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Macaulay on Genius: Shakespeare, Mozart, BalanchineThe 'Supreme Genius' theme in the Nov. 16 NYT article


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#31 Quiggin

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Posted 19 November 2008 - 05:11 PM

Genius doesn’t come with the mail...


And it crystalizes out of certain cultural contexts.

Balanchine was in an historically unique position to be able to draw on (and oppose to each other) two great resourses: 1) the still living works of Ivanov and Petipa which essentialized a whole history of ballet and 2) the hotbed of experimentation of the initial Soviet period, from Meyerhold and Tatlin to Vertov and Akhmatova. The Four T's and Agon come out of the latter and Symphony in C from the first.

In a way the rest of the twentieth century lived off the capital of the modernisms of the 1920's. Nothing came later that hadn't already been done already. Postwar Late Modernism is really self conscious High Modernism (this is how Frederic Jameson puts it).

It was difficult to write a sonata after Beethoven had written the form upwards, sideways and down, and as difficult to write a ballet after Balanchine. Wheeldon is a bit like Stravinsky (about whom Prokofiev said only rented his musical ideas) quoting wildly from here and there, especially in the Golden Hour that ends on a 4 T's note, having moved through Somnabula and Violin Concerto along the way.

I agree with Carbro's "mile wide and inch deep" characterization of Wheeldon. Maybe he's also trying to cleanse the palate, doing a restricted twelve toney thing. But the cultural habitat that Wheeldon is working in isn't that great either. Genius comes neither with the mail nor out of the blue.

And Macaulay's just fine.

#32 papeetepatrick

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Posted 19 November 2008 - 05:55 PM

Genius doesn’t come with the mail...


And it crystalizes out of certain cultural contexts.

Balanchine was in an historically unique position to be able to draw on (and oppose to each other) two great resourses: 1) the still living works of Ivanov and Petipa which essentialized a whole history of ballet and 2) the hotbed of experimentation of the initial Soviet period, from Meyerhold and Tatlin to Vertov and Akhmatova. The Four T's and Agon come out of the latter and Symphony in C from the first.

In a way the rest of the twentieth century lived off the capital of the modernisms of the 1920's. Nothing came later that hadn't already been done already. Postwar Late Modernism is really self conscious High Modernism (this is how Frederic Jameson puts it).

It was difficult to write a sonata after Beethoven had written the form upwards, sideways and down, and as difficult to write a ballet after Balanchine. Wheeldon is a bit like Stravinsky (about whom Prokofiev said only rented his musical ideas) quoting wildly from here and there, especially in the Golden Hour that ends on a 4 T's note, having moved through Somnabula and Violin Concerto along the way.

I agree with Carbro's "mile wide and inch deep" characterization of Wheeldon. Maybe he's also trying to cleanse the palate, doing a restricted twelve toney thing. But the cultural habitat that Wheeldon is working in isn't that great either. Genius comes neither with the mail nor out of the blue.

And Macaulay's just fine.


I can see why you like him.

I'll only say that the sonata form was nowhere near exhaustion even after the Hammerklavier and opus 111, the Chopin Sonatas alone would prove that, and that's a miniscule contribution to the 19th century sonatas and the 20th as well. I don't see that it's comparable to ballet after Balanchine, because that does seem to be possibly exhausted now.

Of course great artists can say things like what Prokofiev said about Stravinsky--doesn't mean a thing, but it is more interesting than when critics offer grandiose statements, since they're not artists themselves, except perhaps amateurs. I wonder if that's why Balanchine loved Stravinsky's work--that 'rented' effect, offering no competition perhaps? I am sure not, as Stravinsky would have had to do a con job on the entire serious-music world if he were merely second-hand. The sophisticated dig by a rival would, in fact, be that he 'didn't steal' his ideas like mature artists do, in the well-known 'Immature artists borrow. Mature artists steal.' Martha Graham has a whole chapter in her Notebooks about 'I Am a Thief' which is about this and such related thoughts as 'the richest man is the most indebted.' These kinds of rivalries among different artistic schools are obviously part of the development of culture. The reason I say ballet may have been exhausted with Balanchine (although I certainly hope not), at least in comparison with sonata form, is possibly because it is delimited in its nature, which is both its grandeur and its limitation: It's not meant to express things outside itself, which is part of what Leonid says here:

There are those that want to see “real life and experience” expressed on the ballet stage if in doing so, it will become "more inclusive". Fine, just remember ballet is an old tradition and it has it own rules and there are still more people every year that want to see ballet as an experience of a “high art” and not go to see something they could see on the television or a film.


