Thursday, November 30, 2006

Some thoughts on the subject of The Ballet

Of the many forms of artistic expression that humanity has contrived for purposes of aesthetic fulfilment and popular entertainment, ballet is the one that leaves me coldest.

I can just about tolerate, in a maudlin Merry Christmas sort of way, a very traditional comic piece like The Nutcracker – or maybe I can just tolerate The Nutcracker. And even then it’s the music I enjoy, not the prancing. Just as the tone-deaf Captain Hornblower would rather be on deck receiving a full broadside from a French frigate than be forced to sit through a musical concert (to him all music is a mysterious, meaningless cacophony of scraping and yelling); and just as Britterina would rather undergo root canal work than watch a cricket match on television; so it is with ballet and me: I gaze on, nonplussed and frustrated, at professional dancers going about their business, helplessly searching for some kind of cultural connection, or at least basic amusement.

Ballet criticism, however, is another matter. The writings of Clement Crisp – one of the most acerbic and pithy critics of the London theatre scene – are well worth reading. In a review of the show “Bussell and Zelensky” in today’s Financial Times, he neatly encapsulates everything I most fear and loathe about my artistic nemesis:



Zelensky then appears in 18 minutes of Russian angst (even more fraught than the usual brand) made by Alla Sigalova and “inspired” by a poem by Osip Mandelstam about “a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself”.

Black curtains are lowered behind him, he flails about as a Handel concerto grosso wends its way, and nothing happens at all, save the thought that differences in our views about what is “choreography” and what is dreary posturing are as vast as the distance between London and Novosibirsk, where Zelensky now directs the ballet troupe.

After a gaping interval, three couples from his Siberian troupe appear in “Whispers in the Dark”, one of those murky exercises in which the performers romp in all-too-familiar permutations over a stage made less than interesting by shafts of light and dry ice. A score by Philip Glass. Exquisitely predictable activity from girls in flat shoes and horrid little black frocks (which make them look, shall we say, stalwart, as does the choreography) and men in black leotards and bare chests.



The Nutcracker at Christmas is one thing. But in my vision of Hell, a man in a leotard endlessly dances a Russian poem about a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself, on a stage made less interesting by shafts of light and dry ice.

26 comments:

Peter Burnet said...

Ah, a man of impeccable taste. We went to see "Movin' Out" last week--all dance. The first fifteen minutes were great because the athletic artistry was very impressive, but then the dark shadow of terminal boredom started to descend and I had to focus on Darwin to stay awake and stifle the grumpies. It's a little like I imagine what having a stroke is like--first the finger-tips go numb, then the hand, then the arm, etc.

As my wife was enthralled and friends who saw it couldn't stop talking about how "great" it was, I had to be careful, but I allowed myself the comment that watching ballet/dance is a little like watching a three-hour fireworks display. You can only ooh and aah genuinely for a short while before you find yourself doing it so no one will know you just want to go home.

Brit said...

Precisely - I accept that the skills are impressive - but then I'd rather watch gymnastics or acrobats for physical excellence.

And even then, as you say, interest can only be sustained for so long.
I can marvel at one teenage elf performing quadruple somersaults with twist and pike or whatever, but by the seventh almost-identical-but-disinguishable-by-the-expert-eye-of-the-judge teenage elf routine I'm ready to clean out the oven or defrost the refridgerator in preference to more.

Peter Burnet said...

And the tedium is magnified by what Crisp dissects exquisitely--the self-awareness theme. In "Movin Out" the young men go to Vietnam, are scarred horribly by the middle of the first act and spend the rest of the show pulling themselves out of a drug and sex-filled Hell very s-l-o-w-l-y and then finding themselves through love. Wow, that's original. To make the point, their costumes get cleaner and more clean-cut with each scene. At one point I felt we were only minutes away from seeing them all in blazers and grey flannels.

This mind-numbing self-indulgence infects almost all art these days, but especially dance. Brit, you are pretty artsy, can't you start a campaign to bring back a focus on the outside world? How about we start with a ballet on The Great Train Robbery?

Brit said...

I've had enough of watching some bloke in spandex illustrating his inner existential torment by writhing around as if in physical torment, and demonstrating his internal cries for help by making pleading motions to the stage wings, and of representing the societal binds that constrain him by doing all the above in a giant theatrical cage.

