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


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#16 bart

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 12:18 PM

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

I agree. It's a great phrase for an important idea. Possible sub-title: "Nothing New Under the Sun?"

Alexandra, I certainly agree with your point that it is unlikely that Balanchine was under Kirstein's "influence" in any intellectual or aesthetic sense.

However, given Balanchine's leap of faith in crossing the Atlantic primarily on the basis of what Kirstein told him he would find here, and Kirstein's promises of what he would do to help, "dependency" does seem to me to ring a little true.

When I think about Balanchine's first months in New York City, I can hardly imagine how difficult and disorienting they must have been. The U.S. -- even cosmopolitan New York -- were removed from Europe (often definiing itself specifically in opposition to Europe) in ways we cannot imagine today.

#17 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 01:40 PM

All of our responses so far have been purely historical, critical or aesthetic, so let me make the case for the statement as theology.


I hadn't been specific, but when I was talking about his kind of statement (which is not exclusively theological nor religious in any case), I was pointing to a kind of faith in beliefs of some sacred kind when talking about how they were necessary to protect a domain that is considered sacred. Theology would therefore explain why certain of his remarks were developed into such forms they took. But to assess them objectively, they have to be placed next to the opposing aesthetics, because the realm is first ART, and if religion and theology play a major part (as they obviously did with Balanchine), they are still necessarily subsumed to the World of Art in a way that is not the case with the church itself and singularly religious pursuits as with convents, monasteries, etc. That's why they are equally meaningful and powerful even if not literally factual--which they are not, because classicism is not the only thing to either endure nor is it nearly always impersonal. Is 'Le Nozze di Figaro' classical? I think so. So that it may also be possible that classicism has to mean something that applies to all arts, or at least all the very related ones, surely music and opera and theater, to mean anything. To make a universal assumption on classical ballet alone or classical music alone is much too circumscribed, and probably nobody has ever even tried to do it; whereas classicism in music and dance can have some resonance.

#18 popularlibrary

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 02:19 PM

All of our responses so far have been purely historical, critical or aesthetic, so let me make the case for the statement as theology.


I hadn't been specific, but when I was talking about his kind of statement (which is not exclusively theological nor religious in any case), I was pointing to a kind of faith in beliefs of some sacred kind when talking about how they were necessary to protect a domain that is considered sacred. Theology would therefore explain why certain of his remarks were developed into such forms they took. But to assess them objectively, they have to be placed next to the opposing aesthetics, because the realm is first ART, and if religion and theology play a major part (as they obviously did with Balanchine), they are still necessarily subsumed to the World of Art in a way that is not the case with the church itself and singularly religious pursuits as with convents, monasteries, etc. That's why they are equally meaningful and powerful even if not literally factual--which they are not, because classicism is not the only thing to either endure nor is it nearly always impersonal. Is 'Le Nozze di Figaro' classical? I think so. So that it may also be possible that classicism has to mean something that applies to all arts, or at least all the very related ones, surely music and opera and theater, to mean anything. To make a universal assumption on classical ballet alone or classical music alone is much too circumscribed, and probably nobody has ever even tried to do it; whereas classicism in music and dance can have some resonance.


All of which is perfectly true, and you and other BT analysts have covered this territory beautifully. But sheer comprehensivesness isn't quite what I meant to claim - only to consider some of Balanchine's specific religious ideas which I think play an essential part in his statement and that I think perhaps get a little suffocated under all the critical-aesthetic-historical links. It doesn't mean that they even begin to exhaust his statement - obviously they do not. But maybe we ought to include them more than we do, especially as they were so much a part of this particular genius's mind and art.

#19 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 02:35 PM

But maybe we ought to include them more than we do, especially as they were so much a part of this particular genius's mind and art.


Agree that's a good point, especially like 'God assembles, man creates', which I find is one of the remarks these days I find myself increasingly attracted to. I first saw it in a cookbook by one of his former dancers! I don't believe it all the time, but I do know what it means some of the time.

Edited to add: I obviously don't understand it all the time: It's 'Man assembles, God creates' or these two in reverse order.

#20 SanderO

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 03:16 PM

I am late to this discussion and I haven't read all the comments (aside from the first port) but my sense is the meaning is as follows.

Classicism is a vocabulary of aesthetic components, and rules for joining them. It's very much like the concept of constructing meaningful sentences from words and rules of grammar. I suspect this is true for architecture, art, ballet and music for example. Other "isms" have different "rules" and components or elements of style. You can recognise whether a work of art neatly fits in the that particular "ism" by how faithfully it follows the rules.

Classical ballet's rules are the steps, movements, positions, costumes and even body types. It has nothing to do with the personality of the dancers, much the way the paint is not what painting is about as much as it is the forms, shapes etc. (until some modernists decided any rule worth breaking is up for grabs).

