One of ballet’s Old Believers

17 02 2011

My wife is now reading the book being reviewed here . I agree with the reviewer on some issues, and will have to return more in depth to some of these ideas once I actually read the book. Here is the final part of the review:

Homans’s vehemence in upholding the values of elegance and proportion is heartening, a testament to the coherence and harmoniousness of ballet’s basic principles and codes. And inevitably, I too am captive to my own prejudices and experiences. Having come to ballet as an adult, in the post-Balanchine era, I find that my perspective is necessarily different from Homans’s. Her credo finds its strongest expression in the final chapter of Apollo’s Angels, a provocative essay with the lugubrious title “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” Homans postulates that ballet is dying and perhaps beyond life support, complaining about the “dull, flat-screen look of today’s dances and dancers,” “artistically moribund” revivals, “dispiriting” performances that are “dull and lack vitality,” and an “inaccessible avant-garde.” Even ballet’s angels, it seems, are falling from the sky.

But ballet is always dying. Like all dance, it exists purely in time and leaves no record, and is an art of the external present. Unlike music, it does not have a consistent written language; video can capture only its shadow because it lacks the third dimension, where dancing lives. So we are left with the present. As Balanchine said, “There is only now.” In this light Homans’s discouragement feels like fatigue, her disappointment like complacency. She may tire of seeing yet another production of Giselle or Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, but what about the person who is seeing these ballets for the first time, who stumbles out of the theater in a daze, in tears of disbelief at what he has just witnessed? Is this not worth preserving, worth fighting for? As Homans wrote several years ago, in a different mood, “Who are we to hold old memories so tightly? Perhaps it is time to stop mourning and move on.”

I agree and disagree. One of my most recent themes here is that there is no “tradition” properly considered. Even our idea of ballet, of a woman in pointe shoes floating across the stage, is a radical transformation from the original court dancing of Louis XIV. As the reviewer also points out, Balanchine was also a great innovator. While I respect greatly Balanchine as the greatest choreographer of the 20th century at least, to say that there is no ballet history after him is a bit of an exaggeration. Not much of an exaggeration to be sure, but to say that an artform that has changed so much is coming to an end may be the real exaggeration. Really, how old are even the ballets of Petipa and Bournonville compared to the grand scheme of Western art? Not even as old as Beethoven. Don’t count ballet out yet.

But there are some factors that even the reviewer does not take into consideration that are also working against ballet’s future. It is truly an aristocratic art, and thus needs an aristocratic scale to be properly executed. Many have said that the young dancers today, in spite of being faster or being able to jump higher, and so on, have little musicality, little ability to carry themselves in the ethos of the ballets, etc. Really, this is a problem with many arts, including such things as traditional liturgy (not that liturgy really matters in the grand scheme of things). We live in a different world of blogging, tweeting, video games, and gadgets doing all sorts of things that fit in our pockets. What can a pas de deux really teach us? As the years go by, the things of the past begin to make less and less sense. Perhaps future generations will take up the mantle and carry on the arts of an autocratic past, but if there are other things that are seen as being more worth the while, one should not hold one’s breath waiting for a renaissance.