member of Diaghilev’s famed Les Ballets Russes, it is a remarkable achievement, packed with potent physical imagery, experimental choreography (straight-back ballet combined with hip-thrusting jazz moves and other popular social dance idioms of the day) and an original score by the incomparable Igor Stravinsky.

Guillaume Cote brought a robust, maverick quality to the role that was most satisfying to watch. His wife, principal dancer  Heather Ogden was strong as one of the Muses, Polyhymnia, imparting to the role sensuality. Bridgett Zehr as Calliope was less convincing; she had the technical acumen for the role but lacked emotional depth. Her dancing left me cold.

The best of Apollo’s female attendants by far was Xiao Nan Yu, as Terpsichore, the muse of dance. The choreography wrapped tightly around her like a second-skin,she danced with Cote as if she were locked in a physical conversation with him. You could sense her intelligence, feel her empathy with the music.

Enough said. Wonder what Lobsanova, the new girl, will do with the role if she ever gets the chance to perform it? Stay tuned.


The National of Canada revived its production of John Cranko’s Onegin last week, a full-length work inspired by the Pushkin prose poem of the same name, and finally the Toronto-based company has found a way to make the work come alive.

Leads Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Cote imbued the ballet with passion and nuanced dancing that lent the story of a jaded aristocrat in the Russian provinces an urgency and vitality missing last year when the National presented the ballet also at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

A 1965 story ballet in which serfs, samovars and duels at dawn form much of the  pre-revolutionary Russian atmosphere, last year’s revival featured new sets and costumes which elicited a great deal of attention. But it was a missed opportunity because the National Ballet failed to rise to the occasion.

Blame it on the surfeit of birch trees that designer Santo Loquasto chose to give the ballet some of its added naturalistic Slavic colour. But last year’s presentation was wooden.

The dancing looked stitled and the drab colours did nothing to enhance the drama.

The birches, in fact, often seemed to get in the way of the on-stage action. Parts of Lensky’s elegiac Second Act solo, for instance, seemed to take place in the shadows: A case of not being able to see the thicket of emotion the dancer was endeavouring to express for the trees.

This year, while the branches still lay thickly over the on-stage action, the production appeared to have blossomed over the intervening months.

This time around, there was no distracting from the skills of the respective dancers.

The Sunday matinee performance as performed by Hodgkinson and Cote — she playing Tatiana, the young bookish woman in the throes of first love, he the Byronic stranger who breaks her heart — was superbly acted and danced.

 Their final pas de deux in the Third Act bedroom scene was especially scintillating; each danced with abandon, making the lifts and twirls and impassioned feints to the floor extremely exciting to watch.

It was their ability to fully occupy their roles that set the performance apart.

Onegin is ballet as character study. It is best danced by seasoned performers, dancers confident enough with their dancing technique that they can allow themselves to revel fully in the moment.

Hodgkinson and Cote were those dancers — demonstrating a maturity that belied their thirtysomething years.

Each in turn used the ballet to journey into the soul of their respective characters, subtly adjusting the way they used their  hands, their eyes, the start-and-stop of their steps to convey a varied landscape of human feeling. In dancing the details they made the work breath as a living work of art. The standing ovation both received at the finish was well-deserved. Bravi.

Beware the Tides of March

It’s March and in my province of Ontario that means one thing: The thaw has finally come.

It started just this week, after a couple days of warm weather. Overnight, melting snow produced fast-flowing muddy rivers cascading from the top of the mountain ridge close to my rural property north of Toronto.  It also created deep puddles in my backyard in which I could see last fall’s unraked leaves, their brilliant autumnal colours preserved by the ice, twinkling inside the depths, a reminder of the life that was and the life yet to come. I saw it as a sign that spring is coming, time of rebirth.

All this water got me thinking of faraway Egypt, source of the Nile, how each year when the riverbanks overflow life returns to the surrounding desert.

Where I live is not arid, far from it. But still the winter did starve the land around Georgian Bay, near the Bruce Peninsula, of life forms that only this week started to make themselves known again with the return of flowing water.

These included flocks of Canadian geese suddenly back  at nearby Christie  Beach after wintering south of the border, and deer venturing out of the woods to forage openly for food, tender newborn fawn by their side.

