foot in mouth: February 2007 Archives
Well, I think it's very cordial of John Rockwell to respond. It's nice to know that claims of sexism are taken seriously by the powers that be! That's what struck me most about your post -- the overall sentiment that there are few women in positions of power in the dance world. Recently, a NYCB patron asked during a First Position discussion why the company had produced little to no ballets by women during its recent Diamond Projects.
And Clive Barnes wrote a piece in Dance Magazine several months ago about how women dancemakers are having a harder time of it -- an issue also addressed briefly during one of the pre-performance panel discussions at City Center's Fall For Dance festival. So, it's not as if these claims are coming from nowhere! It's very nice of Rockwell to respond. I am also dying to hear Dunning's answer to your question!
I thought it was very nice, too. He is nice that way: no hoity-toit. I do take issue with one of his claims, though: that there are "so many women critics in the other arts" at the Times. As the women critics count as less than half, whence "so many"? Perhaps he was including all of the badly paid freelancers...
Here's a little rundown of the staff critics (and I don't have an official list distinguishing staffers from freelancers, so there may be some inaccuracies, but you'll get the picture):
Classical music: 4 men, 1 women; chief: man
Pop music: 2 men
Theater: 2 men
Dance: 1 man, 1 woman; chief: man
Visual art and architecture: 4 men, 2 women; chief: man
books: 2 women, 1 man; chief: woman
TV: three women!!! (I don't know who the chief is)
Movies: 2 men, 1 woman; joint chiefs: a man and a woman
Total: 16 men, 10 women. Chiefs: 6 men; 3 women.
I hate resorting to counting, and wouldn't have if John had only refrained from imagining that this ratio counted as "so many women."
Like you, Tonya, I am eager to hear from Jennifer Dunning, though it's possible that she didn't have much power in the hiring decision one way or another.
Here's an exchange with recently retired Times head dance critic, John Rockwell, in response to the following two posts about the hire of Alastair Macaulay and not a woman or a New Yorker (Here's post #1 and here's post #2, where I've summarized recent comments that I can't get access to. I also made a few revisions to my own post in light of more developments and thinking.)
I know John from when he was the editor in chief of the Times' Arts and Leisure section. He was a wonderful editor. He left the section editors alone enough that they were happy at their jobs and the section had that satisfyingly bumpy quality you get when editors don't overwork the articles. John was also very nice when being critical. I wrote and then rewrote one article that never turned out particularly well, and instead of him doing the usual journo thing of "!%%$@^^@%@%@," he said, "I don't think it finally worked." Isn't that nice? As a writer, that's something you can live with.
Anyway, he initiated a short email exchange--more than I deserved, given all my grumblings. Something he alludes to: I was offered a freelancer position at the Times a couple of years ago and decided not to take it, for involved reasons including that I would have to leave Newsday, where I am also a freelancer but have an excellent editor (John Habich) and wasn't one among 4 other dance writers, all with more seniority
I may be wrong, but while I may have called the girls girls occasionally, I think the term was Jennifer's [Dunning]. And she used it affectionately!
I'm sure she did use it affectionately. And that you do too! I didn't mean for the focus to be so heavily on the word "girls." I use it all the time, and "boy" too for the boys. I really don't care what we call each other as long as people aren't being taken for granted.
I guess the reason I made a deal of it was a conversation I remember last winter. I asked, "So, John, any plans to hire any of the freelancers?" You: "No, I like having all of the girls around." It was probably less "the girls" than the "around."
A--If I liked "having all the girls around," how would that affect a decision to hire one of them on staff (not that any slots were then available)? And if the Times is so anti-women, how come they had Anna forever and went after Joan Acocella in 2004 or whenever it was and have so many women critics in the other arts??
I still think Jennifer was the one who routinely called our stringers the girls, since she's sweet like that ("bunnies" is another favorite) and was and is concerned, more than I ever was, that we need male critics for the powers to take the field seriously. So maybe I was echoing her, though you could ask her. Whatever.
Editor's note: So I did ask her--not about whether she called the freelancers bunnies or girls but whether she felt that "we need male critics for the powers to take the field seriously." She's out of town. Will get back to me when she's back. And I will post.
