Friday, October 29, 2010


Art Forms and High Art

A few days ago, my friend Maud sent me a link to an excerpt from "Apollo's Angels," a history of ballet written by Jennifer Homans. The excerpt on The New Republic asked if ballet in its current form is dead. Homans cited a number of reasons why the question is worth asking--technically she feels dancers are hesitant (I beg to differ), that the courtly language of ballet seems lost in our contemporary and urban world, that the breakdown of national styles means that there is no more true "Russian school" and "American dancer," etc.. Then, there is this paragraph:

Today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem to us exclusionary and divisive. Those privileged enough to obtain specialized training, so this thinking goes, should not be elevated above those with limited access to knowledge or art. We want to expand and include: we are all dancers now. Ballet’s fine manners and implicitly aristocratic airs, its white swans, regal splendor, and beautiful women on pointe (pedestals), seem woefully outmoded, the province of dead white men and society ladies in long-ago places.

My friend Jeffrey and I were delighted a few years ago to discover a kinship, not only where books were concerned, but also with music. Together, we try to get to a few operas a year. Before I had Ewan, we also made it the Joyce and also to BAM. I once brought up the fact that I sometimes feel insecure for loving these old art forms so much. I know how mannered they can seem to modern eyes and ears. Even jazz, with its "Hey cats" and "Swinging" can sound so falsely enthusiastic, as though one is willfully trying to inhabit a black and white film.

"Yes," said Jeffrey. "And so does rock and roll. All art forms are mannered."

He's right. There are forms of self expression that strike us as "authentic" and immediate, but we are all always reflecting back the time and place that we live in and grew up in and part of our physical language--especially when exaggerated as in performance--is going to look mannered to some. Even if it's done with as much authenticity as possible.

Homans goes on.

For classical ballet to recover its standing as a major art would thus require more than resources and talent (the “next genius”). Honor and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback. We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set up ethical principles. Our contemporary infatuation with instability and fragmentation, with false pomp and sentiment, would have to give way to more confident beliefs.

This caught my eye. We would have to admire ballet again. I admire ballet. It is the quintessential "it is very hard and so you must work hard to make it look easy and thereby impart feeling" art form. Women float. Men are forever strong. Girls become birds and fly. Etc. It is ethereal. And though ballet can be funny--there is no end to nuanced humor that the body can portray--ballet, or at least classical ballet, isn't ironic. No one nudge nudge wink winks on stage to say, "Hey! I'm a swan. No really." Magic is expected. Do we believe in magic?

But she's implying more--that some kind of courtly grace has been lost. That manners are gone. That we don't really value civility or think of it as part of our culture, or that culture is something to aspire to. And that this *is* what ballet can and must be.

For classical ballet to recover its standing as a major art would thus require more than resources and talent (the “next genius”). Honor and decorum, civility and taste would have to make a comeback. We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set up ethical principles. Our contemporary infatuation with instability and fragmentation, with false pomp and sentiment, would have to give way to more confident beliefs.

The best Balanchine, it is often said, isn't necessarily performed by NYCB. You can have a good night of ballet in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Miami (and the New York Times may well review you). And now Los Angeles, as Dance Magazine pointed out, is building up a rep company with a mix of cash generating classics and commissions. Yes, I know this means that ballet is popular and not necessarily relevant. It's a trade off. For now. Art goes through these cycles. In the recent Opera News, I read an article where an author lamented that a golden age of voices had passed in the 60s (Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, etc), while pointing out just how much regional opera there is. One no longer *must* live in New York City.

I think back to the early 90s when ABT was struggling financially and couldn't even keep a season at Lincoln Center. I remember going to see the Bolshoi in the late 80s when the KGB was all over the theater. It seems like it might be nicer for dancers to be able to travel freely. And in time, I should think new forms for ballet will develop, if they aren't already.

Still, I know quite a few cultured New Yorkers who mourn the "old days" of ballet in our city. Here, for example, is an introduction to Arlene Croce's book (Croce was a beloved dance critic) "Writing in the Dark."

