Dane Shitagi’s photographic opus The Ballerina Project shows ballerinas in everyday locations, setting their intense emotion and pristine posture against grimy or mundane backdrops. Francine Rubin’s Geometries draws the ballet out of the landscape itself, but this is no straightforward love letter to the art.
Francine Rubin has an unapologetic, intelligent innocence and freedom to her writing that flashes periodically
The pamphlet opens with the short, halting ‘En l’ Air’, which begins with negative movement and self-criticism (“I don’t move unsparingly / enough”). The diagnosis of faults continues with comments like “you’re off your leg” and “In class, I kept tipping.” (‘Geometries’) Although this is poetry about ballet (tough combo on a hip crowd), it’s not overly the overly reverential, awestruck verse of a theatre-goer. It’s the exhausted words of the dancer themselves as they guide you across the stage of New York.
Perhaps because of Rubin’s personal experience, obvious ballet metaphors are avoided and the stencil of dance is deftly applied to mundane movement (“your housekeeper / collects glasses with watery ice / gliding quietly like a stagehand” in ‘Showgirls’) without labouring the point. A ballerina, “spokes evolving in different directions”, is set against a homeless man, “his body an arc”, linked by the audience who get up to leave the theatre between their two stories. One is watched intently by hundreds and one avoided and ignored by the same group.
There are three mentions of homeless characters in the collection, all shaking cups of change, and it’s hard to tell whether it was an editorial oversight (two appear in consecutive poems) or a deliberate reflection of the sheer number of rough sleepers in New York.
What makes Geometries interesting is Rubin’s zany sense of humour and unexpected weirdness. She goes from a concentration of quiet reflection and guilt (the Black Swan-level of physical discomfort in ‘Sous Pression’) into a cluster of refreshingly bizarre pieces. ‘Swan Lake Tableau at a Star-Studded Party’ is an over-the-top fantasy party set in “a rendered Palace of Versailles” with cameos by Ivana Trump and Leonardo DiCaprio (who reappears later in ‘Ballet Story’ - again, editing slip-up?), while ‘Jack Nicholson: Principal Ballet Dancer’, a piece originally commissioned for Fuselit: Jack’s ‘Hijacks’ bonus booklet, is a deliciously odd experiment. Without explanation, Rubin flings a gobo of ballet over the actor’s film career (“his repertoire ranged from the Firebird in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to Prince Florimund in The Witches of Eastwick”). The result is a truly enjoyable flight of fancy, in which Nicholson’s roles take on roles of their own.
Contrast this with perhaps my favourite poem in the collection, ‘K-Feddish, 2006’. Whether this straight-faced tribute to Kevin Federline, former husband of Britney Spears, appeals more to my sense of kitsch or pathos, I can’t tell. The title references the derogatory nickname, ‘K-Fed’, that was given to Federline by the press upon hearing of his rap ambitions. The poem, complete with footnotes collaged from touchingly naive interview quotes (“My music has to come out”), documents the chaos of rapid fame. ‘K-Feddish, 2006’ appears at first to be a break in the ballet theme, but in fact reveals, behind the gold-digger/musical flop/laughing stock of the gossip columns, a hidden dancer. It almost works better if you have no idea who K-Fed is.
Francine Rubin has an unapologetic, intelligent innocence and freedom to her writing that flashes periodically throughout Geometries. Closer ‘A Message of Ancient Days’ is a joyful fantasy adventure, in which Rubin herself steps into ancient Egypt, armed with a school history textbook (“‘These are your pyramids and sphinxes,’ I say”) for an anachronistic ballet session. It’s got a simple, if strange, happiness to it that’s kind of hard to resist.
The more intensively descriptive ballet pieces in Geometries risk blurring into one another. The strength here lies in the sudden, unexpected appearances in the wings. Run DMC, Michael Jackson, chihuahuas toting tambourines. Perhaps even a tutu-clad Jack Nicholson.