Fact is, however patriarchally, I did bring in three women (and trimmed one man). When I did, I made it clear to them (and to you, when we were talking about you coming to the NYT) that when a staff slot came open, the Times would look both internally and further afield, since no one would expect someone from London or L.A. or wherever to relocate to NY for a stringer job (although I did, in 1972).
I had nothing to do with Alastair's hire, though I've been in phone and email correspondence with him. Apparently they (and "they" included some women editors) felt that none of the stringers had (yet) risen to the occasion, as you suggested. I'm not sure of that, but they all had their chances, in Sunday pieces, critics' notebooks and reviews. Seems highly improbable to me that consciously or unconsciously they were passed over because they were women. I'm more interested in Paul Parish's American/New York vs. Britain angle, though maybe an outsider's perspective will be interesting, so let's give Alastair a chance.
I don't think it was ever contemplated to expand or contract the two staff slots now allotted to dance criticism. So when Jennifer retires, we shall see. John
Editor's note: I also asked John why they hadn't tiered the hire of the three freelancers--that is, hired someone who had more years of reviewing experience who might have been able to move up to the top post, and thus leave only two freelancers competing for the one remaining slot. I mentioned a few writers such as Mindy Aloff and Nancy Dalva and others, just as examples of people with a large body of work, high quality of writing, etc. . He wrote back, in part, "I'm not going to get into the strengths and weaknesses, as we perceived them, of the 'more experienced' critics." Understandable. I wasn't actually thinking of a blow by blow, but I guess it would come to that... He did also make an important correction: The wonderful Roslyn Sulcas has extensive experience--a bit of research revealed nearly a decade of reviewing in Europe, beginning in the period before the Web craze. She then continued here.
Hi Apollinaire: Thanks for your comments about Alastair Macaulay being chief dance critic at the NYT. I share your respect for his gifts as a critic and writer, but disappointment that the paper did not hire a woman. A friend forwarded to me a story that had this comment in it from editor Oestreich, and I think this goes to the heart of it all:
Times Classical Music and Dance Editor James R. Oestreich writes, "No one could bring more glittery qualifications or a more attractive writing style to the job."
"Glittery qualifications." That's really what counts. Laura
[And from Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa:] I look down at my glittery nail polish as I type this and shake my head in wonder.
So the New York Times has hired its next chief dance critic, to replace John Rockwell: the fine Alastair Macaulay, of London. Some day, I will write a long post about the short Rockwell reign and the endless Anna Kisselgoff era: all the things they did wrong, and the few, right. But today--with deadlines coming out of my ears--I just want to say: I can't think of a more serious and worthy critic writing today than Macaulay, and still I am dismayed.
The prospect of a man leading "the girls"-- as Rockwell liked to call the three freelancers, ages 28 to 40something, who have been busting their behinds at the Times for the last two years--would be distasteful in any case, but particularly in an art form with a vast majority of women. Women are most of the dancers, at least half of the choreographers, most of the audience members and most of the writers, though not the paid writers.
Women haven't been particularly well-represented in journalism. Perhaps it is because in journalism you have to be willing to improvise--to say what you think with hardly any time to think it--and women are more inclined to want to be sure of themselves before they make their thoughts public. Or they are until their mid-30s, when they realize that their conscientiousness is getting them nowhere. That's how it was for me and many of my friends, anyway.
The Times hired someone with a long and impressive track record--a man, of course, because who's going to hire an old woman?
That Macaulay hails from London is another slap in the face. The Times couldn't come up with one worthy critic from its home town? Because it is low on funds, dance is largely a local matter. All sorts of dance species have evolved here, never to be seen elsewhere. A Londoner wouldn't know about them. Of course, Macaulay will have "the girls" to cover for him until he's up to speed.
My suggestion to the Times: make a co-appointment. Have TWO chiefs, like you do with the movie critics. Make the other one a New Yorker and a woman. If she has fewer credentials, well, of course. Let her grow into the job.
.... though the fact that they have all disappeared from the blog might suggest otherwise.
