IN DEFENSE OF THE “LIGHTER”  BALLETS

Scene 1, several years ago: Alastair MacAuley mourns Alessandra Ferri’s career development. He calls her the Lolita of ballet, and wistfully remembers the purity of her dancing in a plotless piece I think in her graduation exam, or in some ballet contest.
If it depended on him, he would throw away her amazing acting skill, and keep just the technical excellence – we would not have the gift of her lovely, unbeatable Juliet, for example. Or her Carmen.

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Alessandra Ferri and Wayne Eagling in Romeo and Juliet by Kenneth MacMillan.

Scene 2,  a few days ago: I give a try to any video of ballet that shows up in my FB timeline.  Watching one of them, I’m thinking oh my, how booooring! I skip to scene after scene, the lavish costums change, but the boredom level does not change.  Curious that someone would bother to stage such a ballet, I consult the credits. It was a Balanchine work. I am not surprised. Yes, sorry, I’m not a big fan of Balanchine.

Scene 3, today: Alastair MacAuley is retiring, and as a last pompous message, calls Don Quixote and Le Corsaire trashy ballets, and tells us soviets (you feel the bleeergh between the lines) are to blame for their popularity.  I quote:

I draw attention to two very unalike trends: one heartening, one dismaying. The first is the increasing penetration of George Balanchine’s choreography into national and international repertory. For those of us who remember how radical he often was in his lifetime (even in this city and far more often elsewhere), and how difficult many of his ballets were when young, this vindication is deeply satisfying; moving, too. Balanchine achieved a high water mark for the art. That dozens of one-act Balanchine ballets, like “Divertimento No. 15” and “Symphony in Three Movements,” are now regularly danced from Phoenix to Miami, from Vienna to Vancouver, is a victory of superlative modernism.

Against that, however, please observe the ghastly and ever-increasing popularity of such formulaic 19th-century ballets as “Le Corsaire” and “Don Quixote.” These war horses — trashily circusy, composed to minor-league music — abound in clichés. When I discovered dance in the 1970s, they were the specialties of Soviet companies alone: They exemplified the tosh that Diaghilev had banished to the past, and which all sophisticated Western companies rightly chose to avoid. Today, however, they’re frequently danced in New York (alas, here too Ballet Theater leads the way), London and many other cities. They demean ballet.”

Scene 4, also today: I come upon an article entitled Where has the joy gone?. Where is the joy of dancing? Why is it that the uncountable different feelings we experience are mostly absent in ballet? When did acting skill become such a low priority in dancing? 


Circusy?

He doesn’t dwell long on the reasons for his opinion. Circusy, he says. Maybe he means the variations in these ballets, specially the male ones, that require big jumps and tours. In what sense are big jumps more show-offing than 32 fouettés or intrincate small allegros? Or perfect, absolutely P-E-R-F-E-C-T lines? They just show-off different skills. Or maybe he is bothered that these ballets give the male roles more relevance? Holy Balanchine said “ballet is a woman”,  so please don’t display gross masculinity on stage, men should keep nicely in the background, hidden by the tutus.  Or is it because you can laugh in these ballets? NOOO, please don’t, ballet is a serious affair, we cannot condone with joy on stage. Of all the unwished for heartfelt reactions ballet can bring, mirth is maybe the worst!

Formulaic?

Oh, as if Swan Lake,  Sleeping Beauty, Giselle were not formulaic… Plots rely on the same elements, variations and corps dynamics have the same structure and steps, body-language and expression is kept to a minimum (in it’s stead loads of mime), lavish scenery and costumes. Balanchine is formulaic TOO in plotless work after plotless work with the same kind of stiff, contained steps, his corps in endless geometric forms – and you learn the much praised “Balachine style” or be prepared to scathing criticism.

Given MacAuley disdains of plots and acting skill, maybe he doesn’t like the plots of DQ and Corsaire? Yes, their plots are kind of trashy, absolutely not grand or affected, often more of the parody kind, and to make things worse, they have a happy ending! EVERYONE knows art must be tragic to be art. Don’t you?

Self-styled judges

There were always self-styled judges of what art is. And loads of art expressions they  consider(ed) unworthy. Tchaikowsky received much criticism because of the unbridled passion in his music. Michelangelo was criticized by the scandalous display of flesh. Byron was untastefully over-romantic. Some wrinkle their noses over operettas.
Really? So let’s face the truth: Giselle is just a typical gothic saved as high art by the white tutus, and the score is bizarre, with bright, lively tunes as background to tragic eerie scenes. And Bayadére, pure kitsch?

