Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
Leigh Witchel

Sexuality?

44 posts in this topic

Hello, David. It's good to see you here.

One story of what "Agon" is "about" is that it was created shortly after Tanaquil LeClerq was receiving physical therapy for polio, and Balanchine had been fascinated by watching the therapists manipulate her useless limbs. (I don't mean to suggest that "Agon" is that literal.)

David, I object to lewdness or blatant vulgarity in ballet not because of middle-class sensibilities, but because it's against the aesthetic of the art form. Modern dance can be anything -- lewd (or chaste, I suppose) -- but the point of ballet is to be artificial (not in the sense of fake, but in the sense of deliberately not real).

The larger point is whether it's appropriate to this particular ballet or not. There's nothing in written or oral tradition that says that pas de deux is "about" sex, or that the woman is supposed to spread her legs and grind her hips. It depends on the performer, and it's changed over time -- and has gotten much more lewd since Balanchine's death. There's a similar moment in "Tarantella" -- the woman does a plie, on pointe, in a wide second position. Some women turn the plie into a squat and deliver it with a knowing look to the audience that is extremely vulgar. Others do it quickly, and it's a witty step.

In an experimental piece, the choreogrpaher can do anything he wants (I can still call it tasteless, but I have less ground to stand on smile.gif ) But in a classical ballet, it's not prudery or pettiness that points out deviations.

Share this post


Link to post

Alexandra, I agree completely!! It seems to me that the underlying goal of the ballet is "beauty". Whether it is portraying angst, temptation, love, hate, etc. -it is presenting the body at its most beautiful in movement. Other dance forms are, of course, often beautiful - but that is usually not their principle aim.

Even in moments of great emotional impact - the toes are pointed, the body is aligned, the movement flows - even frenetically - it flows. That, in my opinion, sets the ballet apart. It is also that "apartness" that allows the ballet to deal with the "ideal" and even the "fanciful" - wilis, sylphs, swans ( as Alexandra said above). In the mad scene in Giselle there is not a moment when the ballerina is not beautiful to see.

Comedy in the ballet is often portrayed by destroying that beauty. Toes are turned in -arms flop; that is part of the comedic aspect in ballet, in my opinion.

[This message has been edited by ORZAK (edited October 07, 2000).]

[This message has been edited by ORZAK (edited October 07, 2000).]

Share this post


Link to post

Actually, I think ballet is marvelous at conveying passion of several sorts, sexual and otherwise. Lewdness is one of many things a ballet can convey,sometimes memorably, as in Agon. I do think objecting to lewdness in general represents a middle class ethic. In the sense that propriety is favored over substance. Pas de deux needn't be about sex at all of course; they can be about many things. But I think eschewing sexual expression in so rich an art form as ballet is incomprehensible so I may not be an acute observer of this phenomenon. I think Balanchine often revelled in things some people considered "vulgar" and it's part of why he was great. Choreographers of ballet ought to get as close as they can to the "truth" and not worry too much about whether the "truth" is vulgar.

David

Share this post


Link to post
Originally posted by TheBangGroup:

But I think eschewing sexual expression in so rich an art form as ballet is incomprehensible so I may not be an acute observer of this phenomenon.

David, no one has been talking about ballet eschewing sexual expression. It's just that as several people have said, ballet creates an artificial world and shows us an idealized beauty. Just as a romantic word can be a lot sexier than a blatant come-on, the sexuality in this idealized world is a lot deeper, ultimately, than mere vulgarity is. Lewdness is simply out of place here. It's not a matter of prudery, but of aesthetic taste.

Share this post


Link to post

I don't think ballet creates an artificial world. A lot of Sleeping Beauty is a good deal more real to me than "reality."

I like sexy ballets. What is lewd for me may not be what is lewd for you. What is sexy for me may not be sexy to you. A group of men dancing is extremely sexy , I think, but it might not be for you--this ballet, this week.

I am not looking for idealization when I look at a stage. Beauty is different for everyone; at different times in a person's life the definition may vary. I dislike vulgarity: my definition is quite different than yours may be, however.

