I looked at my calendar for the coming week–three deadlines, two performances, a day trip to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and an overnight trip to Washington, D.C., to see Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie at Arena Stage–and decided that what I needed was a day off. So instead of revving up my iBook first thing Sunday morning, I slept late, met a musician friend for brunch, then took her down to Lincoln Center to watch New York City Ballet dance Jerome Robbins’ The Goldberg Variations and George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, both of which were new to her. I chose the program as being particularly suitable for a musician, and also because I feel especially close to both ballets, albeit in different ways.
As readers of All in the Dances will recall, I place Stravinsky Violin Concerto very high on the short list of Balanchine’s masterpieces:
Balanchine later told [Karin von] Aroldingen and [Patricia] McBride that Stravinsky Violin Concerto was the best ballet he had ever made. To a friend he expressed himself only slightly more modestly: “It is very good! My other ballets?…Okay, but not so good.” Had the composer lived to see it, he might well have echoed the tribute he paid to Movements for Piano and Orchestra: “To see Balanchine’s choreography of the Movements is to hear the music with one’s eyes; and this visual hearing has been a greater revelation to me, I think than to anyone else. The choreography emphasizes relationships of which I had hardly been aware–in the same way–and the performance was like a tour of a building for which I had drawn the plans but never explored the result.” Thirty years later, the significance of Stravinsky Violin Concerto is clearer still, for in no other ballet, not even Liebeslieder Walzer, did Balanchine fuse the modern and romantic sides of his personality more indissolubly. It is the ultimate expression of his black-and-white style, and though it may not be his greatest ballet, it is his most perfect one.
The Goldberg Variations isn’t quite on that exalted level, but my special feeling for it has a similarly exalted cause: it was while watching it, and immediately afterward, that I had what has been the only mystical experience of my life to date.
This experience took place some fifteen years ago, and I later had occasion to describe it in print in an essay written not long after 9/11:
It had been a fearfully long day at the office, and I was drained and dry when I took my seat in the theater. I actually thought about skipping the performance, but something kept me in my seat long enough to be drawn into it, and soon I was experiencing Bach’s crystalline notes and Robbins’ heartfelt steps more intensely and completely than I have ever experienced any work of art at any time in my life, before or since. When it was over, I felt a surge of benevolence toward everyone on stage. I left the theater and stood for a long time on the steps leading down to the street, taking deep breaths of the cold night air, filled with a warmth that seemed to buoy me up. Then I flagged a cab, and as we drove down Broadway, I experienced an astonishing sense of release reminiscent of the ecstatic muscular exhaustion you feel after hard physical labor. It was as if all the cares of living in New York City, all the strains of my life, were slipping from my shoulders. The world around me appeared numinous, and I accepted everything in it, even the bright blue graffiti on a passing truck. It occurred to me that this was how a person might feel in the midst of the act of dying….
Grand Central Station came into view. The facade was brightly lit and the clock and the lettering carved into the granite were as crisp and clear as the printing in an expensive book. I drank it all in as I got out of the cab and walked slowly into the main lobby. A three-piece combo was playing some old standard I didn’t recognize. I dropped a dollar bill into the trumpet player’s open case. I noticed that I had a minute and a half to catch my train, so I ran all the way to the track, plopped down in a seat in the last car, and hardly felt out of breath at all.
W.H. Auden had a similar experience in 1933. As he described it many years later, he felt as though he had been “invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly–because, thanks to the power, I was doing it–what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Surely any ballet capable of making you feel that way deserves to be taken very seriously indeed (though no doubt Bach had a hand in it as well!).
While I had no such experience on Sunday afternoon, my friend and I were both moved to tears by what we saw and heard. Yet even though it was my day off, I’m never completely off duty, and as I watched the dancers, I caught myself trying to sort out in my mind exactly what it is that makes Balanchine’s ballet better than Robbins’. The closest I could come was this: The Goldberg Variations is a piece of plotless theater, a complicated, carefully staged drama in which the dancers are playing “roles” of various explicable kinds, whereas Stravinsky Violin Concerto is a pure phenomenon, a visual poem whose ultimate meaning is impossible to convey in words. Even though it requires the intercession of dancers and musicians in order to be made manifest, it feels as if it is taking place in your mind, not on a stage–an experience, in short, not quite of this world.
My friend and I parted after the performance, both of us in a state close to ecstasy, embracing under the immense blue sky and reveling in the amazing fact that we were both alive and capable of receiving such beauty. John Lukacs has described the way we felt better than I possibly can:
This is the knowledge that the mystery and the reality of our lives consist in the understanding that we are coming from somewhere and that we are going somewhere, and that between these two mysterious phases God allows us to live and to know that we live while we live. Out of what is darkness to our imperfect minds, for sixty or seventy or eighty years we are living in the light, in the open.
Yesterday–all day–I knew just what he meant.