But ALL the ballets mentioned above require good classical technique and lines – may they be Balanchine styled, English, French or Russian styled. All styles are equally worthy,  Mr. MacAuley, but you seem unable to appreciate anything outside your bubble.  Modernism? Balanchine is already dated. Anyway, would you evaluate Andy Warhol higher than Rembrandt because of his modernism?  Or Shakespeare lower than Tennessee Williams?
Also, the ballets above, with the exception of Balanchine’s, all require good acting. In other words, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire require MORE skills than most of Balanchine ballets. They also depend more on the performer, who – not bound by strict rules – will add a new layer of creativity, which I find refreshing in any scenic art.

Opinions or universal truths? 

I can have my favorites, of course: but my taste is not an universal truth. No, no, sorry: if I’m conservative, my Weltanshauung will be fulll of “universal truths”, usually dismissive of everything and everyone that does not please me…

I’m glad MacAuley is retiring. I’m glad a whole older generation of deeply conservative ballet lovers and funders is slowly being replaced by younger, less biased ones (or so I hope). The former ones imposed their values on ballet for too long, and turned away a potential younger public that does not share their pomposity, smugness and why not say with all letters: repressed sensuality. Enough of people that don’t want to be stirred by what happens on stage – that want ballet as pure aesthetic pleasure – while in their private lives they are often… well, quite different.

It is NOT a coincidence that MacAuley, when he concedes there may be life after Balanchine, forgets to mention Crystal Pite, for example, with their deeply stirring, critical works on contemporary issues (and groudbreaking use of corps). She indeed is  modern. Ballet has been for too long the last bastian of shared hyprocisy in art.

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The Season’s Canon by Crystal Pite

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As a last note: don’t tell me you need deep knowledge and very refined aesthetic taste to know  a “good” ballet from a “bad” one. Art is art. Anyone with some degree of sensitivity and love for beauty can appreciate Johann Strauss as well as Beethoven, a naif painter as well as Rembrandt, Swan Lake as well as Le Corsaire, a Wilde comedy as well as a Shakespeare play. I refuse to let conservatives full of prejudice define the rules: I’m able to respect and appreciate different forms of art, different styles, different epochs. What is really hard for me to accept as art is Form without Content. 

Juliet and Romeo by Mats Ek

Post-coital pas de deux: Juliet and Romeo / Pic: Gert Weigelt
© Gert Weigelt

Juliet and Romeo – Ballet in 2 Acts

choreography by Mats Ek
on music by Tchaikovsky
performed by Royal Swedish Ballet and Royal Swedish Orchestra
staging design by Magdalena Agberg
recorded in 2014 at the Royal Opera House in London
Juliet: Mariko Kida
Romeo: Anthony Lomuljo
Mercutio: Jérôme Marchand
Nurse: Ana Laguna
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https://www.selectatv.com/website/129-julia-romeu-um-bal-de-mats-ek-piotr-ilych-tchaikovsky-alexander-polianichko-1

I just watched Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo. Genius, genius, genius. It took me some time to get what he was doing, but when I got it, I was awed by his accomplishment.

Movements in his choreography are sometimes very easy to recognize, at first you think it’s mime, they look like everyday gestures we use – but with them come others, that look odd, out of place, quirky. The kind of movement changes fast, alternates to completely different ideas, or moods or feelings. In the beginning I was confused. In fact I was so lost I gave up trying to understand, and just watched the dancers. It was real pleasure to look at them, they are excellent, these wonderful Swedish! Weird as some movements were, they performed them such with amazing clarity and easiness, their competence turning even the strangest one into beauty.

Of course I had seen many ballet versions of R&J, several movies and read the bard’s play itself, but at this point I had stopped analyzing and comparing. I had emptied my mind, dropped all pre-existing notions, and was just enjoying the dancers’ work. And then… it started to work: I realized I “knew”, I could clearly understand what the characters were feeling!

Mats Ek wasn’t telling a story. Or better said, he was, but not through facts, not in the objective, external world. He did it through the feelings of the characters. And not through our socially deeply codified body-language, like when you wave your hand meaning “good bye”, but by using a far more instinctive one, that makes you press a hand to your stomach when you receive a brutal emotional blow.

But there is more. His “text” is not prose, it is poetry, and again not a sonnet, but the most radical free verse poetry. You cannot apprehend it by reading one word, and then the next, and the next, carefully chaining one to the other, following step by step the a nexus inscribed in them by the poet. It’s the kind of poetry that you (must) read without searching for sense, you must read bypassing your analytical mind and just let the words – juxtaposed together without apparent sense – sink in. What the poet wants to impart is not reachable using logical reasoning, but taking in the rhythm, the sound, what each word fleetingly evokes – and somehow, as you read, the underlying sense starts to be unveiled, you will be told something without the need to “think” about. What will come out is not a story, or a precise idea, but something wider and less precise, and usually deeper: a notion, a mood, a feeling.