I don't think Agon is sexy in the least. Depending on the performer, the "look" can vary enormously--as pointed out in the note on Tarantella, a step can either look quick and saucy or like a woman is inserting a tampon.

I happen to like MacMillan (I am not even ducking!)...although not, I must say, Manon. What I find sexy in Romeo and Juliet might be the music one night, the way she touches him another, Mercutio, the third....

I think there is room for tremendous difference in this world....that said, the grand pdd in Sleeping Beauty is one of the loveliest things I know: because there is room for scope and imagination. Scope and imagination is the sexiest thing I know and what better place for it than ballet....

We all see differently.

[This message has been edited by Juliet (edited October 07, 2000).]

Share this post


Link to post

I'd like to try to clarify a couple of things. Juliet is right, we do all see differently. And I think in this case, we're using words differently as well.

I think what Ken and I are getting at when we talk about "artificiality" is strictly in the Aristotelian sense, that fine art does not directly depict reality. It's not confessional. There has to be something else going on there.

Secondly, I'm sure everyone does interpret "sexy" differently -- some people, unfortunately, find Shirley Temple movies sexy. But I still think you have to deal with the work of art in context -- artist's intentions being very important. How "Agon" has come to be seen as intentionally sexy, much less lewd, is revisionism, to say the least. I don't think it's any more intentionally sexy than, say, "Symphony in C."

Finally, vulgarity, in the sense that Balanchine used it. (His famous, rather snitty, quote about the British -- "The English, if you are awake it's already too vulgar" -- is sometimes eagerly grabbed as evidence that he loved vulgarity above all else. But this, too, must be taken in context. In ballet, there was a long argument, that lasted well past mid-century, that more than two, or three, or four, pirouettes was "vulgar." High extensions were "vulgar" -- NOT because they exposed the crotch, but because they broke the classical line of the body. Hyperextension was vulgar, a sideways kick that broke the line of the body was vulgar. It's not vulgarity in the sense of spitting in the streets or using obscene language.

As far as the performance tradition of "Agon" goes, unless you buy into the progressive arts theory -- that what was danced on the day Balanchine died was THE definitive statement (which I certainly don't) -- this has to be examined, too. As is well known, Balanchine changed ballets (or allowed ballets to change) for different dancers. But we have no way of knowing whether he thought, "Aha! Finally what I've always wanted!" or "Well, Heather is very interesting with that flexibility, let's see how that goes," or "This will do" -- or dozens of other thoughts, contexts, adjustments. During the last decade of his life (the only part of his career that I can speak of through firsthand viewing experience) there were several ballets, usually the old standards that had remained in repertory constantly, that were rather down at heel. They didn't look well-rehearsed, the costumes were even a bit dingy, the casting was...inscrutable smile.gif ("Serenade," for a time, looked like a parking lot for dancers on their way up, but something happened, or on their way down.) "Symphony in C" could also be spotty, as could "Swan Lake." Balanchine's interest in "Swan Lake" was revived by Darcy Kistler, whom he gave to Danilova to coach and who did a much more "classical," simple version of Odette than had, say, Nina Fedorovna, who had done an extreme after-Farrell interpretation. How would "Agon" have looked with Kistler, had Balanchine had a chance to work with her? We can't know.

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 08, 2000).]

Share this post


Link to post

I'm going to meander a bit more around this topic.

I actually want to start with an apology and a clarification. My opening statement about stereotyping seems to me on rereading calculated to put a lot of well-meaning and tolerant people on the defensive; I don't feel good about that. Most men I know in ballet tend to be extraordinarily tolerant, most straight men quite comfortable and secure. The sort of "Of course they're not all gay" comment is generally not individual, it tends to be institutional. It's the sort of thing PR departments do, as Anthony said, to distance themselves from a stigma that shouldn't be there in the first place.

