Dancing on Stilts.

This past Memorial weekend, I was treated by my Best Friend, Ever to a day “in the city.” To the uninitiated this is code for time in Manhattan, most of the population of nearby Long Island’s favorite haunt and tourist attraction to the globe. About the actual residents of New York City much else can be said, but I am not the one to use the words; rather, this writer is just an unknown artist from a smaller place, where pockets of extraordinary if surprising quality lurk largely unattended by the rest of the world.

Our afternoon highlight was a visit to Broadway’s LION KING. Now, a certain ex-boyfriend of mine had raved to me about award-winning designer and producer, Julie Taymor. Seems she was his elevator companion in the building where he was fortunate to reside over a temporary period which lasted seven years. My doubts as to whether she could have ever called him by name today are real, but the woman was surely known to all. All, that is, except me – a working producer of childrens’ drama in the public school, where I was ensconced for far longer than the seven years he’d spent riding that elevator.

As the opening production number unfolded all around us, we sat in the center of orchestra, main floor, and wept. Over even the full-on power of soaring African voices, the startling magnificence of Taymor’s art manifest in human sized puppetry was astounding. Gazelles, with four movable legs; an elephant, as big as an elephant; swooping and gliding birds; and, giraffes…on stilts.

Granted, this show had been running for almost twenty years. And, you’d have to be me, living in my body, working in my town, to understand why it took me over a decade and a half to finally experience the splendor. But, for such superior masterpieces, time is neither slave nor master; like sex to a virgin, once is enough, no matter the hour or generation, and my first time was as meaningful as if it had happened on opening night.

My guess is, it takes a certain brand of genius to meld pictorial artistic vision with mechanical sensibility and a grasp of physics. The giraffes were nothing more than a single, albeit muscular, acrobat on leg stilts – but leaning forward, on two more crutch-like poles for front legs, then wearing the neck and head for a hat. Sheer strength, blended with image-making, to bring to life a stately animal. One to easily gape when amazed, I stopped breathing.

Little would I know that, weeks later, though far from bearing the same frame as a circus performer, I would be called upon to become that giraffe. Only, in my scene, this would call for a much greater degree of small motor skill than mere entertainment required . In fact, looking back, I’d venture that one could describe the whole thing in terms normally used for events of minor crisis.

This was production week for the final concert of the Erie Chamber Orchestra’s season. Our executive director had given the guest flute soloist permission to choose her piece, and she’d selected boldly: Pulitzer Prize winning Melinda Wagner’s Concerto for Flute, Percussion, and Strings. And, being Eastman’s own Bonita Boyd, she’d also secured the composer herself as special guest – Ms. Wagner arriving in time for our dress rehearsal, thereafter to be on hand for the monthly, pre-concert talks. This piece, along with Beethoven’s grand Egmont, Kodaly’s sensual Dances of Marosszek, and Dvorak’s lush and beautiful Czech Suita, promised to be both richly gratifying for everyone and a supreme challenge for the orchestra.

Wagner included in her dazzling work of music numerous cello solos, the first beginning at the top of the fingerboard in a duet woven intricately with the flute’s solo line. As principal cellist, having carefully planned its lay out, marked its pitches, and shaped its phrasing, I would not have known – after the customary drill and repetition – what would unfold in my physical landscape come rehearsal week.

The cello having spent Memorial weekend at a close colleague’s condo, soaking up whatever atmospheric conditions our schizophrenic region had in store, I retrieved it late on the evening of my return. A day or so prior to our first session, I began to notice a problem: the strings had pulled remarkably far away from the fingerboard.

This phenomenon is common with the advent of summer’s warmer temperatures and increasing humidity. But, most string players have other bridges, which are cut lower, to accommodate this swelling and expanding of the wood. I, on the other hand, had never needed a second bridge; that is, I’d never had prior to having the fingerboard planed by a respected luthier over the past winter.

Plus, I’d begun to notice that the newly-installed central air conditioning was barely circulating any air through the household vents. The thermostat read 76 F; the real temperature would reach as high as 83 before I would call the installer after dress rehearsal. He would arrive around midnight, take a brief look at my compressor, and declare that someone had stolen the freon gas out of the unit in the dead of night.

