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Swans in Motion

Is ballet’s future as compelling as its past?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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Apollo’s Angels

Igor Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes

Igor Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A History of Ballet

by Jennifer Homans

Random House, 672 pp., $35

In Black Swan, Nina Sayers, a talented but sheltered young ballerina, comes undone dancing the lead in Swan Lake. The director of her company wishes to create a new version of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, one that requires the Swan Queen to assume a bipolar pose: pure and pristine as Odette, the virginal white swan, and wicked and wanton as Odile, the seductive black swan. Nina is perfect for the white swan, but can she abandon her one-dimensional perfectionism to become a convincing black swan? Pushed by the director, she gives up childish things—her stuffed animals, her domineering mother, her sexual innocence—and enters the adult world. In the process, however, she descends into a psychotic maelstrom, hallucinating and losing all sense of reality. On opening night she presents a brilliant, edgy performance, but wounds herself fending off a perceived rival in the dressing room. Bleeding profusely from the gash, she leaps into the lake at the end of the ballet and dies.

Or does she? By this time in the film, the line between fantasy and reality has become so blurred we don’t know for sure if the blood we see is real or another of Nina’s delusions. We can only be certain that we are being yanked around by the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, who has created a splendid drama while playing with our expectations. But before purists discount the work as a cinematic debasement of the Russian classic, they should read Apollo’s Angels, which arrives in time to put Black Swan in perspective. There they would discover that Swan Lake has a past almost as tortured as Nina’s tribulations in Aronofsky’s movie.

As Jennifer Homans relates, Swan Lake began as a children’s ballet for Tchaikovsky’s extended family before emerging as a full-scale story ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877. The pedestrian choreography (by Julius Reisinger) and the dark, tragic ending (Odette and her suitor Siegfried drown in a fierce storm, unredeemed) did not please contemporary audiences, and the ballet soon faded from the repertory. It was not resuscitated until 1895, two years after Tchaikovsky’s death, when it was completely reset by the famous French-Russian choreographer Marius Petipa. But the revival was fraught with difficulties: Petipa, then over 70 and in poor health, delegated the lakeside scenes to his assistant Lev Ivanov, and the conductor, Riccardo Drigo, altered and shortened Tchaikovsky’s score. The tragic ending was replaced by a happier conclusion, and the action compressed from four acts into three. The original Siegfried, Pavel Gerdt, was too old for heavy lifting and had to be assisted on stage by a sidekick, Benno, whose presence in the intimate pas de deux with Odette turned it into an awkward pas de trois. Nevertheless, in this compromised form, Swan Lake became a big hit.

The work’s later history was no less complicated. In 1909 Swan Lake was greatly abridged for performance at the London Hippodrome. In 1950 Konstantin Sergeyev created a Socialist version for the Kirov Ballet, killing the sorcerer Rothbart at the end so that Odette and Siegfried could be united on earth, not in heaven—an allegory for the worldly triumph of the Soviet Union. A few years later in Moscow Swan Lake was used as a revenge vehicle for ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, whose triumphant performance with the Bolshoi Ballet forced the KGB to allow her to tour in the West. In the 1960s Kenneth MacMillan produced a Berlin Swan Lake filled with psychological probing, while back in Moscow Yuri Grigorovich presented another Soviet rendition emphasizing the emotional struggle between good and evil, with Siegfried and Rothbart as the protagonists. During the Cold War Swan Lake became Russia’s de facto national anthem, used by the Communist party as proof of Soviet cultural supremacy. Nikita Khrushchev complained that he was forced to attend so many performances that his dreams were haunted by “white tutus and tanks, all mixed together.” As we learn in the pages of Apollo’s Angels, Aronofsky is in good company using Swan Lake as a vehicle for his own agenda.

