Polla ta deina

Last night I went with a friend to see Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My friend was unable to get us seats together; one of us was to be in the first row of section A; the other, in the second row of section B. “There are no intermissions,” he warned, “and it’s about five hours long. So people are going to be getting up and moving around. We might want to take a break at some point and even trade seats.”

About an hour into the performance, people started shuffling around. I looked across the hall and saw my friend, who nodded at me. We got up and met each other outside.

“Do you need a break?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “How about you?”

“No, I’m fine,” he said. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s fantastic.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.”

We went back in and reclaimed our original seats. We took no more breaks after that.

When we returned, the dance sequence had begun–dancers leaping across the stage, dancing out of sight, appearing again, with grace and skill and cheer, over and over again, angle after angle, rotation upon rotation, leap after leap, in perfect synchronicity and pattern but also appearing by surprise, a dancer leaping, almost flying, and then more dancers and patterns, crossing each other, circling, pirouetting, leaving.

I thought of the “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone, “Polla ta deina kouden anthropou deinoteron pelei…” (“Many are the wonders and terrors but none more wondrous than man”). I brought that ode to my eleventh graders on the first day of class and recited it for them in Greek. I explained to them the meanings of pantoporos (all-resourceful) and aporos (resourceless), of hupsipolis (great of city) and apolis (without city). But now it seemed I was seeing the ode before me, in a form I hadn’t before imagined.

It is a great thing when a performance puts you in awe, not only of the performers or of the piece, but of the possibilities in a day, in a crossing of the room. It’s easy to forget such awe or to let it get dusty.

I will never be able to dance across a stage like that, or play the way the Einstein violinist played, or make such a  tone of alto saxophone, or compose complex counterpoint that suddenly rises into something simple and pure. But I can lift myself in the things I do.

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  1. Dan

     /  December 14, 2014

    This Ode has been for me the essence of reality and religion from years ago (I am eighty) and I taught Antigone in honors history classes (public high school) and the Ode alone in other Western Civilization classes. A high moment in my life was when (later 1973) I could stand in the orchestra at the theater in Epidavros, take from my pocket the words of the first stanza in Greek, and recite/chant them. I was trying to recall the Greek this evening (12/14/14) and finally typed the first words into Google in English letters, expecting nothing. Lo and behold, there was your fine little essay. Thinking of the Ode lifts me frequently and I could not recall all the Greek words from the beginning. Now I can. An old man lifted.


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