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Abstraction vs. Representation: is this still an issue?

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 21 May 2001 - 04:55 PM

I was struck by one of the themes in Joan Acocella's (excellent, I thought) review of the new Robbins biography -- the assumption that abstraction is superior to representation in dance.

Here are a few quotes:

[Robbins] seems also to have grieved over being narrative and psychological, over having the common touch, being a popular artist, a Broadway man. These traits were absolutely natural to him, and he despised them, and favored abstraction, which was not natural to him. So he made something in between.


For several years, no doubt in emulation of Balanchine, he had been toying with abstraction. Now, in "Dances at a Gathering," he wedded abstraction to the upbeat temper of his musical-comedy work and produced a long, expansive ballet in which ten young people just danced for an hour to Chopin piano pieces. Robbins's abstraction never went as far as Balanchine's. In Balanchine, dance is metaphor; in Robbins, it is still representation. (Though "Dances at a Gathering" has no story, there are little skits and character studies tucked into it.)

I wondered if you agreed or disagreed -- both with the larger issue and with how Robbins fits into this question. I remember a few years ago, at the Ashton conference, one younger critic asked the older ones, on a panel, something to the effect of: "So, when did you finally realize that abstract ballets were superior to story ballets?" This did not go down well (at least, not afterwards).

Given that there can be bad abstract ballets and good storytelling ones, and, as always, what matters is "good" and "bad," I wondered what people here think about this question in general?

#2 cargill


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Posted 21 May 2001 - 05:10 PM

I think all dance is to some extent abstract, since no one ever in real life moved like a dancer. But I think Robbins was most successful when he was working with some sort of a story, like Fancy Free. The abstract Balanchine ballets depend so much on the shape and movement and formal architecture of the corps and I don't really think that Robbins was as successful in that area. I saw Four Seasons recently, for example, and Robbins snow scene relies on very obvious jokey shivering and rather 4 square formations to make the point, while Balanchine's Nutcracker has such beautiful, elegant patterns in an idealized snowstorm.

If Robbins really was consciously trying to do abstract work when he was more comfortable doing narrative ones, then I think that is very sad. Sort of like trying to make a left handed person use their right hand.

Was the review in the New Yorker?

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 21 May 2001 - 05:53 PM

I think so, Mary. It's online, though. There's a link to it in today's Links.

On abstraction vs. representation, though, I was interested in what people think in this of an issue. Is abstraction "better" than representation, generally speaking? Has art "progressed" from representation to abstraction? (I think that's how Acocella meant it.)

#4 Nanatchka


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Posted 21 May 2001 - 06:08 PM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by cargill:
[QB]I think all dance is to some extent abstract, since no one ever in real life moved like a dancer

And in like manner, I think all dance is to some extent narrative, because people do it.

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 21 May 2001 - 06:25 PM

This is all conjecture, but I think Acocella is right that Robbins thought that the narrative form he did was "inferior". However, I think the problem was he was in the presence of a genius of abstraction working exactly as he pleased. I think Robbins didn't so much think narrative was better than abstraction, but that Balanchine was a better choreographer than he was. The next natural question for him was, "So how do I get more like him?" Unfortunately, it's the wrong question.

I think for critics as well, this is also the problem. It isn't that abstract ballets are better. It's that our last genius, the one who shaped many of our eyes, favored abstraction. We don't really care about abstraction or representation. We just want to see genius again.

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