Homans, distinguished scholar in residence at New York University and a former professional dancer, has written a deliciously detailed yet impassioned account. Once a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera and San Francisco Ballet, she has devoted her life to dancing, observing, and studying ballet in its many manifestations. To her, ballet is a discipline as complex as any language, with conjugations, declensions, and rules corresponding to the laws of physical nature. When all is properly synchronized—when body, mind, and soul are fully involved—ballet is an escape from the self; the dancers become part of a grand scheme. Homans describes this sensation rhapsodically: “Yet no matter the crowds and the choreography’s increasing demands and complexity,” she writes of the first lakeside scene in Swan Lake,

the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical—or musical—relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.

Ballet is also an aristocratic art, with a strict code of ethics. Homans describes with admiration her Russian instructors, who imparted not just steps and technical knowledge but an imperial way of life, one filled with discipline, elegance, and grace. It is in ballet, after all, that classes conclude with a révérence, a gesture of gratitude and respect to the teacher. Ballet dancers belong to a special world, she learned. As her instructor Alexandra Danilova expressed it, they are different from “the rest.” This stems, in large part, from the aristocratic roots of ballet, whose gestures and etiquette were codified in France by Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Louis XIV, in particular, used dance not just for divertissements—large, formal entertainments—but also to reinforce the strict levels of hierarchy within his court. Receptions, meetings, and gatherings were carefully staged and choreographed. Dance became an integral part of daily life, and knowing the proper steps and poses became a social necessity. By 1660 there were some 200 dancing schools in Paris. With an eye to internationalizing French culture, Louis asked his dance master Pierre Beauchamps to work out a notational system, published in 1700 by Raoul-Auger Feuillet. Some 300 dances were preserved in this fashion and promulgated throughout Europe. (Bach, in distant Leipzig, could study classical dance through Feuillet’s publication and local French dance masters.) The famous five positions were established, with First Position as the “home” stance and Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Positions serving to prepare the body to move.

From dance, one learned how to become a beautiful being. As the dance master in Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) puts it: “Man can do nothing at all without dancing. .  .  . All the misfortunes of mankind, all the disasters that fill history, all the bungling of politicians and the mistakes of great generals, all come through not learning to dance.” Leaders of the Roman Catholic church saw it differently, however: To them, dancing did nothing but “excite passions, making modesty lose its call amidst the noise of jumping and abandoning oneself to dissolution.” Threats of excommunication and denial of a Christian burial did not deter court dancing, however: The Royal Academy of Dance was founded in 1661 with Beauchamps in charge. It was the model for the distinguished ballet schools that later sprang up in St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, Copenhagen, and New York.

Homans sees two developments as critical to the creation of classical ballet: The first was the introduction of pantomime, which provided a narrative element and allowed individual dances to be linked together to form a continuous story; the second was the rise of the ballerina. Until the French Revolution, dance was the domain of men: kings and male aristocrats. After the revolution, male dancers fell from grace and by the 1830s were discredited and reviled. They were replaced by sylphs, nymphs, and fairies—pure, elusive, unattainable spirits danced by women dressed in white. The age of the ballerina was launched by Marie Taglioni, who is credited with establishing the technique of dancing en pointe (on the toes). Taglioni’s elevated form was viewed as highly erotic at the time (Homans compares it to the modern effect of stiletto heels), and it allowed her seemingly to float above the stage, a living link between the human and supernatural realms. These developments led to the first modern story ballets, La Sylphide (1832, with Taglioni in the lead role) and Giselle (1841). Both were products of French Romanticism, exploring the misty world of dreams, imagination, and suppressed sexual desire.

Ballet continued to evolve during the 19th century, reaching a climax not in France, its country of origin, but in Russia. The dance tradition there had been launched in the 17th century by Peter the Great, who pictured himself as the Russian Louis XIV. French ballet was adopted at the court, where it became an imperial art, decisively influenced over time by Russian military training (hence the large, parade-ground-like formations of the corps de ballet) and Russian folk tradition (hence the exotic Eastern touches). The result was a colorful, highly disciplined national style. Isolated from the West, dance remained a hallmark of Russian culture, culminating in the classical ballets of the French Petipa, who created large-scale choreographies of dazzling precision and Russian pageantry. The groundbreaking La Bayadère (1877) led to the big three: The Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), and of course, Swan Lake, all three to scores by Tchaikovsky. The music of Tchaikovsky took ballet to a new level, and Homans describes well how it envelops dancers, sweeping them away with its compelling rhythms and soaring melodies.

