by Cynthia Gralla
Middle age can be a time of rising action. The Portuguese writer José Saramago only began publishing fiction to wide acclaim in his 60s. The Polish stage actress Helena Modjeska found success early in her homeland but fled it in midlife, remaking her life in America and in the English language. And Kazuo Ohno, the co-developer of the dance form butoh, didn’t start performing until his 40s and kept dancing until his death at 103. Even a dancer may launch his career’s first act during his life’s second phase.
Act I: Earth
We gestate. We take time to absorb knowledge. There can be no second act without the first.
José Saramago, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature at age 78, was the son of swineherds, raised in a village where the Milky Way was called “The Road to Santiago,” after the pilgrimage route. While the family bedded down with their pigs on cold nights, his grandfather spun stories, which Saramago shirred into allegories decades later in novels like Blindness and The Stone Raft.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saramago spoke about his childhood. “Sometimes, on hot summer nights, after supper, my grandfather would tell me, ‘José, tonight we’re going to sleep, both of us, under the fig tree.’ There were two other fig trees, but that one—because it was the biggest, because it was the oldest, and timeless—was, for everybody in the house, the fig tree.” Later, Saramago watched his grandfather bid farewell to this tree before being taken off to a hospital to die. (Kazuo Ohno once said, “You can grasp what life is all about by simply studying how a tree grows.”)
Saramago published more than a dozen novels (and all his most celebrated works) in his seventh decade. (Kazuo Ohno: “It’s never too late to start.”) But his long prologue had seeded this late period, made it grow, turned a tree into a raft that traveled vast seas, its green leaves fluorescing in the dark like a comet of fireflies.
Act II: Air
Helena Modjeska was a drama queen, on and off the stage. Living from 1840 to 1909, she never saw Poland attain its status as a sovereign nation; in her time, it was sliced and diced into territories controlled by Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Yet Modjeska’s many stage roles and real-life guises—tragedienne, countess by marriage, farmer, frontierswoman—suggested that her scattered identities could be gathered up into one body, offering hope to her fractured country.
Dispirited by the political experience of living in the Russian and Prussian parts of Poland and inspired by Brook Farm—a Transcendentalist community in Massachusetts—Modjeska decided to give up acting and immigrate to California. Accompanied by her husband and several friends, she struck out in the 1870s, in search of an elusive gold rush, trusting imagination more than reason. (Kazuo Ohno: “Once, I had to beg myself, ‘Please, please leave, please just let go.’ But of whom did I ask this? Of my body? Of my soul?”)
The experiment failed; none of the adventurers knew the first thing about farming nor much more about English. Interpersonal tensions arose as well. (José Saramago: “The difficult thing isn’t living with other people, it’s understanding them.”) Modjeska returned to the stage, now performing in halting English, as she neared forty. Twenty years later, she was partially paralyzed by a stroke, but she kept performing. Backlit by will, Modjeska shone, aging gracefully.
Act III: Water
Kazuo Ohno performed his first public solo in 1949, at age 43. Time seemed to run differently for him, as if he was always just a few steps from the womb.
He was born in Hokkaido, Japan’s island of cold, wide skies. He became a gym teacher, studied modern dance and taught it to children, and served in World War II. (Helena Modjeska: “Talent is born with us, but the influence of surroundings shapes, develops—or subdues—it.”) After the war, he gave himself to dancing. In the late 1950s, he began collaborating with Tatsumi Hijikata, and the two conjured, as if from dark dreams, the dance form called butoh. (José Saramago: “Don’t be afraid, the darkness you’re in is no greater than the darkness inside your own body; they are two darknesses separated by a skin.”)
Ohno’s version of butoh tended toward the light, and the amniotic. His performances were reveries rather than nightmares, usually performed alone or with his son Yoshito, often inspired by a woman: either his mother, or the flamenco dancer La Argentina, whom Ohno saw perform in his youth. In “Water Lilies”—which drifted on the tide of Monet’s painting series completed while his sight failed—he danced in Victorian women’s clothes to fête senescence and its new creative visions.
The last time I saw him dance, in the early aughts, he was confined to a wheelchair. It didn’t change much. His inner world was always more important than his body. Like the Milky Way, it was something he floated within and without, a bright firmament he could see—we could see—but also be held by. In Japanese, the Milky Way is called the ama no gawa (“river of heaven”). Aching forward with crippled fingers, Ohno raced on its current.
Thinking about these three artists, who used their second acts for relentless self-invention, sets my own creativity on fire. Their Greek chorus kindles my courage during my middle age. (José Saramago: “Forgive me if what has seemed little to you, to me is all.”)