Time, timing, movement, the body. There are very few elements to ballet, just the body moving through time. Here is a short video from Studio 7 at Boston Ballet. Shot in the course of a day and with varying rhythms of time sped up and slowed down, it does beautifully encapsulate what a day of dancing at the highest levels can be, behind the scenes, day in and day out, over hours in one day in the video, but those days add up to years and years. To lapse in time back into those memories does remind me that I do miss it very much.
Dancing with people at such a level of technique and ability was something unto itself, unrepeatable. But in cycling there has been at least the smallest echo of that experience. The slight familiarity of dancing hard with others around and dancing over hours and days is there. The gatherings collide in my mind on occasion…the early in the day light, the speeds, the near constant motion punctuated by rest. Empty spaces getting filled like roads ahead that become travelled. Emily Gresh
Did you know that ballet technique is one of constant tension? It is a vocabulary of seeming effortlessness born of pushing into the floor while pulling up out of one’s entire body. Is this one side against the other or an ideal and sustainable harmony? Both, either, many formulations of each possibility at different times. We have all read the “this is war” accounts of bike races. Similar can be written about ballet and here is likely where, for me, my love of cycling began; this line where struggle and perfection meet.
In a recent photo essay on New York City Ballet, there was a reference to covering the backstage life of ballet as being similar to covering war (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/12/30/arts/dance/20121230_NYCB.html?ref=dance). How this is so is confounding at first but makes sense as more a reference to how similarly the scenes unfold in the covering of them than actual war–the comaraderie, the daily travails and the constant vigilant focus.
I wonder what it is that makes us watch these battles? Cycling shows us crashes and injuries. It shows us the dilemmas of training and competing at all costs. Ballet shows us athletic prowess but only under the face of gracefulness, a less visible battle. For me, dancing is far less interesting on stage than backstage. In the backstage version, the “I am covering war now” we do see all sides of the battle. The best side being laughter among a very close knit and unusually focused group of people. The worst, wrecked up bodies waiting to heal and emotional fraying over endlessly high standards of performance. There are no damaged bikes along side dancers though to give us a true visual of the toughness of ballet and the extremes of what is accomplished there.
In cycling, I fell in love when I heard a phrase on a Rapha video that is similar to the one in the recent photo essay on City Ballet, “It’s war all day long.” The Rapha video is black and white, a mini-homage to the Paris-Roubais (http://www.rapha.cc/roubaix-recce-into-the-fight). And in it, there is the idea of struggle made very visible, struggle that is less about winning an actual race and more about simply going for it. It ends, like the ballet photo essay, with a close knit group of determined and focused people laughing. I could watch it all day long, this pushing and pulling of technique that is cycling, that is making oneself press onwards, for the love of it. It’s possible, that the three minutes or so of that video made me fall in love with cycling. Everything there is to love about the battles in cycling–the peace of winning one’s own private races, of finishing a ride, of mind over body, of body over mind–is all well captured there. It is a backstage view, more interior, and maybe more telling then the wreckage of bikes and crashes. Emily Gresh
There are always two directions when thinking about making time for cycling in the winter–why I am too busy to do it and why I cannot afford to miss my one bike ride of the week at the moment. In the past, for me there was the discipline of daily ballet class. Every day. Maybe not seven days a week, but often six days a week, and definitely no less than five days a week of daily class. And not your daughter’s ballet class, one of cute tikes in pink leotards. Think ferocious athletes, about 45 of them all in one mirrored room, all going for it in combinations of steps that are as familiar to them as breathing and sleeping. And always playing with that fire of how much to push beyond reasonable limits and how much to hold back to avoid injury and or exhaustion. Sure, some days I would really hold back for whatever reasons, to conserve energy or repair my body. But even holding back then was hardly a holding back of much.
