Mob Mentality

Apollinaire writes: The English choreographer Matthew Bourne is in town through the end of the month with his latest production, “Edward Scissorhands.” Writing a profile on him, I remembered how terrifying the corps in his “Swan Lake” was.
The corps in the 19th century “Swan Lake” is part swan, part woman: a metaphor being made before our eyes. Bourne’s corps is a mob. He returns us to what a corps would be if a corps existed in the world.
The closest a canonical ballet has come to the force of Bourne’s male, homicidal swans are the Wilis in the Romantic ballet “Giselle” (1841)–brides who died before they could marry and now, as avenging spirits, dance to death any hapless man who wanders into their woods. Like Bourne’s swans, these forsaken maidens have turned their desires inside out–into violent hate.
It makes sense that a Romantic ballet would have the most tribal and dangerous corps, as these ballets emerged in the 1800s, when republics were rising out of the ashes of monarchies all across Europe. The “folk” were taking over (comparatively speaking), and ballet was infused with folk steps and folk-tale figures, with heroines who strived to rise above their station (finally they could imagine doing so, even if they were ruined for imagining it) and perhaps also with the delirious pleasures and menace of the crowd.
Of course, a hundred years later, Hitler resurrected that nationalist fervor for fascist purposes; Nijinsky and his sister Nijinska presciently offer the insidious side of folk custom in their modernist ballets “The Rite of Spring” (1913) and “Les Noces” (1923). But the original impulse to yoke folk and nation was democratic, liberatory and mainly innocent.
And the dances? Were the depiction of crowds scary, joyous–what?
I asked Foot contributor Paul Parish, who knows way more about ballet history (and everything else), about the crowd in early ballets. Here’s his illuminating response. He begins in the 19th century, then takes flight.
The annoying dates affixed to the ballets are mine. Since we’re thinking about the ballets in the context of their times, I thought it would be useful to know when they were made. And it is fascinating to find that they’re clustered around certain epochs: in Europe, the Romantic era; in the Soviet Union, the era of Soviet “realism,” which inevitably lasted as long as the USSR; in America, the Great Depression and the last decade or so.
Paul writes: Hmmmmmm– not sure about ballets, but in 19th century stagings of Shakespeare, the plays with big turbulent crowd scenes were the very popular ones. Not to mention battle scenes — “Richard III,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” (Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane — that’s a corps de ballet).
Twenty years ago, when I was working on “The Winter’s Tale,” I read a lot about old stagings of it — it was immensely popular around 1900 — and the pictures, such as old newspaper engravings, showed wild crowd scenes, the people reacting to the news. And of course that had to be choreographed.
The descendants are ballets like Leonid Lavrovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1940) for the Kirov, with its HUGE crowd scenes, Cecil B. DeMille epics, John Ford cowboy fight scenes, Keystone Kops chase scenes….my hunch is that there WERE crowd scenes in ballets — who would be able to DO the scenes better than dancers?
The words “chorus” and “mob” and “democracy” are very closely connected. The Latin word for “mob”–or the disorder that produces a mob–is “turbo,” whence “turbulence,” “turbid,” “turbine,” meaning variously, “whipped up,” “whirling,” “confused.” And this group dynamic, with all its complexities, is one of the great things you can investigate with a corps de ballet.
It can be scary. In Charles Weidman’s “Lynchtown” (1936), it’s Mrs. Grundy whipping up some ugly fear. But it doesn’t have to be IMMEDIATELY scary (as the Wilis are). In Forsythe’s “Artifact Suite” (1984; 2006), the corps are very exciting, but in the first section, it’s like rituals that never reach completion but tend in directions just as harsh and anti-humane as those in “Les Noces.”
The scariest corps may be the trolls in Bournonville’s “A Folk Tale” (1854) for the Royal Danish Ballet. The whole second act is about drunken trolls being scary — hilarious, incredibly inventive, but if you care about “our girl,” they’re scary. She’s their prisoner, has been all her life, and she realizes that if they get really drunk she may be able to escape, and she does.
Bournonville is very amusing step-by-step in bringing the trolls to life — but at the same time they’re about to force her to marry one of them and she does NOT want to.
Louis Merante pretty much copied this strategy in the second act of his “Sylvia” (1876) for the ballet of the Paris Opera, as did Ashton and Mark Morris in their “Sylvias,” but without being as inventive as Bournonville.
Also, the Roman soldiers in Grigorovitch’s “Spartacus” (1968) for the Bolshoi are scary; the women are particularly degenerate. Curiously, the Arabs in Petipa’s “Raymonda” are not scary, except their leader Abderakhman, who’s a preening macho thug. His slaves DO slaver, and you wouldn’t want to have to be one of them — but they’re not scary to us. It’s him that’s the creep.
The corps can also be sublime–the beauty that contains terror but is indifferent to human fears. For example: the corps de ballet in Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1934), which is impersonal, like waves crashing against rocks — especially in the first movement, when the lines of dancers go stationary like ridges of rock extending out into the sea and other dancers come flying by them, cut round the corner and dash back out the way they came, like a wave going back out to sea.