So yes, let's do The Great Train Robbery - but instead of prancing about we'll make the actors walk, and instead of conveying the plot through elaborate mimes and gestures, we'll simplify it by giving them lines to speak, and instead of a 'ballet' we'll call it a 'play'. Now that I could dig.

Hey Skipper said...

It's a dead cinch that ballet wouldn't exist except for Team Estrogen. Whether TE intrinsically enjoys ballet, or finds the spectacle secondary to their ability to subject us to torture most exquisite is a matter of some debate amongst experts.

As it happens, my one and only visit to this particular rack was in Oxford, at the behest of TE (but not SWIPIAW -- let's be clear on this), to see The Nutcracker.

What I remember are two things:

shuffle-tromp-shuffle-shuffle-tromp that so much seemed to go on for ever that I am probably still there in some alternate, and ultimately disagreeable universe --

and

the immersion in an ennui so thick, lifeless and gray as to be a reasonable simlacrum of this universe's ultimate thermodynamic death.

It is a very close call, though, as to whether it is worse than opera.

Brit said...

Mind you, "an ennui so thick, lifeless and gray as to be a reasonable simlacrum of this universe's ultimate thermodynamic death" is pretty much how I feel about Formula 1 racing.

Re opera, Nabakov claimed that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, and opera is tolerable for those brief moments - the Big Tunes - between eternities of the "Recitative" - the interminable wandering bits necessary for maintaining the plot.

Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

Mind you, "an ennui so thick, lifeless and gray as to be a reasonable simlacrum of this universe's ultimate thermodynamic death" is pretty much how I feel about Formula 1 racing.


Mind you, I am a F1 fan.

And, oddly enough, completely understand the intense boredom field that would nearly instantly envelope all but the spectacularly brain damaged.

Peter Burnet said...

Maybe we can all agree philosophically with the great ennui synthesis and then all join hands and condemn golf.

But, Skipper, you are wrong about opera. You are supposed to snooze and then soar. However, as Brit says, you can't soar if you don't snooze.

Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

The real name for golf is Whackdamn, and there is no more sure way to ruin a fine afternoon's walk.

As for opera, your comment reminds me of when I a discussion long ago between one guy who owned a Mazda RX-7, and a couple of us who owned a different kind of sports car.

At one point he said, in as concise a refutation of philosophy as I have ever heard: "You guys aren't having as much fun (or in the present case, boredom) as you think you are.

martpol said...

Brit:

"...instead of prancing about we'll make the actors walk, and instead of conveying the plot through elaborate mimes and gestures, we'll simplify it by giving them lines to speak, and instead of a 'ballet' we'll call it a 'play'. Now that I could dig.

Precisely. This encapsulates exactly why I can't be doing with ballet (or indeed opera, though I have never sat down and really tried hard to enjoy either). Good music should make you want to close your eyes and sink into a state of blissful exploration of one of your senses. I don't want to be watching someone acting out the story of the music at the same time, partly because I want to create my own stories and subtexts.

Duck said...

Opera, I like, though I haven't been to one in ages, due to the lack of a willing partner. My wife, while we were together, would never step foot in an opera, or even suffer to have it on the TV. In most marriages it is the other way around. What's that line about irony and the universe?

The Nutcracker is enjoyable, for all the reasons that Brit can't stand it - the so called maudlin angle, which for how he uses the term I take it to mean music that is, you know, musical. But for most other dance performances I would have to agree with the consensus. Dance really has a very limited vocabulary. It is ironic that in the art forms that have greater vocabularies, such as painting, modern artists choose to paint about nothing, whereas with dance, which is really about nothing, choreographers try to get it to make some statement or tell a story.

Peter Burnet said...

I would welcome a post from our host on his theory of the maudlin. I hope he wouldn't include Tammy Wynette's Stand by Your Man.

Duck said...

Peter,
While awaiting our host's reply to your request, let me venture my own explanation. It seems that our host, judging from the recent photo of him reading "young hornblower" on the veranda of his Greek hideaway, is considerably younger than the rest of the PostJudd nexus, and would qualify for the title "Gen-X'er", if not of a later lineage. We of the Boomer lineage grew up listening to our parent's recordings of 101 Strings, Ferrante & Teicher and other postwar romantic throwbacks to a simpler time.

We then went on to popularize 60's era Rock & Roll, which for all its purported rebelliousness was suffused with emotional earnestness and romantic idealizations of its own.