So one bike ride a week during the deep winter is not asking much of myself. But like everyone in New England during this time of year, some weeks it is a pinch just getting in the one ride. I did say winter riding would be beautiful, didn’t I? That was back in the fall or early winter before the snow and real cold hit, wasn’t it? Yes, the romanticized side of winter riding. Warmth. Chatter. Two sentence conversations that provide a week’s aftermath of laughter. Post-ride espresso. The smooth gearing of my bike. The fantastic mechanics of the body and many bodies working together getting through a ride. Beautiful riding gear. Sweet winter. As good as ballet class. But ballet class was always hard and demanding. Winter riding requires greater discipline, too. You have to demand more than just a little from yourself. Not a simple hop on the bike.
Salty roads, mud being kicked up by the tires in front of me, cold, dampness. Dark. It is a chase through all that lately. There is a just getting through it, but the riding is still essential. The weekly ritual as necessary as the daily class. There are all the essential reasons for daily class within the reasons now for the weekly ride. Like breathing and sleeping. Familiar and necessary. Just not as easy. Emily Gresh
Emily Gresh wears many hats—Trinity alumna, Yale graduate school alumna, dancer, writer, mother, fund-raising professional, and most recently, cancer survivor and the creator of the winning design for Giant Bicycles limited edition bicycle, the Liv/giant ‘Avail Inspire.’ Following an eight year career as a professional ballet dancer at Boston Ballet where she rose to the rank of soloist, Gresh came to Trinity as an IDP student where she earned an undergraduate degree in English and a minor in sociology. From there, she completed a master’s degree in Theater Management at Yale University before entering the workforce in a new field, when she returned to Trinity to serve as the College’s Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations in the Advancement Division. Most recently, Gresh found the brighter side of a diagnosis of breast cancer, at age 39. We sat down with Gresh, to hear more about how she designed the bicycle, its inspirational theme, and her experience as a young survivor of cancer.
TC: When you were diagnosed, how did you handle the news, emotionally and physically?
EG: There is truly no way to prepare for the news that you have cancer, especially when you feel you are young and healthy and still outside of the reach of that kind of devastating illness. When I was sitting in the doctor’s office at Yale-New Haven Hospital where I was diagnosed and treated, my ears literally closed and I stopped hearing. I did not want to take in that news. It took time to fully absorb it, many days and weeks, and was unbelievably difficult. I had just turned 39. Most women haven’t even had their first mammogram at age 39 and there I was already being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. Fortunately, I went home and went online and within a few days found the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) website which helped me enormously.
TC: What was the most important way that this group helped you?
EG: When I found the Young Survival Coalition online, I saw photos of young women participating in the Tour de Pink —a three day, two hundred mile bicycle ride that benefits YSC—and it was like looking into the eyes of people like me who had been where I was going. Breast cancer is not common in women under 40 although obviously it can and does happen, as it did with me. I had to do some searching in order to find my similar aged peers facing this disease. The Young Survival Coalition brings women who are diagnosed on the young side, and their friends and family members together, and that was crucial in keeping me from feeling isolated and alone as I came to terms with my diagnosis and treatment. I could see and figure out from the photos of the bicycling going on in the Tour de Pink that both the training beforehand and the rides themselves were avenues to renewed strength on many, many levels.
TC: How often did you train for the Tour de Pink, and what was your bicycling experience before then? What were some of the struggles and triumphs you faced along the way?
EG: My bicycling experience was limited to that of commuting around Boston by bicycle during my twenties. I started training for the Tour de Pink by doing loops around a pond near my house on a very heavy bicycle. My rides gradually lengthened from a few miles to rides of 60 miles, and I began riding a real road bike, too. While I was training, there were rides in the rain and also rides in intense summer heat, but it was never a struggle. I enjoyed every second of training and a passion for cycling definitely took hold in me.
TC: At the Tour de Pink, you learned about a contest to design a new bicycle for Giant, which would be designed specifically for this event, and for young cancer survivors like yourself. What inspired you to enter, and what did the contest entail?
EG: When I learned about the contest, I knew it was something I wanted to do. The creative and inspiring nature of the project seemed like the perfect combination for me.