I experienced a kind of rebirth myself just watching it all.  All this week, I slept better, yelled at my kids less, cleaned the kitchen more. I even remembered each to take my vitamins in preparation of the return of summer, the return of me, bare-legged and hat-free.  As the waters around me kept flowing, I was carried away on a fantasy of self-renewal. I would be stronger, more resourceful, better accomplished!

Emboldened, yesterday I strode through the puddles on my lawn to retrieve a stray plastic bag that had blown up against my cedar hedge.  Earlier in the week, I had been stubbornly ignoring it, my spring cleaning  impulse not yet having broken free of the lethargy of the long, cold winter. My kids had noticed small leak in the hose leading from the crawl space where a sump pump this week has been working overtime in redirecting the spring run-off from below my house. I thought I’d use the bag to bandage it up, kill two birds with one stone so to speak: fix a leak, clean the yard all in one semi-lazy go. To find the hole in the hose I positioned myself alongside it and waited for the water to spew as it always does this time of year, every three minutes or so. I’d spot the the geyser and set to tying my tourniquet.

I waited, looking at the lake-sized puddle just beyond the mouth of the hose that had grown since the beginning of the week.  I waited some more. And then some more. That’s when I grew worried.

The water wasn’t spewing. It wasn’t even dripping. Impossible, I thought as I sprinted through the water-logged grass to the rear of the house to access the crawl space.

I threw open the trap doors to the basement and then, whoosh! My own Nile flood! There was water everywhere, rising higher than my ankles. I knew in that instant that the sump pump wasn’t  working. I just didn’t know why.

The water was too deep for me to venture inside. I was wearing winter boots and they’d fill with water and likely pull me under. I ran past my son who, on seeing the panicked look on my face, asked me what was the matter. I was back to my old self. I yelled at him to back off.

Inside the house, I found an old pair of rubberized riding bots in the hall closet and pulled them on. I opened the doors beneath the sink and grabbed my canary yellow dish-washing gloves. I didn’t exactly know what I was going to to do with them. But I knew I needed to be prepared. I then glanced at the clock on the wall oven door: 6pm in a small town on a Friday night.  I was as good as doomed.

I jumped back down the outside stairs and waded through the deep in my  basement toward the flailing sump pump.  I could hear its motor whirring. But water was not flowing out, only in, and higher by the minute.

As luck would have it, I had earlier in the  week re-established contact with a  plumber I had worked with last summer. I meant what I said about wanting to be organized, anew spring 20011 me.  Just that day I had called him in hopes that he’d still be available to work with me when the weather got nicer, as I had plans to install a small bathroom in anew side addition. He had come during the day to pick up some documents I had left in a plastic milk bag tied to the door handle. Too bad I hadn’t know to tell him about the flood. The truth was, I hadn’t at all noticed that the sump pump, which normally clangs like an old train under the floorboards, hadn’t been working. I thought back on it: I think it must have been silent for at least 24 hours. I had obviously been too focused on my self-renewal projects to notice. I felt in that moment quite foolish.

Doug, the plumber, normally doesn’t answer his phone after noon on a Friday. But I dialed his number anyway. I was desperate. I had no one else I could call.

Just as I suspected he didn’t answer the phone. I left a voice message and then again ran downstairs to see if I could figure something out. I plunged a gloved hand into the murk and pulled it right back out again. Who am I kidding?

I ran back up the stairs and into the house and pushed redial, muttering a small prayer. Miraculously,  Doug answered, saying, “Please tell me me you got it going yourself.”

I told him I hadn’t, and apologized for calling him at night. He was having his dinner, he told me.  “But I’ll be over in half an hour,” he said. I thanked him profusely.

True to his word, he soon arrived in his truck on my driveway, carrying a pair of rubber boots under one arm, a tool kit with a blow torch under the other. He said it would be a one-man job, but I was so grateful for his assistance that I followed him down into the subterranean lagoon, offering to hold the flashlight while he wrestled with the black snake of a hose in the basement.