Democratic elections are mob rule and not scary; so are jury decisions. Scary to think about it, but the intellectual has to take his chances in a democracy. Both Bush and Hitler got ELECTED. Socrates was put to death by popular-majority election — maybe the nadir, but worse follies may lie in our future. On the other hand, Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt ALSO got elected, so maybe you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Mobs, real turbulent mobs, ARE delirious, drunken; they come from the back of the mind. Maybe truth is found through drunkenness. Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” As Hamlet’s friend Horatio said, “I do in part believe it.”
My favorite example of this is the crowd at a football game that surges down onto the field when the game is over and swarms up the goalposts and shakes them till they come down. It might be the Maenads tearing Orpheus or Pentheus limb from limb, but in fact in the football crowd nobody’s getting hurt (except the INDIVIDUAL who’s trying NOT to get swept along — that’s the only person who gets trampled). The mob en masse relaxes into the process and goes with the flow.
All through the game, the goal has been THE goal of the crowd; this is vicarious experience. The kinesthetic response is HIGHLY engaged among these people — again and again spasms of urgency aimed at that goal. The crowd has jumped to its feet already with every completed pass, every successful running play. Every touchdown has made them stand up, jump up and down, and scream, and now that “game time” has come to and end and the immortality of victory has arrived, the crowd loses all sense of boundary and pours down onto the field, into the end zone, and up the goal posts like bees that take possession of their new home — they swarm all over the uprights, hang from the crossbeams, and enter into spasmic contortions designed to shake the whole assembly till it topples. Amazingly, nobody gets hurt. Totally Dionysian enterprise — they all relax into it. The only people taken to hospital are those who tried to stay out of it.
For a counterexample, a dance that did NOT work: Remy Charlip and Margaret Jenkins tried to make a dance on such a theme here in SF a decade ago — based on the “White Night” riots, when queers rioted around City Hall after the SF Supervisor Dan White was acquitted of murdering Mayor Moscone and his fellow, gay supervisor, Harvey Milk.
The Jenkins-Charlip premise was that the Kronos Quarter would sit center-stage, representing (sort of) City Hall while playing some brainy music, and the dancers would surge dangerously around them. The problem was that the dancers had to be too careful, so the whole thing got nowhere theatrically.
Lincoln Kirstein once said that he would never let his dancers do the things that Paul Taylor required of his dancers — because “they are too dangerous.” He had a point. Insurance wouldn’t cover it, and the union wouldn’t allow it.
Had Taylor choreographed “Last Look” (1985) yet? I don’t remember, but that would be an ideal instance of a scary corps de ballet. Scary theatrical and IN FACT scary, like Elizabeth Streb — it’s really dangerous what they do in that ballet. Remember? The dancers are all lying on the floor, comatose, as the curtain rises, amidst a scary jumble of objects — it’s like they’re all stoned on opium. As they gradually come to, they touch each other and go into paroxysms of hatred. They seem to be going through withdrawal, and anything that provokes consciousness provokes irritability, if not loathing, and soon they’re hurling little Reagan Wood all over the place like in an S+M scene. It’s a GREAT ballet, “Last Look,” and Reagan Wood was a hero.
In Forsythe’s latest ballet, “Three Atmospheric Studies,” the corps might be scary but don’t have to be taken that way. The ballet could have been called “Three Studies in Turbulence” (since that’s what Forsythe means by atmospherics). The first scene is an arrested fight scene in which a crowd in the marketplace becomes a mob, with “our boy” eventually accidentally killing someone. That moment is arrested, fragmented, replayed over and over again with algorithmic variations that expand it. The scene is over when HE is arrested.
It put me in mind of Eugene Loring’s “Billy the Kid” (1938), which (curiously) when I asked him about it at the after-performance Q+A, Forsythe said he’d never heard of — hard to believe, BUT if Leni Riefensthal could forget that those gypsies who’d been in her movie were in fact slave labor, a big IF, maybe Forsythe could have forgotten he’d ever seen “Billy the Kid.” Artists DO forget things — they HAVE to — but that’s another issue.
Anyway, in “Billy the Kid,” the corps create by their movements a crossroads, a marketplace, a town, a variety of ethnic groups (the slutty dance hall girls, with their knees far apart, the “nice” Mexican girls, who keep their knees together, the bowlegged cowboys, the “upright” sheriff), and make a ruckus. There’s a shooting, and Billy’s mother gets killed, and Billy unthinkingly stabs the guy who killed his mother and becomes an outlaw in an instant — and Loring did all this in 60 seconds or less. Forsythe took half an hour to do no more, though with a fascinating elaboration of the circumstances.
The heart of the Forsythe is the next section, in which the boy’s mother tries to get a translator to help her write a deposition that will free her son from prison. The actress playing the mother is fantastic, and the role is a great one. It’s Mary the mother of Jesus all over again, trying to get the authorities to let her darling son go, and it could be any mother in Iraq or Palestine who doesn’t understand how she’s lost her little boy to the passions of idealistic young manhood. It’s truly great — in a strange way, the nearest thing to it in my mind is Mark Morris’s “Shroud of White,” in which the grieving mother takes the opposite position politically but essentially the same position emotionally, the mother-bear position. Both of them just break my heart. And in both cases, the boy has died for his people, and the mother can and should be proud.
That’s the thing about the mob. It’s “us” or “them.” And sometimes it really is. Xenophobia is in many ways a reasonable force.

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