© Dave Morgan

Mats Ek choreographic text is like that. Even recognizable gestures are not the gestures themselves, as are not the few objects on stage: they represent related feelings. His talent for finding new expressive gestures is uncanny, as if he is creating new words for things left unsaid before for lack of a noun, but quite real. Or in a sequence of gestures, we need their ensemble to understand. Attempt to “understand” each movement is pointless, we must just let impressions flow, absorb them without thinking – and suddenly we “know” what he wanted to impart!

A plot told through feelings!

Forget about balconies and beds, flasks of poison and swords, genius dialogs or rituals. What we see is another level of reality, that happens inside people and will LEAD them to objective action – but this action is not shown on stage. Objects and factual social interaction are in another sphere of reality. We are given the psychological and affective dynamic of the characters, how they act and react emotionally, their motivations, their internal life.

And-nothing-else.

Can a story be told that way? Oh, yes, Mats Ek proves it can, and quite clearly!

But why odd movements, why surprising and contradictory messages? Because this is how we feel. Our emotions are not nicely behaved, some feelings are unexpected, some are contradictory, even embarrassing. We often have feelings we can’t even put a name on. We feel many things at the same time, what we feel is not linear, has many facets, doesn’t fit rational logic, we are, all the time, a cauldron where many ingredients boil in an emotional soup. Sounds too complex? It is, if you try to track down and rationally explain each element, but whatever is there, sums up to a defined taste, an internal sense, even if ingredients are not all identifiable, even if it looks bizarre from the outside.

Believe me or not, Mats Ek conveys all this in his choreography. It’s true there were moments where he lost me, but they were few, really very few. It is a radically subjective work, and needs to be apprehended through our subjectivity too, or will seem absurd. But once you see the play for what it is… yes! yes, yes, YES!

There is a problem, however: it is hard to describe. And THIS! This is one of dance’s specific values, a fundamental value, and one that Ek took to new heights: Dance can show what words cannot, dance tells of things our rational discourse, with all its beautiful words and complex concepts, can’t handle, and our social selves must ignore (or our lives would turn into chaotic Babel Towers). In dance the message reaches us directly, doesn’t need reason, doesn’t need most of our conventions and codes, including language. I don’t dare try describing what the characters felt, what I saw in them, but of course, it couldn’t be different – there is a gap between dance and text – these two fundamentally different ways of expression.

Professional critics have a big problem. They must write wisely and with intelligence about art (or what should be art). They prepare themselves for that, I imagine. As soon as the curtain opens, they switch on their analytical minds, searching for things they can describe and state with competence – objectivity turned on at full power.
The “magic” of art, however, is hard to describe in words, and hard to understand if you were not there – maybe the reason why so few reviewers even try (and maybe the reason they are surprised that public reacted in quite a different way).  For a long time now I have been criticizing critics and their excessively analytic predisposition. They frequently see the elements and don’t see the whole. They frequently see some elements and others not. They frequently just look for flaws, so much easier to identify. They frequently see what they expected to see, and are blind to anything else. And when they are at a loss, they use labels applied by others before them, to just get it over!
Now, in a work like THIS, what can we expect of this kind of reviewer? Of course few of them were willing to switch off reason, and subjectively (and passively!) wait for Ek’s sense to come to them.

So you will have them judging what they see at eye’s value. Juliet moves awkwardly because adolescents move awkwardly – good job, Ek!
“It’s in the person of Juliet that we see Ek’s choreography at its most subtle and tender. He doesn’t spare us the awkwardness and grotesqueries of adolescence. She pulls daft faces and throws weird shapes; at times she’s all twitching, puppyish impatience.”

Another one:
“The decision to ignore the sleeping potion twist speeds up the plot but denies Juliet her pivotal moment of choice, and diminishes the horror of the lovers’ deaths.”

IMHO, Juliet’s choice is a crystal clear and powerful moment, in fact one of the best, but the writer didn’t notice…

This one is worse:
“It’s also, in my view, disappointingly dull. While much that I heard beforehand about the winner of the 2015 Olivier Award sounded enticing, the choreography comes across as puzzlingly clunky, as if awkward gestures were haphazardly strung together. I didn’t sense any flow to the dancing, and the storyline is difficult to follow. I waited in vain for a friar and a vial of poison.
I failed to connect emotionally to the dancing, but I do not fault the dancers for my lack of feeling. For that, I blame the choreography alone. The dancers looked lovely and appeared well-trained, it’s what they were doing that bored me. For example, there’s a lot of rolling on the floor, arms held close the body, like so many logs, as well as running in place, legs kicking up to one’s rear. Overall, the movement is unexciting, basic, and sometimes crude (more than once someone raises a middle finger or grabs a crotch). If you’re looking for pretty and/or intricate movement on pointe, you won’t find it here.”

No, you won’t find it here. Definitely not. Not because Mats Ek failed, but because he succeeded.