You see, one day I went to check my comments folder and found thousands, from Adelbert, Al, Aloysius, Abe, Alfonso, Alfie, Ammon, Alex--and that's just a few of the As. It turns out that the phrase "foot in mouth" drives sex sites in Italy to email. Perhaps the manufacture of so many nice shoes encourages foot fetishism in the population. At any rate, in a fit of irritation, I hit "select all," then "delete," thinking that the already published comments would be safe. Actually, I wasn't thinking.
I hope you--so long as you are not Ammon or Adelbert or Abe from pussyfoot.com-- will continue to write.
[Paul is responding to a whole chain of posts that started out with thoughts on Balanchine's ballets "Liebeslieder Walzer" and "Serenade," but has now taken on all of Western Civilization. (This should probably be the cue to stop...)]
I concede everything Marc says. And I don't want to go back to national Christianity any more than I'd go back to astrology. There IS a nostalgia for it which I feel personally, but my personal feelings aren't the point -- it's the popular culture that's lost its bearings.
I think the big mistake was when we agreed to stop seeing ourselves as citizens and came to accept the idea that we're consumers.
Niche-making seems to be the acceptable outlet, approved by the capitalists, for those who want "quality-time-with-my-own-mind." It's pervasive, for sure, but just another disintegrating factor for the culture, another atomising force that valorizes individual pursuits, "whatever," mostly because that's the easiest way to get money out of a lonely person -- you've got to identify the person with the money and then identify his tastes, and then you're in.
As for Orwell: in his defense, he noticed that the strength of Christianity was not the punishment it threatened wrong-doers with but the hope of being reunited with people who'd died that you'd loved. The more friends you've lost, the more you'll feel the appeal of this.
... to urge you to get thee to the Japan Society for Big Dance Theater's "The Other Here," running only through Saturday. I mean, if you live in New York. (They will be touring to San Francisco, Houston, etc. later this year.)
Two stories turn each other inside out: one, set in semirural Japan, features a salesman whose greatest attachment is to a fish (though even it arouses ambivalence in him); the other takes place at a conference of facile American life-insurance agents with booming AM-radio voices. Everyone--Japanese and American--runs smack into life and loss while intending only to get on with their work.
The stage space repeatedly breaks open--with Japanese rural foot paths becoming a ticky-tacky American auditorium, then a dance platform for Okinawan folk steps delivered in a deliciously brazen Western style, then a pond for a carp as big as a dolphin. Likewise, one scenario's strands of absurdity and pathos feeds the others'.
The ensemble of actor-dancers is tremendous, plus there's a real belter of a blues singer (one Heather Christian) to deliver the Okinawan pop.
[ed. note: This morning, I got about 800 emails from my friend Marc, who should have been doing his (day) job (and me, too). Anyway, I've tried to piece them together here, because they form an interesting secular humanist response to Paul's Christian humanist response to my modernist lament.]
It seems to me the secular goal of fame fills the same psychological placeholder as hoping for a future in Heaven. They're equally competent mechanisms for staving off anxiety, if you're good enough at psyching yourself into subscribing to them. There's nothing more neo-Romantic than the Messianic-- a perfect complement to the solipsism of the postmodern "reality" obsession that you're writing about.
In a secular culture, in which time is compressed and sped up, fame becomes the escape hatch for recognition by others (if not a Big Other like God). Religious psychological functions don't go away, their metabolism just changes, with the dogma and theology diluted.
So one doesn't even need to grow nostalgic for the old Western Christendom!
About Orwell, his SECULAR nostalgia for Christianity--the usual "I would never be religious, but if others were it'd keep them in line"-- sees faith as a regulator, instead of a more personal spiritual experience. It's so easy and yet false to say, "From the standpoint of today's self-indulgences, we need a wholehearted moral straightjacket for everyone, so culture will work." I cannot think of a less refreshing way to rejuvenate what we care about.
The secular version of this--"If we don't shape up now (global warming, nuclear proliferation, SUVs, etc.), there will be an apocalypse"--doesn't charge art either, it charges paranoia.
