What is wrong with Balanchine
First published on Ballet Alert !
At the outset, let me say that I am very much aware at how sensitive the issue is, in American intellectual circles. There seems to be a feeling that anyone from Europe who criticises, or attacks Balanchine, believes that Americans are yobos who know nothing about art. This author thinks nothing of the sort.
Few nations have ever produced so many outstanding dancers as the United States. There is scarcely a city or even small town that does not have a remarkable teacher. In fact, perusal of the biographies of the American principals in the world's top companies, indicates that most, if not all, began their studies with "two-bit" teachers no European has ever heard of, in remote places no European has ever heard of, such as Madison, Wisconsin - if I may be allowed to be rude to Wisconsin here ! But the two-bit teachers obviously know a great deal, indeed, I would venture to say that in some respects, they know more than professors in the great European academies.
In Europe, owing to the economic depression of the last thirty years, coupled with the current obsession with "modern" dance, only a small number of classical schools have survived. The days when there were private schools with the likes of Nicholas Legat, Preobajenskaya, Yegorova, or Kchessinskaya teaching, are gone.
The survivors are almost exclusively State schools, endowed so as to afford scholarships to needy students. Those State schools are run with an iron hand by people who have a highly centralised notion of art. Anyone who does not conform to that notion, whether student or professor, is out. What is more, as the State schools skim off the cream of students from all over the world, anyone who does not conform to the currently fashionable body type is also out. As the decades go by, teaching staff in Europe have become incrusted like barnacles onto a certain aesthetic, a look, and have increasingly lost the ability to solve problems which arise from dealing with people of different body types.
The teachers scattered about the far-flung regions of the United States, are the disciples of European professors who fled to that country owing to the Russian Revolution, or the Fascist coups in the 1930s. When their mentors died, there was no Claude Bessy holding, or should I say, tightly squeezing, their little hand. They had to figure things out themselves. Some dwindled to mediocrities organising "toe-dancing shows", while others became the characteristically independent Americans, who gave their start in life to the artists who have graced American stages since the War. Of course, those artists were given the finishing touches in the great schools, whether in New York, or abroad. But had I the financial means to do so, I would very much like to tour the United States, meeting these people and watching them teach.
Now, when a clever child turns up in some small-town school in America, the professor says: "this boy has ability. I will make something of him. He is only 1m.75, but I cannot wait, in a school which has only six boys, for a boy who is 1m.83 with straighter teeth and a prettier face." The professor cannot say, "the girl has something. But I reject her, because her quadriceps, once fully developed, will bulge slightly, owing to the muscle-fibre type. I will sit back and wait a decade for a flatter muscle-type." He cannot wait ! He is going to grit his teeth and try to make those people into artists. And he may succeed. Americans do not give up easily.
I would add, that there is an intensity to the American dancer, which has faded from the European stage. Europe has been overrun by too many wars. Surface dazzle to the contrary, its artists tend, almost to a man, towards a quiet, downcast pessimism. Not so the United States.
To understand this, one must imagine what it is like being brought up in an American suburb, or a small community out in the Mid-West, where cultural life can in many instances be compared, unfavourably, to the wildest reaches of the African bush. The ballet teacher may be the only person with a true spiritual existence within a several-hundred kilometre radius. A youth walks into that ballet studio. He sees, for the first time in his life, in the incline of an attitude, or the grave silence of an arabesque, a form of absolute and unchanging beauty. He hears Mozart, or Schubert, perhaps for the first time in his life. It is a complete artistic shock. It remains with him for the rest of his existence on this earth.
These are good things about the United States. None have anything to do with Georges Balanchine. I have mentioned those things, because I want to make it clear that it would be foolish to identify Balanchine, with classical dancing in America.
I will now explain why I think that Balanchine has been a bad influence on the classical ballet, both in America, and abroad.
Classical ballet is not for ballet dancers. There are only a few hundred professional dancers in the entire world. It continues to be massively financed by nations, because it is universally considered to be an art form of great significance to the general public.