More on objects of ideal and objects of desire (has anyone heard critical terms for what I'm talking about? I'd be interested to know them.) I think classicism can more efficiently and effectively portray objects of ideal rather than objects of desire and I think my attraction to classical ballet is because it provided objects of ideal for me rather than objects of desire. I'm attracted to its perfection, and to the idealized world within it. Orientation, shmorientation, I am crazy about the way a man treats a woman in a classical ballet, the same way I was attracted to the concept of courtly love in medieval French literature. It is artifice (in the sense that Alexandra writes), it is idealized, and to me it is so very beautiful. It's why I loved to partner as a dancer.

------------------

Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

Share this post


Link to post

Leigh, I'm not sure that you have that much, if anything, to apologize for. You didn't say anything that wasn't true, nor were you especially intemperate, IMO. I could say more, but this topic has already gotten a little unwieldy.

This is an awfully complex topic to handle in a bulletin board post, as I just said, so I'm not really going to try but just make a point or two. It seems to me that in classical ballet what we see onstage are not men and women so much as stylized abstractions of same, even in a ballet as nominally explicit as Bugaku, (where at one point Balanchine has the colossal nerve to make the ballerina's extended leg into a big boner). A foot is one thing; a foot on pointe becomes a symbol, a sign that can represent a variety of things other than itself. In a grand pas de deux, the man responds to the woman not as a sexual being but rather does homage to Woman, in the abstract, and the two become the ideal Leigh is talking about, if I'm interpreting him correctly. He also mentions courtly love. The same principle applies there; the whole point of the troubador's lyric was that the object of his love was unattainable, an ideal of love and not the thing itself.

In other kinds of ballet, as in the work of MacMillan, for example, the above does not necessarily apply, but I'll leave that for another post. Hope this makes sense....

Share this post


Link to post

Originally posted by dirac:

Leigh, I'm not sure that you have that much, if anything, to apologize for. You didn't say anything that wasn't true, nor were you especially intemperate, IMO.

Quite so; my last comment was incited more by a.a.b. discussions than your opening post, Leigh.

I was a little wary of this thread to start with, but I'm following it with great interest now - I'm genuinely surprised by the enormous spread of opinions. To the outsider or newcomer, appreciation and criticism of ballet appears to be very highly developed. Read a column in the Times, and the criticism is often delivered as if the author knows exactly what the reader will be looking for.

Not so, obviously! I'm looking for abstracted emotional idealism, visual beauty, and basic musicality; overt sexuality I find rather offensive. But then I could be sitting next to David in the audience, who might be looking at the same performance in a very different way. How do artistic directors cope with such a varied audience? Moreover, are professional critics aware of this spread?

A.

Share this post


Link to post

Anthony, your last two questions should be another thread, so I'll start one.

Share this post


Link to post

I really do have to disagree that Agon is in any way intended to be lewd. It was based on French court dances, after all, and just because it has been hotted up at NYCB recently does not mean that it was meant that way in the 1950's. Ballet is not an opera-house version of Calvin Klein underwear adds, and there is so much more to great ballet than sex--there is beauty and love and ideals and tragedy. As Dr. Johnson might have said "explicit sex is the last refuge of a minimally talented choreographer."

Share this post


Link to post

Mary, I like your Johnson quote, and may I suggest that MTC, for Minimally Talented Choreographer, enter the Ballet Alert! lexicon, along with Sheesno Fonteyn (courtesy of kip).

Share this post


Link to post

In a way we are all talking about ourselves as much as we are talking about sexiness, vulgarity, ideals and classicism. I see no conflict between sexy and ideal. I do see ballet as capable of great passion of many kinds- sexy, vulgar, lewd, elegant, restrained, idealized, innocent. Which is among the reasons I like Balanchine. By the way I think sexiness can also be innocent. I agree that Symphony in C is erotic. I would not say it is any less erotic than Agon. Watch the old film of a performance of Rubies with Vilella and McBride. They are extremely robust, weighted, full of brio. I find them sexy together at the same time as I see them as an ideal. I find them vulgar and sophisticated. I admire Balanchine for his canny blend of these elements. It's like life. I do sound like i'm opposing the kind of thinking that strikes me as puritan and I understand that no one thinks they are being puritanical. We can disagree, I can be wrong. But I do think it's a worthy discussion.

