On Style

21 05 2008

Above: Allegra Kent and Edward Villella in George Balanchine’s Bugaku

 It is only a personal truth, but I believe that a dancer who tries to analyze the music, to interpret every note physically, to accentuate the obvious climaxes, will bypass what music is really about. It is a definition of time, and that can only be spontaneous. Moving with music is not an intellectual feat; it is an emotional, physical, sensual response to a specific moment in time…

One of Balanchine’s most important innovations in dance was to declare- and insist- that music be the first priority of the dancer… In Balanchine’s world, the dancers were in service to him, but everyone, including him, was in service to the music.

-Suzanne Farrell, former Balanchine ballerina, in her autobiography, Holding on to the Air

These lines best capture George Balanchine’s aesthetic as a choreographer: one in which inspiration was more of a service to a higher force rather than an expression of what comes (supposedly) from the depths of one’s psyche. While Balanchine also choreographed ballets with plots and clear story lines (Prodigal Son, Apollo, Don Quixote, as well as staging the classic ballets such as the Nutcracker), he is perhaps best known for his plotless ballets, some of which have the title of the piece of music to which they are danced(The Four Temperaments, Agon, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, etc.). Part of Balanchine’s emphasis on music and dance rather than expression and plotlines came from a pragmatic sense that American dancers would not be nearly as proficient in the “acting” elements of classical ballet as their European counterparts. But another reason for his “revolution” is that which is discernible as well in the music of Balanchine’s favorite collaborator, Igor Stravinsky: a stripping away of archaic romanticism in order to reveal the pristine simplicity of pure form.

AG cites Edwin Denby on her own blog saying that Balanchine’s choreography,

is an attention turned outside rather than inside. It is turned not to sentiment and charm, but to perspicuity and action. It suggests a reality that is not personal, that outlives the dancer and the public, like a kind of faith. The company is not trying for an emotional suggestion; it seems to be trying for that much harder thing, a simple statement.

She further cites dance critic Arlene Croce saying:

For some people, the idea that poetry can pour from the bodies of hardworking American girls…is hard to believe, and occasionally, as we watch one of these girls moving with brilliant clarity, the thought “She doesn’t know what she’s doing” occurs to us. If she did, though, would she do it better? The question has never been answered. It isn’t mindlessness but the state beyond mind that moves us in perfect dancing. It’s what moves the dancer, too.

Balanchine perhaps never read a philosophy book in his life, but his dancing for me has always invoked the longing for the abolute transcendent that is the mark of the Platonic school. Balanchine’s ballets never try to emotionally “yank you around” into a state of false catharsis as does much of romanticist ballet or the operas of Richard Wagner, to name a few examples. That is because what is invoked is beyond human control or expression. The beauty that emerges is other-worldly, incomprehensible, and utterly wonderful. It cannot be conjured up by dramatic tricks or stage effects but by humble service to that which is higher and etherial; in this case the music. Balanchine was as good of a musician as he was a dancer, and he was a musical choreographer par excellence.

Like his friend Stravinsky, his genius resided in his humble submission to the Muses and the denigration of his own role in the creative process. As AG has pointed out on her blog, Balanchine frequently said that only God creates, man can only assemble. It is that attitude of a craftsman, of a steward of God’s gift of beauty, that can make art pure, everlasting. and divine.


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