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#31 Alexandra


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Posted 07 October 2000 - 10:52 PM

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 Posted Image ("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).]

#32 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 October 2000 - 11:19 PM

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
[url="http://"http://members.aol.com/lwitchel"]Personal Page and Dance Writing[/url]
[url="http://"http://members.aol.com/dnceasever"]Dance as Ever[/url]

#33 dirac


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Posted 08 October 2000 - 04:24 AM

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....

#34 Guest_Anthony_*

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Posted 08 October 2000 - 04:49 AM

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?


#35 Alexandra


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Posted 08 October 2000 - 09:36 AM

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

#36 cargill


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Posted 09 October 2000 - 06:35 PM

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."

#37 Alexandra


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Posted 09 October 2000 - 06:49 PM

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).

#38 Guest_TheBangGroup_*

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Posted 10 October 2000 - 09:00 AM

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.

#39 Alexandra


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Posted 10 October 2000 - 09:26 AM

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.

#40 Natalia


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Posted 10 October 2000 - 10:39 AM

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).]

#41 dirac


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Posted 10 October 2000 - 12:04 PM

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

#42 kfw


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Posted 10 October 2000 - 01:22 PM

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.

#43 dirac


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Posted 10 October 2000 - 01:30 PM

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.

#44 E Johnson

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Posted 11 October 2000 - 09:17 AM

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 isnít sexual, but people think it is.

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