poetic ballet

19 posts in this topic

I wrote this when I first began accompanying ballet classes.Not quite a Haiku but close.

At the barre,

how the curve

Of an arm

Echoed a young girl's smile.

Everything turned out beautifully.

Is anyone aware of poems with ballet as their subject matter?

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I enjoyed the image -- quietly joyful -- as well as the multiple meanings of "turned out."

This is a good question. Ballet has inspired visual artists. How about poets?

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Les Sylphides by Louis MacNeice

Life in a day: he took his girl to the ballet;

Being shortsighted himself could hardly see it--

The white skirts in the grey

Glade and the swell of the music

Lifting the white sails.

Calyx upon calyx, canterbury bells in the breeze

The flowers on the left mirror to the flowers on the right

And the naked arms above

The powdered faces moving

Like seaweed in a pool.

Now, he thought, we are floating--ageless, oarless-

Now there is no separation, from now on

You will be wearing white

Satin and a red sash

Under the waltzing trees.

But the music stopped, the dancers took their curtain,

The river had come to a lock--a shuffle of programmes--

And we cannot continue down

Stream unless we are ready

To enter the lock and drop.

So they were married--to be the more together--

And found they were never again so much together,

Divided by the morning tea,

By the evening paper,

By children and tradesmen's bills.

Waking at times in the night she found assurance

In his regular breathing but wondered whether

It was really worth it and where

The river had flowed away

And where were the white flowers.

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At Kamin’s Dance Bookshop (from Lunch Poems, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1964.)

by Frank O'Hara

[Dedicated to Vincent Warren, one of the important loves in O'Hara's life, and a dancer for the New York City Ballet.]

Shade of Fanny Elssler! I dreamt that you passed over

me last night in sleep

was it you who was fast asleep or was it me? sweet shade

shade shade shill spade agony freak

geek you were not nor were you made of ribbons but

of warm moving flesh & tulle

you were twining your left leg around your right as if

your right were me

I’ve never felt so wide awake

I seemed to be wearing tights entwined with your legs

and a big sash over my crotch

and a jewel in my left ear for luck

(to help me balance) and you were pulling me toward

the floor reaching for stars

it seemed to me that I was warm at last

and palpable not just a skein of lust dipped in the

grand appreciation of yours

where are you Fanny Elssler come back!

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"Tributes: Celebrating Fifty Years of New York City Ballet," is a handsome coffee table book, published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. in 1998, which contains poems by Robert Lowell, William Meredith, Frank O'Hara, Ron Padgett, Marianne Moore, Kenneth Koch, Amiri Baraka, Elise Paschen, Nikki Giovanni, and James Merrill.

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Does anyone know the title and year of the Kenneth Koch poem about New York City Ballet? Arlene Croce quotes three lines from it in Going to the Dance:

...the blue-white sea

Outside the port-hole: Agon, or Symphony in C.

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The Kenneth Koch poem, from 1998, is called "To New York City Ballet" and is from the Tributes book.

Oh dancers of New York, arranged by Balanchine,

You are more beautiful than groves of evergreen!

You have aesthetic distance, like the blue-white sea

Outside the porthole--Agon or Symphony in C!

And how the image lasts, with houselights going on,

Of the prince standing gazing at the disappearing swan!

Is it Odette? Was it Odile? The two are so the same,

But every smile or gesture seems to give away the game.

There's only one who brings this honest beating of the heart:

George Balanchine! Of all the kings of choreographic art,

Great Balanchine, who lifts us, with his dancers

As if there were no stage at all, to tell his stories there.

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. . .

Is it Odette? Was it Odile? . . .

Odile? In Balanchine? Huh? :off topic:

Or am I reading too literally?

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. . .

Is it Odette? Was it Odile? . . .

Odile? In Balanchine? Huh? :off topic:

Or am I reading too literally?

Poetic license, perhaps.

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. . .

Is it Odette? Was it Odile? . . .

Odile? In Balanchine? Huh? :off topic:

Or am I reading too literally?

Poetic license, perhaps.

...Suzanne Farrell, perhaps.

If you are willing to think of novelist Jack Kerouac as a poet:

From his Journals, 1949, after seeing a performance of Ballets Russes at the Met:

It is the most exquisite of the arts—one can die a strange little death after seeing the ballet for the first time.

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Outside the porthole--Agon or Symphony in C!

From Gold and Fitzdale’s tribute to Balanchine, which is a bit poetical:

The Four Temperaments and Kammermusik speak perfect German. Agon – cold, sarcastic, analytic, probing – Sixties America.

This recent tweet by Isaac Hernandez could be a prose poem about the dancer’s life:

3rd movement symphony in C tonight, pack, plane, pas classique, Coppelia, plane, train and 3rd movement again. 3 long days.

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Thanks, Quiggin, for bringing back this thread, as well as the poetic spirit you find in several unlikely places.

You give me the chance to respond (QUITE belatedly) to Farrell Fan's 2008 reminder about the book Tributes.

I like Robert Lowell's little poem, written during a visit to New York City Ballet while on a Ford Foundation fellowship to write powetry about .... opera.

My verses cannot comment

on your immortal moment,

or tell you what you mean;

only Balanchine

has the razor edge,

and knows that art of language.

Marianne Moore on "Arthur Mitchell" (1956)

Slim dragon-fly

too rapid for the eye

to cage,

contagious gem of virtuosity

make visible, mentality.

Your jewels of mobility


and veil

a peacock tail.