I made idle chatter while he took apart the sump pump, awkwardly linking my little natural disaster with the recent tsunami in Japan, as if the two were linked. After some banging around, Doug discovered that the hose was blocked with silt, stones and other bits of debris likely carried in to the crawl space by the thaw. It took some time, but eventually he unclogged it and soon got the water flowing out again. I was mightily relieved. Without his help, I really did think my house would have floated away. He bade me a good weekend, telling me he’d bill me later.  Nice guy.

That should have been the end of my pre-spring troubles, but after he left I was still so consumed by nerves that I opened a bottle of wine and gulped back two glasses in rapid succession, something I know not to do, and then sliced open my thumb with the vegetable peeler as I tried, belatedly ( it was now after 8pm) to make dinner.

My blood flowed as rapidly as the water outside my door, soaking through the makeshift bandage I had crafted from a sheet of paper towel.  It too was a sign of life, if not a sign that I am only all-too-human. Meaning fallible. Prone to making mistakes. In spite of myself.

And so I went to bed nursing if not the beginnings of a hangover, then the realization that I am flawed and that nature, as wonderful as sometimes can be, could kill me, if I’m not careful.

I guess that’s what’s known as a real spring awakening.

Espresso Con Panna

At my local Starbucks the other day, I ordered a doppio espresso con panna.The fresh faced barista behind the cash stood and stared. “Wow,” he  exclaimed. “No one ever orders that.”

I couldn’t see why not. It’s right there on the menu. And it’s also the cheapest beverage listed:  Just under $2 if you get a single, a little over $2 for the double. That’s the same price as Starbucks charges for a regular doppio,meaning the dollop of whipped cream on top is free.  Free happens to be one of my all-time favourite words. But that’s not the only reason I pony up to the coffee bar to order this particular brew. It might be low in price but to me it is also highly evocative of a beautiful time in my life:  Espresso con panna is my Proustian madeleine.

It conjures up sweet memories of the time when I lived in Siena studying art history as a University of Toronto summer student in Italy.

My subject was trecento and quattrocentosculpture, with a  focus on Giovanni  Pisano, son of Nicolo, and progenitor of what might be called the narrative style in sculpted stone.

Some of Pisano’s best work lies outside Siena, and so I was regularly compelled to travel throughout Tuscany to visit some of the region’s Gothic churches, almost daily journeying by public bus through fields of poppies and sunflowers bowing to the sun, in order to get a first-hand view of his expressive friezes that he had hand-carved into centuries old pulpits, gorgeously preserved despite the years.

I love nature to begin with, and so these encounters with beauty both in art and in the outdoors enriched me and made me feel grateful for being alive. I wanted to partake in all this gorgeousness of being, and so didn’t hesitate the day some of my classmates asked me to join them on a trip to a local swimming hole, located in the countryside beyond the town’s stone wall limits.

The locals referred to it simply as il fiume, the Italian word for river. We had to take a bus to reach it. When we got to the ticket counter, we simply said, “L’autobus per il fiume per favore,” and were promptly understood.

After paying for our tickets, we boarded the rickety old bus, settling into seats at the back.

It was a hot August day, and the bus was only half  full. I could see two young women toward the front of the bus, speaking German. I kept my eye on them as the bus trudged up and down hillsides lined with cypress trees. The river in question soon came into view. But the German girls didn’t budge, and neither did we.

I told my friends to hang on, not to disembark until the German girls did.

“They’ll know where to go,”  I said.

I was guilty at that moment of racial profiling. But I knew from experience that Germans had a keen love of nature and were great adventurers when it came to travel.

When I travelled through Greece and  Turkey in search of the ruined remains of the Greek and Roman myths that had so dominated my youthful imagination it was almost always Germans I saw around me on  windswept plains baking beneath under a unrelenting sun.

In these harsh conditions,  the pale-skinned English women in our group typically wilted.  I remember one even going half mad from the heat at Bodrum; the tour guide had to slap her face to calm her down.

But the Germans seemed never to even break a sweat.

They’d be 70 years old, and still be climbing (and half yodeling) up the steep stairs at Delphi, or hiking happily across the sand at the desolate place said to be the site of ancient Pergamon. I admired their zeal, the enthusiasm with which they embraced their surroundings.

