Sunday, 28 July 2013

Venetian Chocolate

I have a sweet tooth. I got it from my father. When things were slow at my office job, I would run Google image searches for desserts. Try it for yourself! Type in “Red Velvet Cake”, “Molten Chocolate” or “Crème Brulee French Toast”. The results take eye candy to a literal level. All kinds of sweets entice me. I love little snacks like cupcakes and cookies, breakfast items like pancakes and croissants, and of course, serious indulgences like chocolate fudge covered, whipped cream topped ice cream sundaes served over warm brownie. I do not eat these things every day, and I do not gorge myself when I go out, but the level of sugar consumption I could be capable of is pretty astounding.

Walking along a canal in Venice

            Aaron and I spent a week in Venice because we wanted a treat. While our entire trip was a pleasure, I had professional engagements in Greece and Egypt. I was teaching dance classes, performing, shopping for costumes, and of course, learning from Rhea. I found great happiness in these activities, but in Venice, Aaron and I sought out pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It was a week long date, and after somehow maintaining a relationship despite two heavy work schedules for almost a year, it was just what we needed.  

Venetian scenery

            Before I left my office job, my schedule kept me constantly pushing. I knew that I had to improve my dance skills and promote myself as a performer despite having to do a full day five days a week at the company for which I worked. I would get up at 6:00 AM to review choreographies. At the office, I skipped my lunch break so that I could leave earlier. After work, I spent 1-2 hours running or conditioning on aerial equipment. Many days, I would spend another hour taking dance class. I kept journals of my progress, outlining goals for upcoming performances, taking notes from class, and planning practice sessions for myself. On Fridays and Saturdays, I performed, often several times in one evening. Sometimes, I would do an afternoon performance in Connecticut, a night show in Rhode Island, and a rehearsal in Massachusetts the next morning.
One gig in particular illustrates the intensity of building a dance career while sustaining a nine to five. About a year ago, a nightclub in Providence contacted Melina to hire circus performers for their anniversary event. Melina included my aerial silks act in the package she offered them. She and Sacha performed on the trapeze. The nightclub had booked us for two shows, one on Thursday and the other on Saturday. The Thursday show happened to be on the last day of the corporate quarter, which meant that my responsibilities at the office were tripled. I stayed for an extra three hours making sure all the contracts for the company had come in, finishing quota reports, and tallying the revenue for the past three months. I got home with barely enough time to shower, grabbed an energy bar, and drove down to Rhode Island with Melina and Sacha.
We were scheduled to perform two shows, one at 11:30 PM and the other at 1:00 AM. When it was our turn to go on, we did our aerial acts high above the crowd, under strobe lights, with a smoke machine going all around us. The management had set up the club’s ten foot speakers directly underneath us, and I could feel the sonic waves vibrating through my body as I went through my splits and inversions. We were not performing with a net or any safety equipment whatsoever. Sacha is a fifth generation circus performer. In his family, total reliance on one’s strength and courage is part of the art. We finished at the club around 2:00 AM. The next morning, I woke up early to tie up loose ends at the office. From the office, I went directly to Karoun Restaurant to do a belly dance show. Then on Saturday, we went back to the night club to do the whole aerial performance again.

Celia performs on the aerial silks

In sum, the past year has been sweaty. Belly dance artist Nourhan Sharif said during a workshop once that in order to be a dancer, you have to suffer. She added that this does not mean you have to be an unhappy person. I can connect with this statement because while some aspects of the job do create unpleasant sensations, feeling momentarily tired and challenged has never caused me lasting discontent. Sometimes when I am working out very intensely, a sensational thing happens whereby the feeling of exertion stops hurting and becomes pleasurable. Anyone who pushes him or herself physically on a regular basis knows what I am talking about – the endorphin high! The beautiful union of effort and reward whereby the one follows the other not immediately, but simultaneously! Novelist Haruki Murakami expresses a complementary idea in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

Venetian Masks

            In Venice, there was no possibility for work. Aaron and I spent our time sampling Italian seafood, strolling along the canals, visiting art museums, and fantasizing about living like the wealthy tourists we saw everywhere.  There were many, many wealthy tourists. We learned from a gondolier that the city has under 60,000 residents. The average number of tourists who visit the city each day is 55,000. Aaron and I went at the height of the tourist season, during which the number can exceed 150,000 per day. According to the gondolier, almost everyone who actually lives in Venice works some aspect of the tourist industry. Essentially, the city is a playground for leisure-seeking vacationers who have an affinity for European grandeur and cultured recreation.

Police boat

Despite the pervasive tourist activity, Venice has an historical authenticity which keeps it from feeling like an amusement park. Founded on a lagoon by refugees who fled Rome after its decline in the fourth century, the city’s great charm comes from its network of canals and the little boats that facilitate day to day life. The delightful quirks of the city are endless. There are boats for municipal functions: the garbage boat, the police boat, the fire boat, etc. There are street lights suspended at intersections over the water. Around corners where the canal becomes especially narrow, little mirrors prevent collisions. In a city where waterways exist everywhere, romantic strolls are unavoidable. Aaron and I enjoyed trips to the Dodge’s Palace, the glassmakers’ isle of Murano, and the Peggy Guggenheim museum. At an exhibit on violin making, I learned that the city has been attracting pleasure seeking travelers since before the 18th century, and that some of Vivaldi’s music was composed for their entertainment.

Wood block printer's shop

             Opportunities to indulge one’s desires were prolific. Around the Piazza San Marco, expensive boutiques sold $900 shoes and $4,000 handbags. Glittering, elegantly decorated masks hung in display windows.  Restaurants throughout the city served up pasta, gnocchi, pizza, and white wine. Expensively dressed people walked expensive little dogs over the bridges and through the squares. Stand after stand offered gelato in great, fluffy heaps of cascading sugar. I tried gelato for the first time, and despite my sweet tooth, I didn’t like it. It has a strange texture and it doesn’t really melt. I found it to be a second-rate dessert— like ice cream’s unsuccessful cousin. My Venetian fix would have to come from something else.

Gelato for sale

            Satisfaction is an infamously coquettish thing. I find that even when I partake of the most lavish, seductive sweets, the last bite never leaves me fulfilled. Satisfaction in art is even more elusive. Some days, my confidence as a dancer soars, other days, it descends darkly into a necropolis of doubt. I have learned that these highs and lows are not just part of the creative process—they drive it. A wonderful extract from Martha Graham deals with these issues. It hangs on the door of Melina’s studio and encourages her students as they come in for class:
            “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching...”

The fix is found

            On our last day in Venice, Aaron and I stopped by a little pastry shop. I surveyed the rows of biscotti and macaroons until I found a little cookie that called to me. It was fairly simple –one round slab of Venetian chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of shortbread. I held it upright between my thumb and first three fingers, the most enjoyable way to eat a cookie! Each bite brought me happiness…and there is a great difference between happiness and satisfaction. The one is possible, the other is not. But who really wants satisfaction? The turbulence of ambition is healthier and more stimulating, provided there are little moments of relaxation along the way. My wonderfully enjoyable week in Venice was over, and I looked forward to getting back to work. 

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