A Prima Ballerina

It’s just over a year since my Mam passed away after several years of struggle with dementia. It seems like a century since I flew back to Newcastle to attend her funeral, so much has happened in the world since then. I got through the sad anniversary reasonably well until this morning I came across this video, which had me in pieces. It’s of a lady by the name of Marta C Gonzalez, a former ballet dancer, who passed away last year; the film was made at her care home in Valencia. A care worker plays her music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake and briefly she is a prima ballerina once more; the film is intercut with footage of herself dancing on stage in New York in the 1960s. It’s unbearably moving, bringing together the awful tragedy of dementia with the power of music if not to heal but at least to provide some measure of respite. Even when almost all is gone, music seems to remain in the deepest part of our being alongside our most cherished memories which it can bring back to life, if only briefly, before the darkness comes.

9 Responses to “A Prima Ballerina”

  1. Thank you Peter. That’s one of the most moving things I’ve seen for a long long time.

  2. Peter, thank you so much for this post – I suspect my husband has this disease and I’ve found he immediately responds to classical music he loves, and also the pop songs from his youth – people must help by giving frequent access to those affected to help give them some quality of life.

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  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes. It took several weeks after my father’s death – and a particular piece of classical music – before I could weep about it.

  4. “Even when almost all is gone, music seems to remain in the deepest part of our being alongside our most cherished memories which it can bring back to life, if only briefly, before the darkness comes.”

    There are definitely some things which sit deeper in the brain than others. Musician Wolfgang Niedecken had a stroke and after regaining consciousness could not speak. Then, for a few days, he could speak only in his native Cologne dialect, but not in standard German (which he learned at about the age of 5), though it later came back and he has regained all faculties.

    There are some care homes which are set up to recall the time when the occupants were young—furniture, food, and so on—since many feel at home there while more-modern things have been forgotten.

    All of this is far from understood. There was a Czech racecar driver who, after an accident, spoke English fluently with no accent at all, even though he had spoken only broken English before. After a while, that ability went away and he was back to where he was before the accident.

    Oliver Sachs has stories about things such as someone getting struck by lightning then being able to play and compose music even though that hadn’t been something the person was occupied with before.

    Some people, often with autism, can remember each day of their lives: what the weather was like, what they wore, what they ate, whom they met. There is some evidence that everyone has these memories, but in most people they are filtered out and not consciously accessible, though they sometimes can be in the lab, recalling Wilder Penfield’s experiments of eliciting memories via electrical impulses to the brain.

  5. Dear Prof. Cole,

    The video also moved me to tears because my late mother also had a great fondness for Swan Lake and other ballet music by Tchaikovsky. At the age of sixteen in 1947, she was the very student in her school chosen for the lead role to perform as the Swan🦢Princess in a drama similar to Tchaikovsky’s Ballet “Swan Lake”, to be a part of the fete to fund the school. She later repeated the same performance at the high school attended by my late father, who was standing guard as a member of the St John ambulance team of the school, where he first laid eyes on her. Their marriage took place 14 years later, during which no other suitors were ever successful in courting my late mother and catching her heart.

    The following was played and recorded in real-time on an organ by me as a tribute to my late mmother.

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