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April 7, 2003

modernism in dance

I know less about ballet than about any other art form, which is to say, nothing. Thus I was fascinated to read Jennifer Homans' article "Geniuses Together," in the New York Review of Books some time ago. I have long believed that "modernism" means a recognition that all the past ways of representing the world have been arbitrary and culturally relative styles. Once modernism arrives, we have three main choices: (1) historicism, the effort to reproduce past styles accurately and comprehensively; (2) abstraction, the effort to move beyond style and representation altogether by taking inspiration from something universal, such as mathematics or the unconscious; or (3) irony, the joking recognition that there is no way out of style. I've argued that these are the choices faced by the visual arts and also by philosophy. My friend David Luban argues that even law faces this dilemma. From Homans' article, it appears that the ballets of Stravinsky perfectly illustrate the same situation. First came a historicist phase, around 1909, when Michel Fokine was Stravinsky's choreographer:

Ballet, [Fokine] said, was hopelessly "confused." It was historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers were ridiculously "straight-backed." ... Ballet, Fokine insisted, must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev's: a ballet, he said, must "have complete unity of expression." It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa's French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of that place and time. .... In Fokine and Diaghilev's historicist aesthetic, classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. ....

And then came abstraction, with Balanchine:

Choreographically, Apollon Musagète created a stylistically unified, Fokinesque "whole" world. But Balanchine broke with Fokine in one crucial respect. .... For Balanchine, what mattered was that the external shape, color, and tone of the movement capture an important idea. He was not interested in historical accuracy or what he called "petty, everyday" emotions: he was trying to show something more elevated: "supplication."[7]

In 1957, Balanchine further simplified Apollo (as it was then renamed) by dispensing with the ballet's seventeenth-century sets and costumes in favor of simple black-and-white practice cloths against a plain backdrop. As such, he brought Apollo into aesthetic orbit with his most recent Stravinsky collaboration: Agon. .... Agon was the culmination of an aesthetic Balanchine first introduced in 1946 with The Four Temperaments, and it changed everything we know about how to watch a dance. Agon has no clear narrative, no melodic or lyrical line: rather, it piles blocks of movement and music one on top of another. ....

Of course, dancing in plain lyotards in front of plain drapes is also a style. In the other arts, sooner or later, minimalism and abstraction are seen as arbitrary styles, at which point irony becomes the only option. I wonder whether this has happened in dance.

April 7, 2003 12:10 PM | category: fine arts | Comments


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