Were classicism or any "ism" to be "personal" it would mean that the individual and their interpretation were more important than the rules. If personality becomes so powerful it crushes the rules, over comes them and it becomes about the person and not the "ism"

What I find so interesting about ballet is that the incredibly artistry of dancers is restrained inside of ballet rules and classicism and conceptually, at least, there is very little leeway for them to bust out. Yes there is plenty of room for excellence, perfection, virtuosity, but there seems to be hardly any room for "self expression" and improvisation. You can't change the notes to Beethoven but you can "do things" which give it some level of individualism and personality or make it non impersonal.

The Balanchine statement, I believe, was meant to recognize how rule bounded classicism is and rules are impersonal (rigid and constant), aren't they?

#21 Mel Johnson

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 03:59 PM

But on the other hand, when we consider Balanchine's long record of using Mozart as a choreographic floor, maybe all he meant was, "I like Wolfgang."

#22 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 05:47 PM

But on the other hand, when we consider Balanchine's long record of using Mozart as a choreographic floor, maybe all he meant was, "I like Wolfgang."


That's so Romantic...and Personal :)

#23 bart

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:42 PM

Popularlibrary, you bring another hugely important piece to the debate. You also explain the role played by religious faith -- and especially that version of it, both mystical and highly ritualistic, that he found in Russian Orthodoxy.

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.

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.

I wonder whether this needs to be an either-or situation. Religious inspiration was indeed the source of much of Balanchine's creativity, but it was not something he spoke or wrote of all that often. More often, he used secular language that would have been quite understandable to those of his peers and critics who were also engaged in the aesthetic debates of his time, especially in regard to dance.

A slightly off-topic thought inspired by popularlibrary's post -- Balanchine may have been, in his belief in a God-centered calling, only the "asssembler." But in practical terms in the studio he couldl not avoid acting as the Creator. He was certainly willing to factor in a dancer's individuality when choreographing or restaging, and made frequent choreographic changes in many (but not all) of his ballets to accomodate new casts. But Balanchine always remained in control. (A cynic might say he was a master in the art of emotional manipulation.) Telling the dancers to consider themselves as servants of their Art: isn't that another way of telling them, the Father knows best?

#24 papeetepatrick

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 07:51 PM

But in practical terms in the studio he acted as the Creator. He was certainly willing to factor in a dancer's individuality when choreographing or restaging, and made frequent choreographic changes in many (but not all) of his ballets to accomodate new casts. But Balanchine remained in control. Asking the dancers to consider them as servants of their Art: isn't that another way of telling them, the Father knows best?


I think so too, but no one ever says that part; it won't work if you verbalize it, because doesn't sound lofty. Or maybe he didn't know he thought of himself as 'the Father', but rather thought God was. But since, as you say, practical considerations demand to be attended to, he was formulating the best combination of theology-ideology and praxis that could have been found for his project. So he just went about whatever it was he was doing and saying, and it doesn't matter if it doesn't all hold together if one tries to dissect it too closely. His remarks sound profound and philosophical sometimes, but they don't seem as profound as the works--not by a long shot. In fact, the disconnect is interesting.

#25 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 06 June 2008 - 08:31 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?

So bart...after all this profound discussion, did you finally get your answer...?
Feeling just a bit curious...

#26 kfw

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Posted 07 June 2008 - 05:04 AM

Balanchine may have been, in his belief in a God-centered calling, only the "asssembler." But in practical terms in the studio he couldl not avoid acting as the Creator. He was certainly willing to factor in a dancer's individuality when choreographing or restaging, and made frequent choreographic changes in many (but not all) of his ballets to accomodate new casts. But Balanchine always remained in control. (A cynic might say he was a master in the art of emotional manipulation.) Telling the dancers to consider themselves as servants of their Art: isn't that another way of telling them, the Father knows best?

It could be, but not necessarily if he saw himself as another servant. I think the question is wrapped up in his old-fashioned view of gender roles. For example, when we read what he told John Gruen (as published in "The Private World of Ballet"), that men are great poets because men have to write beautiful poetry for woman," that "man is the servant - a good servant," and that in ballet "woman is first" and "I have dedicated my art to her," we recognize the sexism today, but it's doubtful he recognized it himself. We know he had an ego, we know he could be manipulative, but when he says he's a servant, he sounds sincere to me.

#27 bart

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Posted 07 June 2008 - 06:49 AM

kfw, I suspect that you have devoted more time and thought than most of us to Balanchine's aesthetics. I am curious to know your take on Patrick's point that there appears to be a "disconnect" between the ideas and the real career (and esepcially the works).

Perhaps such a disconnect is inevitable. If so, it certainly doesn't invalidate the usefulness, importance, and even the beauty of Balanchine's statements about ballet. But, it may be a warning to those of us (and I am speaking for myself) who tend to look at statements made in interviews and books, even isolated sentences and especially powerful phrases, and imagine that we are reading real game plans for the man's life and career.

Another thing: is it possible that Balanchine, many of whose statements appear to be intentionally cryptic and even provocative, was trying to stimulate thought rather than express a cohesive theory?

#28 kfw

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Posted 07 June 2008 - 07:43 AM

kfw, I suspect that you have devoted more time and thought than most of us to Balanchine's aesthetics. I am curious to know your take on Patrick's point that there appears to be a "disconnect" between the ideas and the real career (and esepcially the works).