TC: When Giant notified you that you had won the contest and that your design would be produced, what was your reaction?
EG: Ironically, I had a doctor’s appointment down in New Haven when I received the call from Giant about winning the contest. As you know, Yale has a beautiful campus like Trinity’s and I just stood there on York Street with all of those beautiful buildings around me thanking Giant over the phone, smiling, and feeling really lucky. Then I started calling and texting my friends and family with the good news—not only had my design been selected, but it had already been made into a prototype, it was a reality. I think everyone should have at least one moment in life where they get to pick-up the phone or text someone with the words, “I won!” or, maybe even better, “We won!”
TC: What inspired the name “Inspire” for the bike?
EG: The late Trinity Professor Hugh Ogden is the person who first pointed out the origin of the word inspire to me. Technically, inspire comes from “to breathe upon” as opposed to “to breathe in.” The notion of breathing in, getting one’s breath back, and the wonderful breathtaking qualities that are found in everyday living became important as I thought about creating a bike that could embody survivorship as well as the possibilities of life. This concept is captured by having the word “inspire” on the bicycle and the word is the main design feature. I will never forget Hugh walking into a poetry class one day and uttering: “People always say they can’t find inspiration. All you need to do is breathe in. The word inspire comes from ‘to breathe in.’ Inspiration is all around us.” For me, it was in that moment that “inspire” took on a more luminous meaning. It has guided me often.
TC: You have been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Relay for Life at Trinity. As a young cancer survivor, what is the best piece of advice you would give someone facing the same diagnosis?
EG: Inspire, breathe in. Be patient with yourself and others and know your experience as only you can.
TC: Earlier in your life, you were a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world. Did this play a role in your battle with cancer, emotionally or physically?
EG: My former life as a dancer constantly plays a role in my life today. As far as cancer goes, I knew—and my friends reminded me—that I could not be at war with my dancer’s body. I didn’t think of cancer as a battle. It was a nightmare but not a battle. There was nothing to fight, only things to be endured.
TC: You graduated from Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program (IDP), and now work here at Trinity. How has your experience at Trinity helped or affected your life?
EG: Trinity gave me the ability to look at language and expression from multiple perspectives. When I had to think about how to make a bicycle express something, I drew upon many of the things I thought about while studying creative writing with the late Fred Pfeil and literature with Chloe Wheatley at Trinity—a text can be read in many ways, so can a dancer’s body, or a patient’s. Why not a bicycle?
TC: What is the main difference between Emily Gresh pre-diagnosis and Emily Gresh today?
EG: I like to think that cancer did not change me but the truth is that it changed me immeasurably. Every day always mattered to me. But now, every day matters even more. There is only a one percent chance of a recurrence of my breast cancer, but I have known so many people who have had their cancer return. I live every day to its fullest and let myself trust each great moment as it arrives more than I ever did before. It’s exquisite. I am enjoying life very much, I have to say.
Emily Gresh will be sharing her story live at the 2012 Trinity Relay for Life, on Friday, April 27 at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College. For more on RFL, visit: http://bit.ly/JpLMyn. Proceeds from the purchase of Avail Inspire bicycles, available through Giant Bicycles, will benefit the Young Survival Coalition. A list of retailers can be found here: http://bit.ly/J6YruB.
From mind to hand–the essence of handmade–is such a short distance. It is this: a little breaking sound of dawn, not just light slipping across floorboards and through the edges of window blinds and curtains, but a true arrival. It is a fiercer light breaking across the morning as if arriving by wagon over stones, the sound of cyclists preparing for an early morning ride, cleats over rocks. This is the noise that would have you looking up from whatever it was you were doing, knowing that something was happening in addition to just the day’s beginning.
From there, you might swing your legs to the edge of your bed and then the floor, or maybe you would be getting up from the kitchen table to open those same blinds or push your front door ajar to see what is that sound; in your bedroom, after your feet hit the coolness of the floor’s surface, your hands probably reach to open the window’s shades or push the curtains aside, the impulse drawing you from sleep towards sound and whatever it is that seems to be out there. The day is handmade now, pulling back that curtain, rising from your bed. You begin to shape it right there.
