A couple of weeks ago, Mary Beth asked some very insightful questions on my blog about ancestor work. I 've been holding onto them until the Polytheist Leadership Conference was finished and I wanted to take the time to answer them in depth. Today is the first chance I've had to do so.
Mary Beth asks: "Knowing you all are extremely busy right about now, sometime in the future, would you be willing to blog about how you honor your ancestors of lineage(spiritual and artistic), and if it's not uncomfortable, share an idea or picture of what a shrine would be?
Also, as an artist, do you have a conscious, intentional relationship with your creative/artistic daemon, or do you feel that doing the work is enough? What might such a practice look like?"
Those are really good questions and I had to sit back when I first read them and think long and hard. I've never actually talked about this part of my practice in any depth with anyone and to be fair, it's something that I myself am still developing. My ancestor practice is divided into three parts: blood and adoptive ancestors, spiritual lineage, artistic lineage. This latter group have become more and more important over the past couple of years as I've resolved much of the pain locked up in my retirement from ballet and as I've begun to paint and explore photography. I also had a series of powerful epiphanies last year where I realized how much i owed many of the dancers I include in my artistic lineage. It's really because of them that I not only survived, escaped a very stultifying home, but also that I gained the groundwork as a devotional polytheist. I learned the nuts and bolts of devotion and how to endure the ongoing process of transformation inherent in spiritual work. For me, that is not at all insignificant. So, how do I integrate all of this into my regular ancestor practice?
Well, with both my spiritual and my artistic lineages, I began by giving them each special sections of my ancestor shrine (which takes up the better part of a room in my home). For my spiritual lineage, I put photos of my deceased elders, images representing those too far back in the line to have photographs, this representing priestcraft, divinatory arts, shamanism. I have, for one of the traditions into which i've been initiated, my lineage written out and this I recite with prayers daily. I also make regular offerings.
For the artistic shrine, I honor two groups of people: ballet dancers who inspired me when I danced, and the operatic castrati. For the latter group, I have a period lithograph, and a couple of photocopied paintings of famous Castrati (no photos exist, it was too early. The first of my artistic lineage to be photographed in her prime was Fanny Cerrito, who was dancing at the height of her career when the daguerreotype was introduced). For my dancers it's a bit different.
I began with Anna Pavlova. She was the reason I began to dance, and a bio of her life was probably the most influential book on me ever. It kindled my passion for ballet. I tracked down original post cards from Imperial Russia with images of her dancing. These run between $20 and $150 (though a signed one can be in the thousands. Mine are not signed) on today's market. They were put out as publicity images by the Maryinsky theatre. I have ballet ephemera (old programs, a card someone wrote to her niece talking about seeing Pavlova dance, etc) and i had these all nicely framed and hung by that part of my shrine. Then I turned to the second dancer who dramatically inspired me: Olga Spessivtseva (sometimes simplified to Spessiva). I did the same in terms of finding original images but here I coiled do one better. She is buried about 45 minutes away from where I live so I and a friend made a pilgrimage there two years ago (I need to go back). It took us awhile to find the Russian Orthodox cemetery and longer to locate her grave, but we did and left offerings and later installed a memorial to her on my shrine. Ballet is a lineage art, the tradition, choreographies, customs, and protocols are all passed down dancer to dancer, teacher to student. To honor them, as well as to respect my own small place in that lineage meant that I ought to be honoring their predecessors.
I began seeking out images for the dancers that inspired Pavlova and Spessivtseva, most notably Marie Taglioni (I have a newspaper clipping advertising her performances from early 1800s). I added images for Pierina Legnani, who revolutionized ballet technique, Mathilda Kchessinskaya, Olga Preobrajenska, several lithographs of Fanny Essler, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito. I know my way around this lineage. When i watch a ballet being performed, I'm not just paying attention to the ballerina dancing a particular role *now*, i'm mentally placing her in a line of all the dancers to have performed that role back to the time the ballet was choreographed. When I recently saw "Sleeping Beauty" danced by the NYCB, I enjoyed the bluebird variation and connected that in my mind to Enrico Cecchetti, the first to perform it when the ballet was created, and that tied me to Pavlova and Spessivtseva and indeed a whole generation of Imperial dancers, because he became a noted ballet master, and that tied me to the ballet russe for the same reason, which led to Balanchine who came from the Imperial school through the ballet russe and to my teacher and first director who trained as Balanchine's school….to me. That framework and understanding is first and foremost the basis for my interaction. Knowing my ballet history too allows me to pinpoint with absolute specificity how each of these women changed the face of their art. I honor male dancers more obliquely only because while working in the field, it was specifically female dancers - being one myself-- from whom i drew the most inspiration and into whose roles I hoped to step.
For some of of the 18th and early 19th dancers, like La Camargo (who shorted her skirts to show the ankles and took the high heels off her shoes so she could showcase her jumps and intricate footwork; in the late 1800s Virginia Zucchi would repeat this with the Russian ballet, giving us the short ballet skirt that is now de rigieur) there weren't even really lithographs available. I had to look long and hard for an authentic image, rather than a photocopy of Camargo. (photocopies are ok, but I really wanted something more authentic). I finally hit gold when I discovered tobacco cards. Up through the 1930s, many tobacco companies included novelty cards in their tobacco packs. A German company named Garbaty came out with a line of "Famous Dancers," which included Marie Camargo and other very, very early ballet stars. They seem to only showcase female dancers, but they have a broad array, including a drawing of an Etruscan dancer, a Greek dancer, an ancient Egyptian dancer which allows me to include representations for the ancient side of the linage on my shrine too. I did have to stop and think where to put some of these images because so much dance goes back to religious expression and ritual that I wondered if they could rightly be included in my spiritual lineage shrine, but then I figured that the modern dancers, while many like Preobrajenska, Pavlova, Spessivtseva to name a few, thought of their work as a spiritual vocation, just as many likely did not and best to give them their own space.
Here's one of my recent acquisitions, a photo card taken prior to 1910 (it had to be taken before Pavlova left the Maryinsky), showing her in "Swan Lake". I haven't looked up yet who is partnering her. The card, much to my chagrin, only reads 'anna pavlova with her partner"!
I have rekindled, as an offshoot of my devotional practices, an interest in reading about ballet history and some of these famous dancers. I go to ballet more frequently now, even slowly do some of the basic exercises that once formed so much the warp and weft of my existence. I talk about them when people ask, and I venerate them, making offerings and prayers just as I would with my spiritual or blood/adopted ancestors. I find they are very present when I paint so when I engage in creative activities, I often do so as a way of honoring them. My practice here is still growing and I think it was one of the things that led me to take up painting and photography, given that I can no longer dance (this was also a blessing from Oshun but I think there's a connection there).
I'm in the process of redoing my shrine (I have a few recent images that I need to get framed, and I'm going to have all the little cards framed) so once that is done, I'll happily share an image of my shrine. It'll be a couple of weeks though. I just sent the first batch of images off to my framer.
I haven't yet figured out how to honor the daemon of art…i know that I have to, even if simply in veneration and thanks for having fostered me, but that piece hasn't been given to me yet. I'm not worried. It will come and I think that developing a venerative practice for my artistic lineage is, perhaps a good start to that.