Dance critic applies grace to every move
by Rob Neufeld
That was the case with Sarah Kaufman when she’d first felt moved, nine years ago, to write her new book, “The Art of Grace” (W.W. Norton).
Kaufman, then a veteran dance critic for the “Washington Post,” had already expanded her coverage to include such dancelike subjects as the Tour de France and the Changing of the Guard. Next, she’d decided, she’d write about Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movie stars, how they walked, faltered, and gestured.
“The first movie I popped into my DVD,” she said in a recent interview with me, “was ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ and I knew instantly that the core of my essay was going to be about Cary Grant because that word—“grace”—just dropped into my mind when I saw him.”
Kaufman presents her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville Saturday evening, Jan. 9..
Kaufman’s subject has become a beacon to her, as she follows it to sports arenas, religious practices, restaurant kitchens, emergency rooms, and ice trucks.
“There’s so much art all around us, so much beauty,” she explained compassionately—“you know, in the way people tend to fall into step when they walk together; or with an easy exchange in a coffee shop between a barista and a customer; or with a homeless person on the street corner.”
“Have you ever thought of creating—or have you created any choreography?” I asked Kaufman.
“No, that’s not my art,” she replied. However, her writing might find expression in a documentary, as “some people are working on it,” she said.
Passages in “The Art of Grace” would make great filmed scenes, I think—for example, the restaurant kitchen Kaufman writes about in the chapter, “Everyday Grace.”
“Eight cooks are squeezed together like a submarine crew,” she relates. “Still, they swivel with graceful ease.” They bend and spring. “These toqued commandos glide calmly through the same motions again and again. They’re a hairbreadth away from ruin, mere seconds from scorched shoat.”
I had to stop at the word, “toqued.” Did Kaufman mean “torqued”? No, toque is the little hat, that’s funny.
“The Art of Grace,” is a good mix of celebrity anecdotes; timely advice; exuberant story-telling; and delicious wit, though the word-love sometimes spirals into romantic moon-shots.
From childhood, Kaufman had been a story-teller and seeker. Dance became a main channel within that interest, partly because of a childhood experience.
“Born with a heart defect that required surgery when I was seven,” she writes, “I was strictly kept away from physical exertion until a year after I’d had the operation. I watched and absorbed vicariously all I could of others’ play and sports. Ballet lessons...finally gave me a way in to the much-longed-for world of physical expression.”
In the chapter, “To Become Unstuck,” Kaufman reports on a dance class for people with Parkinson’s Disease at Mark Morris Dance Group’s headquarters.
“If we think of grace as a magical combination of phrasing, fluidity, musicality, suspension, (and) the sense that one movement leads to the next—all that goes away with Parkinson’s,” Kaufman quotes David Leventhal, program director of “Dance for PD.”
Beginning with repetitive gliding and expressiveness—not memorization of steps—the class leads participants to a new sense of themselves.
Kinds of grace
The meaning of grace contains the ease of movement that people try to attain, the relief of revelation, the power of generosity, and the humility of good manners, Kaufman explicates.
Kaufman’s saint of gracefulness and graciousness, Cary Grant, purposely flubbed his lines if his co-star’s delivery was off, so that the scene would have to be reshot without embarrassing his partner.
When the House Un-American Activities Committee revoked Charlie Chaplin’s visa in 1952, Grant announced his retirement, stood up for Chaplin, and told the nation, “We should not go off the deep end.” In 1940, Grant had donated his entire salary from “The Philadelphia Story” to the British war effort.
Also that year, Grant had starred in “His Girl Friday” with Rosalind Russell. Seated at lunch with his ex-wife and her new fiancé, Grant’s character delivers a cutting line that is full of play and pain.
The coup de grace in this exchange, Kaufman relates, occurs when an action “that starts in his neck and trickles across the top of his suit jacket shouts out loud and clear that Hildy (his ex) is making a stupid mistake...That liquid, nearly imperceptible roll of a muscle hangs there like an echo...a shiver in the emotional current.”
More of the interview
“Your book has been a passion of yours for a long time,” I acknowledged in my interview with Kaufman.
“It’s true,” she said. “It’s a topic that I couldn’t find written about already in a way that tries to identify the grace that we see and experience in our everyday lives.”
When she said she’d been a shy and somewhat socially inept person as a child, I asked her how grace had helped overcome that.
“One thing to bear in mind,” she advised, “is to take the focus off yourself. One of the 1930s manuals that I quote in the book said, ‘If you feel self-conscious, think of the other person, and you can’t hold two ideas in your mind at the same time.’”
“Have you had an eye-opening experience of grace lately?” I wondered.
“In fact, just a couple of weeks ago,” she recounted, “I was in a grocery store café, doing work on my laptop. It was a quiet evening. From across the room, a fellow started singing...the whole Beatles canon! I was thinking to myself, ‘Why? I was having such a good time here.’”
“As I was listening to him,” she continued, “he got to ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ and started singing the line, ‘All the lonely people.’ I felt a tear. It was one of those moments of two impulses crashing up against each other—a little bit of frustration, and then a lot of compassion. It was a moment of grace.”
Sarah Kaufman presents her new book, “The Art of Grace: On Moving Well through Life,” 7 p.m., Sat., Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville (254-6734).