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Formalism versus ?

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Earlier, in a thread about the upcoming performances by the students of the POB, Estelle said she was surprised that they were performing anything by Bejart because he was not especially well liked in this country.

Being ignorant on the subject smile.gif , I asked why that was thought to be so.

I got several replies and Leigh's led me to the discussion here as to who is thought of as the greatest (living?) choreographer....

Leigh you said, in part:

"...And the beliefs that held sway were formalism (a belief that there a great part of the meaning of something lies in how it is made, that the form is the content) and modernism (much more complicated to explain simply because it seems to mean slightly different things in different disciplines - for the sake of this post, one of the most important aspects of it is the idea that a dance needs no other context than itself; "It means what you see.")

At the same time as American dance defined itself this way, European dance took off in a different direction, emphasizing theatrical content and narrative. (I'm not saying that Balanchine had no theatrical content nor narrative, but his priorities about what makes a dance are far more similar to Cunningham's than Béjart's)"

Hmm, maybe I'll really like Bejart's work. I do recall, after having read the other posts on that POB thread that Suzanne Farrell danced with his company while she was effectively banished from NYCB...

Would you say that ABT's approach is generally less grounded in "formalism" and more "theatrical"?

Does a ballet have to be plotless to be considered to be in the "formalist" camp?

I am trying to understand what you are all writing about and, since I've never studied dance, I am also trying to get down the vocabulary.

Canst thou explain a bit more to the uninitiated? smile.gif

[ March 11, 2002, 05:57 PM: Message edited by: BW ]

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Some answers (I hope Alexandra will also contribute and elaborate.

This is a personal opinion, but I don't think ABT can be considered to be in any ideological camp. They just don't tend to be consistent that way.

A ballet need not be abstract or without narrative to be formalist. I would classify the Wili section of Giselle as a formalist masterpiece.

What makes that dance "formalist"? The fact that the impact of the dance comes from its form and structure: the lines of wilis slowly traveling or multiplying as the music masses, the steps mirrored or in unison.

So the requirement for formalism isn't abstraction; it's structure. Concerto Barocco is Formalist, as is almost all of Balanchine - maybe, just maybe Meditation isn't, but I bet someone could make a case for it.)

OK, so what ballet works aren't formalist? Well, the problem is, all the classics are (that's what makes them "classical" - their form) Robbins was lest of a formalist than Balanchine. How about Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun as an expressionistic work? The score certainly is expressionistic - more a wash of notes and moods than strong rhythms or codified forms.

Helping any?

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To me, formalism means not just that the piece has a solid form or structure (Petrouchka and Rodeo are both very solidly constructed) but that form is the MOST important element in the work.

At its most pure, expressionism is: To hell with form. I must express myself, my misery, my joy, my pain. To a formalist, this may seem like one big mess, but expressionism has its own rules and I don't think that "expressionism" is a synonym for "bad."

Much ballet is in the middle. "Liebeslieder Walzer" isn't dry academic formalism (not that "Concerto Barocco" is dry or academic). What about Ashton's "The Dream" and "Month in the Country?" Extremely solid structure, but formalism isn't their raison d'etre.

I think ABT has been different in each decade. At the beginning, they were almost an American Ballets Russes, with an emphasis on demicaractere ballets (the 1940s and 1950s). They've never been as consciously eclectic as the Joffrey, but they've kept a foot in a lot of different camps.

The pure expressionist today seems to be Eifman. The main point of his works tell the story, get his point across. (I'm writing having only seen snippets on video.) I think what separates the audience reaction IS formalism v. expressionism. To a formalist, it looks like a mess and they'll pick at the details. To an expressionist, they'll look at the overall picture and get caught up in what Eifman is doing.

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I really appreciate both of your replies to my question...and I think I'm getting a better understanding of what Formalism means as compared to Expressionism or "theatricalism". smile.gif

I now see that Leigh, you are saying that within the classical story ballets there is "formalism"...for example the wilis in Giselle...

But are you disagreeing with that Alexandra, for you say that in formalism the patterns and structure have to be THE most important aspect of the dance?

Or am I splitting ballet hairs here?