Ron Padgett's "Litle Ode to Suzanne Farrell" (1998), which concludes ...

and you

who hover in the air like a disembodied heart

shocked into eternity for the split second the music

turns to face you and you find your face up there

in the dark where we are and a smile on it

There is space here and air and breath, clarity

of perfect tears that beakuty makes us cry to automatically

as you wrap the world around

your finger, then wrap yourself around the world.

And James Merrill, evoking the experience of watching a ballet -- "Farewell Performance" (1995) -- illustrated by the great Steve Caras photo of Balanchine's "Last Bow" (1982). It begins ....

Art. It cures affliction. As lights go down and

Maestro lifts his wand, the unfailing sea chanage

starts within us. Limber alembics once more

make of the common

lot a pure, brief gold.

And concludes:

.... How you would have loved it. We in

turn have risen. Pity and terror done with,

programs furled, lips parted, we jostle forward eager to hail them,

more, to join the troup -- will a friend enroll us

one fine day? Strange, though. For up close their magic

self-destrkucts. Pale, dripping, with downcast eyes they've

seen where it led you.

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My favorite poem about dance is Arthur Symons's impressionistic La Mélinite:


Alone, apart, one dancer watches

Her mirrored, morbid grace;

Before the mirror, face to face,

Alone she watches

Her morbid, vague, ambiguous grace.

Before the mirror's dance of shadows

She dances in a dream,

And she and they together seem

A dance of shadows;

Alike the shadows of a dream.

The orange-rosy lamps are trembling

Between the robes that turn;

In ruddy flowers of flame that burn

The lights are trembling:

The shadows and the dancers turn.

And, enigmatically smiling,

In the mysterious night,

She dances for her own delight,

A shadow smiling

Back to a shadow in the night.

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"To a Dancer" by Arthur Symons:


Her eyes across the footlights gleam,

(The wine of love, the wine of dream)

Her eyes, that gleam for me!

The eyes of all that see

Draw to her glances, stealing fire

From her desire that leaps to my desire;

Her eyes that gleam for me!

Subtly, deliciously,

A quickening fire within me, beat

The rhythms of her poising feet;

Her feet that poise to me!

Her body's melody,

In silent waves of wandering sound,

Thrills to the sense of all around,

Yet thrills alone for me!

And oh, intoxicatingly,

When, at the magic moment's close,

She dies into the rapture of repose,

Her eyes that gleam for me!

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Many interesting and thoughtful threads this week! Been too busy to take them all in and reply. Here is Frank O'Hara's poem to Tanny:

Ode to Tanaquil LeClerc, 1960

smiling through my own memories of painful excitement your wide eyes


and narrow like a lost forest of childhood stolen from gypsies

two eyes that are the sunset of

two knees

two wrists

two minds

and the extended philosophical column, when they conducted the dialogues

in distant Athens, rests on your two ribbon-wrapped hearts, white

credibly agile


scimitars of a city-state

where in the innocence of my watching had those ribbons become entangled

dragging me upward into lilac-colored ozone where I gasped

and you continued to smile as you dropped the bloody scarf of my life

from way up there, my neck hurt

you were always changing into something else

and always will be

always plumage, perfection's broken heart, wings

and wide eyes in which everything you do

repeats yourself simultaneously and simply

as a window "gives" on something

it seems sometimes as if you were only breathing

and everything happened around you

because when you disappeared in the wings nothing was there

but the motion of some extraordinary happening I hadn't understood

the superb arc of a question, of a decision about death

because you are beautiful you are hunted

and with the courage of a vase

you refuse to become a deer or a tree

and the world holds its breath

to see if you are there, and safe

are you?

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I'm intrigued by Symond's use of "morbid" in "morbid grace."

I love O'Hara's "you were always turning into something else." Only a truly interesting dancer --and one capable of a varied repertoire -- provokes a response like that.

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'perfection's broken heart' - how that applies to the incomparable dancing of Tanaquil LeClerc.

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Also "you refuse to become a deer or tree."

There's a mention of Tanquil LeClercq in the footnote to Ronald Johnson's Ark 53: The Balanchine Spire:

I was taught any poet worth his salt ought name the unnameable, preferably syllable by syllable. The Balanchine Spire, conceived to be a waltz for two dancers, I wonder would scarce be readable else. Impossible surely to name the body as it so moves.

For the study I read all the classic texts, extracting necessary words and moves, remembering the while Mr. B's angular poesies (indeed, too, Tanaquil LeQuerq, at the Opera House in San Francisco, when I was a private first class in the Infantry) and Apollonian gestrued clarities, all the long years.

You can also hear Gerard Manley Hopkins in background of the Marianne Moore poem.

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I'm intrigued by Symond's use of "morbid" in "morbid grace."

Me too! I suppose the dancer's grace is "morbid" because the spectator-voyeur's gaze is not returned. The spectator senses the dancer's interior life ("she dances for her own delight"), but he can't enter into it. He experiences the non-return of the gaze as a kind of death. There is a multiplication of images, but not of meaning. Her grace is vague, ambiguous, morbid, because the spectator experiences it as unfathomable.

The 2nd poem is also organized around the gaze. However, in this poem the gaze is structured around mutual recognition. The gaze is the site of an animating desire, of performer for spectator, and spectator for audience: "The eyes of all that see / Draw to her glances, stealing fire / From her desire that leaps to my desire." And here I will conclude my amateur attempt at literary criticism :)

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