Therefore, the general public has its word to say. Artists from other fields, most especially musicians, have their word to say. Philosophers and theologians have their word to say. Scientists have their word to say. Even the author of this article, has a word to say. The general public is likely to have read many books, or studied music, or other sciences, for which over-worked ballet dancers lack the time. The general public does not have tunnel vision. Their careers are not at stake. Their informed views must be taken into account.
The mere fact that most ballet dancers today like dancing Balanchine, or Forsythe and Béjart for that matter, is irrelevant. Owing to the sky-rocketing injury rate, by far the majority of practising professionals today are under the age of 30. They may be disciplined and hard-working artists on stage, but essentially, they are a bunch of 25 year old kids, who are often remarkably immature in other areas. You tell a twenty-year-old that if he continues dancing Balanchine or Forsythe, he will need hip replacement by age 31, and he will laugh in your face. He is having fun. His career is going well. He will not be laughing at 31. In fact, he is unlikely to be dancing.
So this author, as a somewhat mature individual, proposes to take out of the hands of children, dangerous toys which may lead to injury and premature retirement. How nasty and mean and cruel can you get !
The author has strong views on Balanchine as a human being, which will not be aired here. Suffice it to say that one does not need to be a psychoanalyst, to form a notion of the adequacy of a man whose personal identity was that of a lady-killer.
The brass-tacks issue is what is now called Balanchine technique. I have often dealt with this elsewhere, but will restate the points here.
Just as the fundamental technical issue is the turn-out, which is a three-fold rotation, as an art-form ballet is based on one single geometrical-spatial notion, the rotation from effacé to croisé.
Today, effacé and croisé are taught as two discrete species of positions on a diagonal, the one with the body in more shade, the other, with the body in more light.
This does not correspond to reality. You do not dance along straight lines, switching between effacé and croisé as though you were turning on and off a light.
Stand in tendu devant, arms in third position, croisé. Look at the raised hand (Cecchetti or Bournonville 'look under'). Now begin a slow promenade through a full circle. Keep the 'look-under'. You pass through every shade of croisé, to a "pale" effacé, to a more "luminous" effacé, to full effacé, and onto a pale croisé, something like the phases of the moon. Note how the 'look-under' forces you to use épaulement.
Now back to the turn-out. Why three-fold rotation ? The head of the femur rotates out, to give the turn-out, the leg is rotated outwards. First degree of rotation. Second, owing to the rotation of the leg, the dancer creates two semi-circles, one before, and one behind him (180+180 degrees), or, seen otherwise, one to his left, one to his right, whether à terre or en l'air. Second degree of rotation. Next, owing to the stability afforded by degrees one and two of rotation, the torso itself can rotate independently from the legs. Third degree of rotation. This last degree of rotation, is what produces the tremendous artistic weight of classical ballet, by freeing up the torso for expressive purposes. That is épaulement.
The inter-relation between the effacé-croisé procession, and the three-fold rotation described just above, is the technical hard-core of classical ballet, and has, in point of fact, been the technical hard-core of every classical dance form for several thousand years, as ancient Indian sculpture attests. It is a concept, a thought-object.
For complicated reasons which have to do with how the mind generates ideas which actually work in the real, physical world, that quality of movement, which is beautifully simple, as an idea, but very difficult to effect in the flesh, is so powerful, that it can make the proverbial strong man break out crying. Once you have seen a well-performed classical enchaînement, you have understood something about what it means to be a human being, which you may never have got from any book.
Balanchine got rid of all that. He couldn't be bothered with épaulement. Effacé-croisé bored him. Indeed, the fundamentals of our art, bored him.
Why did he get rid of épaulement ? Well, Balanchine came from an influential Georgian family, very orthodox - High-Church one might say in Anglican terms. His papa became the first Soviet Culture Commissar in what I think one may call occupied Georgia, and his brother Melanchtion Balanchivadze became a famous composer, sponsored by the régime. Imagine what it means for his papa, coming from that upper-class background, to become the first Soviet Culture Commissar for Georgia. It is, at the very least, odd. It should, at the very least, make one think.
