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Zimmer on ballet's dead women

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#16 piccolo



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Posted 22 August 2001 - 07:28 PM

In the opera world, there are many patrons who will totally reject any production of a "classic" opera if the setting is changed from the original. I find this interesting on two levels: one, that their primary interest isn't the music and two, that the context into which that music has been placed can be extremely important to people.

My initial reaction to Alla's first post was "why can't her friends just enjoy the visual aspect of Giselle." However, after reading everyone's extremely insightful posts I realize that separating the two is probably impossible. Like a painting or opera, a ballet cannot be disentangled from the culture (or individual mind) that created it and best that we can do is to either educate ourselves about the context or speak more carefully if we decide not to.

I have not had a chance to see Sylvie Guillem's Giselle but is there a whole lot of "updating" happening in the ballet world?

#17 Drew


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Posted 25 August 2001 - 01:05 AM

Many of my thoughts about this issue have been expressed by Dirac and Kathleen O'Connell. And Ed Waffle, too, referred quite accurately to the complexity of the original contexts of works of art. I want to emphasize that complexity. It's a cop out to assume, "well, that's what the attitude was the in 1830's Paris" etc. -- the 1830's (for example) were, in many ways, as heterogeneous as today. There were royalists and liberals and proto-communists, feminists and misogynists, colonial adventurers and critics of colonialism etc. Even artistically there was quite a bit of diversity throughout the century -- Sand was writing at the same time as Flaubert, Zola at the same time as Mallarme [imagine accent]. Ballet-wise, one of the important 'contexts' is always formal -- the development of the technique etc., but also the 'grammar' of the steps -- and also other ballets. Economics, too; who's footing the bill? And that certainly complicates how one thinks about content or story. So,of course, it is important to keep the 'original' context of a work in mind, but it is also important to acknowledge that artists were making choices, 'artistic' choices, in a context that was not simply 'given' as any one, simple thing. A literary example: Robert Southey (he wrote "The Three Bears") wrote a letter to Charlotte Bronte basically saying that women shouldn't have literary careers; well, Robert Southey began HIS career as an admirer of Mary Wolstonecraft (she wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women) -- even dedicating a poem to her. So, on the one hand, yes, he's expressing banal nineteenth-century attitudes towards women, being 'a man of his time' -- how can we accuse him of sexism?!? but on the other hand, he was a man who had been deeply immersed in other perspectives. There were reasons (more context) why he, in particular, changed his opinions, which was his right certainly, but my point is simpler: context is much thicker, wierder, and even contradictory than people tend to realize.

Greek tragedy is a very powerful example. 5th century Athens may have been more homogeneous than 21st-century internet communities -- though I'm always a little suspicious of imagining the past as simpler than the present...But, even so, I believe that understanding how Greek Tragedy installs certain heirarchies (Gods/mortals...men/women...Greeks/everyone else!)is absolutely essential to understanding their power as 'great art'! And I don't think it amounts to attacking a work to recognize that what is most wonderful about it may also be implicated in what is most terrible about it. That is, after all, one of the lessons of Greek tragedy: that -- however enlightened one is, one cannot always avoid being implicated in crime.

As for the nineteenth-century ballet repertory, what I find worth analyzing (I assume Zimmer does this (?)) is not merely that the ballerina is a figure of (exotic) otherness -- sylph, dryad, wili, and ultimately death -- but that this scenario leaves the man as the one who must struggle as a human being -- i.e. he becomes the real subject of the story (though not necessarily of the dancing). This is what all those modernized Swan Lakes focusing on Siegfried's psychology have been able to develop. (Many twentieth-century story-less ballets actually follow this pattern in their abstract distillations of story elements.) One might argue that the fact that the ballerina remains the primary dancing figure, the DANCING subject, somewhat complicates how one might analyze, absorb these ideas/figures. Ballet is not just the content of its stories, and very few Siegfried-centric Swan Lakes seem to work as well as the more traditional productions. But I think it's a very tricky argument...certainly not one I'm prepared to sort out.

[ 08-25-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

[ 08-25-2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

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