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Friday, January 17, 2014

Vows: an introduction. By John von Daler

                        The white clown, Pjerrot, spoke. All the others,  Harlequin, Columbine, the queen and the dancers listened. Formal meetings were new to them. Here in the dressing room with its mirrors and lights only gossip and inuendo had ever been expressed before.

                 "You heard the professor. Silence can not only help you focus on the moment; it can also make you giggly and happy. The Pantomime Theater needs some of that!"
                One of the dancers spoke up, Ursula, a slavic beauty with sleek cheeks, a broad forhead, blond hair tinted with an angry red, and a bosom that hinted more of country matters than the anemic princesses of the world of ballet. She had on an elegant pink gown and a golden crown.
                "You mean absolute silence while we are changing? Not even a little peep about the choreographer being an idiot or where will you be going after work tonight?"
                "Absolute silence," answered Pjerrot and looked each and every one of his co-performers in the eye.
                These fifteen or so dancers and actors had taken to meeting together at the suggestion of the white clown. He said that they spent too much time looking at themselves in mirrors. A few thoughts, he had shouted, you guys need just a few thoughts to rattle around in your pretty heads!
                Pjerrot had invited a professor to speak to them. The learned man had given an informal talk on hermits, vows of silence, monasteries and Buddhist thought. They had heard his words in spirit if not intellectually. Even though he had the easy manner and eloquent tongue of a modern-day H. C. Andersen, his lecture flowed past their ears like some avantgard suite they had been ordered to dance to. And they had swayed in their seats, trying to imagine what silence for four weeks might be like. Like not eating, perhaps? An irritating ache not in your empty stomach but some other empty place. The professor had described how men coming out of four years of silence had broken into a hearty laugh, as if God had told a shaggy dog story during all that time and only now had delivered his punchline.
                Now Pjerrot wanted to carry out this experiment.
                "Isn't it enough that we have to act and dance silently on stage? Do we have to shut up here, too?" asked Ursula.
                Columbine, always the pale white beauty both off and on stage, backed up Pjerrot. She shook her short, dark hair, her brown eyes wide open, her small indented cheeks, like gentle creases in a soft pillow, moving quietly as her pale lips uttered an opinion, "We could learn a lot from some Tibetan silence!"
                Harlequin looked at Columbine the way he always looked at her off stage, as if he were waiting for an answer to some unspoken question. "If you say so, I'm in!" And he looked down at his sparkling, many-colored costume as if it too soon would have to mute itself.
                And indeed there was silence, not only now, but the four following weeks. The old, wooden theater cranked and clacked and groaned as the sets were hoisted and rolled and you could hear the feet of the dancers hit the boards in strange rhythms, almost in defiance of the music, not on its beat, but not separate from it either.
                Only Ursula retreated into the tiny toilet once every day to mumble aloud into the mirror and burp a little burp of freedom. But even she came out again with moist eyes gazing somewhere inside herself.
                At the end of the four weeks they gave themselves a party that they had agreed on some days before on a piece of paper passed around the dressing rooms of the towered theater.
                That night they shouted and caroused and gossiped and laughed and danced and drank and some of them even ended up making love.
                The next day they went back to the old life, talking and laughing backstage and performing silently in the pantomime on stage.
                At the end of almost every pantomime Harlequin wins Columbine from Pjerrot, or some more wicked lover, and enters holy matrimony with her, while the queen, the magnificent Ursula with four ballerinas in white tutus, watches reverently over the sparkling ceremony. Pjerrot and Cassander stand on each side, giving in to the beauty of the exchange of vows, as Columbine and Harlequin point first at their own hearts and then at each other's.
                But one thing changed. The first performance after the vow of silence had been fulfilled, Harlequin made a small addition to the pantomime on stage. As he turned to take the hand of Columbine and face the queen, he quite clearly uttered three words: "I love you!"
                Pjerrot stopped Harlequin in the wings as they left the stage and ask what he thought he was doing, speaking out that way in front of the audience. They stood together, the one white, the other like a rainbow, and glared at each other. Ursula, her red hair in flame, stood beside them in her pink gown chuckling loudly while Columbine almost hovered over them, sylphide-like, all pale, all quiet, as if being invisible would suit her best.
                From the opposite side of the stage a little girl was watching the four performers. She was the daughter of the stage manager. Because she had forgotten to hold on tight to her balloon and had cried when it disappeared into the sky, her father had allowed her to stand behind him as he worked. He had told her to be quiet, but now she had to sum up what she was seeing.
                "See," she cried out, "the two white ones love each other and the two colorful ones are getting married!" Hearing her words the four actors dispersed like dandelion petals in the wind.
                Sometimes when they have been told to be still, children break their vows, and then, of course, you have got a story on your hands.

                My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) will be published on January 28. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Please feel free to write a short review of "Pieces" in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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