While ballet is a 'high art', more importantly it is itself as a specific and singular art form. It is not meant or capable of expressing certain aspects of 'real life and experience' as does the greatest modern dance--which is why those came along; it was important to also express those things, and, of course, Graham, Taylor, Kylian, and many others have addressed this. Those things deserved to be expressed, and they also do leave ballet free not to express those things that don't have anything to do with, and which are eliminated quickly when they are found to be inappropriate. Actually, 'seeing ballet as an experience of a 'high art'' is exactly like seeing great modern dance, hearing a great orchestra, an opera, going to see great paintings, reading great books, in that they are all not 'low culture', etc., and at this point, you see less high culture in films and almost none in television that is comparable to these. I just added this because ballet's beauty includes that it is prevented from expressing certain things, and agree with Leonid that attempts to make it 'more inclusive' are not advisable, but also that that is actually what is being done with ballet as with all high arts, due to external necessity. It's not so much 'waiting for a new Balanchine' as it is also seeing that 'more Balanchine spread throughout the world' will not necessarily ever equal what Balanchine was in the great decades of New York City Ballet (it's not only impossible, it's not even desirable, unless you think a virtual replica would mean something). So this 'Balanchine growth industry' will not fill the need that the art itself has. If there are not great new creators, paradoxically the 'Balanchine growth industry' might be another way to make it 'socially and economically relevant' the way the 19th century warhorses have served bottom-line functions (though not only.) In any case, this 'Balanchine growth industry' is very limited still compared to Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers all over the place. You rarely find people who have heard of 'Concerto Barocco' and 'Davidsbundlertanze' before they've seen a 'Nutcracker' or 'Swan Lake' or 'Sleeping Beauty' (although that IS the order it went for me, and I never saw a 'Nutcracker' until 2006, after at least 5 'Liebeslieders' and many 'Apollos.')

In a way the rest of the twentieth century lived off the capital of the modernisms of the 1920's. Nothing came later that hadn't already been done already. Postwar Late Modernism is really self conscious High Modernism (this is how Frederic Jameson puts it).


Marxist theorists talk like this all the time, especially Jameson and Jamesonians (if that's what they're called, I do know one very well, unfortunately). I don't take any of it seriously, and there would have been no artistic development in the specified periods had anyone been thinking such things. For example, here we have the term 'self-conscious High Modernism' as if it were merely a kind of 'derivative'. PoMo itself, which this kind of thinking definitely is, is all derivative while claiming not to be (sort of.) It's patently untrue that 'nothing came later that hadn't already been done..', although if it were it would mean that this kind of critique would also be something that 'came later but had already been done.' 'Neo-classical' always refers to 'classical', which would be 'classical capital' on which something lived. Marxist theorists analyze artistic movements all the time, but in the case of most of the great figures we've all been discussing here, these Marxist theorists have a harder time than they think, since not a one of the figures (except perhaps Boulez and some French Marxists) is imbued with any of the Marxism--God knows not Balanchine and Graham, who were certainly interested in Absolute Monarchy!

#33 bart

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Posted 19 November 2008 - 08:02 PM

Here's something from the NY Times obituary of Clive Barnes. It relates to Macaulay's statements about Balanchine's genius, and also about what Quiggin has called the "cultural context."

It was as a dance critic, however, that he made his strongest impact. He witnessed and described, as he later observed in Dance magazine, “dance’s finest hours in all its brief history,” a period in which Jerome Robbins and Balanchine were at their peak, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor moved from strength to strength, and new choreographers like Eliot Feld and Twyla Tharp were beginning to make a stir.


There've been times of exceptional creativity in all the arts (eg. Florence in the latter 15th and early 16th centuries). Those of us on Ballet Talk who are older were fortunate to have been around for the creation. Those of you who are younger have inherited the legacy.

It's a tough act to follow.

#34 SandyMcKean

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Posted 19 November 2008 - 11:49 PM

It's a tough act to follow.

That about says it all when it comes to Mr B.

#35 Quiggin

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Posted 20 November 2008 - 12:49 AM

But the early twentieth century was an extremely fertile period in the visual arts that used up a great deal of the “intellectual oxygen”, especially the scenes in Paris and Russia. No one got over it. Twomley, Johns and Rauschenberg spent the 1950’s trying to come to terms with Kurt Schwitters, and in the 1980’s the New York galleries were filled with painters self consciously dealing with the Dadaist Picabia. Roche and Kahn were following Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe’s severe aesthetic was on the rapidograph tip of every architect ins the 60’s and 70’s.

That’s part of what Frederic Jameson, the hapless Marxist, meant about Late Modernism. In many respects the Late Modenists’ work was very good, but there was less genius to it and they had to work twice as hard to find their freedom. Happily Balanchine was part of the first wave.

I think what Macaulay means about Beckett is that Balanchine’s dancers pull their ideas out of their guts, like Beckett characters. They pull these monologues (and Balanchine pas de deux are often extended dual monologues) from their inner being and inventory them in front of you. His ballets are Shakespearean in their worldliness.

Stravinsky gives great pleasure, but he’s not Mozart in variety, and he’s not Balanchine in depth. Prokofiev was not really a rival of Stravinsky, and he is a delightful eyewitness to the period, much more reliable than Stravinsky, despite his--Prokofiev’s--often unbearable self centeredness.

And there does tend to be a general bias, albeit unfairly, towards the Chopin Waltzes and Etudes and Nocturnes at the expense the Sonatas.

#36 papeetepatrick

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Posted 20 November 2008 - 09:57 AM

That’s part of what Frederic Jameson, the hapless Marxist, meant about Late Modernism. In many respects the Late Modenists’ work was very good, but there was less genius to it and they had to work twice as hard to find their freedom. Happily Balanchine was part of the first wave.