The point is not to be good for Heaven, but to hold something sacred for oneself--to cultivate something special, which one can sublimate into something great for others. The best way to move beyond the culture of "reality" television and its celebrity envy is not to hail the return of organized piety but to go invisible and create something under the radar.
[ed note: Paul is responding to my post below about how the corps fulfills the modernist project of impersonality in art, which our current age of non-stop confessional threatens.]
This thing you said is extremely important:
I think [the impersonality that the corps supplies] is a big deal in this age of reality TV and memoir craziness, with the prevalent notion that the closer one gets to the personal, the closer one gets to epiphany, the truth, yadda yadda.
I'm totally with you on this-- and also with you in agreeing with Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent."
I think we all need to compare notes on this phenomenon. The thing that strikes ME about it is the craving for fame and the envy of another's fame. There are many angles you could go at it from.
You could look at it as marketing, a latter-day star system of building up celebrities and knocking them down in order to sell a NEW star (which got its start at the Paris Opera Ballet with its claques and system of deliberately obsolescing its stars way back in the days when Giselle was new, in the mid 19th century). Or, even more important, is the number of people WILLING to go on Jerry Springer or Sally Jessie Raphael or whatever her name is and get set up and made fools of, and for FREE. The networks don't need talent, they can get sensational sensationalism out of "ordinary" people without paying for anything except plane fare and some dramaturg's fee. Sometimes they'll even KILL each other after having their secrets exposed and ridiculed. Can hardly get more sensational than that. It's front page news, hard news, not just fiction.
And the reasons for that lie in two places. First, the capitalists who've grabbed the culture have shortsightedly set envy loose like a mad dog, and believe that keeping the consumer addicted to consuming can't continue without constantly amping up the seduction by adding a sharper drug, which is the threat of status-loss if you DON'T take the knee-jerk upgrade. SO we have to see celebrities taken down for anything they get caught at, and blamed for not being perfect role models, and ALSO ordinary people get offered, Babylonian-lottery style, the chance to win A) the solid-gold Cadillac or B) the Blow on The Head.
Any culture that cannot moderate the operation of envy is heading to Hell in a handbasket.
The other and even larger factor -- excuse me, you're going to hate this, but I got it from George Orwell, and he was right -- is what happens to a basically Christian culture when the belief in the afterlife decays to the point that it no longer serves as a sustaining force in the polity. Orwell was no Christian, but he confessed that after seeing what was happening in his time in central Europe, he realized that the general decency of English civil life depended on the hope in most people of reaching that great living room in the sky where you'd see again all those people who'd died whom it was so hard to live without.
This is certainly an inflammatory issue right now. A decade ago I certainly thought we lived in a post-Christian era. Indeed, back in 1968 I told an interviewer that we lived in a post-Christian era, where there was widespread lip service given to Christianity but most people felt like the singer of "Old Man River" -- don't believe in Heaven, but hope there ain't no Hell. I think it's still so, but with Islamic enemies, our lip service has gotten stiffer.
In a post-Christian culture that no longer knows what death means, statesmen spout boilerplate phrases about why our boys are dying in Iraq but advertisers really run the culture -- and what is an advertiser but a hypocrite? -- and fame has to replace the afterlife. Your name on a black marble wall in Washington, your name on you-name-it.
"Naming opportunities" is a whole new racket with development directors. In the last 10 years, UC Berkeley has had an explosion of development directors; every department now has one. No extra professors, probably fewer, but at least a hundred development specialists.
Fame can be merchandised a thousand times better than salvation.
The kind of fame that Beowulf sought -- "mildest of men, and most eager for praise" -- depended (as it did in ancient Greece) on doing something remarkable, like killing a monster that threatened the polity and whom nobody else could face. (Same with Oedipus and the Sphynx). That makes descendants grateful, and the "aefter-cwethendra" tell his tale forever.
But if you crave to be famous without having DONE anything, you COULD still make a fool of yourself on Jerry Springer, who's savvy (and indeed compassionate) enough to put his instinctive populism to some civic purpose. (I have to say, I like Jerry Springer.) There's no need to be literate to enjoy this entertainment, since TV will show it to you and tell you about it......
oh what the hell, it's too late to continue this....