When Balanchine came to Western Europe just after the Soviet Revolution, he already had some sort of a concept. No doubt he had discussed these things with his papa's coterie. The concept, was to get rid of the tradition of the Italian Renascence in art. Balanchine, Piscasso, Stravinsky, même combat: a casual, flippant, one-dimensional update of Romanticism. Flat surfaces, colour instead of line, no perspective, stick-like angular movement, and in music, no tonality. Once one has got rid of all those concepts, all that is left is the insatiable eye, gobbling up the body on display. The body has therefore got to be as pretty as possible, so it can be prettily displayed. It's really that simple.
That is why Balanchine photographs so well. It is essentially static, photographic rather than musical, the dancers winding in and out of acrobatic poses.
Thanks to Balanchine's overwhelming influence in art over the last half-century, this has come to be what people think of as ballet. They go to the theatre to see the body, elegantly show-cased in contortions. The Voyeur's Ever-Open Eye.
It may happen, that a person whose body, at rest, is not especially agreeable to look at, has a quality of movement so extraordinary that as soon as the music is heard, his flaws become imperceptible. A dancer's dancer. Balanchine having eliminated costumes, the better to display the body, the purpose of which costumes is, in part, to disguise flaws, there is no chance whatsoever for such people to embark upon a professional career today.
There are other features of Balanchine's approach to ballet technique, which flow from the "rotation" issue explained above, with which I strongly disagree.
First, he likes a shallow plie, to get up the speed. This gives his choreography the impression of skimming, or rather flicking across the floor. He liked the look. On receiving a jump, you will find that your bone structure begs to differ.
The shallow plié, which has of course been adopted by Claude Bessy's school, gives a shallow jump, a paper-doll cut-out look. You cannot arc the jump with a shallow plie.
Second, he likes a raised heel, again, in the interest of what he sees as speed. But to avoid injury, and to achieve a legato quality, the heel must be placed fully on the ground, rolling through every movement. So many famous professors have commented on this that I will not run on further here.
Third, he likes it when you pick up the leg. He was mad about the look of hyper-extensions. He found it chic, as though chic were an artistic concept. Since épaulement bored him, the fact that the foot overshadows the face, was of no concern. The fact that it has become almost impossible to see the EYES, was of no concern. Hyper-extensions are, moreover, the death of legato. They also happen to be vulgar, and frankly ludicrous. As for the orthopaedic aspect, I will not add my grain of rice to the reams of hostile scientific literature. They have destroyed many a girl, and the insanity has now spread to the male of the species. Enough said.
Fourth, he did not want épaulement. This means that the body at all times, is unnaturally clenched and stiff. To an untrained eye, this will not be apparent, because Balanchine made it look "casual" and "jazzy". Not only in every-day life do we need épaulement. The turned-out body of a professional dancer needs épaulement still more. The spine demands it, the reception of jumps demands it.
Fifth, he rejected Vestris' notion of plastique. I have taken the term plastique here as Bournonville understood it, in other words, a mastery of the classical forms so great, that the artist's every moment would be a worthy subject for Raphael. This actually exists. I have seen it. There are people alive today, like Lis Jeppesen, who had this quality. It is almost unbelievable, it surges up from a coherence between the conscious mind ("when I hear that passage in the music, I do a saut de basque", and the pre-conscious mind ("this music and these forms come to us through the mists of time"). That plastique does exist as a concept to some very rare individuals, can be proven, for example, by stopping the frames of a film of such people dancing.
Plastique is of course unattainable for most dancers, just as not every conductor is going to be Furtwängler, because there is a higher level which is too demanding intellectually for most people. But it is something very real that we must all aspire to. It is an ideal. Now stop frames of a Balanchine performance. You will note people rushing about, bolting like footballers to a tackle, feet flapping, chins thrown back, fingers spearing the air as though the dancers were in an ad for fast-drying nail lacquer. A plastic finish on the finger-nails perhaps, but definitely nothing to do with plastique.