They were also the ones who seemed more in awe of natural beauty than the rest of us on those trips.

It is why my eyes were now fixed on the girls in their tight shorts ahead of us on the bus. I was positive they had the situation well mapped out in advance. Their nature-loving inner German radar enabled them to predict,  precisely, where the best watering hole would be.

But as the bus stopped and started along the riverbank, letting off people who rushed to stake their claim on a patch of grass for their afternoon picnic, my Canadian friends nudged me, asking  me if I were sure I knew what I was doing.

I nodded my head and held on for the remainder of the ride.

Soon it was just us and them on the bus.

When they got off in the middle of a small square lined by three or four houses, we rushed to follow them.

We passed a cafe with its doors invitingly open wide that the German girls blithely ignored, despite the heat. They exited that sleepy town on the edge of paradise, finding a dirt path that they gamely walked,  chatting all along to each other,  rolled towels under each arm.

It was obvious that we were following them.

There  were no other people around and the path we were all walking wasn’t a well marked route. But I told my friends to look as if we also knew this was the right way. I told them not to hesitate. And so we kept on behind them, walking through tall grasses and feeling our throats constrict from the heat, and the effort.

It was long walk,  maybe 10 minutes. There was no sign of the river, only a thick wall of trees that the German girls were clearly headed for.  After some time, they disappeared through the foliage. We aimed for the spot in the trees into which they had entered, holding our breaths, not sure what we would find on the other side.

And then, lo!, the river at its emerald best.

The waters were so deep and transparent we could see large trout swimming lazily beneath the glass-like surface. Nearby was a waterfall, as well as a lithe Italian in thigh-high wading boots who was on his own, serenely fly fishing where the waters grew dark in the shadows of branches hanging heavily overhead.

We heard the the German girls call out, and looked up. One had already scaled a cliff and was poised on the edge of the very top, preparing to dive into the waters below. The other was in the midst of climbing the cliff wall to join her.

One by one they sailed like swans through the azure sky, with no fear,  no feeling of limitations.

We threw our swim bags onto the sandy river bank to prepare to swim.

The German girls went their way and we went ours, locating some shallow rapids that we called the jacuzzi. We lay in them for hours, luxuriating in the waters carving around our bodies.

The sun was setting and it was time to leave.

We found the dirt path and trudged back to the town square, hoping  the bus would know to come back to fetch us.

The cafe doors were still open when we arrived. We were so thirsty after our long day of swimming and sunning. We entered to order some aqua minerale. But no one there.

An overhead television was on, showing a soccer game. All the lights were off. It took some seconds for our eyes to adjust to the darkness after the glare of the outdoors. We soon focused on a large metal bowl in an open  low-lying refrigerator  that seemed to glow in the dark. The bowl was filled with swirls of freshly whipped cream. Looking at it, we realized how hungry we were.

“Bona sera, signorini!”

Just in time, a man entered behind the bar and greeted us.  He noticed how big our eyes had become just from looking at all that whipped cream.

“Espresso con panna?” he asked us.  Coffee with whipped cream?

“Si, si!” we shouted, lustily, in unison.

He made us each a demitasse of inky black coffee and then artfully spooned the cream on top.

I remember it being a delectable experience, both hot and cold, tart and sweet.  It instantly satisfied all my cravings,  for food,  drink, beauty in faraway, haphazardly found places.

I vowed to myself on the spot to always remember that moment in that strange little riverside town: the smiling daredevil German girls who had lead me there, the courtesy of the stranger behind the bar, the fisherman with his eyes flitting over my tanning body, the taste of sweetened coffee on my tongue.  My taste of heaven.

Even when the drink is served up in Toronto at Starbucks.

Moulin Rouge: A Ballet To Forget





It’s been a long time since I felt bored at the ballet. But not even half way through the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s homegrown production of Moulin Rouge, I was so adrift on a sea of ennui, I started looking at the other audience members sitting around me to better pass the time.

They were a lot more interesting than the characters ripping through the stale baguette of a 19th century Paris-inspired ballet by RWB choreographer Jorden Morris on the stage of Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

The RWB, at 74 the country’s oldest classical dance company, used to be cause for celebration whenever it came to town. It was why the seats were filled with such esteemed Canadian ballet alumni as Nadia Potts, Vanessa Harwood, Mary Jago, Timothy Spain, Svea Eklof, Patti Caplette, to name some of the notables  surrounding me now.