Then the Gen-X'ers came along and needed their own cultural Zeitgeist in reaction to all this emotional earnestness, and irony as a lifestyle was born. Irony is about not taking emotions and ideals seriously. It is the opposite of earnestness and romanticism. Gen-X ironists like to play with the emotional repertoire without really admitting to it. It is like OJ's recent aborted book deal. They like songs that make statements like "If I cared about you leaving me, I'd sing a song like this".

It is a phase. Their children will react in turn, and Montovani, Tammy Wynette and Barry Manilow will be redeemed as musical gods.

Peter Burnet said...

Duck, where are your manners? You are supposed to wait until the host puts a post up before starting a comment thread on it attacking him.

Emotional earnestness and romantic idealizations? The Boomers? Oh, you mean about sex 'n stuff? Hmm, I guess. Duck, by any chance, was your favourite Boomer music this?

Duck said...

Peter, there was more to 60's music than just sex 'n stuff. There were the Cowsills, as you pointed out (from my home state of RI, by the way). There were songs with lyrics like "it is soo groovy now, that people are finally getting together", and "up up and away in my beautiful balloon", and "he ain't heavy, he's my brother". All that Age of Aquarius optimism and stuff.

Brit said...

Have patience - a forthcoming post will define 'maudlin' so that there can be no further doubt on the point.

And yes, I am Gen-X, but that fact has never influenced my tastes.

Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

All that Age of Aquarius optimism

Yes, we were very earnest pagans, weren't we? And, of course, Hair was a roaring success because of the "groovy" optimism. Nothing to do with the sex 'n stuff.

Though I am enjoying the image of you in your dotage playing "up, up and away in my beautiful balloon" for the grandkids. "Mom, Grandad is making us listen to his optimistic music again. Do we have to?"

Duck said...

Peter, sex does not negate the earnestness angle of the 60's. In fact, I'd say that sex is the thing that humans are the most earnest about. Do you think the great, maudlin romantic symphonies of the late 19th century had nothing to do with sex? Do you think the ballads of Frank Sinatra had nothing to do with sex? They were just more discreet before the 60s.

Boomers were very earnest about sex, because they somehow got it in their mind that they invented it, and that this discovery of theirs was going to change the world. Make love not war. Once everyone gave up their sexual hangups and let it all hang out, we would all live in peace. John Lennon's "Imagine" is nothing if not a treacly, maudlin anthem to earnest hippie idealism.

Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Do you think the great, maudlin romantic symphonies of the late 19th century had nothing to do with sex?

Of course they did, but they understood sublimation, inter-gender ambiguities and all the other mysterious incidents of the Great Game. I'm sorry, but "You turn me on, I'd like to pork you." doesn't make much of a Hallmark card.

Duck said...

Wasn't that by the Little Rascals?

Peter, you seem to have an enormous mental block where the 60s are concerned. All you can see whenever that decade is mentioned is flashing red neon "XXX Sex, Sex, Sex XXX". Even with its excesses, 60s music rarely expressed sexual desire that crudely. That had to wait for Hip Hop.

Peter Burnet said...

"XXX Sex, Sex, Sex XXX".

No, that was the sign for the porn outlet in East Tennessee we passed a couple of years ago on I-75. In retrospect, it may not have been the best moment for me to remark to my wife that one of the highlights of any American vacation is outlet shopping.

Peter, you seem to have an enormous mental block where the 60s are concerned.

You think I didn't enjoy it at the time?

martpol said...

''"Even with its excesses, 60s music rarely expressed sexual desire that crudely."

Velvet Underground did, though, start 'Venus in Furs' with the lines

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girlchild in the dark


and went on to talk about a "tongue of thongs" and "tasting the whip".

And it's interesting to note that that particular band was a big influence on the very irony-rich Generation X-ers mentioned earlier in the discussion.

Brit said...

I thought it began in 1963.

Duck said...

Peter, so were you a hippie? Young Augustine, maybe?

Peter Burnet said...

Not hippie, horny. Sure, Duck, that was me all right--sporting long hair, tie-dyed shirts and peace symbols, blowing dope and listening to The Cowsills.

But I did have a spell where I was deeply into left-wing radicalism and Darwinism. Mom wouldn't put up with it and the rest is history.

Duck said...

Thanks Peter. That's all I needed to complete my psycho-sexual profile, the dossier is complete. My masters are very demanding, need to get it to the courier by 4:00 this afternoon.