No wonder Ek became eventually so dismayed he decided to retire and forbade his ballets to be performed, end point!

He should instead (please, Mats Ek!) explain what he’s doing, help people understand, prepare them for his play(s) – after all, it’s a deeply unconventional approach. I perceived what he intended by sheer luck, because I had put aside pre-existing notions, was watching with “innocence”. I’m not bragging, quite the opposite, I’m no art expert, ballet expert or in any other way better prepared to evaluate a performance. It only enhances Mats Ek feat, does it not?

I’m grateful and relieved: he recently changed his mind, and is working again! Yeaahhh!

 

 

 

Four Keys to the Future

I hardly have time to write, nowadays, but what will become of Dance, and more specifically about Ballet, is always in mind. I worry, as you know, about their vitality and future.

I was reading this blog of Greg Sandow on the future of classical music (a passion, but I do not follow and study like Dance), and came upon this, that… could have been written for Dance, just by replacing the word music!

Since the link doesn’t embed in the text, I quote:

“We’re in a new era. To adapt to it, and build a new audience, here are four things you should do:

Understand and respect the culture outside classical music. 

Your new audience will come from the world outside classical music. Where else could it come from? And to reach these new people, you of course have to know them. Who are they? What kind of culture do they already have? You have to respect them, because if you don’t, they won’t respect you.

Work actively to find your audience.

The people you want to reach may not yet care about classical music. So they won’t respond to conventional PR and marketing. They won’t come to you on their own. And so you have to actively go out and find them. You have to talk to them where they live, where they work, and where they go for entertainment and for inspiration. You have to inhabit their world.

Be yourself.

Your urgency, your joy, and your passion will draw people to you. But you can’t be joyful if you don’t love the music that you perform. So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing. Trust your new audience. Trust it to be smart, to be curious, and to respond with joy when it sees how joyful you are.

Make music vividly.

The people you reach will want to love the music you bring them. But can you meet them halfway? Are you bringing them something they really can love? Your performances should be entirely yours, performances nobody else could give. Your music should breathe. Contrasts should feel like they’re contrasts. Climaxes should feel like climaxes. Are you doing everything you can to bring your music alive?”

I’m grateful for Greg Sandow, prolixe me would never be able to write such a splendid resume!

Link to full text

 

Emploi and double-standards

How can you explain that dancers that don’t fit certain visual standards are considered unsuited for Ballets where Form is privileged,  while dancers without any acting skill are considered suitable for ballets where Content is more important?

Has Ballet definitely given up on being a performance Art?

Is any flawed performance accepted, as long as physical standards are obeyed?

Absurdity… you see performances that, if not for the costume, could be of any ballet! Solor undistinguishable from Ali, Desire identical to Franz, Colas plus a guitar becoming Basilio… Aurora with feathers in Swan Lake, clad in red in Don Quixote…

Even this, however, is not so bad as having Giselle identical to Juliet and Margherite… or Franz as unpleasant as Prinz Rudolph!

Oh, come on, spare me!!!

emoticon-raising-eyebrow

 

 

 

Dance and the Acting Challenge

One of my recent posts was about the wildly different expectations that different kinds of audience have when attending a ballet evening – that explain why so many leave necessarily disappointed.  Now, I’m addressing a certain kind of audience, MY kind, most of all – the premises being: good acting is important, body-language is important, meaning is necessary – technique must be subordinated to them.

Different from theatre and movies, where natural, life-like acting is used almost 100% of the time, in dance there are many choices.

Believable Acting
“Suspension of disbelief”: Vanessa Redgrave – Heath Ledger – Johny Depp – Adrian Ross Magenty, Emma Thompson, Helene Bonham-Carter

No acting at all is the first of them – and the strangest one for me: that a performance art should give up meaning, that dance should give up body-language, and become just pure form!

Then there is formalistic acting, more than one kind. The traditional one is grounded on century-old mime, and looks very strange to me, but has fierce fans. More modern kinds are used mostly in contemporary dance, usually a choice made by the choreographer himself, and I can see their value, even if it is not the kind I like most.

Traditional mime
Giselle’s mother warns her of her weak heart, and the risk of death.

And finally believable acting, of course, the kind that “suspends your disbelief” – the only kind I consider GOOD acting, and the most difficult one.

So there are choices to be made by the choreographer, or even the artistic director, and then by the dancers themselves. I always hope they choose the kind I prefer – that theatre and movie actors prefer -, but there are so many obstacles to see my wish fulfilled!

The training

In the great Ballet Schools acting is part of the program, but not a central one, it remains far, far, very far behind all-important physical technique – with special care to traditional formalistic mime.  A dancer with natural acting skill is always in danger of having to un-learn intellectually what he already knew instinctively…

The training in Contemporary Dance Schools and in Performance Arts courses in universities is a lot better, but aimed mostly… at Contemporary Dance, of course! And for all I have seen, emphasis is on expressive choreography (a good, very good thing, by the way!). So what about the classical trained dancers?

