What is Dance Quality?
First published on ballet.co
Art cannot stray too far from that spontaneous outburst. Take the most difficult works of Beethoven, even his Missa Solemnis, and break the voice-writing down into its parts. Each of those voices, including the orchestral parts, is singable. Difficult, but singable. The audience itself, is straining silently to sing. Bournonville, although I would not presume to place Beethoven's wreath on the balletmaster's head, is also a very difficult author, technically, but even the most devilish of his enchaînements have dance quality, to a degree, that even the old and halt amongst us, can scarcely refrain from rushing up on stage to dance too.
Dance quality is something elusive, but irresistible. It is something which takes hold of one on hearing music, a joyous impulse which lifts one up off this earth, which makes tricky steps seem, if not easy, at least danceable, and which tends slightly more towards flying, towards the properties of ballon and elevation, than towards those of adage and extension. It is what makes others watching, want to dance themselves. It is not writhing, jerking, twisting, straining, falling, gyrating, or slithering. It uses rhythm, but is not rhythmic. The folk dances of Poland and Hungary have dance quality to a high degree. Forsythe, for example, has none.
What has gone wrong with our own art form is, that as a by-product of the reign of Lifar and Balanchine in the 1920s, we have lost all dance quality.
I am well aware that ninety percent of the people reading this page, will not fathom what I am going on about. They may never have seen a dancer with dance quality, and they almost certainly have never seen a Bournonville class, or one of his ballets. If they bother to read on, they will likely become extremely angry with the author of these lines - which detracts nothing from the truth of the argument.
The importance of the issue, is that like a fish, society rots from the head down. Destroy classical music, destroy the ballet, destroy speech as poetry, and that process will radiate down and out through an entire people, and turn us into slaves. Therefore, to save these art forms is not a matter of taste, but a necessity.
From the 1920s on, the Balanchine lobby - which received, may I add, very substantial backing from financial circles not otherwise known for their altruism - opted for atonal music. This was, not an artistic, but a political decision.
The tonal system emerged over thousands of years, and it is the only system based upon the human singing voice. A tonal work has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is therefore coherent with classical drama. In the nineteenth century, composers like Verdi or Beethoven had become as popular in Europe, amongst the working classes, as they were with the elite. The "proles" were "getting ideas above their station". After the death of Brahms, a little coterie was intent upon driving the proles out of the classical theatre. Their warcry: dig a ditch between "popular" singing and dancing, and "real" art. Salon habitués would yawn politely to Satie and Stravinsky, while the rabble would boogie-woogie. Then Jitter-bug, Rock n'Roll, Acid-Rock, and finally, clambering up the rope to the noose, Techno-Rave.
Georges Balanchine was an aristocrat, a very able musician, and well-read in philosophy and theology. His father was to become the first Culture Commissar of Soviet Georgia. Georges, therefore, could scarcely have been naive when he plumped for a divisive culture, that of Stravinsky, a culture that is not singable, a culture that, to be "danceable", must shred and tear the human form. A culture which deliberately repels, rather than attracts, the man in the street.
That is the musical, and therefore spiritual and intellectual environment, which has dictated to the ballet over the last seventy or so years.
There is no way one can avoid controversy and tiptoe round the personality of Georges Balanchine in these developments, because, through his friendship with Igor Stravinsky, and the Warburg banking circles, he became one of the most influential men of the Twentieth Century. In a nutshell, my thesis is that the essence of Balanchine's mind and work, is contained in his erotic eructation, Bugaku. I will not describe its contents, as this Website is intended to be a family publication, but that work cannot be considered to be marginal to his output. Balanchine composed it, he acknowledged its paternity, he staged it with whomever he happened to be besotted throughout his life, and then willed it to one of his legatees when he died.
Leaving aside, for our present purposes, its extraordinarily distasteful image of Woman, Bugaku sums up everything that is wrong with the ballet today.
"This was the sexiest one...It's a dance of a wedding night. They're almost naked. They did have white robes on to start with. But then they stripped that off and everything's white and grainy. And very passionate and the music's very simple. And you could hear a pin drop at that opening....I think it spelled sex."
Bert Stern, photographer, former husband of Allegra Kent, interviewed in "Live at Lincoln Centre"
"You could hear a pin drop". Voyeurism, defined in the above four, neat lines.
The mere fact that a work be performed by people wearing tights, or pointe shoes, does not make it classical ballet. There is no place in the classical theatre for the type of "emotion" Bert Stern has so aptly depicted. It does not exist. It was rejected by Aeschylus, rejected by Shakespeare, rejected by Schiller, rejected by Mozart, rejected by Beethoven and Verdi. Rejected, by anyone who counts in the history of ideas. The very fact that the theatre is a public place, means that a stage author, if he have a soul, will reject all opportunity given him to degrade his fellow man. Balanchine wallowed in it.
To turn the ballet into a suitable target for the voyeur's lens, Balanchine, like the less-talented, narcissistic Serge Lifar, had to alter its technique.
