Defying Gravity, Politely
Before it becomes completely stale news I will just mention that last week I went with a couple of people to the Kennedy Center open house and saw a free hourlong performance of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the small company she runs that now resides at the Kennedy Center. I've been wanting to go for a while.
Here's what I wrote to Jeff about it (Jeff aka buckner who posted here from Italy for a while and then stopped more's the pity):
They did Apollo, something jazzy and slightly racy, and then they did Tzigane and I kept thinking of those photos on MM's wall of Farrell in that role. Do you remember those? She looked so exactly right. The woman who danced Tzigane was technically all there but she appeared to be rather older than is typical, and I began wondering if it was Farrell herself. You can kind of see her touch in the other dancers. The focus and the unselfconsciousness, none of that awful ballerina mugging, you know how they will finish their 28 fouette turns and stand there and just give the audience the big toothy grin? Farrell's dancers don't do that sort of thing, very cool and deferring to the dance, committed to a sort of transparency without any affectation or mannerisms, and totally at home in the Balanchine idiom, like fish in water. You become convinced that they really dance from within. Except this one male lead looked so much like Napoleon Dynamite that it was totally distracting.
I could add to this, I suppose. I don't really follow the world of fashion in stardom in ballet and my opportunities to see any contemporary great stuff have been limited. If you want to know about that then read Wolcott. I feel like everything I learned about watching ballet I learned from watching old NYCB films and videos, including everything I could find from the Farrell years. What lingers for me out of the memories of watching those films (usually right after the ballet classes I was taking in grad school) was this quality of stillness and suspension that she had as if she had all the time in the world, all the balance, all the extension and all the lightness in the world and only had to sort of wait to be possessed by the choreography. It was negative capability I was seeing. I've seen wonderful dancers but I've never seen anyone with that quality. It wasn't affectation, it was total trust and conviction in the expressive powers of the medium, a really profound understanding of what classical dance is about and all the physical capacity and instinct needed to present it.
Haggin, writing about Balanchine in his weekly reviews for the Nation, was totally attuned to this: he recognized it in Farrell as a dancer and in Balanchine as a choreographer, which seems to me to be almost an inadequate word to describe Balanchine's genius. I mean, it's such a long drop to the next choreographer. Haggin would go back and back to certain phrases that he just used repeatedly, week after week in his Nation reviews, because he had the same point to make and these words worked to make it. This, you must understand, is integrity. He talked about the plasticity of the medium, usually in reference to whether a performer had an understanding of it. And he used this term in reference to classical music as well. But Fellini talks about it too, indirectly, in relation to his own work. I mean, people used to assume that Fellini was a sort of hippie who just threw open the set and created his art out of free association and, like, whatever. This annoyed him no end. Rightly so.
When they're performed right Balanchine's ballets look natural; but the naturalness is a sort of continuous play within the very artificial medium of classical technique. I mean there you are in a perfectly ordinary passage and the transition into something totally strange and modern occurs without a change in persona; the dancer is doing a flatfooted shuffle with her feet not turned out, or she's slowly turning, en pointe on one bent leg with the other leg in attitude, and momentarily you can't even see the force that's turning her -- and she's doing this without appearing in character as the Evil Fairy or the Giant Bird or the Estonian Peasant Girl. The dance itself took her there in fulfilment or unfolding of its own inner character. This is, of course, an illusion that is achieved by disciplined attention to really small physical things like the way the fingers are held, or the inclination of a head. That transition between familiar and strange in pre-Balanchine ballet was a feature of "characterization", like mime, if it occurred at all. Balanchine integrated strangeness into ballet technique while somehow keeping the technique pure; it's beyond representational as if he understood the important central part of ballet, where it was interesting and alive for a creative mind, in movement as a medium. He put movement in front. And then he just went ahead and created his ballets his way, as if there was nobody's permission to ask, lifting ballet out of the traditon-and-nostalgia mode that necessarily confined it in the 20th century when the society that it mirrored had ceased to exist, and sweeping it into the now. Not the hipster now but the now of the moment, of the unknown present. And yet not scornful of the past, either; that incredible pas de deux, Diamonds, is a richly reverent invocation of tradition, as if Balanchine had found beauties in traditional ballet that it didn't know it had. The purpose is pleasure, pleasure in creating, in performing, and watching. That's what complete assurance looks like in a great artist, I think.