Yesterday, in the New York Times, our new chief dance critic there Alastair Macaulay wrote an article about New York City Ballet’s new season, which officially kicked off on Tuesday. Because this Monday marks the 24th Anniversary of George Balanchine’s death, it is only fitting, he noted, that NYCB open with a week’s worth of Balanchine ballets, created between 1928 and 1975. The first night’s rep included a ballet that is obviously a favorite of Macaulay’s, “The Four Temperaments,” created in 1946. He says of this ballet, “Balanchine’s pared-down conception of ballet became a brave-new-world breakthrough.” He goes on to talk specifically about the movement employed, wherein the transfer of body weight — from the standing leg to the lifted leg but before the lifted leg has reached the ground — was somewhat revolutionary, combining as it did a fundamentally jazzy American style with classical ballet, and thereby “offending the European sense of propriety.” He continues, suggesting that Balanchine’s power is lost on the company’s younger dancers, who can’t for some reason adequately convey the beauty and meaning of “the master.” He opens this thought with:
“When people who have come to Balanchine choreography in the last 20 years ask me what makes me miss New York City Ballet in his lifetime (though I caught only the tail end of that golden age), I find myself saying that the company’s dancing in those days blazed with a kind of energy that was positively disturbing: it shook you by the shoulders as if to say, “This matters.” “The Four Temperaments” is one of many Balanchine ballets so extraordinary in their architecture and its conception that many new dance-goers must surely feel that they still matter now; I can only say it mattered more.”
Though it’s not tremendously profound or long, the article has turned heads, especially in the ballet world, and for good reason: it takes a solid point of view and makes a serious statement about the art’s current “state” (Matt’s term!) that is not off the cuff but based in knowledge and passion, and perhaps unwittingly, opens debate.
I have to say, of all the times I’ve gone to NYCB, I’ve never been able to understand Balanchine’s genius. I go to NYCB to see the Jermone Robbins pieces, the Peter Martins, those by new choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the company’s Diamond Project series, in which they showcase new ballets by contemporary choreographers. I, as I think most of the public, know Balanchine as the man who starved his ballerinas into his ideal of feminine perfection, most notably Maria Tallchief, while insisting that he was exalting womanhood. “Ballet is woman,” he proclaimed. I’m sorry, but for a socially concious woman today, that behavior, and the resultant image as well, border on the repulsive: indeed, his ballets are filled mostly with emaciated-looking, very frail, very thin young women fluttering about the stage almost angelically, as if they’re not of this world, and very few men.
If you examine what today’s audiences watch, and want to see in dance, this image of woman doesn’t resonate. As I blogged about in my last post, all of the female contestants on Dancing With the Stars — and if you care about ballet’s future you must care about that show because like it or not that is the pulse of dance in this country right now — have been booted — all of the uber thin supermodels, beauty queens and TV celebrities, that is. Leaving as the sole woman Laila Ali, the boxer, and former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali’s daughter. I believe a large part of the reason many go to see a dance performance is for the sensual experience, and I believe the concept of what is sexy and sensual in both men and women has changed drastically over the years, and this change is partly responsible for many young people today not “getting” ballet. Sexy today is — well, first of all, to at least half of dance-goers sexy is man, not woman 🙂 And regarding women, sexy is strong, unexpected (Ali lifts men after all!), grounded and earthly, and muscular, not frail, not ethereal, not succumbing to men’s standards and expectations.
When I attended The Nothing Festival last weekend and this week at Dance Theater Workshop (which I will definitely blog about later this weekend), post-modern choreographer Walter Dundervill bemoaned that there are no contemporary dance writers like Arlene Croce, the former critic for The New Yorker, sending me straight to the bookstore to check out her work. So far, I’ve just skimmed through, but I am overwhelmed at her uncanny ability to pinpoint a thought so clearly and thoroughly yet succinctly. Here is what she had to say about American Ballet Theater in a January 1975 review of their opening night gala:
“Back to the Forties
If the number of fine ballets that American Ballet Theater had to show for its thirty-five years of existence equaled the number of fine dancers it currently has under contract, its anniversary gala, on January 11, would have been a night to remember. But numerically and stylistically the equation is unbalanced. The handful of illustrious ballets that made the company’s name can’t support dancers like Baryshnikov and Kirkland and Makarova and Nagy and Gregory and Bujones, and even if it could, it’s patently impossible to build a gala retrospective around “Fancy Free” and “Pillar of Fire” and “Romeo and Juliet” and “Three Virgins and a Devil,” all but the last created between 1941 and 1944. The creativity of that first decade had no sequel in the fifties, the sixties, the seventies. When you are seeing Ballet Theater choreography at its best, you are almost always seeing a picture of the forties. The dancers of the seventies don’t fit into that picture. The ballets are still interesting and they’re a challenge to perform, but their aesthetic is dead. Often the sentiment is dead, too. Audiences can’t get excited about them in the old way because the life of the period that produced them has receded and they’re insulated from the way we think and move today. When they are presented as they were at the gala … it’s hard not to see their position in a contemporary repertory as an extended irrelevance…” (WRITING IN THE DARK, DANCING IN THE NEW YORKER, pgs 86-87).
First, I find it rather funny that these are exactly the same ballets that ABT is putting on today, thirty-two years after she wrote this. And it’s true that “Fancy Free,” while a cute and fun ballet for its time, is largely lost on contemporary audiences. I recently took friends to see ABT and this was on the rep. They mostly thought it was mildly cute and engaging, but mainly silly and somewhat sexist. I said, well yeah, it was created in the 40s, but I mean, what about Marcelo — isn’t he so great with his hip-swaying “Rhumba”, didn’t you love Craig‘s splitting jumps off of the bar!?” They laughed — they didn’t know the dancers like I did but thought it was cute that I attached to them so. I think Robbins, Balanchine and all of that great choreography of yore is lost on today’s audience, and not because today’s audiences are stupid philistines, but because, to use Croce’s words, these ballets’ “aesthetic is dead. Often the sentiment is dead too. Audiences can’t get excited about them in the old way because the life of the period that produced them has receded and they’re insulated from the way we think and move today.”
I think Macaulay’s pointing out the revolutionary quality of Balanchine’s work is tremendously important if younger audiences are going to understand and value his work. But that still doesn’t mean they’re going to be moved by him. American Jazz is a hundred years old now; seeing it combined with ballet doesn’t do much to the average dance goer; it certainly doesn’t, as Macaulay hopes, “make many new dance-goers … surely feel that [his ballets] still matter now.”
Hip hop, ballroom, and other social and ethnic forms of dance are the most living, breathing dance styles right now because they mean something to viewers. Hip hop emanates from ghetto life and much of the moves are a kind of recognizable street vocabulary of movement, ballroom is about two people working together and connecting with one another — which everyone can relate to (I don’t think Dancing With the Stars would be popular if it showcased solitary dancing), and a lot of social dance today in the U.S. comes out of Latin American and African countries — they’re fun and rhythmic and contain cultural lessons of strong interest in today’s global world. I feel that contemporary ballet choreographers need to merge these forms of dance with ballet to create something new, original, and beautiful whose meaning and movement resonates with contemporary audiences, the way that Balanchine and Robbins did nearly a century ago. I also think there need to be more writers like Macaulay to point out the historical import of the former greats, and he seems, at least thus far, like a positive return to the Croce style of writing. But, while everyone needs to read a classic once in a while as an historical lesson and an example of true literary genius, if there weren’t contemporary novelists pushing the art form further, the novel would have died long ago. Obviously, Balanchine and Robbins should be kept in the rep of the big companies, but they can’t be the main focus if this art form is to be kept alive as well.