The steps we use in classical ballet are, in large measure, steps from popular and folk dances, transformed. Those steps are joined together, just as they are in folk or popular dances, in ways, which seem, though deceptively, to be a simple, joyful and self-evident expression of the musical score.
You find the same proceeding when, for example, Bach will take as a fugue subject, a ditty from the streets.
Balanchine "deconstructed" all that, he rejected dance steps, the better to zoom camera-like in, onto slow-motion display of the body from every angle. He did of course keep the dance steps in the training, so that people would still "look good" whilst they writhed. Nevertheless, the hard-core of his peculiar outlook, was the hyper-extension, which is, to put it bluntly, a crotch-shot.
In Balanchine, the face, the eyes, have been supplanted by the crotch, the leg and of course, the ubiquitous foot, pressed up against the ear. One of the plagues of the post-Balanchine ballet world, is foot-fetishism. The female foot on pointe. This is hard to understand for the "outside world". Now, it is agreeable for a dancer to have an expressive foot (men do not as a rule, as they are by nature less flexible). But nice feet are not an absolute value. The ballet was not developed as an art form, by geniuses like Vestris, Didelot, or Carlo Blassis, for the public to sit there goggling at other people's legs and feet. Lynn Seymour had very expressive feet, and she also happened to be a great artist. Galina Ulanova, another great artist, had iffy-looking feet. A dancer may have tremendous dance quality, and yet have somewhat cardboard-like, stiff feet. In fact, most good jumpers' feet are nothing to look at, really. But Balanchine was obsessed by pointes, and indeed, said so on many occasions. I cannot help but wonder what he did in his admittedly-limited spare time.
On to the hyper-extension. Just as, in atonal music, there is no beginning, no middle, and no end, so the hyper-extension is a bad infinity. Judgement, style, the painter's eye, have been replaced by "high legs", the higher the better. And that movement is indecent.
What do I mean by "indecent" ? Could this author be trying to sneak "morals" into an otherwise innocent little piece ? Heaven forbid ! I first find it indecent in the extreme, to expect artists to perform movements noxious to their health and well-being, both mental and physical. The view universally held by the medical profession with respect to hyper-extensions, is that they are dangerous. The view universally held by the psychiatric profession, is that exhibitionism is a mental illness.
Sex is not indecent. It is, however, a private activity. Any private activity performed in public, is indecent. One example I might give, is defecating. Another is discussing private matters on a portable telephone in a public area. The disgusted expressions of fellow-citizens compelled willy-nilly to "eavesdrop" on such exchanges, indicates that, in most of the population, a keen sense of the distinction between public and private does tend to be innate. At the very least, such behaviour lacks decorum. At its worst - well, you have now got Bugaku.
A by-product of this nonsense, is that over the last two or so decades, we have been attracting the wrong sort of person into the profession: narcissists, whose idea of the theatre is preening their serpentine limbs before an audience, which is not precisely the same thing. Or shrewd businessmen like Sylvie Guillem, who use the music and the story as a backdrop to their Me-Generation world outlook.
The one thing we are all agreed upon here, is that classical ballet is an art form, otherwise you would already have torn up this article in a rage. Art forms have a purpose, just as cooking has a purpose, which is to feed you, while cuisine has a purpose, which is to feed you delightfully, painting the house has a purpose, which is to protect the walls, while painting them a colour, is to protect them delightfully.
Meanwhile, the purpose of pornography - for it too, has a purpose, of sorts - is to titillate the impotent and the enraged.
Relative to all the foregoing, the aim of art is somewhat different viz., to elevate the mind, delightfully. That excludes feeding one's instincts, no matter how chic their shape or guise. The moment the ballet ceases to strive, in its own humble way, towards the quality of emotion represented by someone like Beethoven, it loses all claim to be art. In losing "dance quality", it becomes either rhythmic gymnastics, pornography, or, as is most often the case today, both.
No matter how heavy the dancer's costume, the ballet is an art form which cannot but shew the body. Confusion may thus readily arise as to what goes on in the public's mind, when the dancer steps out on stage. A large part of the audience goes to the ballet to see pretty girls, or cute guys, or both. Even battle-hardened ballet-masters like to look at a pretty face. That is not a crime. What is criminal, is to destroy the spectator's mind, and his self-respect, by making him into a voyeur. The very fact that ballet must shew the body, imposes a duty upon the choreographer to use the body in a reserved and dignified way.
This is a universal, in art: the composer must swim against the tide of whatever excess his own particular art form would otherwise draw him towards. The poet must cut out verbiage. The musician must cut out sensuous effects. The draughtsman must erase lines. And the ballet dancer may not display the body.
I would add, that if we are serious about the ballet, if we truly wish this rather eccentric art form to become universally held in high esteem, and extend its influence to those countries where, for religious reasons, it has been in an odour of disfavour, we are going to have to clean up our act.
Unfortunately, dear reader, if your date of birth is post-1970, and the only thing you have ever thought about in your life is ballet, neither "dance quality", nor what "reserved and dignified" might be taken to mean, will necessarily be a familiar concept. You will have to look for it, perhaps in people like Keats, or Haydn. Happy hunting.