Looking back over the events covered in these pieces, I can hardly believe they happened. That dance could ever have been as rich, as varied, and as plentiful as it was in the seventies and eighties now seems a miracle. When I was appointed The New Yorker's dance critic, in 1973, I knew the hour was late: Balanchine was sixty-nine, Graham had left the stage, and any number of important careers were winding down. Still, there was enough activity to keep anybody interested, and what with Baryshnikov's defection in 1974 and Suzanne Farrell's return from exile that same year, there was more than I could keep up with. I was in the theatre nightly and sometimes, between Friday night and Sunday evening, I saw five performances.

Something about the ballet caught the imagination of critics and by extension the cultured in a way it does not today. At least, that's what's implied. It is an attitude I often hear. And yet, there *is* great dancing. There are great ballet dancers--perhaps without that dramatic sweep of the personal lives of Nureyev and Farrell, but great all the same (isn't it nicer for dancers not to have their personal lives so examined?) There are also other great dance companies, born out of the tradition of ballet. It wasn't so long ago that the Times and the New Yorker were declaring that this was a great age for dance in general.

Could it be that we are just getting older? Could it be that with the romance and danger that surrounded Nureyev's escape to the west, we are romanticizing and longing for a period of time that was in fact rather harsh, but that managed as a result to capture the public's imagination and we are letting that color our sense of what is "great"? Let's not forget the old adage about the death of the novel, coupled with (I think it was Proust) who said that old thing about any novel having only 2,000 serious readers at any one time. Is mass admiration ever true love?

I was thinking about all this--and I began to think about the novel. I have had tremendous difficulty reading anything in the past three years since my father died. I'm sure part of that is due to having been pregnant and then having a child and not being able to concentrate for long periods of time. There are other reasons too. But as I've said previously, my enthusiasm for the novel died out.

Lately though, I've been thinking about what an extraordinary form of art it is. True, you don't really need to have a theater for the ballet. Every day, (or nearly every day) there is an interpretive cupcake dance on behalf of the Magnolia Bakery in the Village. All this is done without an orchestra and a conductor who understands dancers and a set and lighting and seats and all the thing we think ballet should have. But still. When we think of going to the ballet, there are conditions under which we expect to experience it.

What do you need for a novel? Not much. You can be anywhere. You can be, as I have been, in a bunkhouse in Nebraska and still carry your culture with you, or find a beloved treasure. The novel can be epistolary. It can move freely through time. It can explore the darkest corners of the human mind. It can take you to other parts of the world. It is extraordinarily malleable and as a result, I believe, tenacious.

(Edited to add: not too long after I posted all of the above--and congrats if you made it all the way through--my friend Maud posted this video, in which Ishiguro does indeed say that his novel was about mortality and the fact that most of us accept our fates and do not fight back).


Asian American Writers Workshop and Literary Awards

On September 17th, I read an excerpt from my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, at the Asian American Writers Workshop alongside writers Tishani Doshi, and Oliver de la Paz.

The evening was hosted by AAWW director, Ken Chen, a frustratingly accomplished person who not only graduated from Berkeley and became a lawyer (for the disenfranchised), but turned his back on a lucrative profession to become a poet, whose first collection won the Yale Series of Younger Poets awards. He's also extremely kind and unusually intelligent (with a knack for fashion) and all these things in combination make some of us feel--why bother? Did I mention that his poetry is very good too?

And then there were the readings, all of which were very strong (and by that, I mean Tishani and Oliver had strong readings. I am not going to comment on myself). And both are also beautiful. It can be a lot to live up to--reading in New York City. Tishani is a dancer and a poet, in addition to being a novelist, and of a mixed background. Naturally, this spoke to me. And Oliver is a parent, with two small children, and I was interested to see how these life experiences had become part of his work (and that he still had work to share, even after having children. It gives one hope).

Finally, a bit of nice news. The AAWW sponsors a prize every year for writers of Asian descent. Picking Bones from Ash has been named to the longlist, alongside Ha Jin, Nami Mun, Paul Yoon, Daniyal Mueenuddin, YiYun Li, and Shawna Yang Ryan. This is extraordinary company. Picking Bones from Ash has had quite a journey in the last year. One worries about publishing a novel. Will anyone care? Will anyone read it? And yet, there has been some very kind recognition from important contests. I am extremely grateful.

(And thank you, Oliver, for letting me use these photos).

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