Herman Scherman

4 12 2009

A ballet by William Forsythe

Also of interest, the interview: Did William Forsythe Invent The Modern Ballerina?



2 responses

14 12 2009

Forsythe’s aesthetic when choreographing ballet, combined with Ms. Guillem’s nudity (thanks to the sheer top) reminded me of the recent University of Montreal study on men and pornography. As covered in the popular media, the most interesting finding of this study was that the researchers could not find any men who had not been exposed to pornography. It is interesting to consider what this means: the female body, used as the ideal of beauty by many generations of ballet choreographers – most notably in the harmonious position of attitude, with its allusions to the golden mean – is now most commonly seen in a sexualized manner.

Since the late 18th century and the emergence of the ballerina, the opportunity to see women’s bodies has been a lure for parts of the ballet audience: men lusting over Taglioni’s ankles, the famous “pick out your mistress” climate of the mid-century Paris Opera Ballet’s corps de ballet, the talk of knees and shoulders and bosoms that one can find in late 19th century reviews of ballet in Imperial Russia. Yet even though this served as an enticement for a certain group of men to devoutly turn up at the theatre, it was never questioned that these women were embodying beauty, Terpsichore herself, Woman. A ballerina was a woman representing to the audience the ideal Woman, whose beauty inspired procreative activity in men. (There’s always, in classical ballet, with the attention to form, dignity, manners etc, stylistically a bit of harkening back to the harmony of the Garden of Eden.)

But now we see the female body profoundly differently – Woman’s function is still procreative, but it is sexual, and not derived by virtue of her as the standard bearer of beauty. Choreographers seem to have come up with three solutions: render the female body androgynous (the Mark Morris route), make it exceptional only by virtue of extreme flexibility (Forsythe and post-Forsythian works), or make the ballerina blatantly sexual and have her depict sex acts on the stage (Eifman and one of his favorite designs: have his principal female dancer show her crotch to the audience and then grab her male partner’s head and thrust it between her legs).

I don’t think most choreographers realize the assumptions about the female body and it’s “usefulness” that they are making when they choreograph yet another pretzel-twist pas de deux, but I am amused at a few who pat themselves on the back for having taken ballerinas off their pedestals and showing them ‘as human beings, not goddesses.’ Forsythe-inspired works are actually dehumanizations of female dancers, valuing them only on the scales of athleticism and flexilibility. They are beautiful only at extremes, and even there most of the positions are not beautiful (nor are they meant to be). Nor do they seem to care that they have profoundly cut off the expressive range of female artists. By releasing ballerinas from the “burden” of beauty, we have freed them to be…extremely limber automatons? Or in a number of MacMillan and Eifman ballets…a blatant sex object?

And indeed Balanchine invented the modern ballerina, with Felia Doubrovska as the first.

4 12 2009
Arturo Vasquez

I think Forsythe (an when I say that, I mean the early Forsythe, like from the 1980’s) has an interesting aesthetic; it is deconstructed, but often elegantly. It has been pointed out that the over-athleticism of the Forsythe ballerina makes the whole experience sort of like watching a rhythmic gymnastics routine. My own impressions are similar to my impressions of recent works of art in general: while some might be clever, and even pleasing to the eye or ear, they are by no means perrenial. Will people be looking at a Rothko or a Pollock painting a hundred years from now the way we do? Not even a generation has passed, and already the works of such promising figures as Twyla Tharp and Maurice Bejart already seem dated, like a narcissistic generation gawking at itself.

We may know for sure that some things from the last fifty to seventy years will survive in some form. I think Balanchine ballets, even works like Agon and the Four Tempraments, are perennial, and they will be known a hundred years from now. Mark Morris, not so much. Hopefully, people then will still read Gabriela Mistral, and listen to Shostakovitch, Berg, or Philip Glass. But we live in an age that is allergic to the perennial, and cares only to stare at itself. So the works that will last are probably going to be propotionally fewer than say, the golden age of ballet or “classical music”. I am afraid the ballet presented above is amongst one of these soon to be “lost works”.

In the end, no matter what your philosophy is, any artist has to be a Platonist, or his art is crap.

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