The day is as handmade as the steel bicycle, and the hands are nothing, as Dario Pegoretti, bicycle maker of the handmade type, has said, without the mind.
There is the same sound to dancers’ running, too, especially twenty-four of us all at once in the bigger ballets, the Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beauties, Paquitas and Don Quixotes, there are always those rushes on stage or off. And all of that running is preceded by hammering and pounding and shaping the hard box of the pointe shoe. No matter how soft the bottom of the shoe, there is still that noise. Twenty-four corps de ballet women, twenty-four pairs of carefully prepared shoes, feet upon the floor pounding but as muffled as humanly possible, as technically achievable with those papery, satiny, boxy shoes.
Inside the shoe, whether cyclist or dancer, is the wonder of the human foot, beneath the asphalt where the cyclist is standing is the earth, off the dancer’s stage, the grass. Earlier, somewhere, the day was beginning for each, the walk across the floor, to the window or down the hall to the kitchen, the coolness beneath their feet. Earlier, their days began with thinking, each inclined to take that possibility of moving from bed to window to out the door a layer further, and each inclined to make the day, the bicycle, the dancer, the body, as alive as possible as they work the hours of their lives through their hands.
Did the bicycle maker say that steel has its own smell? Perhaps a quality of sweat to it? What of dancers as they are held by each other? The handmade comes to life, the impulse of rising for something gets built out and up to an extreme, one dancer with another, arms, legs, hands, a great deal of sweat, passionate yet pliable. We are inevitably and uninhibitedly shaped by each other. We are that close to each other and we are the things created–the lines, the strength, the structures, literally breathing with life. This is steel sweating, this is bicycle-maker friendly. Emily Gresh
My most recent long ride was a 60 mile trek out to Granville, Massachusetts in stunning, early spring weather. Just a few months ago, I did the same ride, with the same collection of great friends, on a much colder day (see earlier post: Winter Riding). In January, we set out in temperatures in the twenties and returned with the temperatures just a few degrees higher. In March, the ride began around the 40 degree mark, still cold, but ended with temperatures near or at sixty degrees. Along the way layers came off, arms got some sun and the taste of the coming season brought a freedom that only lives in our minds in the winter.
On this beautiful ride in March, we didn’t sit inside to warm up once we reached the Granville Market, I didn’t even drink coffee, and I love coffee. We stayed outside and it was water for everybody all around. We filled water bottles and passed the time in the sun.
The ride also brought this for me: We took a detour somewhere, making the ride a little longer than it might have been, turning 50 miles into 60, but easily so, nobody sweating and nobody complaining, the day is so good. What’s not to like? Why not put in the more miles? We travel more scenic routes than usual and there is a bigger hill climb, too. I have already been laughing and having a great time on my bike for awhile when I see a horse in the distance crossing the road. It’s so far down the road that I can’t see that someone has it on a lead, that it is not actually just wandering around, and that it won’t be running along with us. But for just a few seconds, I thought that might be a possibility, that the horse had gotten free and was just roaming around the street and land. I wondered in those seconds about all of the potentially dangerous things that could happen with this horse being on the loose, but I also thought about how incredible it would be to have the horse running and racing along in the road with us. There was the strangeness of the intersection, too–bicyclists meet horse, horse meet bicyclists, ballerina meet horse, horse meet ballerina. Degas paintings started crashing around in my head in a spectacular but far more modernized way (no tutu for me thanks, just some cool Rapha-wear).
The gap between us and the horse started closing, and as it did a person leading the horse became visible, the thin line of a tether appeared and then the horse went into a corral and the person closed the gate.
Finally, we came to the fence behind which was this animal. The horse surged. There was a fantastic breath of force, a few giant hoof beats on the dirt, tail flying. It was almost as good as the dream of having it roaming free on the road–horse racing all of us on our beautiful bicycles, ballerina mindset in the midst. Animal, machines, human beings, hearts pounding madly.
