I’ve been doing some background reading for the course I’m developing on ballet analysis (or, how to watch ballet more deeply) for SFB. Today’s selection was Susan Foster’s “Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance."
There are any number of juicy theoretical nuggets in this book, but the following caught my eye. Foster discusses contemporary choreography’s ability to theorize itself, which she describes as "the capacity to reflect critically on its various enterprises and to choreograph commentary on its own artistic process” (xx). She goes on to state that this “reflexive impulse” became evident with Cunningham and carried on through the work of the Judson choreographers (Rainer, Brown, Dunn, etc.) I believe she is referring to the tendency of these artists to use dance to pose questions about the nature of dance itself (like Rainer choreographing the moving of mattresses about the performance space to break down the distinction between trained movements and pedestrian movements).
Ballet has its own moments of reflexive impulse, I believe, which are different in flavor from those of Cunningham et al, but no less illuminating about underlying assumptions, attitudes, and ambivalences at work in the art form. I am taking Foster’s phrase “reflexive impulse” here to mean any case where a ballet appears to comment on the production, meaning, and performance of ballet itself. I’ve been thinking about how this happens, and I have a few examples. They differ from the Judson crew in the sense that many of these ballets did not set out to provide critical commentary on themselves, or to interrogate consciously the status of ballet itself. But the interpretation is there, and in some ways I find it more exciting that such reflexivity might be operating under the surface. This is the basis for my obsession with Balanchine’s La Valse (1952). La Valse belongs to a strand of surrealist, neo-gothic ballets choreographed by Balanchine in the late 20s, early 30s (Cotillon, for example). The ballet also references 19th century anti-dance treatises about the dangers of dancing (and especially waltzing) for women through the death of the woman in white. In one 19th century anti-dance treatise I came across, a huge bat with outstretched wings hovers over a man and a woman who dance together, portending death. In his plans for the ballet, Balanchine considered having the death figure dressed as a bat. Perhaps coincidental, but the message is strikingly similar: someone is stalking the woman who dances. In the death of its female lead La Valse also subtly links the awakening of dance knowledge with the awakening of sexuality, and I can’t help but think of Giselle here (and elsewhere I have written about how the ballet Giselle comments on the status of dance itself - its dangers, its freedoms.) Critics have seemed curiously oblivious to the shocking ending of La Valse - the woman in white is lifted by a group of men and her body spun around, while the corps de ballet circles around them madly (Ravel’s “dancing on the edge of a volcano” - some of the music was written in reference to WWI); many noted the fashion model posing of the first section and wrote the ballet off as a fluff piece or a Bonwit Teller window, as one critic had it. I think the three women in the beginning are clearly fate figures - so prevalent in the Balanchine ballet - their movements are so stylized as to be hieroglyphics; and what are we to make of that first pas de deux between the woman in white and her partner, which combines Graham contractions, pantomime gestures with no referents, and maybe one or two recognizable ballet steps (at the very end)? I’m digressing. Underneath this champagne exterior of the ballroom in the second part comes a shadowy figure, a man in black (the former “bat”) who offers the woman in white feminine but sinister trinkets: a black bouquet, a jet necklace, gloves, a shroud, a cracked mirror. Her acceptance of his gifts, which are really tokens of vanity, begin her downfall, but it is through the waltz, through dance itself, that she is danced to death. Probably, Balanchine was just playing with combining glamour, mystery, and the macabre (even if he was aware of the anti-dance literature). But for me, looking at the ballet, I can’t help but think it says something about the strange power not just of dance but especially of ballet - so pretty, so beautiful on the outside, like the gifts given to the woman in white - but marked in some way with a destructive force. (I haven’t read Elizabeth Kendall’s book yet, but I think she makes an argument that the woman in white in La Valse is Lydia Ivanova, who died in Russia in extremely suspicious circustances; Kendall argues that this figure haunts a number of Balanchine ballets). I do think it is worth asking what it means to portray dance as a force of death, even if this portrayal is occurring unconsciously. I find it deliciously naughty, an inversion of the usual norm of ballet idealizing human life. I also find it closer to part of the lived experience of being a ballet dancer (notice I said part of). Amid the true joy of developing one’s craft and expanding one’s range that comes with every new ballet, the body is being worn down. Amid the joy of performing, the performance ends and can never be recaptured. Ballet’s beauty is a beauty that is fleeting and precarious and hard-won; it is a beauty that can be dangerous to the one who seeks to clothe him or herself in it. (Don’t put on the ballet gloves of destruction! - the woman in white thrusts her hands triumphantly into the long gloves held out by the man in black).
I’ve gone on so long on this that I’m not going to get to my other examples of the reflexive impulse. But to toss out there:
1. many many nineteenth century ballets use dance as a narrative device - it provides an excuse for dancing if your main character is a dancer or loves to dance - but that these narrative devices may also be read reflexively
2. Jerome Robbins did many ballets that to my mind are about ballet communities or about what happens in the studio; Afternoon of a Faun is an obvious one, but I think you could argue that Dances at a Gathering offers a view of a dance community
3. The way that Alexei Ratmansky references moments in dance history seems potentially reflexive to me, especially in the progression I’ve seen the past few years with regards to Shostakovich. He started with some recreations of Soviet era ballets (1930s) with music by Shosty - Bolt, Bright Stream - and then the more abstract Concerto DSCH. In the Trilogy we see the elaboration of the undercurrents of those earlier Soviet era productions - In Symphony #9 dancers appear persecuted by an unseen menace; the Chamber Symphony presents Shostakovich himself, oppressed, desperate, ultimately defeated.