ballerinas and bilbo baggins

The other day I heard this on the radio. Or started to, anyway, and I wasn’t sure I would stay tuned. I have no great interest in dance in general or ballet in particular, associating it vaguely as I do with various not-so-terribly-nice girls I grew up with. Tanaquil LeClercq, I thought idly, what an awesome name. As Robin Young started to name-drop choreographers who were apparently luminaries, one who became LeClercq’s husband and the other her ardent fan and choreographer–“she was muse to the both of them,” was the phrase–my interest dropped even further. A sordid love triangle. How utterly predictable. As I considered whether I wanted to switch to the same old humdrum playlist on Spotify as an alternative to a story I’d heard too many times to care to hear again, the bare minimum of the tale that would be expanded on later in the piece came out: LeClercq’s passion, her skill, her body that was different than any other dancer’s up to that time, shattered by polio in a very public way, at a very young age, which destroyed not only her but also those to whom she had been muse–her husband, of course, and then this other man, who in the flurry of names I thought was George Balanchine, and who–it was mentioned briefly–was gay.

I sat up.

Now they went on to describe how distraught Balanchine was, how he tried everything to help her, bringing her to he who would become “the” Mr. Pilates to try and bring her muscles back into play, even tying her hands to his hands and her ankles to her ankles and moving her about, dancing the both of them, trying to bring her back. Trying to fix her. And that image really, really moved me. He wasn’t even fucking her, wouldn’t even dream of fucking her, and here he was trying so hard to restore her to the inspiring state that had fuelled what apparently is one of the great ballet masterpieces of the 20th century, choreographed by none other than himself. It occurred to me briefly that there might have been no small amount of self-service in there; if she was his muse and was so great a star, he had a lot to lose in her collapse into motionlessness. But I dismissed it. Willfully. Because realized, sitting there, that the fact that they weren’t lovers mattered so much to me in this story. Clips from the documentary Afternoon of a Faun (named after said masterpiece of the 20th century, dreamed up and choreographed before LeClercq’s illness but unnervingly spot-on in that she, the star, played a victim of polio as her male opposite, Death, stalked and ultimately slew her) played, in which voice actors read letters sent back and forth between LeClercq and Balanchine, and I swooned. He’s trying to come up with one plan after the other and she–writing with the wrong hand, since the one she usually writes with won’t work anymore–makes observations like “It may be easier to have polio than to be close to someone who does…I’m afraid he’s being unrealistic about this.” If I ever had so debilitating and final an illness, I thought, I would like to maintain that level of perspicacity, since what else would I have to wrap around myself, and use to claim humanity above and beyond my victimhood?

Flash forward to last night, watching Fellowship of the Ring, a movie I’ve probably seen more than any other in my adult life–more even than Lost in Translation, which I watch for similar reasons–and a line I have thus heard, at the very least, thirty times. Bilbo, at his own party, having been whisked to safety from his needling relatives by the perpetually genial Frodo, turns to his nephew in a suddenly serious frame of mind and says, haltingly, “You’re a good lad, Frodo. I’m very selfish, you know. Yes, I am. Very selfish. I don’t know why I took you in after your mother and father died but it wasn’t out of charity. I think it was because…of all my numerous relations…you were the one Baggins that showed real spirit.” I’d been watching FotR flipping through the various lenses available to me, as you do when you know something so well you don’t have to pay attention. I’d been thinking about my older fandom days, and wondering why so few people had pounced on Bilbo’s childlessness and unattached status as a ripe invitation for pairing, and then in the middle of trying to imagine all those years between the adventures of The Hobbit and the beginning of FotR, alone in his hole with his stories, out popped that line, delivered so earnestly and even, almost, apologetically. And it was like a lightning bolt. I knew why the line was there, to establish this relationship in the very brief time we have remaining before Bilbo departs, but though I’d heard it thirty-some times I’d never looked beyond that and actually thought that yes, that is exactly the kind of selfishness I could see myself indulging in; and moreover it described, however circuitously, the kind of selfishness inherent in my shameless adoration of the kind of relationship described in the radio segment between the dancer and her not-sexually-attracted-to-her mentor. The kind of selfishness, too, ingrained in the pride I so recently took in delivering–to flourishing success–the retirement remarks for someone I greatly respected, and whose daughter I apparently caused to cry with what I said.

Bilbo doesn’t have to work for Frodo’s veneration. It just appears. He’s just so fascinating, has done so much; knows so much outside the realm of the Shire, that to a boy like Frodo, whose nose is buried in a book more often than a mug of ale, he’s amazing. And Bilbo invites Frodo into his life; no, he plants him there, not just for his handiness around the house or anything helpful like that but because adoring Frodo is a like a constantly flashing neon sign: You’re so great! You’re so cool! You know all these stories–you’re fantastic! And, yeah. Arranging your life so you hear that all the time–that’s selfish.

And there I was fawning over the dancer-choreographer relationship, too, thinking essentially how great it was that all she had to do was be herself, which by default was awesome and amazing, and here this guy who didn’t even want to use her the way men so often want to use women was so fond of her, even with sex not being on the table at all, that he’d go to huge lengths to try and restore her to her former glory. So what exactly was I admiring there? Her just getting to sit around being praised for being who she was? How wretchedly one-sided. Sure, sure, he asked her to do things, to perform, in ways better than anyone had before, and she could and did, but she loved doing that anyway, it seems. She didn’t need to adore him in return. She simply was, and could sop up his attention, as Bilbo sops up Frodo’s, free-of-charge, so to speak.

And to privilege that is, yes, terribly selfish.

Here’s the thing, though–I mucked it up. I didn’t know anyone in that radio segment, and got the names confused, and the whole time that I thought Balantine was the gay choreographer genius? I was wrong. That was Jerome Robbins. Balanchine was the guy married to LeClercq. Oh, and after a few years of attempting to resuscitate her muscles failed? He dumped her for another hot young dancer.

How romantic.

But my confusion is beside the point, really. Because what I thought to be true was something that moved me, and what moved me was a parasitically selfish version of love. I hear you, Bilbo, your apology, even if Frodo dismisses it as boozy ruminations brought on by the Gaffer’s home brew. Because you used him to feel better about yourself; used his admiration as a kind of crutch to buoy you through the comparably low-key and disappointing life you lived for decades after your adventures. The correct thing to do, when someone loves you so blindly and without question, is to point out to them that their admiration is misplaced. And you didn’t.

And I don’t know that I would have, either. I don’t know that I’m that good.


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