Needs x requirements

There are so many dramatic ballets, by so many important choreographers: Tudor, Ashton, Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, MacMillan, Neumeier, Liam Scarlett, Grigorovitch, Ratmansky, and on it goes… These ballets deserve good acting! These ballets NEED good acting!

Marcia Acting
Marcia Haydée – Lady of Camelies (Neumeier)

But acting skill, and I mean GOOD acting, is NOT a real requirement when selecting, promoting or hiring a dancer – again, physical technique is far more valued!

When it comes the moment to perform, however, all expect (at least the audience does!) the dancer will know his acting! What do dancers do, then? Try to be the best they can, learning maybe from his fellow-dancers or by themselves… not an easy task, either way – his fellows are at a loss just as he/she is, and learning alone has limited efficacy and is time-consuming.

The traditional Standards

Many dancers complain of the tight acting standards they must obey in the big companies, that go from a prescribed way of acting to an open disapproval of any display of individuality.

Type-casting

This is a tough one, that wastes the rare natural acting talents in roles that do not require acting, and also the contrary, using in dramatic roles dancers that do not have (“my” kind of!) acting skill.  A real shame!

Alina Somova as Juliet
Alina Somova – Romeo and Juliet

The audience…s

There are several kinds of audiences, with different expectations on acting. Choreographers, coachers, dancers, artistic directors, when they make a choice, are also choosing the kind of audience they will be addressing – it is impossible – read that again, I beg you: it is IMPOSSIBLE – to please all of them at the same time! It means that, if we ALL keep attending ALL kinds of performance, THEY must know they will certainly displease many of us… an uncomfortable trap!

Acting Itself

When a dancer is cast in a dramatic role, and willing to make a good job, he/she has challenges to win that are intrinsic to acting.
To make a character believable, it must be coherent throughout the play, and, at the same time, full of nuances – no matter what kind of character.  This requires a deep understanding of the human being, and great empathy, to perform even someone the dancer is not, or does not feel like.

Alina - Giselle 1
Alina Cojocaru – Giselle Mad Scene

He must also grasp what the choreographer, and the artistic director, intended from his character, and incorporate these intentions to his own interpretation.

The role he creates cannot exist alone, it must interact believably with the other roles in the play – may the other dancers be good actors, too, or not!

The dancer is not acting in front of a camera that can show the slightest tremor of the lid – he must reach down to the last rows – and THIS requires great skill!

He/she must be able to create on-the-run empathy, to feel how we-seated-there-in-the-dark are reacting, and make us follow, feel with he wants.

And last but not least, he/she cannot be self-conscious! On stage, an actor cannot be Mr. X making a careful performance of Macbeth… he must be Macbeth himself – as a dancer cannot be Mr. Z performing Armand, he must BE Armand. When acting is good, you forget about X and Z, and see only the role. Not an easy feat… careful, self-conscious performers as most dancers are!

While dancing!

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Alessandra Ferri and Hernan Cornejo – Cheri

All this challenges, of course, must be faced while making a great display of balletic technique, caring for the partner, finding his cues and place on stage, following the music…
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Is it not incredible that the acting of some dancers, despite all that, is able to blow me off my feet? More than that, is it not incredible that some of them blow me off my feet, not at the expense, but while displaying great dancing?

Awesome creatures!

Some of them are as good in dramatic as in comic roles, like amazing Alessandra Ferri, or great Manuel Legris… Some of them are as good seen from afar as in a close-up, in fact good enough for an Oscar (now I’m thinking of Alina Cojocaru)…

Manuel Legris - Die Fledermaus
Ketevan Papava and Manuel Legris – Die Fledermaus – Click on image to link to video, it is delicious!

They are ALMOST inexistent in the triangle USA/Russia/England (I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true!), most dancers who are also good actors come from France, Germany, Spain, Latin America… a handful of them nowadays, no more – with so much obstacles, if the dancer hasn’t natural skill, and a persistent drive to use it, he is doomed.

 In the newest generation they are even rarer, especially in classical ballet. It is not surprising – nowadays Form and perfect physical technique are valued much higher – overrated, I would say – and not only in Dance, it is a wide-spread characteristic of modern society! Content? meaning? well, so long it does not overshadow technique, it may receive some attention…

The greatest exception between the younger ones in Triangle of Bermudas of acting is Ivan Vasiliev, the only one of his generation to cope with the whole array of acting challenges from the start, with flying colours. He is able to bring life and meaning to any role, tragical or comical, from Czar Ivan, The Terrible to Colas in La Fille Mal Gardée – besides having a wealth of other qualities.