Actually, this has been very instructive to me. I've never really had an understanding of Balachine's revolutionary approach and probably still don't but I'm starting to "get it" a bit.

I have never seen Eifman and although I know they're at City Center I probably just can't make it for a variety of reasons...although it would be interesting to go and then have a discussion about the expressionistic style vs. a more "conventional" formalist style...

Perhaps there is an example of the same ballet being performed in both ways by two different companies?

I know many people were upset by Sylvie G.'s Giselle last year. {I really liked it and so did my daughter and her friend.} Did it have a more Expressionist bent to it than a Formalistic one? And yet, the wilis were still very formalistic weren't they? Uh oh, now I'm really getting lost! biggrin.gif

I have seen Afternoon of a Faun - the recent version with Damian W. and Margaret Tracey...I can definitely see that as expressionistic...

Can you elaborate a tiny bit more?

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BW, I think to really go into this one would need to read some material about aesthetics, which may be a bit more than most people would want to do.

Two quotes from David Michael Levin's "Balanchine's Formalism," one of the few articles I know that conisders dance seriously within the aesthetic tradition.

Using Agon, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Violin Concerto and Symphony in Three Movements, Levan writes:


These are ballets which preserve the classical choreographic syntax of movemetns and attitudes, yet defy a venerable tradition of staging and costumes. Their austere production, so exquisitely reduced and uncomplicated, allows us to perceive the most elementary, immanent expressiveness of the classical ballet forms; and somehow, in this very elusive process of illulmination, th phenomenal presence of the forms is richly altered. Formalism.

And later:


Balanchine himself has not failed to distinguish between theatrical expressiveness (the semantics of sentiment and allusion) and "classically pure" formal expressiveness (modes of corporeal presence which are latent in, or immanent to, the "classical" syntax of human mobility.)

Such formal expressiveness, however, requires not only that he suppress the theatricality of stage and costume, but also that he purge the classical dance syntax of its theatrical allusiveness. In fine, it requires that he reduce the mimetic "content" of traditional ballet movements to the expressive presence of an entirely abstract syntax. Structure and content, then, become identical to the degree that each submits to the process of abstraction.

So, in its most pure form, formalism is about form and nothing else. No mimetic content, no theatrical content, just form. (IMO, I think that's trying to squeeze Balanchine in a box where he doesn't quite fit; he's abstract, but not devoid of content.)

I think Leigh and I are using both terms informally, to represent the two poles between which ballet has long swung -- technique and expression, form and expression.

[ March 12, 2002, 11:29 AM: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Actually, Alexandra this last post of yours really did help me understand it even better.

I think that I probably would like to read more about it...kind of takes me back to my Art history class days.

Many thanks!

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BW, I think that it's the aesthetics as applied to painting that are generally also used in ballet (at least, the terms) and I'm not sure they're always applied correctly -- but I'm at the edges of my field here, so I may well be incorrect. I'm always struck by reading articles about postmodernism in painting and architecture how different that sensibility is from postmodernism in dance -- which was very minimialist, without a hint of whimsy smile.gif

I don't know if dance can every be formalist in the most pure sense, since it involves human bodies. It's not just paint, or steel. Balanchine said, "It's a man and a woman, how much story do you want?" and I think that's another way of saying, "It's not devoid of content. It can't be."

There are also ballets with overt content where form is important (Ashton's story ballets, "The Dream" and "A Month in the Country," to take two) where, to me, MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" is more expressionist -- not that Ashton's works are not expressive, but that MacMillan's form isn't as pure -- there's enough to make the ballet "go," but it doesn't seeem to be a primary concern.

I'm sure that Bejart (especially, from what I've seen) and Eifman have some sort of structure -- they'd have to; they're going from Point A to Point B -- but you don't come out of the theater thinking first about purity of construction and line.

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While not at all disagreeing about the trans-Atlantic formalism/expressionism divide, I'm not altogether sure that it's entirely an either/or thing. What about the works of Martha Graham? I'd say she manages to be both quite often, quite often very strongly, and quite often simultaneously.