Plato considered dance "the most appropriate vehicle for tragedy." And what we do know, is that dancers crave roles "that will develop me". Whatever does that mean ?
Well, one would think that to chew gum and walk at the same would be more than enough. I mean, don't dancers already have enough to do, what with struggling with technique, memorising orchestral scores, other people's roles, their own cues, and the steps, without having to worry about ACTING as well ? Need one really add a few icy inches to Mount Everest ?
It so happens, that dancers do want to have to worry about acting. There is scarcely a dancer on the planet who is not on tenterhooks to get his teeth into a major dramatic role. Indeed, for many, it is their raison d'être.
Balanchine took that pleasure away from them. Like the fox who had lost his tail, or in this case, his soul, Balanchine's ballerinas now rocket around the world tutoring the young in the cult of "abstraction".
But Balanchine's ballets are never really abstract. Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop. At every single performance I have seen, the cast simply cannot resist putting in their own twee little personal touches, suggesting twee little boy-meets-girl stories, inventing twee little plotlets, which may or may not have been intended by the author; the dancers cannot resist tacking on a trite "human-interest" angle, because, although they may not know it consciously, they are bored out of their skull. The whole thing ends up being about as "abstract" as "Sabrina" or "Roman Holiday".
I fail to see what authority Balanchine imagined he had, for jettisoning the knowledge of centuries. Ballet is closely related, it is in fact, a descendant, of classical Indian dance. Not only the turnout, but our use of the face, the eyes, the hands, our mime gestures, even academic figures like the attitude, are all, and to this today, very much a child of ancient Indian civilisation. To take it further requires deep study, while you would need a very, very compelling reason to simply trash it. The Jazz Age, of which Balanchine was both a product, and a producer, does not precisely qualify - at least in my book - as a world-historical reason.
As an aside, I might note here that, owing to Balanchine's fondness for so-called abstraction, he has no time for the notion of emploi, which is, after all, as fundamental to the ballet, as tessitura is to the vocal repertoire. Balanchine essentially had no use (emploi !) for anybody whose little bod' was not that of a danseur noble. Full stop. But can one imagine an opera where everyone would be a high tenor ? The full arsenal of the classical ballet cannot be mastered by one single body type. Its vocabulary is too extensive, its expressive means too vast. Those with explosive muscle fibre excel at petite batterie, others - often the currently banished bandy-legged - are fine jumpers, the tall and indolent are really good only in adage, and of course, there are natural actors, wonderful mimes, whose technique may be a little shoddy, but who must be kept on stage at all costs. Then this range of potential must be reflected in your casting decisions. And what about the old dancers ? Where do all those oddballs go once you have eliminated story-telling ?
The short answer is, they will no longer be allowed to perform as professionals. Balanchine got rid of them at a sweep of the baton.
At the end of the day, nonetheless, whether ballet is, in its heart of hearts, an abstract, or a dramatic form, is a more complex issue, which calls for fuller discussion on some other occasion. It brings us back to Jules Perrot's war for the pas d'action (the steps must tell the story) in the 19th Century. One should not forget that Auguste Bournonville actually OPPOSED Perrot on that issue for several decades, considering, as he did, that the mime passages alone should support the drama, while the dancing passages remain "as an expression of joy". In his 'Sylphide' however, composed in 1836, but which he continued to work on until his death, he clearly changed his views, and opted for the pas d'action.
People become very attached to their own company. They become familiar with the choreography, they love to see a different cast interpret the same pieces, they become attached to their "very own" dancers. All well and good. No-one is trying to take the New York City Ballet, as a company, away from Americans. What I would, however, ask you to do, is to think about whether there may exist another world, a world of ideas, quite different from what you think of as classical dancing today. That world is not a personality cult, it is not a body cult, and it does not rotate around a star system. Its subject matter is ideas come down to us through thousands of years of trial and error, ideas which eons of time have shewn cannot, absolutely cannot, be expressed in words. A world that may be dusty, shaky, imperfect on occasion, but where you leave the theatre lost in thought.