Perhaps such a disconnect is inevitable. If so, it certainly doesn't invalidate the usefulness, importance, and even the beauty of Balanchine's statements about ballet. But, it may be a warning to those of us (and I am speaking for myself) who tend to look at statements made in interviews and books, even isolated sentences and especially powerful phrases, and imagine that we are reading real game plans for the man's life and career.

Another thing: is it possible that Balanchine, many of whose statements appear to be intentionally cryptic and even provocative, was trying to stimulate thought rather than express a cohesive theory?

Bart, perhaps the fact that I see no disconnection shows that I've thought less or less well. But I don't, and I also think that, for all the fun it is to speculate, there is limited value in using Balanchine's statements to probe and reimagine the psyche of a man -- and this is partly to Patrick's point -- whose primary means of expression was visual and not verbal. His biographer Bernard Taper complained that he had so little to go on in regards to his subject's inner life -- fewer letters than ballets, for example. I suspect that the closer we stay to face value, the more accurate a picture we have. As Balanchine replied to Taper, "you should think of your task as if you were writing the biography of a racehorse. A racehorse doesn't keep a diary." And a racehorse acts by training and instinct, not by calculation.

Also, I'm not Russian Orthodox, but as someone steeped in the Biblical conceptions of God as Father and humankind as created in his image -- created to, among other things, create -- Balanchine's assertion that God creates and man assembles sounds sincere. Or to put it another way, God Created, and then Balanchine created. That's "profound" to me. :wink: So, Patrick, when you write that

religion and theology for Balanchine are still necessarily subsumed to the World of Art,

my hunch is that the former flows naturally into the latter. I have really enjoyed everyone's thought on this thread, and thanks especially to popularlibrary for deepening and widening the ideas under consideration.

#29 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 June 2008 - 08:14 AM

I am curious to know your take on Patrick's point that there appears to be a "disconnect" between the ideas and the real career (and esepcially the works).


There's not necessarily a disconnect between the ideas and the dance works, but rather a disconnect between the verbal statements in any literal sense. That's the obvious place, and it's not fault-finding, but rather that it would be impossible to do a perfect verbal reflection. Those are secondary, and they are the privilege of someone who has achieved something important in a domain which is, as kfw says, an entirely different form. They could even be said to be 'dancer-words', which like 'musician-words' are not the purest form of words in terms of comprehensibility and clarity as would be those of a writer (any more than a musician's or writer's movements would be the pure form of dance, but they'd still reflect the style and being of the writer and/or musician and reflect those more concentrated identities.)

Another thing: is it possible that Balanchine, many of whose statements appear to be intentionally cryptic and even provocative, was trying to stimulate thought rather than express a cohesive theory?


Even if he wasn't trying to do this, that is what the statements do, stemming as they do from his real authority as a ballet artist. This happens quite as much with the ones I dislike (the Lehar/Beethoven, which has a toffee-nosed sound to it, but still forces you to make a decision about Beethoven--which Balanchine obviously knows is the serious issue more then Lehar) as the ones I do, such as this one about classicism, which makes you look at the pros and cons of the personal and impersonal (you can't really arrive anywhere, because both of them persist no matter what one 'likes.')

Kfw's idea of theology flowing into the 'World of Art', as I had termed it, would naturally do so, of course, but the subsuming is only the matter of the material: The material in Balanchine's case is Dance. Therefore, even if it theologically informed, it is always compared to other dance and other art, not other theology; in the same way that his verbal statements can be profoundly philosophical, but they are not compared to Nietzsche or Spinoza, but rather more likely to things that would be said by Picasso, Graham, Stravinsky, etc.

#30 bart

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Posted 07 June 2008 - 08:54 AM

Earlier, Cristian asked whether we had answered the original question. I'm one who tends to value the quest and sometimes loses sight of the goal. Nevertheless, I have the feeling on this one, that the mystery still eludes us. (After all, Orthodoxy is a religion of mystery, poetry, and ritual as much as of dogma.)

As I've read everyone's contributions, I've found myself beginning to suspect that the answer to Cristian's question is, for me at least: There's no answer. Instead, doors to other intriguing questions keep popping up. So do new word images. Kfw, I will never forget "A race horse doesn't keep a diary." Patrick, ditto re your point about "dancer-words." I kick myself for sometimes forgetting the difference between those and, let's say, "logician words."

I just came across the following in Arlene Croce's Afterimages. It seems relevant to the gist of our discussion. She says of classical style

[I]t is so nonrational a thing. The best discussions of it are in Edwin Denby's work -- see particularly "Some Thoughts about Classicism and George Balanchine" -- but even Denby avoids hitting the point head on. He will tell you all the places he has seen it; he will speak of its "power," its "secret radiance," he will even say that "classical ballet is ... based on an ideal conception of expression professional called 'style.'" But that word "professionally seems to withdraw it from the public gaze. Perhaps Denby knows that you can't hit the point without crushing it. Better not to try.

However, I don't know if I agree with "Better not to try."


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