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He must make deliberate choices about each of his perfomances, because the outcome is always unique and specific, deeply coherent in both the dramatic and technical dimensions of the role.

Ivan Vasiliev, of course, is not unanimity in the audience, as no other dancer is – one could not expect THAT with so different kinds of public. Maybe he is aware that the choices he makes will please many of us, but not all – those like me, luckily, seem to be priority number one in his book!

02ivan-vasiliev
Le Jeune Homme et La Mort

 

I wish more of the classical trained younger dancers were like him…

After all, concert dance is a Performance Art! Or is it possible to disagree even on that?

This blog’s nice Quest: “Psst, you!, come, you will love Dance!”

Dance was the first great passion in my life, but even when I was part of our Dance community, little information about what was going on “there, where it matters” reached us – if at all, with great delay. We were just too far away, and Communication Age had not yet begun. I was lucky, I had teachers that were ex-dancers that had gone abroad and eventually came back with solid knowledge and great technical skill, but this happened so seldom, less than once in a decade! All I knew by then was pure classical (the most contained, severe English style!) and Martha Graham.  When I gave up dancing, I kept the greatest possible distance between me and all that concerned Ballet, by my own choice – a kind of Dance “coma”…

I awakened to a “new” world, a world I had not been aware existed.

I was searching YouTube for classical Music works  that had never graced the shelves of my city’s stores, when I linked to a piece that was just score to a ballet. BALLET! I realized, for the first time, that I could now see ballets, performances, dancers I had only heard about before – and was suddenly overcome by an urgent longing for Dance. I started with Martha Graham, and went on on suggested links, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp…  Awesome! I remember clearly my amazement,  as I realized all that had happened during the time I had been “away”.

Eventually I clicked on Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” staged by San Francisco Ballet, Desmond Richardson and Yuan Yuan Tan as principals. I was mesmerized! So beautiful this blend of classical and contemporary, so different from all I had known, the richer choreography, the amazing male roles – these men were REALLY dancing!  And choreography and dancers were all so deeply expressive! I watched it three times in a row before I could go on.

I went on to Othello’s PDD danced by Marcelo Gomes and Alessandra Ferri. WOW…! Until that moment, all I knew about him was that he is a Brazilian ballet dancer who succeded abroad.  I searched more.
AlessandraFerriOthello

Wow!… WOW!…

Two more days with my eyes glued to the screen, and I knew ALL about him and Alessandra I could get on the web: clips, interviews, pictures, reviews. Marcelo Gomes led me next to the Kings of the Dance.

I clicked on Labyrinth of Solitude.

Ivan Vasiliev in Labyrinth of Solirude - chr. Patrick De Bana - Photographer: Nikolay Krusser
Ivan Vasiliev in Labyrinth of Solirude – chr. Patrick De Bana – Photographer: Nikolay Krusser

I had never seen anything so beautiful and heartbreaking before. It was so overwhelming I  stopped  all I was doing , and went for a walk to think about what I had seen. My life had suffered a division: there is a before and an after Labyrinth.

THIS much meaning, feeling, power could be conveyed through Dance!! I knew, back from my days, that for those who dance, it can be a deep sensorial and emotional  experience, but I had been also sadly aware that this experience was not extended to our audience! A Ballet evening was just a sophisticated event that  people with cultured tastes felt obliged to attend, but the moment the curtains closed, they started talking about where to have dinner,   the stock market…  – had that evening existed or not, nothing was changed.

But THIS! this was something else. Labyrinth had blowed me off my feet! Not as a dancer, but as audience. And not in a theatre, seated in the dark, magic flowing from a lighted stage, but at home, my pets fooling around me, phone ringing, – on a 14″ notebook with awful sound quality…

It became my favourite work, and a sort of standard. I like everything about Labyrinth. The theme; the music (Vitali, strange composer, who created this one sweeping, emotional score 150 years ahead of his time…); the way it is danced by Vasiliev, believable and intense;  the absence of settings and costume;  De Bana’s expressive choreography, and how he blended all of it into something that was more than the sum of parts.

After gathering  my wits back, I searched further (my ethernal gratitude to YouTube’s inventor!), and started to identify  which choreographers and dancers had been – and are now – responsible for this new (for me) richness.  I knew several by name or a rare photo, but had never SEEN the real dancing, believe it or not!  My personal  “hall of fame”  became a mix of active and retired professionals, even some  long passed away – problem is, they jumped into my life all at once, it took me some time to correctly locate them in space and time – they were all very “here and now”  in my mind  – they still are, and I like it that way.

I fell deeply in love with Dance again, more than before. I saw, at last, Dance becoming an Art like her sisters. THIS was what Dance should be, anyone could appreciate, could  love it now, men and women, young and old, expert or not. Anyone should be given the opportunity to experience its power, everyone should be exposed to its magic: I had a Quest!

