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Ballet and Spirituality


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#1 hunterman0953

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Posted 23 May 2011 - 04:10 PM

I have a friend, formerly my psychologist, who Emailed me from Varanasi in India, the message containing veiled references to her 'work in progress' on a mysterious 'something' which she promises to tell me about soon.In what is becoming a frustratingly long interim as I await the 'good news', I've been wondering what I might share with her in terms of 'good news' - my 'something' which just might align with hers in some way. Against this psychologist (a very good one) searching for her 'something' in a great centre of culture and religion is myself, who has never even tried to discover any sort of spirituality beyond that inspired by what I can see with my eyes or reach out and touch with my hand. My friend will no doubt have derived great personal satisfaction and discovery out of Varanasi and later, Nepal,if at a hefty cost. My 70-strong and counting ballet, and ballet related, DVD collection will come in at far less a cost than her trip to the Sub-Continent. And what has been gained from our respective journeys, I wonder? A highly educated, articulate person, well versed in the workings of the mind, seeks 'something' in culturally rich surroundings, and inspiring landscapes, whereas I, in contrast, far less educated and articulate have, from my armchair found solid and tangible things in ballet which I am hazarding a guess will still only ever be on my friend's furthest horizons. I say that as a person disinclined to be overly obsessive about anything, let alone ballet. I do get emotionally swept along by ballet, but my thoughts are sober enough. I do actually think, as in think, that ballet can be a richly 'spiritual' experience, and infinitely more accessible than those alternatives which require a lot of unravelling before anything can happen, along with a good deal of education.

I know that my friend doesn't have the Arts in her life to any meaningful degree, but it's my conviction that if she had, then a visit to Varanasi would have been somewhat less significant to her in spiritual terms than what she could have derived from an interest in, and love of, the Arts. It's very difficult to say just what ballet does, and can do for a person,but any fully inclusive appreciation of ballet, covering every aspect of it - history, production, performance,and audience participation etc, indicates to me one very powerful piece of evidence of the potential of human activity, in and of itself, to provide a heightened sense of existence. It's possible to get all this from any of the arts of course, but ballet does it with a swift and concentrated dose of what other areas of the arts do,for me anyway, with a more 'slow-release' effect.

I really don't like the word spirituality and try not to invoke it in any discussion whatsoever, but in this instance it probably can't be avoided. So as I limber up to receive word from my friend on her progress, I thought that others on this forum might care to share their own views on ballet and 'spirituality', especially with regard to their personal searches and journeys. Is ballet just a very sophisticated entertainment (a view I fear my friend will offer), or does it indeed inhabit the higher realms of 'spirituality', whatever that means? I have never been to Varanasi or Nepal, but if my friend can convince me that they have more to offer than ballet, then I shall be quickly off to buy a big backpack. This long-winded and very opinionated post is not only a result of the above friend's activities - I am routinely challenged about the societal status, merits, and overall worth of ballet, so please forgive me for letting off a bit of steam here. I look forward to contributions which might better express what I am only trying to say in a very clumsy fashion. I think it is a very important aspect of ballet which needs to be understood and appreciated more by those who are relentlessly dismissive about the status of ballet, and its future in society,all too often by people who should know better. The appreciation of art isn't idle worship, but the recognition and celebration of what we are capable of aspiring to, and achieving at the highest level.I don't want my friend to not go to Varanasi or Nepal, but I do want more of an alliance, a coalition of interests - that is surely a reasonable expectation. Ballet can,can it not, be a powerful partner in the search for a better world? Ballet, in my view, says much the same as the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux - 'this is me, this is us, this is what we can do'. Children especially need such affirmations of what we human beings are and what we can do,and I believe ballet is a great educator in that regard.Let them go to Varanasi, but not before they've had a taste of ballet, and all the arts.Let them go with ballet in their backpacks. Life is never so clear as when we can see as much of it as possible. As I said, I've yet to find out precisely what my friend has been up to in Varanasi and Nepal or what she has discovered,but I reckon even my incoherent ramblings point, however clumsily, to 'something' equally effective. Well, the last eighteen months of ballet seem to have opened a few doors I didn't even know were there to be opened. Has anybody else new to ballet discovered new dimensions to this wonderful art form beyond the ravishing splendour and beauty of it all?