So, here I was, stranded on an instrument whose silver wound strings, over 5/8 inch high, resisted contact with the board, in a home environment that promised no reprieve from the humidity-induced increasing tension. And, since the violin family, unlike the gambas or lutes, have curved fingerboards, there’s no fretting for pitch; instead, there would be major fretting over arm weight and momentum, on the ascent and descent, whenever I tried to take said fingerboard.

Without warning, I would become the giraffe in my own Broadway show.

One must Imagine the fingers as stilts. Picture them walking, across a high wire, with no net. The rate of speed required to prevent falling off the wire is a snail’s pace, alright, but instead of a balance bar to stabilize everything, the string player must place a horsehair bow on the string and drag it across until vibration of the string is generated. So, the string is vibrating, and the stilt must place itself on the vibrating wire, in precise position, without falling off.  A spongey, vibrating trampoline – traversed on stilts: so set the stage for the cello solo, in the Wagner Concerto for Flute and Percussion.

Oh; and, then, if that weren’t enough, the stilt itself had to generate its own subtle degree of: you guessed it, vibration. This is called Vibrato. Vibrato warms and colors the tone without changing its pitch.

A giraffe, knees wobbling, crawling slowly down a hill on a high wire with no net, stopping to do The Twist, just because. Step right up, folks.

The night of the concert was a hot one. In lieu of stand lamps, the stage theater lights were lit at full tilt. This meant that, the longer they remained on, the hotter they got. The ensuing, intensifying heat made the surface of the trampoline sticky. And, the stilts swollen. And, the capacity for collapse magnificent.

Not one to shirk a challenge, I’d say I was up for this one were it not for the convergence of one too many risk factors. The laws of physics teach that, the closer to the point of tension one gets to the string’s contact with the bridge, the more resistant the string becomes to sag. This, in effect, makes the high wire tighter – and, less willing to be pressed into contact with the fingerboard.

Lucky for me, the first note of the initiating solo was about an inch and a half from the precipice. The string did not want to be pushed into action on any front. And, beyond that, it was surely not going to allow any slow bow to drag seamlessly across it.

I could hear the precipitating tremolo that telegraphed my entrance. Wagner’s humor knew no bounds; at the cello solo entrance, she’d printed the direction: “Sneak in, then expand”. My stilt was set on the required F# above C1. My bow began its long trek to the right, over six interminably languid beats of the baton.

And, then it happened. Two beats remaining in an 8/8 meter, time for the shift further to G-natural for two final beats, and then two more across the bar. Here was where my bow – the string player’s lungs – and, my trapezoidal muscle, decided that – between the heat, and the humidity, and the pace, and the resistance all around – that they would just take a nap.

Now, when our tools take a little shut eye in the middle of command performance, and our muscles bail, we are sure that, beyond possessing any form of a soul, they really are the tattooed arm of the devil. The music required melodic movement at this juncture; the bow, and the giraffe riding on the wire, were supposed to move in tandem in the other direction, from a brief G# back down to D and then A and then a sweet, sustained triplet C# fade up to the original F# This giraffe had managed to pull off the whole thing in rehearsal but, at the moment of truth, there just wasn’t enough oxygen left in that rarified air.

Giraffes don’t climb mountains, do they? I’m sure Julie Taymor would know. In order to create her spectacular prototypes, she’d probably spent many hours pouring over National Geographic videos of the African bush. My brother, and his missionary-borne wife, spent their honeymoon on that continent. He took 8 hours of standard cassette tape, a gold mine of evidence of every physical law of graceful motion borne of the jungle, including hippos expelling projectile excrement across the surface of a mud pool for special effect, and then left it all in some two car garage in the Carolinas. Julie Taymor would have known the value. She’d have saved every last bit of that film, in honor of authenticity and Grand Safari.

But, she couldn’t save this giraffe from buckling legs on a high wire with no net. There was no elevator escape hatch for this mammal, no charming ex to tell the tall tale. Nope. This wasn’t Big Top entertainment. This was Survivor, in the Symphonic Wild.






© Ruth Ann Scanzillo

6/7/15  All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Thanks.


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