Wednesday, November 17, 2010

(Mis)Understanding Ballet

The years I spent studying and reviewing ballet and modern dance have been ancient history for quite some time.  Nevertheless, I wonder if I am going to have to bite the bullet and read Jennifer Homans’ new book, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet.  I have now watched Homans take it on the chin from reviewers annoyed with her throwing down a gauntlet that allegedly proclaims the death of ballet.  For example, thanks to Alex Ross’ latest blog post, I came across the following paragraph, introducing a review by Claudia La Rocco for the Slate Magazine Web site:

Ballet is dying. Maybe already dead. Impossible, you say, I've got tickets to a show! Alas, dear reader, I've just learned the grim diagnosis in Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans' account of the classical tradition. Pack up your toe shoes, ballerinas. Shutter the theaters, artistic directors. "The occasional glimmer of a good performance or a fine dancer is not a ray of future hope but the last glow of a dying ember," Homans declares in her epilogue. "Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture."

I read this review in its entirety.  It struck me that La Rocco chose to challenge Homans primarily on the grounds that the art of choreography did not die with George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton;  and, to the extent that I have tried to follow what has been happening in ballet, I think that the examples she has chosen are credible, if not admirable.  Nevertheless, some of my more consistent readers probably know that Balanchine and Ashton are, respectively, the Son and Holy Ghost of my personal Trinity of modern ballet, whose Father is indisputably Michel Fokine.

At the very least I have to ask just how much of a sense of history La Rocco brings to her critique of a volume whose objective is itself historical.  After that I must then ask to what extent La Rocco equates ballet with the work of choreographers, as opposed to the “work practices” of dancers.  This latter category, of course, covers a lot of ground, beginning with the commitment to study and then proceeding through the necessary day-to-day training into the painstaking details of rehearsal culminating in performances.  For an art form that prompts so many to evoke metaphors of the ephemeral, this is damned heavy stuff.  If La Rocco’s own experience with “the work itself” is indirect, then she better have come to her conclusions with the skill set of an experienced anthropologist, no matter how many reviews she may have written from the audience side.

While I, myself, would not argue that ballet is dead, I feel obliged to note that the fragment that La Rocco quotes in her review does not quite make that assertion.  Writing as a past performer, Homans asserts that what she learned to be “good performance” may now be “the last glow of a dying ember;”  and, from this point of view, I know exactly what she is saying.  When I was writing about ballet, I took the trouble to take “adult beginners” classes;  and, while I was absolutely dreadful in those experiences, I persisted.  In many ways it was my first venture into studying the processes of work practices and my recognition that the artifacts of choreography could not be equated with those practices.  To apply the well-worn analogy, I knew I would never be able to lay an egg;  but I became pretty good at assessing whether the one I was eating was a fresh one.

One reason I do not spent a lot of time going to ballet is that most of the eggs I have encountered recently have been pretty stale.  I do not object to the choreographers La Rocco cites for her counterexamples, but nothing about the execution of any of that choreography appeals to me.  Some time after Balanchine’s death there seemed to emerge a tendency to relax the demands on what dancers were expected to know by way of basic technique, as if the images of the choreography mattered more than the execution of the steps.  Every now and then I see an example that reminds me that this respect for technique is not altogether dead, but I have decided that there are better ways to spend my time than to search out those few examples.  The result is that I have chosen the easy way out of this sad situation:  I now focus my attention on musicians who can exhibit their appreciation of the subtleties of performance rather than get frustrated with dancers who no longer seem to care to do so.

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