Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Ugly Duckling

Despite fancy printing presses, digital media and the internet, story-telling is fundamentally an oral tradition.  It’s the way people connect.

Story-telling is also generational.  For as you get older you fondly remember the stories grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles used to tell you… whenever possible passing them on to the next generation of little ones. 

Generally speaking my sister, Rebecca, and her partner Michelle, let me take care of their children’s musical theatre education (they don’t do musicals, unless I’m in them).  So I had to introduce little Harry and Frankie Jean to The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins.  They were easy converts, quickly singing the songs and dancing with me around the lounge-room.  FJ likes me to sing-along with Somewhere over the rainbow, but Harry says “be quiet please Aunty Julie, I can’t hear the girl”.   Everybody’s a critic.  But I let him get away with it – it is Judy after all. 

There must be something special about Danny Kaye though, for Rebecca has often sung classics like Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling to her kids - having heard them from our Dad at not infrequent intervals - and in my experience there isn’t a child alive who doesn’t lap up such stories.  Hans Christian Anderson was a national Danish treasure and a genius children’s author, so if you haven’t read the full text of The Ugly Duckling, before the story was turned into song in Hollywood, then google it now or, better still, buy the book.  You’ll love it. 

The reason this comes back to me is because yesterday the BBC presented The Ugly Duckling in their slot with Mr Bloom on CBeebies.  Designed with Northern Ballet with the intention of engaging children’s interest in story-telling through dance, I thought it a highly successful and valuable venture. Imaginative without being complicated, polished without losing innocence, simple, organic, attractive and engaging, it ticked all an audience’s boxes (child or adult) while contributing to the arts in a legitimate way.  Well done BBC.

As a bonus it left me pondering (on the train as I made my way back from Shropshire to London) the essence of The Ugly Duckling journey we all make.

What are we, really?  Who are we, really?  And where, or with whom, is our niche?  

It is far from just a children’s story.  For we must all forge through the winters when the answers are not clear… when we’re in transition… or waiting for some project or goal to blossom.  We all ask, in our own way, what the Northern Ballet suggested… am I a duck?  Am I a frog?  Am I a cat?  Am I a fox?  We are all at risk when the fox manipulates our confusion or takes advantage of our vulnerability.  And seasons pass, as they did so beautifully in this little ballet, with Autumn leaves falling… before we journey to a place where we find the answers we’re looking for… where we get a fuller sense of the person (or professional) we are best equipped to be… where we find new support, new and satisfying roles to play… where our changing needs are assessed, met and (hopefully) comforted.  So the sigh of pleasure we share as The Ugly Duckling turns up in the final scene in a glowing white tutu and delicate wings, to be welcomed by the Queen of Swans into a new world with friendship and security, is actually a primal and ageless sigh of satisfaction.  Children express it the loudest, with unadulterated freedom and joy, for it’s the happy ending they are geared to expect.  That’s one of the reasons we adore children – for their safe and enthusiastic expectation of a happy ending.  It’s what we should, actually, remember to cherish in them and foster in ourselves. 

For wouldn’t everything be so much better if we trusted, like children, that after waddling and quacking and enduring “winter in his lonely clump of weed” that the rescue party would arrive?  Wouldn’t it be better if we trusted after passing through a crucible, or emerging from a chrysalis, that we’d all be butterflies? 

It would certainly be good if, on days like today, when I’m struggling to get off the starting blocks because I’ve returned from the pretty countryside to find, for not the first time, I have no hot water or heating in my expensive London apartment… if I trusted after some hours (please God, not days) in this frigging freezing flat… (there are those f's again)... that there will be a reliable HAPPY ENDING?!

With that thought, I am going to stop grumbling and swearing under my breath, I am going to stop waiting for the plumber and feeling frozen, and I am going to hum the following tune and go around the corner to a warm café and order a huge brunch.  And by the time I’m finished, maybe, just maybe my happy ending to today’s challenge will be a little closer…

I’m not such an ugly duckling
No feathers all stubby and brown
For in fact these birds in so many words said
Xchk’ the best in town,
‘Xchk’ the best,
‘Xchk Xchk’ the best
Xchk Xchk’ the best in town.
Not a quack, not a quack, not a waddle or a quack
But a glide and a whistle and a snowy white back
And a head so noble and high
Say who’s an ugly duckling?
Not I!
Not I!