La Danse…c’est une question morale

12 05 2009


AG pointed out to me Sarah Kaufman’s article for the Washington Times criticizing the hegemony of George Balanchine’s aesthetic in modern ballet. While Kaufman does not have too many negative things to say about Balanchine’s choreography (other than the initial criticism of decades ago that his ballets are “too abstract”), she basically posits that the dominance of the Russian émigré is too much of a good thing. At least in this country, many of the ballet companies are run by former Balanchine dancers who were at the New York City Ballet. While they tend to do many Balanchine works, AG also pointed out that Balanchine is nowhere nearly as ubiquitous as Kaufman portrays.

The real bête noire that Kaufman tries to slay is the idea of the abstract ballet itself. For those unfamiliar with the history of ballet in the twentieth century, Balanchine was the three-ton elephant in the room of a neoclassical school of ballet where what was important was shape and movement and not plot and mime (as in the Petipa classics like Swan Lake and the Nutcracker). Though Balanchine did create many ballets that have plots and story lines (Don Quixote, Prodigal Son, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), when the ballet connoisseur thinks of the Balanchine ballet, he is more likely to think of the more abstract works like Agon (pictured above), the Four Temperaments, or Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. In these works, there are no real costumes to speak of, no elaborate stages, and no plot. There are merely bodies moving through space in an idealized reflection of what is happening in the music itself. Having choreographed over 400 works in his lifetime, these works are not nearly as prominent in Balanchine’s oeuvre as Kaufman portrays, but they are some of the most enduring. For her, servile and bad imitations of Balanchine are what is responsible for the current creative funk in the American ballet medium.

There were other voices in 20th century ballet that for Kaufman have been silenced by the victory of Balanchine’s abstract aestheticism. She notes two British-born choreographers in particular: Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor. While their ballets are making a modest comeback, Kaufman rightly observes that most dancers are no longer capable of performing them because most cannot act. Such ballets, as well as the classics of 19th century Russia, require dancers who also know how to represent emotion and thoughts through mime, gesture, facial expression, etc. Balanchine often judged these things unimportant, though he had learned them at the Imperial ballet school in St. Petersburg as a boy. His dancers would be tall, athletic, flexible, and let the steps tell the story, if only a story in the unclassical sense. The psychological dramas of Ashton and Tudor wanted to probe the depths of mid-twentieth century angst, and for us now they seem a bit dated. Also dated is the work of the recently deceased superstar of European ballet, Maurice Bejart. He actually once choreographed the entire Ninth Symphony of Beethoven in a sports arena, and created many ballets that addressed the social concerns of the latter half of last century. One would think that such audacity would be appealing to modern people, but few of his works are performed anymore.

Kaufman sees the loss of such narrative maximalism as something profoundly detrimental to the ballet art in general. Now the dominant aesthetic is represented in the over-athleticism of William Forsythe or the irreverent ecclecticism of Twyla Tharp. It is a style that lacks elegance, grace, and any real connection between the dance, the music, and beauty in general. I, however, would contend that this is not Balanchine’s fault. AG basically said that the main criticism of this article is that Kaufman is complaining that ballet choreographers are making works that she doesn’t like. Well, that is a good criticism, but it is too simplistic. Modern people seem to be suffering from a general lack of imagination. If people are merely caught between adolescent rebellion and servile imitation in their creative paradigms, the fault does not lie in the geniuses, like Balanchine, who are their predecessors. The fault lies in the compartmentalization of art in the context of modern life. Art is considered an add-on, an expression of personal neuroses, rather than a transcendent transformation of everyday things into Ideal Beauty.

Balanchine had this other view of art. Indeed, many former Balanchine dancers felt as if “Mr. B.” served more as a religious guru or high priest than as the tortured artist of modern lore. He once said that “La Danse…c’est une question morale” (Dance is a moral question). What is lacking in art is the question of the transcendent. We no longer gaze at things as veils that lightly cover the otherworldliness that is all around us. Art, like religion, is the revelation of that other world, and it is no wonder that modern religiosity is often accompanied by a total lack of concern for aesthetic principles. Between the barren architecture of modern churches to the banal lyrics of the “Christian pop” song, modern religiosity is manifested as an expression of ideology, moralism, and individual tastes and neuroses. In contrast to all of this, Balanchine was a believer in something higher than himself. He was a Platonist who used pointe shoes instead of words to paint for us the etheral world of Eternal Ideas.

Indeed, when I hear modern Christians gripe about the abysmal state of modern art, or criticize a composer like Stravinsky, a painter like Rothko, or a poet like Sylvia Plath, I am always tempted to challenge them saying: “well, where are your authors, composers, poets, etc.?” Most serious attempts at art by modern Christians are either laughable imitations or puerile drivel weighed down by ideology. Until people can finally find the freedom of being enslaved to Beauty, I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon.



5 responses

29 07 2014

Most serious attempts at art by modern Christians are either laughable imitations or puerile drivel weighed down by ideology.

There is an awful lot of that, I agree, but you seem to be conflating modern Christianity with fundamentalism. Google “Image: Art, Faith, Mystery” if you’d like to find actual Christian artists.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

12 05 2010
On integration in the arts « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] Jacob’s essay had parallel concerns with that of another essay of Sarah Kaufman that I wrote about a year ago. The general complaint of these two critics is that Balanchine’s predominance and style have […]

5 06 2009
La fille mal gardée « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] to AG how I felt that this is the type of ballet you would bring children to. I also commented that as I posted earlier, the narrative skill and cleverness of this type of theatre are difficult to find these days not […]

14 05 2009

“In these works, there are no real costumes to speak of, no elaborate stages, and no plot. There are merely bodies moving through space in an idealized reflection of what is happening in the music itself.”