No sooner had ballet reached a golden age in St. Petersburg than it moved back to Paris under the leadership of the great entrepreneur Sergei Diaghilev. Classically trained but deeply committed to Russian folk traditions, Diaghilev launched the famous Ballets Russes in 1909. With the mantra “Astound me,” he and his creative team of choreographer Mikhail Fokine, dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, designer Léon Bakst, and composer Igor Stravinsky took Paris by storm with a series of revolutionary, self-consciously Russian works. The Firebird (1910) and Petrouchka (1911) were followed by The Afternoon of a Faun (1912), an anti-ballet in which the faun, danced by Nijinsky, orgasms while sunbathing on a rock. These convention-breaking pieces climaxed in The Rite of Spring (1913). (This and Faun were also choreographed by Nijinsky.) Hailed as “a crime against grace,” The Rite caused a riot and was performed only eight times before being dropped from the repertoire. But the damage was done: Modernism had arrived.

Ballet climbed to great heights once again in the 20th century in the hands of another Russian expatriate, George Balanchine, who carried both the Imperial and Ballets Russes traditions across the Atlantic to New York, where he established The School of American Ballet (the “West Point of Dance”) in 1934 and served as dance master of the New York City Ballet from 1948 onward. Working with impresario Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine produced a magnificent series of classical choreographies, including Serenade (1934), The Four Temperaments (1946), Symphony in C (1947), Agon (1957), Stars and Stripes (1958), and Violin Concerto (1972), as well as the modern re-creation of The Nutcracker (1954). His works represented a new type of storyless ballet, based on universal, spatial laws that did not require explanation. (Asked what a certain ballet was about, he liked to respond, “About 28 minutes.”) Immensely prolific, he enjoyed a special relationship with Stravinsky, whose abstruse late scores are best explained by Balanchine’s balletic illuminations. And Balanchine restored the ballerina as the center of dance: “Ballet is woman,” he liked to say. “Put 16 girls on a stage and it’s everybody—the world. But put 16 boys, and it’s always nobody.”

There were other influential choreographers in the 20th century—Frederick Ashton in England, Jerome Robbins in New York, Yuri Grigorovich in Russia—but Homans believes Balanchine to have been the best ever, and her writing becomes lyrically animated when she describes his accomplishments. In her view, Balanchine was the last and greatest Apollo, and his death in 1983 produced an irreparable break in the tradition that extended back to Louis XIV. Recent choreographers and dancers seem “unable to rise to the challenge” of creating new work, she says in a moving epilogue entitled “The Masters are Dead and Gone,” and the current repetition of old masterpieces has led to stagnation. Ballet appears to have reached a dead end.

“We are in mourning,” she laments.

Not everyone, however. Black Swan has grossed more than $106 million in the United States and $175 million overseas. Surely audiences are attracted not just to Natalie Portman’s superb acting and Aronofsky’s horror-movie high jinks but also to Benjamin Millepied’s imaginative choreographic glosses on the Petipa-Ivanov original (the pas de deux added to Tchaikovsky’s orchestral introduction is stunning). The Adjustment Bureau, a blockbuster film following fast on the heels of Black Swan, also features a heroine who is a professional dancer. Meanwhile, at the New York City Ballet, not an empty seat could be seen during the recent performances of Swan Lake, and tickets to the upcoming run of the work at the American Ballet Theatre are selling briskly.

Plenty of people remain interested in ballet. Like all art forms, ballet has experienced ebbs and flows in its long, twisty evolution. The creative tide may be running out just now, as Jennifer Homans observes; but if history is any guide, the tide will wash back in, bringing with it another Apollo, bursting with creative energy, and fully prepared to astound us.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers.

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