Bonsais and Ballerinas

By Qin Sun Stubis

When 2012 comes, some of the luckier old men and women in Asia will be very pleased to receive a special evergreen plant as a New Year’s gift. This plant is called a “Bonsai.” It symbolizes elegance and longevity.

To the untrained eye, Bonsais are nothing but small potted plants. You might even think you could make one yourself since the basic materials are nothing more than a shallow pottery tray, a young tree, and some soil. So what makes them so special?

Long known in the Far East for their grace and beauty, Bonsais are living “sculptures” that require years, sometimes decades, of loving care and hard work. Their branches are carefully straightened, twisted or sculpted, their roots trimmed to absorb only a certain amount of water so the plants stay small, and their leaves are aesthetically layered according to a master plan engineered by a horticultural designer. Many Bonsais enjoy long lives and it’s difficult to know how old a Bonsai is by looking at one since 150 years’ worth of growth sometimes yields a “tree” only a foot or two high. It is no surprise that the Bonsai is synonymous with long life in many Asian countries.

Specially engineered from the tips of their leaves to the ends of their roots, Bonsais are probably the most artistic– and artificial–plants on earth. Growing up in China, I learned to appreciate Bonsais. I learned to appreciate their unnatural beauty just as sophisticated Europeans have learned to appreciate the beautiful, yet unnatural, positions of ballerinas. Both have stretched art and artifice to an improbable limit.

Like a Bonsai, a ballerina also obtains her grace and beauty through years of rigorous hard work. She makes impossibly unnatural steps look easy, and is able to bend herself into positions that in normal life might look odd.

When my daughter, Halley Stubis, wanted to learn to dance at the tender age of four, I signed her up for introductory classes to tap, jazz and ballet. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with ballet. She’s been taking classes for eight years now and is determined to work hard to perfect her skills. When we moved to Bethesda, Maryland earlier this year, one of my biggest challenges was to find her a great ballet school. We were lucky, for soon I found the Washington School of Ballet, which was only five miles from our home.

Renowned for its classical training, the Washington School of Ballet has been nurturing young dancers like Halley for more than six decades now. Halley is currently under the guidance of three terrifically talented teachers: Lilla Seber, Kristina Windom and Bahareh Sardari. They continue to shape and stretch her young body every day, allowing her to move and position herself in ways that most of us could never dream of doing.

A Bonsai and a ballerina may be far apart in many obvious ways: One originated in Asia and the other in Europe, and one is a plant and the other a human. But, being a ballerina’s mom and an Asian, I cannot help but see the Bonsai branches and leaves as the graceful arms and hands of a ballerina, and the roots as the dancing feet on a different stage. I admire both for their discipline and determination to achieve visual grace. To me, a Bonsai and ballerina are not that different, they are a perfect pair united by art.

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