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"Classicism is enduring because it is impersonal"What did Balanchine mean?


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#1 bart

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 05:18 PM

Earlier today Dale posted the next cast list for New York City Ballet. There, near the top of the page, was a quote attributed to Balanchine: "Classicism is enduring because it is impersonal."

Okay. I thought I know what he meant. Then I thought again ... and wasn't sure.

What WAS Balanchine trying to say? Does anyone know the context in which he said it? Why would NYCB turn this dictum into an epigraph -- or defining principle? -- for their current program?

Edited to add: They must keep changing the epigraph. I just went back to re-check the wording and something entirely different was in its place.

#2 kfw

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:06 PM

Just a guess, but that sounds to me like something Kirstein would have written for Balanchine. Certainly it's something Kirstein believed, as we know from "A Ballet Master's Belief" and his ongoing intellectual quarrel w/ Martha Graham, whose work he thought was insufficiently rooted in codified discipline and too reliant on personality. In the quarterly "Parabola" in 1988 he is quoted as saying that "the word itself is impersonal, but a person can infuse it with almost anything. In modern dance all you hear is the accent, not the language. But ballet is like the King's English. You shouldn't hear any accent at all." When asked later about the ideal performer he speaks of "a transcendent morality" (Balanchine's "La danse, Madame, c'est une question morale"), and of a dancer who can "truly illuminate a gesture, instead of just performing it. And all without imposing personality". Personality can't really be passed on, but the precise gesture can be.

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:38 PM

I don't ever take this sort of thing very seriously. Unless classicism is the single only thing that ever lasted, other things lasted as well. These things are said in order to direct focus on something one has deemed 'more important' as well as just 'important'. Is Balanchine's own personality invisible in his works when performed most reverently? Of course not. You see it. If his isn't, it's unrealistic to say that the performer's would be either. Such statements denote something to aim for, in that one tries to be godlike. It's the right way to state it, it's of no importance that its application is strictly limited. This is all about concentrating on one kind of attitude as opposed to another one. If by 'classicism', there is meant 'not romanticism', you already have something in romanticism that lasted quite as much as did 'classicism' unless you decide 'romanticism' was a subsidiary of 'classicism'. Otherwise, classicism has to be everything that did last.

Personality, if it was Martha Graham's, lasted as well. All you have to do is see her company 10 years after her death. These kinds of delimitings are necessary to produce a domain that sets itself off and they are concerned with matters of value and taste more than any kind of truth that would really be inclusive enough to apply to more than what is within the domain itself.

Also, worth is not purely determined by its enduring properties, because many things could be said to have endured, but not nearly as long as much more longer-lasting things. Fo example, Homer is not necessarily greater than Beethoven, but it thus far is far more enduring. I don't know if one terms Homer 'classical' in the same sense as Haydn and Mozart.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 07:55 PM

As kfw said, this was a belief of Lincoln Kirstein's, but it's been a principle of the classical point of view in aesthetics, going back to the Greeks (at least). One way to think of it is that nonclassical art IS personal -- often confessional. It's "Something terrible happened to me and I'm going to tell you all about it," and that can be done very artfully. It advocates realism, content. (In painting, think of Ingres versus Delacroix, or Carraci versus Carravagio.) The classical point of view is objective rather than subjective, giving an outside rather than inside view, if you will. In ballet it means that the choreography itself is impersonal; it's a codified system of steps and combinations and rules that's brought to life by the dancers. Graham's was a personal style created out of her own body -- and then codified, but the impetus was personal. The modern dancers, back in the day, almost always started their careers with solos while working out their theory. What was dance? Contraction and release? Fall and recovery? Classicism doesn't have those theories. Not saying either is right or wrong, good or bad, but it's a big divide in Western art.

Interesting that the epigraphs change -- I can't help but thinking that that would be quite a chore!

#5 kfw

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Posted 05 June 2008 - 08:03 PM

Is Balanchine's own personality invisible in his works when performed most reverently? Of course not. You see it. If his isn't, it's unrealistic to say that the performer's would be either.

I think the key distinction in what I quoted of Kirstein is illumination vs. imposition. One learns the language, and then it's not that one's personality doesn't come through in speaking that language, it's that it each personality shows us the beauty of that language in its individual way. I think of Balanchine telling Darci Kistler not to act. She didn't have to act like a swan queen, she just had to dance the swan queen's steps and she'd be one, one like had never quite been seen before. In passing on the steps, he gave her a way to illuminate her individuality.

#6 Hans

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:08 AM

I wonder if Kirstein actually had Balanchine in mind when he expressed that opinion, given that Balanchine's style is very personal and not at all codified. It has an extremely thick "accent," to use his expression.