What I read most often in reviews that pan Bejart and/or Eifman isn't the critic saying, "Damn that formless expressionism; give me form and classicism," but rather, "Damn that excerable taste." Actually, I've rather enjoyed some of Eifman's coups de theatre, when I wasn't gagging or chuckling.

But, although I take a certain campy delight in the shameless vulgarity of Bejart and Eifman (you have to admire the chutzpah of a guy who'd combine the music of Mozart and Freddy Mercury in a tribute to good artists who died young -- if not the actual result), what I see in them isn't so much a love of expression and drama at the expense of structure (I'm sure one could diagram the structure of Eifman's Tchaikovsky, if one had nothing better to do), but the last vestiges of Diaghilev's infamous exhortation to astonish the bourgoisie. Nothing wrong with that, except in this day and age it takes a lot more to astonish than Eifman's heavy-handed symbolism (like clueing us in to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality by staging the Awakening scene with Tchaikovsky himself kissing awake the Sleeping Prince) or Bejart's charming belief in the inspirational value of incongruous yet facile juxtapositions (Mozart and Mercury?).

And, just as the popularity of Internet sites like the Dancing Hamsters is a reminder that there are throngs of easily amused folks who have found a welcome haven on the Internet, so too does the popularity of people like Bejart and Eifman tell me that there are many, many theatre-goers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who are rather easily astonished.

I remember reading a recent review by Tobi Tobias panning a recent dance performed by the Alvin Ailey company in honor of the late Florence Griffith-Joyner as being shallow and filled with "received knowledge." That's what I see in spades when I see the workds of Bejart or Eifman; it's not that they're any more theatrical, astonishing or expressive than what we're used to here, but rather that so much of their effect, as with the unfortunate Flo-Jo piece as described by Tobias, comes from telling its audience just how theatrical, astonishing and expressive they are, rather than simply being theatrical, astonishing and expressive.

It's really no different from a dancer milking a preparation or finish so outrageously that the audience gets conned into applauding technical feats of no great difficulty at all -- the infamous "hand flick" writ very large indeed.

[ March 12, 2002, 05:52 PM: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

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BW wrote:


I think that I probably would like to read more about it...kind of takes me back to my Art history class days.

It takes me back to my litcrit days. Much critical jargon originates with literary theorists and is adapted by and for other disciplines as necessary. Formalism is more useful as a critical method than as a creative one—it can be a valuable tool in analyzing a work, less in making one. Formalism was the application of linguistics to the study of literature. It looked at literary language as different from ordinary language. In their terms, it was language “deformed” or “estranged” in various ways from the discourse of daily life.

Formalists viewed literature as language that deviated from the norm—a special kind of language as opposed to the ordinary language we use every day. If I say to a coworker, “You look great today—have you had your hair done?” it is a different question than “Is this the face that launched ten thousand ships?”. The difference is in the weight and force of the language. The second question draws attention to itself and flourishes its difference.

Ballet, with its very formal and structured movements could be seen in opposition to ordinary movement as literature is to ordinary language. Poetry, according to formalist critics, is a series of devices which are used as interrelated functions within a system. In much the same way ballet can be seen as constructed from individual movements or poses which are assembled into a work for the stage. I realize that this has become so reductive as to be absurd, so I will retreat from this particular limb before sawing it off. It expresses a viewpoint of a rather mechanistic critic and not of a creative artist.

Another oddity about literary formalism is that its practitioners were almost all Russians. They were active from just before the Russian Revolution until the late 1920s and have had a profound and lasting affect on the study of literature. They were important enough in Russia to be denounced by Trotsky. Russian formalists attempted to make the study of literature into a science and considered historical, biographical and aesthetic aspects of a work to be unimportant. Obviously they would not do well in the arid Social Realism of the Stalinist era.

A very good book for those interested is Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton. It is on the short list of books that I make a point of re-reading every five years or so.

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Just a little quibble--not that I disagree with what anyone has said--but Diaghilev did not say astonish the bourgoisie, or as it often seems to be implied, shock the bourgoisie. He said "astonish me" (in French, of course), which is not tied to any specific type of dance. Apollo is astonishing because it is so beautiful, and so is the Shades scene from Bayadere. Of course things can be astonishingly bad, but I don't think that was what he meant!

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