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Ballet, Dance and Religion

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 28 December 2001 - 02:16 PM

This topic is an offshoot of the discussion on the News forum on goverment funding for controversial art.

The topic moved to freedom of religious expression. As a ballet-related question, I'd like to discuss how ballet handles faith or religion.

It's almost inevitable (Yes, because I'm me, but also because he's most germane here) that I'd start this discussion with George Balanchine. Balanchine's faith was profound and long-lived and it showed up in his ballets, as much as part of the weave as well as the pattern of the tapestry. Overt expressions of faith are ballets like Mozartiana or Don Quixote, implied ones Monumentum Pro Gesualdo

How does ballet (by Balanchine or anyone else) handle the expression of faith? Have you liked or disliked what you've seen? Have you seen cases where religious faith strengthened their artistry? Where it seemed to hamper it?

#2 Calliope


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Posted 28 December 2001 - 02:31 PM

I always thought aside from being a religious experience to watch "Serenade" had religious undertones.
I saw a piece by Angelin Preljocaj "Ascension" which I liked but I found at odds with the actual story of the Ascension.
I haven't had any objections to seeing anything based on my faith. Considering many of the storybooks deal with fairies and monsters!
Most often I'm struck when the music is what I like to call "church music", the dance only enhances it for me. (on a side note, NYCB's website has music samples for some of the ballets listed).
I don't know if I've answered the question...

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 28 December 2001 - 03:02 PM

It's an interesting question. I think Balanchine and Ashton (and Bournonville smile.gif ) made works in which their faith was assumed -- not in the sense that they thought everyone who saw the works were of the same religion, but that their religion was so much a fabric of their being that its assumptions -- and other ethical or moral assumptions -- are part of the fabric of the work.

Other works (Neumeier's "St Matthew's Passion" perhaps -- I say "perhaps" because I've only seen selections on tape) despite overtly religious trappings -- subject matter, symbolism, music -- doesn't seen very religious to me. Neumeier may well be a devout Christian and I don't mean to imply otherwise, but the ballet seems external. I'd say the same for Glen Tetley's "Voluntaries" or MacMillan's "Requiem" -- the first, to the Faure, which I liked, and the second, to the Andrew Lloyd Webber, on which I gagged, all seemed external.

Eliot Feld made a few Jewish ballets in the 1970s. One I remember vaguely was called "Tdadzik" (sp?) and had Orthodox costumes and props. There was a lengthy program note which I don't remember, and I was as fascinated by it as I am by Indian temple dance, as it was completely foreign to me. Apparently it had comic elements, because at least two-thirds of the audience (I saw this at the Public Theatre in New York) howled and seemed absolutely delighted.

Bournonville used religion a great deal, both in the assumed way -- we are all Christians -- and in the plots. "Napoli" is the most famous (and it's not about Bournonville's religion, but Catholicism). In the second act, Teresina is bewitched and loses her humanity, yet a shred of it remains; the soul cannot be destroyed by magic. Gennaro has an amulet given to him by the local priest and when she sees it, memories of her faith -- a symbol of her humanity -- stirs within her. There's a very moving moment, in some productions, where Gennaro and Teresina, walk arm in arm around the Blue Grotto with the amulet raised, and the nymphs and Sea God bow before it, aware of a Higher Power. Also, in "A Folk Tale," Bournonville uses Christianity as a symbol of humanity. Hilda, raised by trolls, is a Christian inside -- sweet, loving, forgiving, and given to putting sticks together in the shape of a cross.

I'm sure there are people who would be offended by any or all of this. I think it works when, in Balanchine's "Mozartiana," Ashton's "The Quest" and "Dante Sonata" (which I've never seen, but only read about) and Bournonville's "A Folk Tale" the religion is part of the choreographer's very being.

#4 dragonfly


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Posted 28 December 2001 - 05:44 PM

I feel there always is (or should be...) a spiritual dimension in dancing, whether it is religious or not. I think that beautiful and heartfelt dancing elevates the mind and the spirit of both the performer and the public.

To Calliope: I did not know Preljocaj choreographed a work called "Ascension". Do you know when he did it? I saw "Annonciation" which he choreographed in 1995, and I did not like it very much (sorry...) frown.gif


#5 dirac


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Posted 28 December 2001 - 08:08 PM

This is an oversimplification, but life and my time are short. I think religious feeling in dance works if the work itself is good. If the work is aesthetically flawed, then its expression of feeling -- religious or otherwise -- will be harmed. I never saw Balanchine's "Don Quixote," but if what I've heard is correct, its religiosity felt a little too overt, perhaps because the work itself never cohered. "Mozartiana" is a fully realized work of art, and in it spiritual expression achieves the ineffable. (I should note I only saw it once, on television, long ago. But I definitely got the idea.)

#6 Jane Simpson

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Posted 29 December 2001 - 05:31 AM

There's an extremely relevant article in the current ballet.co magazine, in which David Bintley talks to Brendan McCarthy about his Catholicism and its influence on his work.

