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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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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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