#2 innopac

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Posted 29 May 2011 - 03:24 AM

This link was posted on BT for Dancers in response to a question about the "use of ballet". It struck me as relevant to your thoughts, hunterman0953. It is an excerpt from a welcome address given to parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004, by Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do.




#3 bart

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Posted 29 May 2011 - 06:34 AM

A wonderful topic, hunterman. It will take some time and thought. This idea caught my eye on my first reading.

Ballet, in my view, says much the same as the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux - 'this is me, this is us, this is what we can do'. Children especially need such affirmations of what we human beings are and what we can do,and I believe ballet is a great educator in that regard.

"This is what we [humans] can do." Looking back, I think this was part of the revelation I experienced during my first NYC Ballet performances during the Balanchine years.

My preference then as now was for the more stripped down -- more pure? more reverential? -- whether classical or neoclassical. I have felt this kind of spirituality during the Berceuse in Firebird, in Four Temperaments, in some but not all Giselles or Odettes. I've rarely felt it in moments of flashy technical bravura or emotionality, but that may just be my own personality.

I certainly experienced it when I was taking adult ballet classes (starting very late in life), focusing on form and execution. Centering myself, along with trying to keep balanced. Not unlike certain kinds of Zen practice, in my experience at least.

Like you, I often have a problem with the term "spirituality," which can be overused, trivialized, and commercialized, especially in our own contemporary culture. The appeal of ballet -- as you introduce it -- is that it can be experienced and "understood" by a variety of traditions, including secular humanism.

#4 hunterman0953

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Posted 29 May 2011 - 03:59 PM

Thank you Bart and Innopac for your thoughtful responses. Dr Karl Paulnack's thoughts are right on the money, aren't they? Real 'I wish I'd said that' words. Lovely. And thank you Bart for your thoughtful summary of what I was clumsily driving at.

I had actually forgotten at the time of writing what got a 'bee in my bonnet' in the first place, which was in fact an enthusiastically religious lady who asked me, rather intelligently I thought, what was in my mind when watching ballet. The robustly religious lady's question was a lovely provocation to deep thought. For me, at any rate, there is plenty of mileage in this topic, as there is plenty of mileage in what there is which is yet to enter my own head when I watch ballet.

The thoughts that enter the head when confronted by any art form are, I think, always multi-layered, and high-lighting those with the greatest significance, in this case for performers,creators, and audience of ballet alike, can surely only be a good thing. I recently heard a most dismal forecast by an 'expert', about the uncertain future of classical ballet particularly. Very depressing news for a raw beginner like myself, but another excellent provocation to think about what ballet does, and can, mean to us all. A first line of defence to ensure the future of ballet is in my view a healthy airing of its multi-faceted potential in such places as this excellent forum. I really do hope for many further contributions, if only to tell the doomsayers that they are wrong by a country mile.

#5 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 29 May 2011 - 10:18 PM

Has anybody else... discovered new dimensions to this wonderful art form beyond the ravishing splendour and beauty of it all?


I have said this before, and I don't get tired to repeat it, as long as I keep being asked the question of why do I love ballet so much. Ballet certainly was at one point of my life, one of the VERY few things I could grab on to keep my mental stability. In 1991 I had moved to Havana to start college-(at 16). I had no friends, no family, the city was experiencing the most devastating crisis in the history of the country after the fall down of communism and the absence of the Soviet Union, hunger was rampant in our dorms, and I was down to 120 pounds. That's when I started attending ballet performances. I grew up as a catholic boy, and the sense of spirituality I felt inside that theater was, honestly, nowhere near by as whatever I have ever felt listening to mass. Ballet during those years definitely helped me not to go insane about my surroundings. It certainly spoke to my soul, to my spirit, and after that when I get the question, I ask back "Do you go to church ?" , and if the answer is positive, then I say, "Well, for me going to a ballet performance is like going to church for you". It usually works.

#6 JMcN

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Posted 30 May 2011 - 01:24 PM

I'm not sure about spirituality but I do know that WATCHING BALLET KEEPS ME SANE. It was a friend who first said this to me and she is so right. I haven't had the best of years this year and goodness only knows what dark place I would currently be inhabiting if I hadn't been going to watch ballet and dance.

