The Sleeping Beauty

23 07 2010

An excerpt with Margot Fonteyn

Missing the point(e) of ballet

29 06 2010

Or: Art at the service of culture wars

Honestly, the best stuff to write about comes from the kooks. E. Michael Jones is one such kook. I listened to a substantial portion of a recent interview about the book seen above Of course, I know of the problems this Catholic critic has had in the past due to charges of anti-Semitism and so forth. But I still wanted to know what he thought about ballet.

Well, I can’t say that there was much ballet proper in his talk at least. E. Michael Jones does point out some interesting facts that few know about the Nutcracker and its popularity in the United States. For one thing, the Nutcracker‘s popularity in the U.S. is unique. The fact that it has become a rite of passage for suburban U.S. families is a phenomenon that was not even duplicated in pre-revolutionary Russia. For Jones, the popularity of the Nutcracker is due to a nostalgia for a more traditional and hierarchical time, hence the idea of performing the Nutcracker as a “counter-revolutionary act”.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but aesthetically speaking it is one that is grasping at straws. Conservative cultural critics in their polemics can often give more weight to social phenomena than is actually there. If we follow this line of argument, I suppose Disney films are also a traditionalist longing for a simpler time. Such a line of thinking begs a lot of questions. If family togetherness, the love of beauty, and a celebration of gender roles are counter-revolutionary acts, what are “revolutionary” acts in the white suburban context. Since my experience with white suburbia is farily limited to this point, I will leave that question for others to answer.

However, I still think that ballet makes a bad instrument for social propagandizing, at least from an aesthetic perspective. When the San Francisco Ballet first presented the Nutcracker in the United States many decades ago now, I don’t think that they had counter-revolutionary intentions. Indeed, the years that George Balanchine presented the first televised presentations of the ballet that arguably hammered it into the childhood psyche of the United States, Balanchine was also busy pushing the envelope of what ballet was, all the while jealously guarding classical form. For every score by Tchaikovsky and Bach that Balanchine choreographed dance to, there were several more scores by Schoenberg and Stravinsky that served as inspiration for his very classical ballets. E. Michael Jones’ purist sense of tradition might have been better appeased in observing the Bolshoi and other Soviet ballet companies. Interestingly enough, it was the communist ballet presenters who were far more reactionary than the ballet companies of the West.

Art is its most traditional when it is timeless. Reactionary art misses the point.

La oración de la rosa

23 06 2010

Padre nuestro que estás en la tierra; en la fuerte
y hermosa tierra;
en la tierra buena;

Santificado sea el nombre tuyo
que nadie sabe; que en ninguna forma
se atrevió a pronunciar este silencio
pequeño y delicado…, este
silencio que en el mundo
somos nosotras,
las rosas…

Venga también a nos, las pequeñitas
y dulces flores de la tierra,
el tu Reino prometido…,

Hágase en nos tu voluntad, aunque ella
sea que nuestra vida sólo dure
lo que dura una tarde…

El sol nuestro de cada día, dánoslo
para el único día nuestro…

Perdona nuestras deudas
-la de la espina,
la del perfume cada vez mas débil,
la de la miel que no alcanzó
para la sed de dos abejas…-,
así como nosotras perdonamos
a nuestros deudores los hombres,
que nos cortan, nos venden y nos llevan
a sus mentiras fúnebres,
a sus torpes o insulsas fiestas…

No nos dejes caer
nunca en la tentación de desear
la palabra vacía – ¡el cascabel
de las palabras!…-,
ni el moverse de pies
ni el corazón oscuro de
los animales que se pudre…
Mas líbranos de todo mal.

-Dulce Maria Loynaz

On integration in the arts

12 05 2010

image credit

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.

Verklärte Nacht

30 04 2010

Two faces of Maya Plisetskaya

5 02 2010

Dancing the Black Swan, a very classical role.

Dancing to Ravel’s Bolero. Choreography by Maurice Bejart.

Herman Scherman

4 12 2009

A ballet by William Forsythe

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

Dance of the Sun King

13 11 2009


2 10 2009

Pillar of Fire

1 07 2009

The opening of the ballet by Antony Tudor