It's at


#7 Alexandra


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Posted 29 December 2001 - 11:34 AM

Thanks for posting that, Jane.

#8 Richard Jones

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Posted 30 December 2001 - 12:24 PM

Thanks for the link to the piece about David Bintley. Whenever the relationship between dance and religion is mentioned, Bintley’s ‘The Protecting Veil’ is never far from my thoughts. I saw this ballet a few years ago, and knew immediately that it had been choreographed by someone with a deep feeling for the subject. I also thought at the time that it was equally clear that not every reviewer had the same understanding of what it was dealing with. I had no knowledge then of David Bintley’s Catholicism, but found the article fascinating, especially given my own Catholic upbringing. The article was originally taken from ‘The Tablet’, a Catholic weekly journal with an honourable tradition of intelligent and thoughtful writing. In the UK it is read by people of various faiths, simply because of the excellence of its articles; I have heard it referred to as the BBC World Service in print(!).

I found The Protecting Veil to be a fine choreographic counterpart to John Tavener’s music. The composer is of course well known for his conversion to the Greek Orthodox Church, and his music is deeply affected by this. I read one review of the ballet which suggested that Tavener’s music should be listened to with eyes closed. This seemed to me to indicate a misunderstanding (or denial) of the use of the senses in religious expression such as Tavener and Bintley would appreciate; the reviewer represented a deep-rooted Anglo-Saxon reaction of a certain kind!

Mention of the involvement of priests in the history of dance reminds me of a certain Canon of Langres: Jehan Tabourot, better known to us as Thoinot Arbeau, author of the famous Orchésographie (1588).

#9 Farrell Fan

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Posted 30 December 2001 - 06:28 PM

This may be a little off the topic, but years ago my wife and I used to run into an elderly gentleman named Alden Bevier at NYCB intermissions, both at the New York State Theater and in Saratoga, who once told us that seeing "Symphony in C" was the closest he'd ever come in his life to having a religious experience.

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 December 2001 - 08:19 PM

It's not really off-topic - critics in Romantic-Era France and in other nations used to hail the qualities of the "spiritual dance" of Marie Taglioni, while others preferred the "pagan" style of Fannie Elssler!

#11 dirac


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Posted 04 January 2002 - 03:34 PM

Meaning Fanny's sexy, Marie is not?

#12 Alexandra


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Posted 04 January 2002 - 04:38 PM

[quote]Originally posted by dirac:
Meaning Fanny's sexy, Marie is not?

Yes. That's Gautier. I gather Marie didn't turn him on, unlike many of the other ballerinas that he wrote about. Gautier perhaps set the standard for a certain breed of dance critic (with a tip of the hat to the poetry of his writing) who thought it was perfectly fine to, er, see dancers socially AND work on the libretto for a ballet and then review both the dancers and the ballet smile.gif

#13 salzberg


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Posted 06 January 2002 - 07:36 AM

Moving back a little closer to the original topic, it sems to me that art with a religious (or for that matter, a social) theme is perfectly valid; indeed, much of the very best art has had such themes (the Pieta, Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother, The Crucible, ad infinitum). The best production of a play I've ever been associated with was produced by an African-American theatre in Houston, and I've seen some very nice work produced by faith-based dance companies.

The problem begins when a producing organization's social mission so completely dominates its artistic one that technique and professionalism. Then, you wind up with preaching that only the choir can appreciate.

#14 Paul Parish

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Posted 18 March 2002 - 11:03 PM

Thanks Leigh, for the great topic .. and to all y'all for the thoughtfulness of this thread. Also for hte reference to Bintley -- I didn't know that about him, but I'm not surprised -- his "Sons of Horus" became a kind of church for a some of us in San Francisco about 7 or 8 years ago, when AIDS was taking people so fast -- its first year out, "Horus" made people nervous, and the public kind of laughed it off, but the second year it just became a kind of grave event, we accepted it and were grateful.....

Also Bintley's widow simone -- he was here setting something, and he danced the mother in Fille..... Our mimes treat that role as a kind of extended Mother Ginger, but Bintley in the role was very funny but also a plausible mother, and in hte scene where they're in hte cart on the way to the picnic, Bintley kept showing us one profile, then the other -- his nose itself is, shall we say, a pointer of some great significance -- looking back and forth between Lise and Alain, and you could you see "her" thinking, "my daughter would never go hungry", "He's a congenital idiot," "She'd never go hungry," " He's a congenital idiot....." It was hilarious, but it wasn't funny... What a privelege for us to see great theater in that role.....

#15 BW


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Posted 20 March 2002 - 01:34 PM

Oddly enough, this very topic came up in my world this morning, as someone I know has just choreographed a series of pieces to Mahalia Jackson's singing. All of it is gospel music...one is the Lord's Prayer set to music... Then I started looking around this site and voila!

I think Jeff hit the nail on the head when he said:

"The problem begins when a producing organization's social mission so completely dominates its artistic one that technique and professionalism. Then, you wind up with preaching that only the choir can appreciate."

To me the arts offer us an opportunity to transcend our own reality - and for me, I guess I'd have to say that's spiritual.

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