I've never been to Varanasi but I have holidayed in Nepal and I can't say that I had any spiritual sensations there. I have felt serenity in the Buddhist temples of Burma and Sri Lanka and in the cathedral city of Durham here in England, in the Winter Gardens in Sunderland and in Martinmere - one of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust sites.

Nothing, however matches the sensation of watching ballet.

#7 hunterman0953

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Posted 30 May 2011 - 04:54 PM

I'm not sure about spirituality but I do know that WATCHING BALLET KEEPS ME SANE.


I regret using the word spirituality in my initial post, and only did so in the context of my former psychologist's Emailing me about her Varanasi 'quest'. In fact, our consulting room relationship had earlier been, on her side, marked by an absence of reference to the arts, even though she knew that to be my area of interest. She was so excellent, and so in earnest about her methodology that I never mentioned to her that the reason I was progressing so well was that I felt so good after talking with her that it enabled me to go home and enjoy anew my beloved, and very therapeutic, music! Had ballet been in my 'toolbox' at the time, I doubt I'd have been in her rooms in the first place! I did one day slip her a copy of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with comment, but never went further than that. When I get her postal address, I think I'll send her a copy of the La Scala 'Bayadere'- without comment.

I have to say that my last eighteen months has likewise been difficult, JMcN,and similarly less so than would have been the case without ballet.

#8 perky

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 05:03 PM

A pilgramage to Varanasi is a very important event in a Hindu's spiritual life.
The river is the beginning and the end, a way to purify and heal.
I'm not Hindu, but I lived in India for a time when I married my husband there. The really devout Hindu's have a purity and serenity about them and a devout belief in devotions, prayer and giving that I found much to admire about.

I think the path to spirituality is such an individual personal thing. Prayer can be many things. Surrending yourself to a higher power or a noble ideal is one way. Communing and sharing with that higher ideal is the next step.
Watching 2nd movement Concerto Barocco makes me feel that way. For just awhile, I'm privileged enough to breathe the same rarified and precious air the must abide in Heaven or Paradise. It's a glorious feeling.

#9 vipa

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 05:30 PM

I guess the basic question is about the value of art in terms of spirituality and humanity.

The question of spirituality I think has to do with an art form taking you to another place; giving voice to the idea that there is something beyond our everyday existance. If we are talking about ballet specifically, my recent viewing of Alina Cojocaru in Giselle did it or me. Other performances of dance and music have done that for me in the past.

The second idea has to do with humanity. Will a quest for a spiritual realm change your outlook/behavior towards humanity. This is a tough one. I'm sure there were Nazis who actively participated in the holocost who teared up upon listening to Bach.

Will making a pillgramage to a religious site make you view humanity differently or just reinforce your own prejudices?

I believe ballet can be as spiritual an experience as other art forms or pillgramages, but what the out come is can be elusive.

#10 hunterman0953

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 05:49 PM

I

I believe ballet can be as spiritual an experience as other art forms or pillgramages, but what the out come is can be elusive.


Thank you vipa for that valuable extension to the topic. I was only thinking this am, as I made my morning coffee, 'Can ballet help to make us better people?' Your observation about the Nazis and Bach is spot on.I believe that in one concentration camp, inmates were made to perform chamber music for the 'staff'. Chilling.

I don't know about ballet, but I think ballet has been, in the past, performed somewhat coldly and clinically ( I won't name names, but there's enough, I feel,in my collection to validate the point), but I'll still hold out for my own much played copy of Alina's Giselle, and her Aurora, and other modern dancers and productions, reaching corners of the heart, and importantly the mind, not touched on in past years. That's only my 'training wheels' view,and I'd appreciate somebody putting me right on that.

#11 papeetepatrick

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 06:11 PM

Hunterman--I read your post 3 times about a week ago, and started to say something, but these responses were good to have.

It reads a bit like a short story, because there is the matter of the relationship with the psychologist, and that is personal and of value, and is now tied in with valuing experiences.