My other projects (I always have too many, anyway) became less important, as my knowledge and awareness grew steadily. I’m fortunate that I can now, as never before in a too busy life, open my door and let Dance and Music come in and make themselves really comfortable in me. (only problem is, I suffer from fits of goose-bumps at an alarming rate nowadays).

The Quest means no hard work at all:  I use it as an excuse to write about beauty and art gifted people create for us – giving Dance some thought while I write – not as an expert, but as the grateful receiving end, and then throw it in the wind/web, hoping it makes a difference, even the tiniest one, in bringing Dance closer to a wider audience. The other task is to win people around me over… making  them some pleasure,  too,  when I succeed.  Is that nice or what?

The beauty (or not) of contemporary dance!

Evolution of Mankind
Evolution of Mankind 

 Edited one day after first publishing: it’s an awful long post, again. If you’re not patient enough, just go to the to examples in the end – they speak for themselves.
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I have a problem with overuse of weird and ugly movements in contemporary dance.

I know it sounds unsophisticated and simple-minded, but am I just a traditional ballet lover with an idealized view of dancing? I believe not, I have a few arguments, and they may be not that naive (although I love this little figure, I stitched it together myself!).

To begin with – and this is important: my problem is NOT with ridiculous, weird, strange or ugly movements used to impart the wealth of negative emotions and ideas that are part of life – just when they are used for other reasons and in other contexts. Some of them:

# 1: “I want to shock, I want to push you out of your comfort zone!”

Reality is not a nice place to live, but classical ballet refused the notion and presented us with an idealized view of human being.  In this context, the use of ugly and weird movements in contemporary is a way to give a good push on ballet’s complacent audience, as a shocking device to make them again aware of the real facts of life. I subscribe to that! BUT…

… nowadays they became overused. It’s like these American B-films, where the characters use FUCK as their every fifth word. It should show how the character is bad, or messed up, but fails, nowadays, to have the desired effect. You see, I’m a clumsy person, and this puts me in frequent situations when swearing is needed…  and heartily done!!!  It would not be THAT satisfying, though, if I used swearing in every sentence. Overuse kills the effect of trespassing, of rebellion, of a striking-back reaction. It becomes just bad manners, and does not make us jump in our seats anymore, or even uncomfortable.

If ugly movements are used to shock us, or to remind us of the ugly side of reality, well… it’s not working anymore, they are, nowadays, just… boringly ugly!

# 2:  “Contemporary dance is not falsely prude, or falsely nice”.

And there comes bottoms facing audience, or held up high facing the sky, or the common lift where the female dancer is held high, back against her partner’s chest, horizontally not-fully extended, half-open legs, crotch facing the public.  I used to look for the sex act key of that movement, since a woman in that position, in all our minds, with legs tensed that way, is a powerful and beautiful image of sexual desire, very rarely seen in other contexts, if any – I would welcome that, by the way, sex is still taboo in ballet, even in contemporary, and many choreographers and dancers are still uncomfortable in acknowledging even that sex exists – as Theatre, for example, has been doing for a long time. But… no, it is mostly just a slightly out-of-tune movement that, more often than not, has nothing to do with sexual drive.  So what does it mean, this position that, taken out of its context, is not exactly graceful? The same applies, for example,  when dancers crawl on all their fours…  in my body-language lexicon, this is about very little children (the child inside us?), or about a very desperate, in sheer terror human being, that turns animal-like for lack of options. So I look for hints either way, but more often than not… they are not there! Made by an adult, and without the archaic corresponding meaning, this kind of movement is not graceful or makes sense anywhere in the world… So?!??

# 3: It is original!

In a world with too many people, ideas and images, originality is an important way to stand out. For the sake of originality, people go to any lengths, pushing boundaries of aesthetics to ultimate extremes. If it comes from a deep understanding of hidden possibilities we common people are not aware yet, I love it. But sometimes weird, ugly dancing does not seem to have any meaning, or belong to an intended aesthetic statement, they come and go in the dancing, and you can’t make any sense out them.

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We, social beings as we are, live inside a symbolic universe, which allows us to communicate. We share words, concepts, tastes, ideas. Even if I see blue were you see green, even if Thai food feels so hot for me I have a hard time identifying the other ingredients  through my tears, even if my fragmented notion of time is different from my Arab neighbour’s flowing one… even so, we have more in common than we have differences.  Every social group shares a symbolic universe, deeply grounded on its language, and part of these diverse universes is common to all mankind. It is not different with body language. Different cultures have different conventions about the meaning of movements, and some of this meaning is common to all humankind.

The common aspects are rooted mostly in archaic fears and needs. So if you are standing up and stretch yourself completely,  as far as you can, your eyes not on someone else, but focused far away, or unfocused – what does it mean? Here? In China? In Iceland? You see what I mean? INSIDE a specific culture, it is even easier, because all body-language – partly deeply rooted, partly convention – is understandable, is a language like the spoken one.