#7 popularlibrary

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:57 AM

Given that Balanchine was an intensely (Diaghilev might have said morbidly) religious man, steeped in the theology and mysticism of Russian Orthodoxy, and given the frequency with which he called attention to this ("the real world is not here," "only God creates - I assemble" among many other statements) it seems to me that, whether mediated by Kirstein or not, this is a fairly recognizable Balanchine religious notion rather than an aesthetic or critical one. I realize how very irritating this is of Mr. B, to put his admirers and critics at the disadvantage of having to deal with his beliefs, since I expect they are shared by relatively few of us in the dance lovers' community. All of our responses so far have been purely historical, critical or aesthetic, so let me make the case for the statement as theology.

Balanchine often referred to his dancers as angels, by which he did not mean lovely, ethereal creatures, but messengers of the divine. "I know God because I can see the face of Christ," he once said, and he saw his dancers, in one important way at least, as able to be the physical manifestation of that divinity. The most physical of the arts to Balanchine could be the powerful road to the world that "is not here." Through his choreography, rooted, almost monastically, in the discipline of classical dancing, his 'angels' could become the messengers of transcendence. "La dance, c'est une question morale" whose beauty is itself an enduring message, but it can't be delivered by vessels that are so full of themselves they crowd out the transcendence. In order to be filled with light, the vessel must empty itself and submit. Only in that way does the dancer become completely him/her self, the religious paradox that might explain why artists who made themselves as impersonal as they could had some of the strongest, most individual personalities ever seen on a dance stage. I really don't think one can make the statement, however it was put into words, into a logical, rational critical belief without doing violence to Balanchine's often-expressed religious passions.

#8 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 08:00 AM

. The modern dancers, back in the day, almost always started their careers with solos while working out their theory. What was dance? Contraction and release? Fall and recovery? Classicism doesn't have those theories. Not saying either is right or wrong, good or bad, but it's a big divide in Western art.

Interesting that the epigraphs change -- I can't help but thinking that that would be quite a chore!


Yes, and it's now too late for me to go back and change my first sentence--obviously I do take such remarks seriously, just not literally, for the reasons outlined. They are important and serious because they demarcate and protect, but the 'endure' part is not literal in either the sense that nothing else endured in quite the same way (enduring is enough in itself, and this other styles and sensibilities did also last), and also that the 'impersonality' may not be the only reason why classicism does endure. I had mentioned the aim toward being godlike, and this is inevitable; it is peculiarly human to strive for--and achieve--the godlike. But there is always the less advantageous side to the 'impersonal eternal' of the gods, which is what the Ring Cycle is all about, with Wotan at the center of the decision-making process, having built Valhalla on corrupt 'funding', having to defer to Fricka because her defense of marriage is stronger than the products of his lechery and adultery, viz., the Volsung Siegmund; followed by Brunnhilde's inability, even as instrument of his will, to carry it out when it comes to destroying all love just because 'Fricka is right' about the uncleanness of Siegmund's and Sieglinde's incest, i.e., she won't kill Siegmund just because it worked within the laws of the all-too-human greedy gods. It is interesting that this towering epic, much like the Bible in its ambitions, has at its core the limitations of gold.

So that the divide is always there, as you point out, and it needs to be. And those on either side of the divide must cultivate their art by opposing the other side--this is not a matter of fairness and being democratic about someone else's work when you are in the hot places of actually creating it. What occurred to me when kfw first brought up Balanchine/Kirstein and Graham was ways this divide has presented itself in music in the 20th century, not yet far back enough in time for it to seem as clear as when we look all the way back to the 19th century. When the high modernists like Boulez and Stockhausen were at their hottest, their evolution from the Viennese School seemed to be the only thing worth talking about in the 50s and 60s, it was the vanguard. I've recently been getting familiar with large amounts of Britten and Michael Tippett and, when I hear it with no received wisdom (or have minimized it as much as possible), I cannot find it to be less important music. But these great British composers were not using the techniques of the high serial composers, it went along in its own mostly separate tradition. By contrast, some of it like Britten's 'Spring Symphony' and Tippett's 'Midsummer Marriage' and Piano Concerto, are very romantic by comparison to the severe and impersonal serialism in Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre as well as all of his piano sonatas. I've even played the Second Sonata of Boulez in public. But even that familiarity was as nothing to when I heard Tippett's concerto: There was a cerebral excitement to the more severe music, but it is never enough to sustain one. When I worked on the Boulez, I enjoyed only playing it, but I never wanted to listen to it; but in the last 3 weeks I've listened to the Tippett concerto perhaps 12 times....these are just some related thoughts about the dialectic of personal/impersonal, classical/romantic.

given that Balanchine's style is very personal and not at all codified. It has an extremely thick "accent," to use his expression.