David

Share this post


Link to post

Alastair Macauley wrote an essay on classicism about 12 years ago in which he said that one of the principles of classicism is seemliness. At the time, I thought it an immensely brave thing for a young man to write, because there are very few people today who understand what "seemly" means.

I think the way "chaste" and "seemly" and "artificial" are understood in the vernacular is different from what we're talking about here, using the words in an aesthetic context. And, as often happens, we're running up against different definitions.

The objection to seeing a leg kicked up to break the classical line is not because the person thinks it's nasty to see underpants. It's because the classical line has been broken. This has absolutely nothing to do with sexual repression or puritanism.

I think that "Rubies" was intended to be seductive and suggestive, much more than "Diamonds" or "Emeralds," certainly, but that still doesn't mean the man gets to pant when he looks at the woman. We're talking here of a matter of degrees.

There are some dances where sex is more explicit. I haven't seen "Moon Reindeer," but there's a story that when the ballet was being choreographed, the ballerina was given extremely suggestive movements to perform -- there was a pas de deux that could only be referred to as dry humping -- and she steadfastly refused to make it remotely sexy, to the point where everybody in the room was tittering and the choreographer had to say, "Do you know what this means????" That's just as inappropriate. It's a matter of matching tone in performance to intent.

Share this post


Link to post

Lordie...I go away for a week & return to discover that "y'all" are on a roll regarding this topic!

Simple answer to Leigh's question:

I consider all overt depictions of sexuality in the performing arts as tasteless & sickening. Even in Eifman or MacMillan, choreographers who I greatly admire otherwise for the realistic splendor of their productions. It doesn't matter if it's straight, gay, whatever. I don't pay my $30-a-ticket (or more) to see that crap on the stage. - Jeannie

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited October 10, 2000).]

Share this post


Link to post

Arlene Croce has used "seemliness" in relation to classicism also, in one of the pieces collected in "Afterimages", I think.

Share this post


Link to post

This thread has made me laugh out loud several times. I find a lot of ballet sexual, that's definitely part of its appeal. But to my mind, to experience a ballet like Agon as being about sex would be like experiencing a poem like "Hero and Leander" as being about sex. It would be to reduce it pathetically. It'd be like reducing true love to sex. The erotic element can't be separated out, but it doesn't predominate. And I've never read the pas de deux of Agon as a stylized sexual encounter, although it wouldn't surprise me if that's what Balanchine had in mind. The thread sent me back to the footage of Farrell and Martins dancing the pas de deux on the video "Peter Martins: A Dancer," and I didn't find Farrell's version of that move the slightest bit lewd.

Share this post


Link to post

I have the same video, and I agree that Farrell doesn't inflect the movement that way at all. I think Agon is sexy, but the eroticism is only effective if the dancers refrain from emphasizing that fact unduly. Once they start telegraphing Sex to the audience, it becomes crude and obvious.

Share this post


Link to post

Maybe part of what confuses discussion of this topic is what we are used to seeing. In a classical ballet, we are used to seeing, as Leigh put it (sorry if not quoting quite accurately) a woman extending her hand and a man there to take it, We perceive that as an image about love and romance, even though there can be a more sexual element. After all, when Aurora and Desire get together, it is romantic, but they are also expected to further the royal dynasty, which would presumably require some sex.

But if we saw the same image -- a hand extended and taken - between two men or two women, it would be unusual, it would almost definitely be deliberate on the part of the choreographer, and it would have different connotations. I don't think most viewers would see it as just Romance, but as Gay Romance, which is seen also as either overtly sexual or furthering an agenda (or both). Similar to the way that, at least for now, many people perceive two men holding hands as a provocative gesture but a man and a woman as just sweet. The gesture/step in itself isn’t sexual, but people think it is.

Share this post


Link to post
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0