Apollinaire responds: No, I don't hate this--it makes sense, what happens once there's no single faith holding a culture together. It's interesting, though, that Christian fundamentalists--the American version of extremists-- have simultaneously become ever more powerful. Now that there are fewer moderate believers (I wonder if anyone thinks of themselves as a "moderate" believer, but you know what I mean), the fundamentalists flood the field. Nature abhors a vacuum.
I think where I might differ from you is in finding it depressing that the best we can do, morality-wise, is get goaded to goodness by a God we imagine as Big Daddy in the sky--gonna let us play with our friends for eternity if we act right. Otherwise, everlasting whipping. But maybe you and George Orwell are right, and it's the best a culture can hope for.
Now let's see--how does ballet fit into all this? Oh, yeah: We've collectively given up on delaying gratification. Art works by distillation and alienation--means more complicated than eating a piece of cake. And its ends are sublimated. So art is doomed--all of it, Paul, not just ballet!
Now that we've got that settled...
...to recommend that, if you live in New York, you get thee to Karole Armitage's show at the Joyce. I haven't always been an admirer--in fact, I positively detested her last outing, at the Duke. But everything on the Joyce program is worth seeing--cherishable, even. I didn't love every moment, but I loved the spirit of it: and that's the point--it has a spirit. Each piece establishes an atmosphere and then swims in it. Very deeply felt and lovingly crafted, with fantastic musical choices (Bartok and a whole bunch of Ligeti) and a lovely way of responding to them.
[This is the final post in a discussion of "Serenade," "Liebeslieder," and the corps that began here with me solo, continued here with Brian Seibert and me, and then, moved to regular Foot contributor Paul Parish magnificently here. For more on Balanchine's "Serenade" (and who can get too much of "Serenade"?) here's my response to Pennsylvania Ballet's interpretation at City Center in November 2007.]
About the corps as Greek chorus: the corps in theater certainly stands in for us. In ballet, though, it seems to me less an Everyman than no man at all. It lends the ballet an impersonality that makes it extend beyond its players, encompass a different world from the one in which we live.
I know I've been saying and saying this--being a real bore--but I think it's a big deal in this age of reality TV and memoir craziness, with the prevalent notion that the closer one gets to the personal, the closer one gets to epiphany, the truth, yadda yadda.
Basically, we're living in a neo-Romantic age dusted with postmodern cynicism about the difference between art and life. That is, while the Romantics felt that art should imitate life, we now don't believe in life--only "life." Forget reality TV, reality life is just around the corner. Still, art's in the same position: ersatz. Art and reality--or "reality"--are yoked. And the problem with the corps is it has no objective correlative.
Which means today it's seen as a bit frou-frou, I suspect. Contemporary choreographers often opt for the chamber-sized when they could afford to do otherwise.
Balanchine understood the corps not as 19th century decoration but in modernist terms--as an alchemical principle--or in Emersonian terms of nature, the force of nature. Terry, in his "All in the Dances," powerfully makes the point that Balanchine was a modernist in his means, whatever the emotional tenure of the individual work. He quotes Balanchine saying, "Romanticism you have to get from God. My business is to show you form." Of course, the modernist cheerleader T.S. Eliot--whom Balanchine would have admired for his insistence that artistry wasn't about personality--probably would have said God was form--or, better, the metabolism of its creation. But I stray....
[Paul wrote about an earlier, less on-a-rampage version of this post:
I DO agree with you about the corps -- they're like barely embodied emotions, the feelings that run in the group are made visible in them, but it's not personal. It's like mob energy, or what happens at the end of football games when the crowd storms the field and swarms up the goalposts and shake them till they fall over. Nobody's in his right mind when they do that, and nobody is "himself" -- the ego is dissolved away. Probably the same thing happens in lynch mobs.]
In any case, yes to big ballets, to corps galore! To Balanchine's "Symphony in C," to Forsythe's "Artifact."
[My friend and colleague Paul Parish, of Berkeley, sent me this incredible rumination on Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer" and "Serenade" last night. It's a response to the previous two posts, first by me, then by Brian Seibert and me. I finish the discussion with this post. For more on Balanchine's "Serenade" (and who can get too much of "Serenade"?) here's my response to Pennsylvania Ballet's interpretation at City Center in November 2007.]