I found a video of a horse breaking out of a fence during a real bicycle race and joining the cyclists in their pursuit of the finish line. I’m sure many people have seen this video before, it must happen with some frequency, but for my dancer’s brain–a brain that is after such a convergence of athletes and beauty–I love this. Emily Gresh
Watch the finish of Lieuwe Westra in stage 5 of the Paris-Nice race and you will see the sublime crossing unfold in all of its perfection. For all of the finishes I have seen, this is one of the purest. He looks to be victory himself proclaiming the day a good one. There is a gesture of gratitude and pride as he wipes his hands across his chest where his team’s name is displayed. Then, even more beautifully, he opens his arms to take in all of the sweet glory that is winning. For him, how can we not help rising to our feet? And what a delight that he opens his arms and takes us with him. “Hey, c’mon in, here is my win, isn’t it delicious? Taste.” “Ah, so good.” We lick our lips. We turn and lift our faces just a little,”Mmm, yes, it is really good.” Yes, we all know that texture, that flavor on our tongue. “This my friend,” he nods, “why, this is winning.”
Now watch the curtain open again as dancers come out to take a bow after a performance. Watch the very best open their arms to the audience with the same purity and presence. They know the night is theirs, that they too have won. Do you know that as the curtain is falling, they are awaiting a bounce back open? Like Westra, the best are in front, they feel the power of the race behind them, that they have been pushed every day by the people behind them and are better dancers for it, and that together they have all in some sense won the race. So you see, it is not just that the curtain closes or that the cyclist gets his fraction of a second over the line that is marked finish, it is the bounce of the curtain back open, the confident letting go of the handle bars even before the race finish time has been clocked. It is knowing that this is not one race–this win is only one amongst the many behind it and, even better, the many wins ahead.
In an X-ray somewhere far away from where I live, not so long ago were the post-crash, smashed collar bones of Swedish cyclist Emma Johansson who was recently hit by a car while training. Johansson is one of the world’s great women cyclists at age 29. Yet there in that X-ray, lines crossed and re-crossed the film. Here is a break, and here another. Here, Emma, is where force decided to take the game. Here is where your bones lost. But Johansson is no loser and her body has a mind of its own in all games mind over matter. These lines were only the curtain coming down where she knew there would be the bounce back up, the opened armed glory that awaits. There was victory herself, just around the corner. Not long after those X-rays, she proclaimed the day a good one (specifically, a podium finish already on March 10, 2012). In fact, just five days after her crash and curtain drop, she climbed on an indoor bicycle trainer and began training again. A sublime crossing this one, a netherworld that is sweeter than winning.
If Shakespeare’s Polonius had many conniving ways about him when he said, “…unto thine ownself be true,” then there is a little of this mix of false truth and seeming earnestness in the story of the ballet dancer Sergei Polunin. Polunin recently decided to quit his profession at age 22, after years of difficult training. His claim is that training is boring, he has conquered dance, and it’s on to tattoo parlors and whatever else for him. He is playing a game of winner take all forever, drawing a game-over line for himself in which the game becomes a dare to not cross. The truth about Polunin, the one that we have to at least hope he will find for himself, has yet to come out. It is one of Hamlet’s questions, “…to be or not to be,” not a Polonius-like cover story for a pretend face. Yes, for Polunin…let us hope it is “to be.”
As Polunin was quitting, Westra was beautifully winning, and Johansson was getting back on her bike. Imagine, Westra riding all that way and stopping one fraction of a second before the finish line and stating, “I am bored, training is boring. I quit.” In the face of win after win, there is sometimes this crunch between the race behind and the race ahead. To let go of the handle bars just before the race is won, to climb back on the bike, to take the stage over once again, these moments carry us to the next and the next and the next. If we are smart, if we are lucky, we keep crossing and re-crossing before it’s too late and the curtain is down for good. Emily Gresh