These two things could benefit by separating them to a degree as some posters have already done. You can always re-install them within the framework of your experience with this person and how they work with each other.

It's the joy you feel in ballet that makes it seem important to proclaim it perhaps a bit 'more profound', or that's in the way you wrote it up. I've had similar experience, not exactly like yours, and I've tended to want to favour 'the Arts' more than various 'spiritual' endeavours in the stricter sense of that term. I've changed a bit over the years, even though my tendency for 'spiritual' in the larger sense continues to be often, though not always, within the Arts, but my definition of 'the Arts' is also looser than it was, just as the larger view of spirituality. So, for example, although I'd never go on a kind of religious pilgrimage for a sense of the 'spiritual', I might definitely (and have done) travel to places that are not usually considered 'spiritual' in the religious or religiously-tinged sense, and consider that as enlightening as any music or writing I've done, or dance I've seen. Or many of the activities of daily life can become quite elevated; just as in ballet, the sensual and the spiritual are not so separated in some of us. Friendship, love (all kinds), family life, these are all 'spiritual' in the large sense. So it's different orders of experience. My own problem with this certain person did occur when she thought such things as you imagined your friend probably did, that 'ballet was superficial', etc., that's when the difficulties and defensiveness came in for me. In my case, this was a dancer of South Indian dance and was also very involved with Eastern religion and made trips to India. The resentment can come to the surface when someone (especially if it's a Westerner who has gone that route) seems to think that a 'greater spirituality' is available only by certain routes.

You also mention the greater joy you get from ballet than from the other Arts, which is fine and means you have this source of joy. That's subjective and personal, though, too, and these are all different orders of experience, so that actually they're really all valuable. Lots of things work ecstasies for different people.

My similar experience with this woman dancer who thought ballet was 'mechanical' and superficial did not have the strong element of comradely attachment and friendship that yours does, so I simply went my way and she went hers. I will say, though, that until I did, she expected me to go her way, as she had also been my yoga instructor and was very good when we did these classes in town. But the 'going her way' led to my going to what was described a bit too much as an 'artistic retreat' and was more of an ashram, and one taste of that made me know where I stood. It was not at all artistic, and eventually she even gave up all her dancing in the city that she had done for some years in favour of the various things that these 'spiritually-oriented centers' eventually expect you to make a choice for. She was very anti-individual as well as 'naturist', so that didn't work for me: By the anti-individual, I mean I once said something about 'going to dinner with some friends', and she said something about 'I don't visit people', and this was part of what she had decided was the 'spiritually serious quest'. Despite her excellence in yoga and also doing some professional Bharata Natyam dancing, her attitude was that of a rube, and she did not like my city friends that she met, for example, tried to make me move away from them like all cults do to lesser or greater degree. So I can see what the conflicts are, although yours involves a relationship you seem to value more highly than I did this one I've described. That doesn't mean I don't think the experience was less disturbing than yours. I was so angry for awhile from that ashram experience that I even wrote vicious songs parodying that ashram and how 'I frenchified hick ashram into New York City Ballet', and I've even published this one recently; the 'friends I visit' rather love it. However, by now I've calmed down from the horror, although it did seem to annoy me quite profoundly for the longest time. And I do remember that about a month after going to that ashram I bought a big ream of NYCB tickets and went as much as I could afford. That was a good start, but it took me many years to get over my loathing of that place (which happens to be in a very beautiful natural environment, by the way.)

#12 puppytreats

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Posted 01 June 2011 - 06:15 PM

This link was posted on BT for Dancers in response to a question about the "use of ballet". It struck me as relevant to your thoughts, hunterman0953. It is an excerpt from a welcome address given to parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004, by Dr. Karl Paulnack, director of the Music Division.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do.




This is very beautiful, insightful, and inspirational. G-d speaks to us in many ways. I have always felt He speaks to the heart through music. I have worshipped G-d with stadiums full of people at rock concerts. I have learned even more about Him through ballet, and other forms of art, which convey ideas and feelings in a visual manner. Being in and audience and sharing the experience of theater promotes unity and understanding, and as the author states, advances the cause of peace. (I imagine that nationalistic or ethnocentric art can be used to promote divisions and advance the cause of war, too).


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