Poetry is a foreign country: they do things differently there. (Apologies to L. P. Hartley.) And for that very reason I sometimes want to get right away from words, the awful girders and trusses of words, to the freedom of an art form where I don’t have to do any oxyacetylene welding or other territorial revisionism. The world of dance and ballet is one place I can escape to where all of that mental sledging falls away, movement and rhythm in poetry being entirely different things. I’ve always been star-struck by dancers whose abilities I envy and whose ease of movement sometimes seems like the most real poetry.
Dancers would have a good laugh over this, knowing that the apparent ease of movement is down to countless hours of practise at the barre, slipped discs, wretched touring, aching feet, stroppy corps de ballet, partners who were once amenable and now aren’t, and so forth. Yes, I know that, but still—here is an art form where the invitation comes with the possibility of joyfulness that other art forms don’t offer so readily or abundantly.
I can’t think this preference of mine is anything special because I note that one of the most viewed videos on YouTube is Judson Laipply’s Evolution of Dance which has been seen over forty million times! We would all like to move like Fred Astaire or Beriosova, but we can’t, and so we settle for dance performances where music, light, decor and flesh transform themselves into intoxicating rhythms, visions of transport, gravity temporarily defeated. Film sometimes captures these rhythms—Black Orpheus, the end of Les Enfant du Paradis—but usually it happens after choreography, the slow accretion of movements that work from inspiration to the moment when the curtain goes up and there are no safety nets left to hold off error. How touching it can be at curtain call when dancers, thrilled with their own efforts, and knowing they have touched the stars that particular evening, have to come back down to earth. You feel their shared pleasure, and perhaps also a little of the sadness that must ensue after an attempt at the ideal has to be replaced with the usual ordinariness. The makeup is removed, day clothes are put back on and the street looks penny plain.
In my youth the Australian Ballet seemed—was—terribly glamorous, and there was always a special theatrical intensity in its performances. Australians have always had an interest in dance and we now have contemporary companies providing every kind of dance style imaginable. Robert Helpmann and Peggy van Praagh were in charge of the Australian Ballet in earlier times and regularly starred great dancers from yonder, Margot and Rudolf for starters. I remember Margot Fonteyn slaying everyone in the aisles in an act from Raymonda. There were unexpected delights too such as Lucette Aldous and Alan Alda dancing a spectacular Spring Waters or the pleasure of seeing an all-Australian The Lyrebird, music Malcolm Williamson, choreography Robert Helpmann, sets Sidney Nolan. The first director of the Australian National Gallery purchased a basketful of one hundred Ballets Russes costumes which, now cleaned and restored, still convey something of the excitement of the Diaghilev era. The same kind of excitement can be seen practically leaking from the screen in the balletomania of Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes. Anton Walbrook drives Marius Goring’s composer and Moira Shearer’s dancer to the point of self-destruction. Obviously there is a warning in the film, taken as it is from the Hans Christian Andersen story, of the dangers in dwelling too much in pure aesthetic realms, and of seeking perfection en pointe.
For some, it’s breakdancing, or ballroom dancing, the tango, salsa, Indian or African tribal dancing, that is the spellbinder. The body can be made to move in so many remarkable ways. How awkward and unsatisfactory one feels in the face of the choreographed visions of Cranko, MacMillan and Graham or loose-limbed winging it on the dance floor.
If going from the ballet world to the other one we must usually occupy is a little like going to bed as Margot Fonteyn and waking to find yourself Peggy Hookham, that doesn’t invalidate those ephemeral moments when the visionary gleam catches fire. Sluggish limbs recall great transformative dance experiences, whether Jiri Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater or a distantly-recalled Ballet Folklorico from Mexico, incense engulfing Her Majesty’s Theatre amongst the leaping and the noise.
I’m not qualified to comment on dance technique, but I know technique is needed to contain and convey emotion. I’ve read that some big names in the past didn’t have have the technique of today’s dancers. Perhaps, but how hard it must have been, for example, for Madam, Dame Ninette de Valois, to build a British company of dancers equal to de Bournonville and Fokine, almost from scratch. And dancers then had personality in spades. Our age seems rather anodyne in comparison. The ballet world can be split by factionalism, as any of the arts, and stories abound of carryings-on and put-downs of various leading lights. That is the negativity you always get when anyone aspires to something beyond the status quo.
Think about the sheer variety of dance styles—Sammy Davis, Jr., Yuri Soloviev, Merle Park, Chita Rivera, Maria Tallchief, Michael Jackson, Leonide Massine, Bob Fosse. These heterogeneous dance styles suggest some mysterious energy, a parallel universe, where movement attains a condition of transcendence, however impermanent. Balanchine especially seems to make his dancers move with a gracefulness and fluidity that can raise whole evenings to a level of exaltation. Stravinsky said Nijinsky didn’t understand music and thus made his choreography too complex for the dancers, but Nijinsky must have had some charisma and ability to have captured his historical moment so acutely. Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava, was also a fascinating choreographer. However, Balanchine seems to have worked out the way forward from the classical style of Petipa to the contemporary with a wit and elegance that can encompass Sousa marches and Ravel, the sinew of Agon and the brilliance of Ballet Imperial.
Well, back to poetry country. Silence, exile and indolent strumming may be needed to get along in that place, but there’s always the flight to freedom available over the border in dance land, where words turn into rhythms unavailable to letters, and you can temporarily escape their manacles.
Fred Astaire d. June 23, 1987
Gingering the boredom
Of awkward tribulation,
That near lean on a stick
Spins firecracker variations
With legs in a suave equation.
This is style
Mapping the screen,
Reducing to top hat, white tie and tails
Stardust of the Milky Way.
It ends with the usual stillness,
Those toe-tapping terrors
Trapped, perfection cracked,
Yet up in the evening sky
A ghostly footprint whizzes figures of eight.
Written 1987 Published 1994 Such Sweet Thunder 69
Maria Bylova and Leonid Nikonov of the Bolshoi Ballet dance Spring Waters here. 2′ 27”