Monday, February 07, 2011


Discovering Balanchine, the Disbanding of Merce Cunningham, Books are Permanent Art

This weekend I was in Washington DC for the annual AWP writers conference. I was shy about going, yet ended up having a wonderful time seeing so many friends. There is also something very affirming about being with people who love to write and love books and share your struggles.

But the book--the end product of our toil--doesn't really care all that much about conferences. As an art form, it has not depended on congregating. And while an "informed reader" of, say, Shakespeare, might get a lot more out of his plays than someone who has misses every other reference (like me), there is probably still something in his work that is going to register, even on paper. I, as a reader in the middle of nowhere, can still feel comforted by my favorite novels. A book is not dependent on context.

I was thinking about this whole idea--how books can exist as art forms in isolation--and how this stands in strong contrast to the world of dance. George Balanchine is widely acknowledged as one of the genuises of the 20th century, though some critics lament that his gift is not as broadly noticed as, say, Stravinsky or even Norman Mailer. Why? Because dance is a collaborative art form and relies always on the interpreter. And unlike music, which has the CD, the MP3 and the vinyl record before that to capture some shadow of past greatness, dance is best experienced live. A DVD is essentially flat. And unlike drama, which can exist in book form, dance cannot be "read."

For years I have read passing references to the diminished greatness of New York City Ballet. My good friend, a culture maven if ever there was one, will simply not go. I meet a great many New Yorkers of a certain generation who are like this. Over the past few weeks, I have been digging through reviews of City Ballet to find a similar attitude reflected in the writing. Here, for example, is the curmudgeonly Robert Gottlieb whom, I have been assured, is actually very lovely in person.

To today's City Ballet dancers, "'Balanchine' is this step-driven, one-dimensional form. Occasionally, a dancer struggles to find more, as if she knows something is missing. But she ends up contriving emotion with breathy flourishes and fake ornamentation. The dances, like the dancers, look pretty enough; but we no longer know what they are about." Ms. Homans can hardly be accused of old-fogey nostalgia-she's relatively young-nor can she be accused of being part of an anti-Martins cabal: None of the New York critics seems to know her.

In a more recent review of the company, he writes:

The eight girls in Concerto Barocco, cast from strength, were accurate and pleasing, but they don't seem to know what the ballet is. There's no sense of its greatness, its significance. Corps girls used to be thrilled to be in Barocco—it was an honor. Today, it's just another assignment; the exaltation is gone. But then who is there to inspire them?

I was at that performance of Concerto Barocco. I had high hopes for it--I knew it was considered one of Balanchine's masterpieces. But I was deflated by the end. I couldn't see anything that was at all great. It felt . . . weak and empty. I found the classicism forced and untethered. I thought: "If only there were a story to rescue all this movement. Then, perhaps, the dancers would know why they were even up there at all." I've seen laser shows set to music that were more exciting than Concerto Barocco. And then, because I can be insecure and hard on myself, I decided that I just didn't get it. The problem must be me.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know that I have also seen other Balanchine pieces which were a revelation--but they depended on the casting. The steps in the choreography, I've decided, aren't enough to elevate a piece to greatness. In some instances--the 4Ts comes to mind--I can really see why something is interesting and unusual and even daring. But often, the Balanchine stuff falls flat. Why?

I've been digging around and learned some interesting things--much of which will sound like gossip. The aforementioned Robert Gottlieb, he of the Balanchine biography, was once on City Ballet's board. But he left at one point when confronted by Peter Martins. At that time, Gottlieb was the editor in chief at the New Yorker, and Arlene Croce, the legendary dance critic, was lobbying arrow after cannonball at Peter Martins. Eventually, Martins cornered Gottlieb and said something along the lines of: "You not only publish her, you agree with her."

The negativity is not hard to find. Before her tome, Apollo's Angels was published, Jennifer Homans wrote this clarion call.

Now the unthinkable has happened: at the City Ballet, Balanchine ballets have become boring, pompous and passé. Since Balanchine's death, what was once so vital has become dull and ''established: a lifeless orthodoxy reigns.

What happened? Balanchine's ballets are not in trouble just because Balanchine died. They are in trouble because an era has ended.

Maybe it's because I'm from northern California, or maybe it's because I married a stoic Scot, but I don't like doom and gloom scenarios. They annoy me. But how to find out the truth for myself? It's not like I can go back in time and see City Ballet and compare those past performances with the present. There are, however, some reviews and the more I googled and researched, the more I kept coming up with these names: Arlene Croce and Edwin Denby. Fortunately for us, their work still exists. Two weeks ago in San Francisco, I came across a collection of Denby's essays while perusing the lovely bookstore Browser Books in Pacific Heights (I was waiting to go eat at SPQR). The shopkeeper was a culture hound and we had a wonderful, dizzying talk about the opera, symphony and dance. I also left with a copy of essays by someone named Nancy Goldner.

And then today--a review of Goldner's essays by Gottlieb. One of the essays focuses on Concerto Barocco, that boring ballet that so let me down last fall. Of Goldner's essay, Gottlieb writes:

Or consider this throwaway remark about what to many people is Balanchine’s signature work, Concerto Barocco : “Typically, dancers, like regular people, make contact with their arms. In Concerto Barocco they say hello to each other with their legs.” Again, the writing is homey, but the thinking isn’t.