When directed by the legendary Arnold Spohr, who died almost four years ago, in May 2010, the RWB was the ballet company everyone who cared about ballet in Canada went to see whenever it made a rare visit to Toronto. Tonight was no different.

The RWB was the only company which kept its rival, the National Ballet of Canada, on its toes. That rivalry was captured by each company’s leading ballerinas. The National Ballet had Karen Kain, the dark-haired technical dynamo. But the RWB had Evelyn Hart, a poetic dancer, pale and gossamer light, who became known world-wide as one of the great Giselles when she commanded the stage more than a decade ago.

Now retired from performing, and having abandoned Winnipeg for Toronto where these days she ekes a living as a ballet coach, Hart was one of the faces I fixated on while wilting in my seat. She sat slightly behind me, to my right, sporting a new platinum do which made her look like a million. But she wasn’t smiling.

Rigid in her chair, Hart had a look of concern frozen on her small, pale visage. Next to her, Rex Harrington, the former National Ballet principal dancer and Hart’s frequent on-stage partner, hid his in his hands. During intermission, I was behind him as he trudged up the aisle, griping aloud. “I’ll never get these two hours back,” he said.

I shared the sentiment.

The new-look RWB, under the direction of former dancer André Lewis, was a major let-down.

The company’s dancers were competent. Vanessa Lawson and Gael Lambiotte looked highly committed to their roles as boho lovers who had to contend with  pimps, prostitutes and other members of the demimonde before their love affair could soar high above the Paris rooftops.

It was the choreography that was flat. The steps and movement patterns were so rudimentary as to seem lifted unedited from daily ballet class with little concern for innovation. Demi-plié, echappé, en pointe à la seconde, plié. If I saw this variation once, I saw it a hundred times.

My eyes starting to glaze over, I started to see the dancers as all weak and wobbly, as if I, not the male lead on stage, was the one drunk on absinthe.

But they weren’t. I was feeling punch drunk.

As a whole, the company is solid and well trained. Lawson, in particular, has a ferocious technique. Lambiotte is as handsome as he is elegant, a dancer you’d like to see again, in another piece, where he really could show what he’s made of.

Pity, then, to hobble their talents with pedestrian choreography as this. Moulin Rouge certainly didn’t show off their collective talent to advantage.

Morris, the ballet’s creator, came off as laughably unimaginative. His best bits appeared lifted from other ballets. The bridge scene pas de deux in act one was oddly reminiscent of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The death scene looked like the end of the first act of Giselle. The high-stepping café scene owed a debt to The Merry Widow.

If Morris was desperate for ideas, then why didn’t he look to Leonid Massine’s 1941 ballet, Gaîté Parisienne, or Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 ballet, Manon, other Paris-inspired works which really do capture your imagination.

Morris’s ballet doesn’t, weighed down as it is with clichés.

The characters could more accurately be called caricatures, as we’ve seen them all before: the starving Paris artist; the whore with a heart of gold; the street painter with his easel in Montmartre; giggling coquettes in frilly French underwear; mustachioed waiters on the make.

These portraits are so uni-dimensional, it’s no wonder the ballet feels shallow. There’s no emotional depth, nothing n audience member can cling to in the dark by way of empathy. There’s no joy, either.

Making matters worse was the canned can-can music, a veritable pastiche of Paris muzak through the ages. It’s the kind of weary sound-score you’d expect from a third-rate bus tour of the City of Light: a little Strauss and Offenbach here, a little Debussy and Piazzola there, all of it annoyingly familiar.

Somewhere in the middle, I swear, was the children’s ditty, I’m a Little Tea Pot (Short and Stout).

I would have laughed, but honestly it wasn’t worth the effort.

To pass even more time, I started counting the rotations made by the windmill set on stage, a replica of the real Moulin Rouge in Paris. I wondered if the ballet would end up scaring off people from wanting to experience the real thing. Morris took an idea of Paris and made it insipid.

As the French have been known to say, off with his head.