Our ears, our eyes, our nose, our tongue, all our senses, are trained since early childhood, so we can share images and colours, flavours and smells, sounds… and concepts related to them, and ever more abstract ideas construed using these as ground-stones.

Now, coming back to Art. Art is part of our symbolic universe, both the specific one, and the general one.  I may have trouble understanding a Japanese Opera, or Indian music, when I’m seeing it for the first time and without preparing myself. But I can learn! I can learn its aesthetic criteria, the difficulties of performance, the concepts that are imbedded there, the culture where they came from, and then… THEN I will be exposed to the full power of that kind of Art. What I mean is: Art exists INSIDE a symbolic universe, and can only reach me if I share this universe.

There are artists that have an instinctive knowledge of our symbolic universe, but so a deep and great one, they are able to show us things we are not aware, that are in the boundaries of, or hidden from our “Weltanschauung”. And still, they share our symbolic universe, or they would be just psychopaths, living in a world of their own…  It is my belief that this kind of Art, even if you can’t understand it rationally, will get at you anyway. Provided it is Art, provided it comes from a knowledge that includes mine and exceeds it in some way, and brings me a new truth I will recognize once seen, and then not be able to dismiss again. Problem is, this is not the kind of artist we are discussing here. This kind of artist is Beethoven, is Isadora Duncan, is Van Gogh, they are rare, so, SO rare!  Most artists are not so far away from our everyday reality, and share our symbolic universe as it is. There is nothing less valuable about them, because Art must not throw our symbolic universe upside down, everytime, to be Art –in fact it rarely does, for it is, most of all, a way for us… just to live! Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die of the truth!”. We need Art in order to cope with what being human is, just IS!

Many artists strive, nowadays, to be boundary breakers, but if they resource to artificial means to become that, it is of no avail – this kind of issue should not even worry them – in fact, articialism gets in the way of creation! The points I enumerated above about the use of strange movements ARE artificial ways some choreographers are using, and do not convince me. At all.

To be original guarantees… originality, not that the work will be Art! To unveil hypocrisy and false moral values is always good, but does not guarantee the work will be Art (but a valuable socio-political statement, maybe?), and so on.

Our culture shares an immensurable knowledge on body-language and concepts of body beauty and body-movements beauty… and their corresponding ugliness.  This wealth of meaning is just beginning to be explored by Dance. I wonder why so many choreographers are dismissive about our shared language, and try to create something that is not really new, just weird – to create something that is just…  not understandable!

How many writers you know that use as much words they create from scratch as existing ones? How many perfumists do you know that create perfumes that smell like rotten eggs, or a car’s exhaustion?  What happens when you hear music  that uses not the kind of “hamony” your culture shares? even if it is Art, will it reach you?

I will a give an example, and a counter-example.

My example of weird, not understandable dancing is Ohad Naharin’s Passo. Passo is part of a larger work, and was presented, out of context, in Solo For Two, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, where I saw it the first time. Despite being performed by outstanding and expressive dancers, it was a shot off the mark, if I, in the audience, was the intended target. Even seeing the whole work, I doubt I would get what was to be imparted through the choreography.  It was lost on me, I did not understand the body-language, and could not see, also, a possible internal coherence or consistency of Form, some aesthetic proposition I could recognize.  Was it necessary to know about Gaga-technique? Well… Naharin could not expect that from me, could he? I must say:  simple-minded me did not get it at all… I wonder if someone else did!
(The strange thing is, there are several choreographies of Naharin that I like  – and, I believe,  understand…  so what is the matter with THIS one?

14natalia-osipova-and-ivan-vasiliev-c2abpasoc2bb-from-c2absolo-for-twoc2bb-moscow-russia-c2a9-philippe-jordan
Small excerpt of Passo by Ohad Naharin, performed by Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

The counter-example is Mats Ek’s (he is Swedish) work, based on a play of Garcia Lorca (he is Spanish), using music from Bach (he is German), Villa-Lobos (he is Brazilian), Albeniz and Tarraga (they are Spanish): Bernardas Hus, or La Casa de Bernarda Alba. An extraordinary work, “readable” by anyone, despite the multicultural aspects… at least by any occidental one (due to Catholic religion references). But then,  Mats Ek is an extraordinary choreographer, I’m fascinated by his work!  Even if you do not know the original play (I did not), you get it, both emotion and plot, through the cleverest use of body-language in – and this is what I like the most – IN the dancing,  THROUGH the dancing!

bernardas hus
Small excerpt of Bernardas Hus by Mats Ek – link to complete work below

Link to complete work: << https://youtu.be/l2Sxi7USgzw>>.