Wednesday, July 08, 2009



I had a conversation the other day with a friend about perfection and how many of the classic high arts--jazz, classical music, ballet--face the criticism that perfection has replaced expression. Pianists beautifully hit notes, but don't dig into the music to relay complex emotions. Jazz musicians are technical fiends, but aren't displaying the artistry of the 50s and 60s and so on. As a result, purists complain, nothing new is being said.

I was musing over this in relation to writing and novels and wondering if I could think of books that are technically showy, but which don't really have much to say. And, yes, I could think of a few and of a few trends--though I don't tend to finish reading books like this anymore, and try to focus instead on writing that is challenging and thrilling. (And, no, I'm not ready to name names. Not yet).

But I guess the easiest way for me to talk about something like the above concept on my blog, is through ballet, which you know I've had fun exploring lately.

Here's the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, dancing in her signature piece, "The Dying Swan." She revolutionized the use of pointe (toe shoes), which you see her use to great effect here, so she seems almost to be hovering over the floor, defying gravity. It's an old film, possibly taken around the turn of the century when the art form was still quite young.

This is the Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya in the ballet Swan Lake. She is about 50 years old in this video--and still dancing. It's often said that Maya revolutionized ballet because she extended what was technically possibly, while finding even more deeply passionate ways to express emotion through music and movement. Ballet fans know of the back-arch in Kitri's great leap in Don Quixote; it is Plisetskaya who first threw that into the choreography. Now everyone follows her. Plistetskaya found ways to hurl herself into dance, thus changing and furthering what the body could do.

In this scene, Plisetskaya is dancing the role of Odette, a princess who was turned into a swan by an evil magician. At night, she takes corporeal form, and you see her here, just after her transformation. She runs into a prince, who promises he will break the spell that has been placed over her, so she may be free (things don't end too well--the prince gets distracted by another woman and even though he's really, really sorry, everyone dies).

Just comparing the two tapes, you can see how much more complex dance vocabulary has become (though this is also because the pieces are completely different) and how the placement of the body has changed. A modern dance person might look at Anna's shoulders and say they are too stiff, and that her arms flap wildly. Also, both women's bodies don't really match the high standards we have today for ballerinas. And yet, for me, there is something wonderfully wild and dramatic about Plisetskaya in her characterization of the swan.

The other great ballerina of Plisetskaya's era (translation: during the Cold War) would be Galina Ulanova. I can't embed a clip of the same section of Swan Lake on my blog, but you can watch it here. It's unclear how old Ulanova is here, but certainly she is not that young--she began her career in the twenties, and this video must be from the fifties, at least.

It's worth noting that Ulanova danced with the Kirov, and Plisetskaya with the Bolshoi. These are two different companies, with different styles, histories and emphases. The Kirov was greatly influenced by the great ballet teacher Agripinna Vaganova, who "emphasized clarity and strength." Further:

Most importantly, she (Vaganova) insisted that each movement be infused with "meaning." Natalia Makarova, one of Vaganova's most articulate admirers, tells of being taught to "eat up" a movement--internalize it, give it a physical soul and substance.

Makarova, who was trained at the Kirov and defected in 1970, was surprised to find that Western dancers took a "purely rational approach" to steps (skill and lots of it) and then tried to graft "meaning" on top. For those trained in the Vaganova method, by contrast, movements do not exist without a psychological or emotional impulse.

Take a look at Makarova here. Now you see the "body type" that you expect with ballerinas, along with no small amount of acting. She's precise and delicate, but still musical and expressive. The video is from the 1980s.

And here we are with Gillian Murphy, of ABT, who is still dancing today (she enters at 1:40). Murphy is gorgeous. Look at those long slim legs, the slim arms and the arched feet! Her balance is extraordinary. Her articulation of the steps very, very clear. She's musical, and floats on the score. She has incredible control.

But are you moved? Is the characterization grafted on top of the technique? Or is the technique an afterthought to the acting?

And here is another contemporary swan, Svetlana Zakharova, who has truly ethereal arms and wonderful feet. And as far as I can tell, about one facial expression. She's wonderful to watch, but there is just so little urgency in her dancing. For me, we've now come a long way from Plisetskaya to Zakharova, and while something in the art form has been gained, something important has been lost.

Watching all these videos, I've been thinking a great deal about how an art form develops, how tastes change, and how audiences also change what they want. There are no ballet superstars today, the way that there were in Nureyev or Fonteyn's time. Ballet stars don't make the headlines. You could argue that dancers have never been technically better. But are they thrilling us? Are they feeding popular culture, and the popular imagination? Is it better when art is for a small elite, or better when it appeals to more people? What would it have been like to be alive at the time of Plisetskaya, or--expanding the categories of classical arts--Bernstein, Balanchine and Mailer?

I think about these things as they apply to writing and to books, and wonder.

I've been enjoying your ballet posts, and understand (and am also not willing to name names) the issue of writing that is technically skilled but empty.

This topic reminds me of a rare treat (in the midwest) a few weeks ago. As part of a local chamber music festival, New York-based pianist Jeremy Denk came to perform and also give master classes for talented teen students.

I was able to sit in on one master class for a nominal donation and it was incredibly enjoyable. I have not studied piano for decades (or its successor, violin, for years) but as someone who cares about my own writing and creativity I totally "got" the issues - both teen students were technically skilled, but had not yet reached Denk's ability to - to put it plainly - play with color and feeling. A phrase from Chopin can be melodious and well played and "pretty" - or it can bring tears to your eyes because so much powerful transcendental "stuff" is in it (all of that intangible "stuff" of emotion, sensitivity to tone and color, integration of feeling/message/dance phrasing (for the polonaise, scherzo, etc.)). I can't even express it adequately - but I knew it when I heard it. Amazing artistry, and a real treat to see that high level of artistry available for students (who, to be fair, at 15 or 16 don't have the inner life experience yet to play as Denk does - with luck and diligence someday they will).
You know, as I try to think of the best or right way to express that quality of depth and expression that, on top of technical perfection, can make art amazing and magical, the only thing that keeps coming to me is "the achieve of, the mastery of the thing."

If it was good enough for GMH, it'll do for me today.
Thanks, Marla! And how wonderful that you were able to listen to the camber music festival master class. When you watch a good one, they are so interesting. And certainly for me, help me to appreciate a "master" even more.

I'm glad you like the ballet posts--they will stop for a while now. Dance is different from writing, of course, because there really is a time limit for when technique can be learned. Dancers have to have it when they are young. But the challenges that face all artists are often still the same.

Thanks for taking the time to write something so thoughtful. I'm going to keep thinking about what you have written!
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