A Slow Learning Curve

A long time ago, way before Matlock, before Mayberry RFD, even before No Time for Sergeants, Andy Griffith did a stand-up routine called "What It Was, Was Football". It was a shtick and not a bad one. Griffith, the consummate country bumpkin, gave a detailed account of observing a bunch of men racing hither and yon over what he perceived as a lined cow field only to discover that he had been watching a game of football. He emerged from the experience a more sophisticated observer of the human condition.

Well, that's how I felt recently on a visit to Russia. I was there as part of a delegation to continue Connecticut's role in the Russian American Rule of Law Consortium, once again visiting our friends from Pskov. We were able to spend a day of sightseeing in Moscow during which my colleagues sought to expand my cultural horizons.

I am, concededly, a very slow learner. However, through the good offices of the former Administrative Judge of the Judicial District of New Haven and the States Attorney for the Judicial District of Ansonia-Milford, I was, for the third time, invited to observe a ballet. They are committed to enhancing my knowledge of the arts.

The first time, they tell me, I awoke periodically during a production of Swan Lake in the theater of St. Petersburg's famous Hermitage. That was sometime in May of 2002. The best that can be said of that experience was that my slumber was not substantially disturbed by either the movement or the music. I emerged from the experience relatively unscathed.

The second time, earlier this year, again in St. Petersburg, was a performance of Sleeping Beauty. Again an invitation from the same two escorts to my cultural enlightenment that I could not refuse. This was at a fancier theater than the first. I started out in the balcony but after people left at the break I employed a tactic learned many years ago at Washington Senators games at RFK Stadium in DC: I upgraded to the box seats. I can't tell if the dancing was better or worse than the first time. I know I slept less and the music was actually pretty good. I figure any time you get to hear a bunch of 25 or 30 people playing real music in person, it has to be worth doing. If people wanted to jump around in tight pants while the music played that was their business. It wasn't going to distract me from listening. And it didn't.

My most recent compelled exposure to culture came last October. Once again the same two Sherpa guides to my enhanced appreciation of the arts led the way. This time Moscow. The Bolshoi Ballet. Spartacus. Once again I started in the balcony. This time however, it was the major leagues. No one left at the break. I stayed in the balcony. I did doze off during the first period, but after that, I figured I had to give it a chance.

So, I did. The thing about this theater, though, is that it goes up about five levels, but with boxes, not mezzanines. The boxes, however, are only two rows deep. This means that if you're in a side box, only the folks in the first row can see all or at least part of the stage while those in the second row, if they want to see anything, either lean on the rails separating the boxes or stand. Since I was in the second row and in the neighboring box were two broad-based, high-haired neighbors who beat me to the rail and whose posteriors trespassed into what, on earlier occasions, would have been my temporary dormitory, I had to stand.

I stood and strained to see the spectacle four levels below. It was, in fact, interesting. Of course, Spartacus without Kirk Douglas just isn't the Spartacus most of us know. That goes without saying. The music, like the time before, was actually terrific-a little West Side Story [ think The Jets versus The Sharks], some Grand Canyon Suite, and, for some reason, a female chorus that came out of nowhere and added a Hallelujah Chorus effect. Third, the lighting, especially at the end was dramatic.

That leaves the dancing. Needless to say I am no judge of what constitutes good ballet dancing. What I can say is that everyone was more graceful than Boog Powell and a good bit more refined than Cliff Claven. It was quieter than Riverdance, less violent than the New Haven Nighthawks, and better organized than The Ancient Mariners at the St. Patrick's Day Parade. And, while maybe not as amazing as a troupe of Chinese acrobats, what these folks were able to do on tippitoes was pretty impressive.

I am, as noted, a slow learner. Maybe if I watch 3 or 4 more of these spectacles I will eventually learn to appreciate the art of what is happening. I really don't appreciate the subtleties. Up to now, though, for me at least, ballet is like what they say about bumble bees: it's not so much that they fly well, but that they fly at all that's amazing.

One of my partners, when I told him where I'd been, observed that "Taking you to the ballet is like putting perfume on a pig." I cannot disagree. But, truth be told, I actually enjoyed myself. I just hope my porcine friends were not offended.