The big green eyes that watch me dance

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 3:10pm

By the start of my dance classes, Marius Petipa the cat had explored all but one room of my apartment: the kitchen.

By the start of my dance classes, Marius Petipa the cat had explored all but one room of my apartment: the kitchen. Buy this photo
Design by Madison Grosvenor

I adopted my cat from a small shelter in Grosse Isle, Mich. The two-room cat rescue was run out of a 20th-century house with one desk and two dozen felines; the cat that would become mine sat nestled under a plastic folding table right next to several packages of food. He purred as soon as I picked him up, gently rolling his 18-pound body into a cradle position with his back against my arms, looking directly into my eyes. My face was still masked from the nose down, making my expression invisible and most likely scary to the furball in my arms, but his big green eyes stayed open and alert as he stared past my glasses and kept purring against my chest. I was immediately smitten. 

I brought him home on a Monday afternoon, exactly one week before classes started. When my fingers pinched the metal handles of the crate’s door, he scurried past my crouched body and into his big new world: under the bed, across the desk, around the table, atop the couch. He spent the following week timidly expanding his sphere of existence, rubbing his soft orange fur against chair legs and coffee tables, bed frames and desk drawers. As I watched my new furball of a roommate discover the innovative possibilities of this quiet Ann Arbor apartment, I too embarked on my own adventure: brainstorming logistics for a semester of dance classes held over Zoom.  

Seven months ago, the idea of saving the majority of my Dance minor movement classes for senior year seemed great — I frontloaded the brunt of arduous readings and exam review sheets for the promised reward of more hours waltzing through a studio. This plan backfired in spectacular fashion when COVID-19 pushed most of that waltzing into my apartment. Now, my days feel scaffolded by precarious attempts to make dance classes work from the confines of the kitchen or the borders of my bedroom. This awkwardness is confounded by my growing awareness of what feels like the impending doom of the dance and arts industry as a whole, which leaves me continuously twirling existential questions in my head as I try to keep moving: What kind of career path will I manage to find in the rubble of all this damage? Can I withstand the sheer grief of watching this industry continue to suffer in the fallout of the pandemic? Will this all be worth it? 

Ballet has saved me more than once. I don’t remember much from the day of my first panic attack — only that it came announced many years ago, a wave of heart-fluttering and hand-shaking that sent me to the emergency room because I thought I couldn’t breathe. To this day, that episode of anxiety remains completely unexplained to me, a mystery of my subconscious that I expect will stay in the oblivion forever. But I do remember the dancing that I worked on in the studio during the week that followed. The music matched the steps and the steps matched the music. The open air of the comforting studio walls swallowed my mind’s paralyzing fear and taught me that the marriage of music and movement would seemingly always prove to be a temporary panacea when I needed respite from a world of racing thoughts. 

I cannot, however, seem to dance my way out of today’s anxiety. The studios are closed and when they are open, I am too stricken with the fear that I may waltz my way into a cloud of infectious invisible aerosols to go inside. At home, I’m left to mix myself a new cure. 

This is, in part, why I adopted my cat. I named him Marius Petipa. A fittingly large name for a large cat, the original Petipa was a historic 19th-century ballet master whose work in the final quarter of that century remains commonplace in many repertoires today. French by birth, Petipa’s career took him first to Spain and then to Russia where his influence fomented the golden age of Russian Ballet — “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote,” “Coppelia,” “Giselle.” He was also the mind behind works like “Le Corsaire” and “La Bayadere,” which remain the choreographic basis for modernized revivals by Final Bow for Yellowface co-founder Phil Chan, despite their disappointing Orientalist tropes. 

Petipa’s choreography is grandiose in size and aesthetically pleasing in symmetry. Though he reigned at a time when the narrative story ballet was queen, the beauty of Petipa’s work is easily disconnected from its narrative base. Visually, the steps just make sense. Watching his work does not require efforts from one’s eyes nor analysis from one’s mind — it creates a sense of peace within my deeply intangible, artistic soul. Many of these things are the reason that Petipa’s work helped me get through the first fraction of this pandemic: the Rose Adage from “The Sleeping Beauty” and the wedding pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” both ended up providing me so much of this distinctive sense of beauty that I dedicated entire articles to them. 

Now, I can think of this feeling every time I look into my cat’s big green eyes.  

By the start of my classes, Marius Petipa the cat had explored all but one room of my apartment: the kitchen. The furthest from his home in my bedroom, he seemed anxious about the non-carpeted linoleum and bright light from the window. That Monday, I signed into my first ballet class over Zoom, dragging the table and chairs into the living room to attempt to make space for my 5’10” frame to take class. As I stood in the window, holding onto the windowsill for a barre and starting the first steps of what will become a months-long experiment in movement constrained by counters and carpets, the cat peeked around the corner. He delicately walked into the middle of the kitchen and laid down at my feet — his big green eyes looked up at me while I danced. He seemed content — engaged, even. I felt at ease, and continued with my pliés.   

Daily Arts Columnist Zoe Phillips can be reached at zoegp@umich.edu