Last Thursday I went to a preview of Northern Ballet‘s production of Ondine – due to open for the first time at the Yorkshire Playhouse on September 8th. The preview was much more than a viewing of a rehearsal. Artistic Director, David Nixon, gave us a description of the story’s meaning and allowed us to witness him fine tuning the piece in action. This process involved him leading the principal dancers into a more nuanced approach and ultimately a performance of greater emotional intensity.
Nixon told us the story of Ondine – she is a water sprite who marries a mortal and thus gains a soul. The mortal – a young man called Brand – is so enchanted by Ondine that he abandons his betrothed to marry her. But after a while, he begins to fear her ‘difference’ – her ‘wildish ways’ – (as Clarissa Pinkola Estes would put it) and he lost courage. Nixon pointed out a similarity between Brand’s fear of Ondine’s wildish ways, and society’s attitudes towards racial, religious and cultural difference. My ears pricked up at this point because it was a theme I’d recently been pondering.
I’d been thinking about what happens when we go out of the ‘comfort zone’ by mixing with people of different beliefs and cultures and also what happens when we stay within the comfort zone, remaining unchallenged. The words of Buddhist meditator and yoga teacher Michael Stone, had prompted these thoughts. He said:
‘ And when you read a book for instance, it’s important to go down into the places in the text that are cold, shadowy and rocky, where it’s difficult to understand, where there are viewpoints that are different from your viewpoints. If we stay in the sunny, easy places, we only wind up hardening our views. The warm places are the ones we already know.’ (Notes from a talk by Michael Stone at centre of Gravity on July 19th 2012)
In the past I personally went through a period of being quite adventurous – I went to places, did things and met people that challenged me. The upside of getting past the fear and discomfort of these challenges, was feeling more alive, creative and fully myself. For the past thirteen years I’ve lived in Harrogate and am aware that, apart from a few ups and downs, it’s is a comfortable existence. The town is beautiful with lots of green open spaces, parks and neatly planted flower beds, there’s very little crime, and any litter or graffiti are swiftly removed. It’s the opposite of city life that might involve rubbing up against harsh realities. Even our Big Issue seller is comfortable – in that he’s successful at selling the magazines. He is a personable guy, and so one day I asked why he continued to do such a job when he has so much going for him. His response was ‘I’m good at doing this and I enjoy it!’
Like most people, I seek like-minded folk to hang out with and I enjoy the comfort the friendship and familiarity provide. At the end of the story, Ondine is compelled to return to her own familiar creatures in the sea and take Brand with her to his death. The story is similar to The Little Mermaid and both have origins in the ancient myth called ‘The Seal Maiden’. Clarissa Pinkola Estes gives her version of the tale in ‘Women who run with the wolves’. She calls it ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ and says it’s a story that ‘tells about where we truly come from, what we are made of, and how we must all, on a regular basis, use our instincts and find our way back home.’
I feel very much at home in my life at present and much more comfortable in my skin than in my younger days. But this state was reached through forays out of the comfort zone – being amongst ‘difference’ helped define who I am. Periodically I get a longing to travel and experience cultures that are as different as possible. I need these challenges in order to stay excited about life.
But it’s not just about going on foreign trips – we can confront our fears around ‘difference’ in many aspects of life – and they don’t have to big. When David Nixon was speaking about the discomfort of difference, a member of the audience said “Such as going to a new ballet like Ondine?”
I think yoga helps us stay more open to people of different culture, class and personality and also more open to new challenges. This is because we learn to question and accept our thoughts and actions. We can also begin to get a sense of connectedness with all beings which engenders compassion. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad has a passage that’s a description of god being present in every being – a universe where difference is irrelevant:
‘He is the fire and the sun, and the moon And the stars. He is the air and the sea, And the Creator, Prajapati He is this boy, he is that girl, he is This man, he is that woman, and he is This old man, too, tottering on his staff. His face is everywhere.
He is the blue bird, he is the green bird With red eyes; he is the thundercloud, And he is the seasons and the seas. He has no beginning, he has no end. He is the source from which the worlds evolve.’