I would hesitate to say that there’s no “plot” in works like “Agon,” “The Four Temperaments,” and other ‘abstract’ Balanchine works. There’s no straightforward narrative, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a story, particularly in the pas de deux – especially in “Agon” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto”. As Balanchine said, “you have a man and woman on stage, he offers his hand, the girl embraces him, how much story do you want?” Even critics have suggested that Balanchine probably had strong narrative ideas in mind in his ‘abstract’ works – he just didn’t explicitly tell others what they were. This is one of the points where Kaufman’s criticisms make the least sense: the so-called “black-and-white” Balanchine ballets can be interpreted to be about people in some type of otherworldly community, and that’s ignoring the number of neo-romantic works he choreographed. Balanchine’s work is far less mechanistic than Forsythe and his post-modern copiers.

“For her, servile and bad imitations of Balanchine are what is responsible for the current creative funk in the American ballet medium.”

As stated above, I don’t think young choreographers in America are copying the Balanchine aesthetic (that criticism could have been valid in the ‘80s, but not anymore), but more post-modern aesthetics with heavy athleticism thrown in. And I don’t think they are getting the emphasis on athleticism from Balanchine, as the former is a feature of American culture. In a country with very little exposure to the theatrical arts compared to sports, quantitative measures – faster, higher, stronger – appeal the most. When I attended a performance at the Joffrey Ballet at Zellerbach in Berkeley, it was not Tharp’s groundbreaking “Deuce Coupe” or Robert Joffrey’s wonderful classical take-off on “Pas De Quartre” that drew the most applause. That happened instead when the dancers, one after another, launched into scissor kicks to Prince’s “Baby I’m a Star.”

Many young American dancers-in-training are getting their dance education outside the studio on a computer screen via youtube. In a format like that, of course all the kids think about is how high her leg is, or how fast he does those turns, or how high he jumps, or how many fouettes she did. (When I was living there, the Chicago PBS station only showed dance programs at 1 am Wednesday morning and 3 pm Sunday afternoon.) If Balanchine once famously implied, “Let’s not pretend that Americans have a theatrical tradition,” the situation is actually far worse today than in the early ‘30s when he said it. Indeed, young dancers will walk out of the studio in pajama bottoms and flip-flops, and that’s not conducive to the self-presentation necessary in classical dance.

As for narrative works, that’s not a part of our current culture (including the theatre outside of dance) either. We’re all about compartmentalized facts, not richly layered stories that draw upon human elements. That affects the ability of dancers to dance works that do emphasize those aspects, and choreographers’ willingness to incorporate those elements. It’s quite telling that ABT’s new resident choreographer, the Russian-born Ratmansky, is choreographing his first major work, “On the Dneiper,” for that company as a narrative ballet where only one of the four leads is an American-born dancer. In an art form like ballet that possibly relies on collaboration more than any other, you can’t create from materials that the dancers do not provide.

Another aspect in the dominance of “abstract” new ballets is quite simply money: it’s cheaper to make ballets with minimal sets and costumes. When ABT’s director says they cannot reconstruct Tudor’s “Romeo and Juliet” because it would cost anywhere from $2-4 million, well, that’s that unless a benefactor comes along.

I also don’t see the number of former NYCB dancers in charge of companies in America as a source of the problem. Those former dancers are chosen by boards because they have the most dance credentials (especially so since ABT began in the 70s to neglect the development of American dancers who would have been outside the orbit of the Balanchine galaxy), and all but a handful of them who have the biggest companies have also danced in European companies. In an era where dance is not particularly viable, of course money is going to go to those former dancers who have the most credentials to make them seem like a “sure-bet.” And as a quick review of the company schedules reveals, only two of those, Suzanne Farrell (SFBallet) and Edward Villella (Miami City Ballet), program nearly exclusively Balanchine works. Additionally, having lived in or near 3 of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. in the past ten years, the number of times I had an opportunity to see Balanchine ballets on a program was less than 10. That’s hardly ubiquitous.

That’s why I maintain that Kaufman’s criticisms in this article boil down to her own personal taste. “I wish companies brought fewer Balanchine ballets to D.C. and danced more of the ballets that I like” would have been a more accurate title. To really discuss the shape of American ballet, one has to get into both financial and cultural considerations, and it seems that she just took the easiest path of “it’s all Balanchine’s fault!” instead of getting into those larger issues, some of which A.V. touches on at the end of his post.

12 05 2009
Christopher Orr

My wife and her ballet company in NYC ( have been fighting an uphill battle on just this point for 10 years: how to create new ballet works and companies and styles when NYC Ballet and its alumni are so dominant? All the money goes to them, they control all the venues, they dominate the forums for new choreographers, etc.

Of course, part of the problem is that it is viewed as an old form, a form that is totally identified with the conventions of a particular time; it is not generally viewed as a contemporary form, but as a part of our cultural history fossilized in that time. Opera is similar. Sure, there are modern operas being produced, but ‘real opera’ is seen as something old. Theatre would likely be in a similar boat were it not for the ubiquitous rise of electronic media such as TV and film that often translate plays to the screen – and more recently, the other way (e.g., all of Disney’s stage versions of their cartoons and movies). Still, most ‘serious’ theatre is either little known new plays or old classics (i.e., historic rather than contemporary, modern ‘culture’).

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