On integration in the arts

12 05 2010

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Today, premieres at the big ballet companies come dressed in the hippest costumes on the hottest bodies. They boast an haute frame of reference and wear the zeitgeist like a thong. Some of these premieres push the right buttons and generate enough enthusiasm to radiate success, while others push the wrong buttons and disappear after a season or two. No matter what the buttons, there’s not much difference between good and bad. Your average state-of-the-art premiere is so derivative of Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins that it feels secondhand (even when the ballets actually are by Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins, they feel secondhand). Or it tends to trade in age-old clichés.

-Laura Jacobs, in an essay in the New Criterion

Ms. 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 impoverished the ethos of contemporary ballet. Ms. Jacob’s assessment, however, is fairer, going to some lengths to debunk the prejudices that some have concerning Balanchine’s “abstract” approach. For example, his “abstract” ballets are not all that abstract: they are rich in imagery and emotion, and still require thinking and interpretation on the part of the dancer. Balanchine may have very well had stories in mind when he choreographed his “plotless” ballets. Perhaps he simply chose not to share them.

In reading Bernard Taper’s biography of the greatest ballet mind of last century, one sees another major aspect of Balanchine’s work that Jacobs also seeks to highlight: the influence of Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. In his “apprenticeship” with the great impresario, the gifted young artist was sent by Diaghilev to study the great works of Western culture in Italy and France: everything from architecture and painting to music and drama. In other words, a better reading of Balanchine’s stark classicism is that it is a distillation of all of the tendencies of Western art into their purest forms. For those who do not have the same discipline and formation as Balanchine, such cultural nuances are completely lost on them.

(One footnote that I like to make concerning Balanchine as an Orthodox believer was that he most certainly did not see himself as standing outside the culture of the West, but very much a part of it. Orthodoxy is never explicitly referenced in his ballets, but he does choreograph Mozart’s Ave Verum in his late work, Mozartiana.)

Thus one can conclude that the problem with artists and intellectuals today is that they have no reference to anything except their own subjective experience of art and ideas. In that line of thinking, every piece of art or every act of culture is ephemeral since the transcendent simply does not exist. Thus, art, study, and conversation go nowhere. There is nothing left but empty spectacle, technical skill, and a solipsistic personalism that seeks nothing more but its own gratification. One could contend that the West needs to find religion again to get out of this rut, but religion itself is also stuck in the mire of rampant personalism. Part of me thinks that we simply need to start small, and start anew.