I'm with you about "Serenade" -- though I do love "Liebeslieder," and I really do. It's in the apparently infinite variety Balanchine finds in Allemande turns. Those arches you mention -- in square dancing, they're "Allemandes," "Allemande" being French for "German."
Cajun dancing has them by the gazillion: "pretzel" turns. Thing is, they require lots of tact to do well, for the shoulder is easily wrenched and a partner who leads them wrong can hurt you. But in this ballet, they just go on opening and opening. Variants involve laying the hands across the shoulders, and they keep making hoops that seem to bind but never do.
Such intricate partnering, it's like a game with a million rules. So the partnering seems to reflect the possibilities: there can be a kind of freedom inside relationships that have such elaborate coding. The people can be safe within limits and thus be free to grant intimacy, for the time being, and feel each other out through the nuances, the urgency or the holding back, that color any particular conventional move.
There is certainly an image of a lost world there: it's possible to be homesick for it, even when you didn't know it yourself. My grandmother had that. She played the piano, violin, and zither. All of her sisters played several instruments--there were six of them, and they had a small orchestra for music at home. That was gone by the next generation -- my mother "played the radio."
The big difference with "Serenade" is that there's a whole ocean between our world and the one that's lost. The corps is like the sea -- they move, to my mind, like waves dashing against rocks, currents surging through pilings, formations that dissolve--and the people who seem to emerge at times as protagonists are like creatures from the old-time romances: tempest-tossed, washed up on the coasts of Abyssinia and Illyria, with brief glimpses of a face that seems familiar or could be loved, but relentlessly, things become ever more fabulous and strange.
The thing about the chorus is that in antiquity, they sang and danced the odes -- which were almost like rap in their hypnotic non-sequiturs. At least Pindar's were:
Best of things is water. And gold,
Like a fire at night, outshines all other wealth.
And if you wish to sing of glory in the Games,
Look no further in the daytime sky for any star
More warming than the sun --
And that's just a translation, without the rhythm, so you can't really feel the oceanic flood of ideas streaming and surging.
Well, you got me going.
The great thing about a chorus is that they're our representatives onstage -- they think what we'd think, do what we'd do. Much of the weeping is done, so to speak, for us. In a ballet like "Liebeslieder," we see our grandparents, or their grandparents, when they were young and we have to do our own weeping for all that beauty so long gone.
Apollinaire responds: My God, what wonderful connections, Paul. Very persuasive too.
Re: looking back even to something one can't personally remember: I don't even get that far--surrounded by boorishness on all sides. I'm quite sure no one among my European forebears ever stepped inside a parlor, much less whirled around in one. Falling-down muddy shacks and barns, more like. (I did have a great-uncle on my father's mother's side who played the trumpet, and my father was so happy to have him, this exception to the family rule.)
[Brian Seibert, contributor to the New Yorker's Goings on About Town section, is writing a book on the history of tap. He's responding to my response, below, to a couple of nights at the New York City Ballet, one with Terry Teachout for "Liebeslieder Walzer" and another for "Serenade," both by Balanchine.]
I also was there on Thursday and, like Terry, I cried. "Liebeslieder" always has that effect on me. I love "Serenade" too, though I don't know that the corps causes more distillation -- more diffusion maybe; that's how drama becomes atmosphere, as you say. A mass is always going to have a different effect from an intertwining of couples. "Echo and setting" is right -- the corps is chorus.
Beyond the poetic distillation, detail after gorgeous detail, what I love best about "Liebeslieder" is the way that such an intimate dance -- a dance with no corps -- manages to suggest something world-historical. It's not specific; I sometimes imagine it as a mix of what was lost in World War I, sometimes as what was destroyed by Hitler. Some lost beauty that appears before us for a moment. That, I think, is what makes me weep.