And this, then, made me want very much to see Concerto Barocco again. Could I perhaps pick out these visual cues, in spite of subpar dancing? Balanchine said that one can't capture dance through words. As a writer, I disagree-a writer *ought* to be able to capture anything. Reading Goldner's essay makes me want to see Concerto Barocco again, to look for the energy and the imagery that is described therein.

There was another incident of serendipity in San Francisco. While at my beloved Amoeba Records, I came across old recordings of Balanchine's work--for DVD, but with original casting. I sat down and read Goldner's essay and Edwin Denby's essay on the Four Temperaments. Then I watched the video. What a revelation. The steps, as performed by these dancers, were full of vitality, nuance and relevance. It is as they say--the dancers do inform the art. If only I could watch all of Balanchine's work this way--with the aid of good and loving critics and performances of the past. The present might feel a little bit different. But this is perhaps an extreme length to go, to try to understand something. Then again, I'm a writer.

There are critics who see a silver lining. Balanchine no longer resides only at New York City Ballet. Even the doom and gloomers acknowledge that fine productions are put on by the Royal Ballet or by Miami. Others are sympathetic to Peter Martins' plight; Martins, after all, never claimed to be Balanchine and took on a nearly impossible task of filling the master's dance shoes. As someone new to the City Ballet watching scene, I like and respect that he tries to keep the repertory fresh and new. How else can a young dancer be excited?

A few years ago, I did start to hear some chatter that City Ballet was looking better, even to the grouchs. Here, for example, is an article by Gottlieb in which he singles out some of the young, new performers. Alastair MaCauley has singled out Sara Mearns as the great American ballerina of our generation. Something good is happening. And still, it is said, the company isn't what it once was. One can still walk out of Concerto Barocco disappointed.

Perhaps aware of all of this kind of drama, the Merce Cunningham company announced that it would disband at the end of 2011, after a farewell tour. Cunningham himself died in 2009 (I saw him alive at 90, at BAM-thank God). This seems like an extreme measure. On the other hand, it is one way to avoid the fate of being called "lifeless." In an article today in the Times, MaCaulay posited that perhaps Cunningham's work would not be seen again, though some efforts are underway to save the choreography. We have Giselle and that damned Swan Lake. Why can't we also keep Biped? I am a sentimentalist. But I also know that dance, like jazz improvisation, is a living art.

Respect all living things, says the Buddha. Life is an illusion. I still hope the novel is permanent. I still believe in permanence. If it weren't for writing things down, for example, Mahler would be a footnote in history as a good conductor. Thank God someone revived his symphonies. One hopes the same for Balanchine and Cunningham.

“Not only is the Company dancing as well now as at any time since 1950, but Martins has maintained the Company’s heritage and its heritage spirit in the most exemplary fashion.”
Clive Barnes: Dance Magazin,e Nov. 2002.

“…….. works are danced 23 weeks a year at New York City Ballet, the only company in the world that can attract a public for that long in one city. …..Professional Balanchine mourners: move on!”
Anna Kisselgoff: New York Times, Jan 6, 2005

The above quotes speak for themselves.
I fully respect not only your opinion, but your obvious commitment to all the arts in NYC. You are part of the reason that New Yorkers even have so many cultural riches to enjoy.

But it's impossible for me to let someone think *for* me. The fact that Anna Kisselgoff and Clive Barnes say that something is so, doesn't make it so for me.

I was trying to write about my search and struggle to understand Balanchine. I question not only the naysayers, but those who also say that everything is "just fine." There is much that I am enjoying at City Ballet. And I encourage my friends to go to the ballet and to support it. But two quotes in isolation can't convince me that I should stop asking questions.
Thanks Marie. Please know that I also fully respect your right to your opinion - obviously one that has a lot of experience and thought behind it. I merely wished to indicate that despite the recent gainsayers, NYCB has some very respected admirers as well, and want to be sure that these experts, and their views, are not lost in the anti-Martins maelstrom!
What a lovely response, Carl! I am someone who very much wants NYCB to stay put. And as I wrote above, the doom and gloomers seem to be taking too easy a stance. It is so easy to just say that something is dead, rather than to try to actually work to do something constructive.

I think there is a great deal going on right now that makes dance--and City Ballet--a wonderful world to explore. In general, I like to and want to side with the keepers of the flame. It would be far worse to completely lose what Balanchine gave us.
This is really a great post - the thought of reading the writings between then and now and comparing the performances via DVD is great - also thought that what you picked up in the old reviews you read was a great way of informing you of what should or could have been special about a piece. In the end, did the dance miss the mark (for CB) or was it you, do you think?
I still don't know! I actually haven't found Concerto Barocco on DVD or on video yet. The DVDs I purchased have a number of other great pieces--Chaconne (which I like much better on video than when I saw it live) and some of Jewels. But no CB. I will have to try to see it again, and to be a bit more careful with dancers.

I should also note that I ran into Toni Bentley who told me that Miami does a great job with Balanchine, and that they will be in Paris this summer. I would love to go to Paris just for the ballet. ;-) But I don't know how feasible that will be--and summer airfare to Europe is always so expensive!
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