Yes, that is probably what he meant, and I think it's wrong. You can make all these formulae, and say without Denishawn and Isadora, Graham wouldn't have been able to do her revolutionary work, and she 'lived on the capital' of her predecessors. But she produced much greater lasting work than they did. I don't mean in exactly the same way, but the real Marxist way of saying this spurious matter of Webern and then Boulez and Carter (the latter to a lesser degree in terms of serialism) 'living off the capital of the modernisms of the 20s', would be to say that 'they capitalized on the labour of the modernisms of the 20s'. If they 'had to work twice as hard', that's immaterial, as they have to work as hard as is necessary, hard or easy; and it's a matter of personal opinion that's there's 'less genius' to Boulez than to Schoenberg (as in my opinion, for example, which doesn't think there is, but that's just my opinion, just sayin...etc..) In any case, Balanchine is Romantic no matter whether also innovative and 'neo-classical', and this is shown clearly in the fact that he uses much more 17th, 18th and 19th century music than he does 20th for his works. You can call Balanchine 'modern ballet', but it is not 'modernist' in comparison to previous classical ballet in the same way that Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen are to previous music. It is a part of the 19th century as well as the 20th.

I think what Macaulay means about Beckett is that Balanchine’s dancers pull their ideas out of their guts, like Beckett characters. They pull these monologues (and Balanchine pas de deux are often extended dual monologues) from their inner being and inventory them in front of you. His ballets are Shakespearean in their worldliness.


That is interesting, and no doubt true, but that is not the same thing as hyperbole about 'supreme dramatists of the 20th century.' This has to do with wanting to enshrine gods, and not everybody is interested. It's a serious issue. But what you said about Balanchine's works being 'Shakespearean in their worldliness' is equally true of Martha Graham, and she goes into many areas that could be said to be much deeper--but mainly it is just different, and I find the tenacious clinging to one or the other among many people to be understandable, but not the truth. Modern ballet, even in the hands of Balanchine, could not encompass everything that formal serious dance had to reach out to, so it is possible that modern dance developed side by side with ballet, which is different from growing out of Viennese tradition, with Schoenberg starting out with tonal works that then become atonal, and finally 12-tone--you can still see the direct line from Wagner on through with some tributaries in Debussy and Stravinsky before arriving at the seeming arrogance of the high modernists. The voice of this Viennese School is so loud that people forget that there are extremely important 20th century compositions by Britten, Copland, Carter, Tippett and many others that did not have to conform to these schools to produce masterpieces, and did not feel anachronistic.

Stravinsky gives great pleasure, but he’s not Mozart in variety, and he’s not Balanchine in depth.


This is the kind of thing that I meant about why you'd like Macaulay. There's no depth in some Balanchine (and there's not supposed to be), and there is depth in 'le Sacre du Printemps.' I'm with Shakespeare in 'comparison is odorous' even more than with John Donne with 'comparison is odious.' It's necessary, but my personal policy on comparison is to never use it except when there's no choice. I love Prokofiev more than Stravinsky, I'm quite sure, but these theories don't have nearly as much to do with art as they think. Artists are thinking about work and getting by just like everybody else, not just creativity and history (like Susan Sontag, for example, who always talked about making her place in history, and it turned out to be none of the novels, etc. Ned Rorem uses this ponderous talk as well, which is all right in either case. Nothing abnormal about being delusional about one's own work, although it's possible to be pretentious and tacky.) But there are film actors, for another example, who don't worry if their films are not all to the pleasure of the critics, they couldn't care less. They need work and will do pulp in a second, even if the critics start talking about how they've 'lost their talent and potential.' This discussion is making me like Farrell's use of the term 'spectator' more than I had before. Most audience members are spectators--only. But not all are nor have to be, and spectators can be creative during the act, as it were.

And there does tend to be a general bias, albeit unfairly, towards the Chopin Waltzes and Etudes and Nocturnes at the expense the Sonatas.


That's an interesting observation, too, although not the case among musicians. But here, I was not only talking about piano sonatas, but Sonata Form, which has continued to evolve well past Beethoven, and first theme, second them, exposition, development, and recapitulation as in the textbook First Movement of Sonata Form, is not limited to solo instruments, whether called 'sonatas', but also to concertos, symphonies, and all groupings of chamber music. But as for the Chopin, the B Flat and B Minor Sonatas are the same kind of staples that the Scherzi and Ballades are, and the Funeral March is the only thing that used to be played in the funerals of the glorious Brezhnev, Andropov, etc., accompanied by the Goose Step Dance of the special Kremlin KGB Guards. God, those funerals were great...concluding with the dirt-throwing of the politburo wives...of course the Funeral March is an exception to all rules, more than Eine Kleine Nachtmusik except for ringtones, and the general population will not know that if comes from Chopin's 2nd Sonata.

Keep them coming, folks, this is a productive discussion, and it seems to me meet and right if it needs to go into other aspects of culture not covered by specific critics; unless there is some objection to this, which is all right with me too, of course.


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