A lost beauty: "Liebeslieder" with that cast of veterans on Thursday night (Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, Wendy Whelan, Miranda Weese) also makes me think, "This is a dance that still lives." With just about everything else in the New York City Ballet repertory, I'm inclined to believe those voices that insist that I, someone who started watching the company only five years ago, came too late. I read the old accounts and I watch the pieces today, and I sit there imagining them done differently in subtle ways that make all the difference. Watching "Liebeslieder," I can't really imagine any better.
[Apollinaire:] Oooooooooooooohh, I like that idea of a lost European world being glimpsed through this ballet, Brian. Neat!
Also, I understand what you mean, that a corps would seem to diffuse, rather than distill, the drama. But what interests me is that maybe it doesn't always work that way. I may have been confusing two sensations at once: the emotional respite that moments of the corps provide, on the one hand, and the poetic pileup that they enable, on the other.
For example, with "Serenade," the momentous gestures of the woman who is carried to her death wouldn't mean as much if we didn't feel what a gail wind this ballet conceives time as. Poetic distillation works by lending the particular a feel of generality, or universal applicability. So it makes sense that a corps would have a poetic function.
There isn't much background in poetry. As in dream, every moment is now. As a visual art, dance may make field/ground distinctions, but the emotional sense we make of it doesn't, I don't think. The seeming periphera and seeming center shape each other. Otherwise, the most intense or affecting dances would always be the ones without a corps.
By analogy, in Mozart's piano concertos, which are structured like operas, the violins nuance the piano, not just the other way around. It's not like the piano says all the important things and then the orchestra simply responds "Yes'm."
Anyway, I revised my ditty to reflect your feedback. Thank you!
Re: the old NYCB world being better: everyone sure says so, and there are definitely dances I have to squint at to find. But "Serenade" on Friday night wasn't one of them.
Thanks so much for writing, Brian.
[The discussion of "Serenade," "Liebeslieder," and the corps continues with Foot contributor Paul Parish's marvelous essay, and ends with me here. For more on Balanchine's "Serenade" (and who can get too much of "Serenade"?) here's my response to Pennsylvania Ballet's interpretation at City Center in November 2007.]
On Thursday I saw the New York City Ballet in Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer" (Love Song Waltzes) with my virtual friend Terry Teachout. (Besides being an AJ blogger, he is the author of a wonderful brief life of Balanchine, "All in the Dances.") "Liebeslieder" was very moving, and so was Terry, a man weeping his way through a ballet, tears splashing down his face. (His report here.)
Last night, they put me in the fourth row for Balanchine's "Serenade"--practically inside it. The grand ballet is a single whoosh of destiny almost from beginning to end. I love it more than "Liebeslieder," I realized. It's not in my nature to choose between two ballets I love. But Terry's such a classifier, a rater, a character out of "High Fidelity," that it got me thinking.
What I like best about the intimate "Liebeslieder," featuring four couples, are its poetic distillations of passion. In the first half, the lovers' gloved hands rise and flutter like doves. The couples make archways for each other and push each other through, preparing their entrance into the kingdom of the soul, which is the provenance of the dance's second half. "In the first act, it's the real people that are dancing," Balanchine said. "In the second act, it's their souls."
"Serenade" is simply more distillation--more operatic, with not only individual voices but a large orchestra of girls in low-hanging sweeps of sky-blue tulle. We tend to think of distillation as a reduction down to an essence, but it can also work by expansion, as does the corps in "Serenade." The rush of women makes the drama of the principals legible. The women have a clarifying effect. (Why dance needs strong institutions, so these large ballets that fulfill the great promise of the art form can be created and performed.)
"Serenade" definitely has a story, but the members of the corps are not so much dramatic characters as the conversion of those characters into an atmosphere, a notion about how time moves. Sometimes also the corps is a reprieve from the characters.
That injection of impersonality--a flooding that carries us beyond the person--gives me more room to feel. "Liesbeslieder" presses in.
[The discussion of "Serenade, "Liebeslieder," and the corps continues with Brian Seibert and me, then regular Foot contributor Paul Parish dives in beautifully here, and I finish the discussion with this post. For more on Balanchine's "Serenade" (and who can get too much of "Serenade"?) here's my response to Pennsylvania Ballet's interpretation at City Center in November 2007.]
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