Definitely agree with Hans on this, which again bolsters my contention that statements like this are not so much literal, but are very important for buttressing and fortifying the battlements of a school.

#9 kfw

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 09:11 AM

I wonder if Kirstein actually had Balanchine in mind when he expressed that opinion, given that Balanchine's style is very personal and not at all codified. It has an extremely thick "accent," to use his expression.

Hans, given that SAB does have a syllabus and that there is such a thing as Balanchine technique, I don't understand what you mean when you say his style isn't codified. Yes Balanchine is "neo-classical," but then there is his retort upon first returning to Russia that "the home of classic ballet is now America."

#10 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 09:29 AM

[ Yes Balanchine is "neo-classical," but then there is his retort upon first returning to Russia that "the home of classic ballet is now America."


I think most of Balanchine's quotes, varied and many, are about his own work. Surely this 'home of classic ballet now in Ameica' is his work being talked about. Similarly, nad more egregiously (because the previous may have been the case for a period of decades anyway), when he talks about 'between Lehar and Beethoven, I prefer Lehar, he is more interesting, less boring', he is talking about how Lehar is more suitable for his purposes as a choreographer. Only the most die-hard fans, with little interest in musical content as a thing in itself, would take it as a serious criticism of Beethoven. In fact, the more I hear of some of his quips, the less impressed I am--his wisdom displays itself considerably more in his metier, which is not letters. And this remark about America as home to classical ballet would not resonate very much based on the Peter Martins NYCB--especially for those of us who just saw the Kirov, nevermind that we saw it in America.

#11 bart

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 11:43 AM

I am really learning from this discussion. Thank you, all. It may take a while for me to put it together in my head and post on my own. I did, however, print out the discussion and read it -- underlinging, circling, and writing margin notes -- during a meeting devoted to an entirely different subject. (I hope others thought I was just being conscientious.)

Patrick first post raises an important point. Discussion of ballet aesthetics does seem to lack a clear, defined, and universally shared vocabulary. That means we often get into trouble because we use important terms differently. "Style," "language" (or "idiom"), etc., are especially difficult in this regard.

On another aspect of the topic, I just Googled the entire sentence and came up with an answer to the question about its origins. Anna Kissselgoff, discussing New York City Ballet's 50th Anniversary in 1998, wrote in the NY Times:

It is worth recalling again the words Balanchine uttered upon his arirval from Europe to settle in New York. "Classiscism is enduring because it is impersonal," he told the British critic Arnold Haskell in 1933.

Given Balanchine's limited grasp of English at the time -- and his dependency, really, on Lincoln Kirstein as his guide to what was literally a New World -- it does indeed seem likely that Kirstein may have chosen the words that froze Balanchine's phlosophy into a brief epigram that strikes me as being intentionally provocative and sybilline.

He Kisselgoff article is here:
http://query.nytimes...752C1A96E958260

It's an ambitious piece and a thoughtful one -- qualities I don't usually associate with Kisselgoff's regular reviews. (But that's another thread.)

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 11:52 AM

Thanks for finding the origin of the quote, bart!

One historical note -- Balanchine would not have been under Kirstein's influence in 1933. Perhaps he spoke in French. Whatever the origin, his statement reflects the philosophy and aesthetics that he would have been taught at the Mariinsky, where aesthetics, and the idea that ballet is a philosophy, dating back to the first dancing masters, was taught. There's a lot written about ballet aesthetics, actually, but most of us don't have access to it, and it's certainly not in the popular press!

#13 Ray

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 11:55 AM

In another aspect of the topic, I just Googled the entire sentence and came up with an answer to the question about its origins. Anna Kissselgoff, discussing New York City Ballet's 50th Anniversary in 1998, wrote in the NY Times:

It is worth recalling again the words Balanchine uttered upon his arirval from Europe to settle in New York. "Classiscism is enduring because it is impersonal," he told the British critic Arnold Haskell in 1933.

Given Balanchine's limited grasp of English at the time -- and his dependency, really, on Lincoln Kirstein as his guide to what was literally a New World -- it does indeed seem likely that Kirstein may have chosen the words that froze Balanchine's phlosophy into a brief epigram that strikes me as being intentionally provocative and sybilline.


A thought that strikes me too is that B is echoing the "cool modernism" of the neoclassicals (Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot), who were pushing back against what they must have seen as the neo-Romantic excesses of self-expressive (read: personal) "hot" modernists like Isadora. In other words, as Alexandra suggests, it's a quip with quite a past!

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 12:08 PM

Ray, you gotta write a book: A Quip with a Past. (I love that phrase!)

#15 Ray

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 12:14 PM

Ray, you gotta write a book: A Quip with a Past. (I love that phrase!)


Actually, I do have to write a book :) That's probably why I'm posting so much!


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