The Awful Truth

Cintra Wilson endures the agonizing company of her fellow artists at a weekend retreat at Vassar.

By Cintra Wilson

Published July 29, 1997 7:27PM (EDT)

nobody should ever give artists the time of day, really. Tether the whiny brutes to their keyboards and paint
boxes and only let them out for the odd grilled cheese. Let them be seen and heard in craft and deed alone. Keep them out of our goddamned bars.

I have come to this sourpuss conclusion in a dorm room at Vassar College, where I have been staying as the guest of a New York theater organization that is allowing me to workshop a piece here. The place is lousy with artists -- writers, directors, actors, dancers, ranging in ages from 9 to 60 -- and is causing me to reflect on the whole gamut of "artistic" lifestyles. I am trying to control my razor. I am begging myself to be kind.

There's a teenage Shakespeare company here. They do stuff on the lawn. Fat kids with glasses jovially asking each other, "How now, M'Lord?" in British accents around campus. Shakespeare and orthodontry don't mix. I tend to think Shakespeare and Americans don't mix either. Watching 17-year-old Americans with orthodontry do Shakespeare is as painful as listening to middle-aged office temps sing pop karaoke. No matter how competent their renditions are, they will simply never be truly acceptable, and both will make you want to crawl under the nearest privet hedge and drink Sterno unto blackout, mostly due to the flabby awfulness of such sincere good intentions. The Good Person in me says, They're doing Shakespeare, I guess that's a Good Thing. But personally, I'd rather they performed old episodes of "Perry Mason," or the Captain and Tennille, or live pornography. Something fucking ELSE.

The youngsters are all in a ballet camp that rehearses in the opulent main building -- little prepubescent girls with tight blond buns on top of their heads and pink tights who waddle around in packs like quail. They made me think of my early years of dance training, and more particularly, my old dance instructors.

There is a particular type of male ballet teacher, and whether he is gay or straight, he's always the same: an older man in his mid-40s, with greasy, graying hair that is slightly too long over the ears, thin legs, flat ass, slopey shoulders, gin abdomen, dismal old sweaters and unfiltered cigarettes. He tends to wear unlaundered clothing and has a distinctive mold about his person. There is invariably a yellowing picture of him airborne in the lobby of his studio, snapped at some point during his career in the early '60s. He has a fey, young-Werther-wondering expression on his face, his thick legs are clad in light-colored tights, his fingers and neck are ruffled by a princely blouse, his feet are pointed like an upside-down diver. That was the point in his life when he was pretty, and the rest of his life is a descent from that microsecond leap in the air. Now he drinks a lot and picks on little girls.

I was not a brilliantly gifted athlete. In fact, I was not even a marginally gifted athlete. I was quite the klutz, to be honest. I have improved my general balance with time and age, but there was never any hope for me in ballet, and my general endurance level for public humiliation was the only thing that improved substantially in the 10 or so years that I took regular classes. The amount of eye-rolling and pissy horror expressed in my general uncoordinated direction by the aforementioned archetype knew no cap, no limit. I grew to hate and fear those soup-stained, nicotine-puckered men, with their lint and their wheeze and their dehumanizing Ballanchine Nazism.

A young black ballerina, around 9 years old, made up a jump-rope jingle that all the girls started chanting with her:

"Lar-ry King

Lar-ry King

I'm a pony!

I'm a pony!"

I liked it, it made me laugh. Larry King? Get out now, I wanted to tell her. Ballet is no life. You'll either end up a bulimic lawyer's wife or an overqualified stripper. Take tennis lessons and French and botany! For God sakes don't put your feet in those hard, evil little shoes!

But try telling that to a little ballerina. They SLEEP with those ribbony torture shoes. They want those shoes more than horses, with the same kind of misplaced erotic longing. I did.

There's a smattering of "real" New York actors roaming around, in their 20s and 30s, bursting with awareness of how great they look. All their casual clothes hang so uncasually well. Everybody hates professional actors, even actors, because it's fashionable. The opposite is true of the writers. Writers consider themselves the best company in the world, which is probably because they're alone all the time and don't have many opportunities to socialize, and when they do, they loudly dominate the conversation with their own opinions on things because they love to hear their own cleverness spew out all over a table. Which can get difficult when you're at a table with five other writers.

I have been let out of my usual metal box and have come to this country retreat. I managed to inadvertently offend a healthy clot of people before I'd even unpacked. But hey, I'm a Writer. There's some kind of unwritten allowance for unsocialized behavior on the part of writers, because regardless of what great company we think we are, everybody knows we're really alone all the time.

My director Bosco and I were sitting in the local bar near the campus the other night, looking on at a sad group of 18-year-old Vassar homosexuals, with their dyed hair and ill-fitting vintage clothes and smudgy eyeliner. "How do you feel around boys like that?" I asked Bosco, who is a very beautiful hot-shit NYC actor homo in a Gaultier sweater -- in short, exactly what these poor little sapling queens desperately wished to be. "Do you feel like their King?" "God no," said Bosco. "They make me kind of tired and depressed." Going through his wallet later on, we both realized that it was because he had been one of them himself once, exactly, down to the hair and dumb necktie and remedial Maybelline.

It made me think of myself, since I had essentially been a small-town fag also, having been a hopeless social outcast teen in Mill Valley. All of these kids, all of us, took refuge in art, and here we are, all the poor little faggots and the boys who threw like girls and girls nobody could stand, all grown up, standing around in bars, being actors and writers and all. Here we are. Artists.

Everything is sex, said my mother, and when I plumb my own recent turmoil and boredom, I realize that it's because there is nobody pollinating me here, nobody who makes my nose flicker on and off and my firefly bulb fill with that mysterious chemical that makes that hot wink. Everyone here is much too much like me.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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