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The Myth of Genius?

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There was an interesting article on the nature of genius, using mostly musical examples. Surprisingly, dance is not mentioned! Perhaps we can fill that gap.

Here's an excerpt: NOTE: This is not a summary of the article, but an excerpt from it. There are other models and ideas reprsented.

"Mr. Kivy's book, for example, shows just how malleable ideas of genius have been. He demonstrates that genius, far from inspiring a monolithic interpretation, has taken on different shapes and meanings in different periods. There are, he argues, two dominant myths about genius in Western culture. The first, advocated by Plato, is that the genius is a passive recipient of divine revelation. The second, long attributed to Longinus, is that a genius is a creator rather than a receiver. Mr. Kivy writes: "For Longinus genius must seize the day; for Socrates the day must seize the genius." These are the two models of genius: the possessor (Longinus) and the possessed (Plato)."

Myths About Genius



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Either one accepts that all men are created equal, or one accepts eugenicist theories. There is no middle ground.

I opt for the former view, for which there is first-class scientific evidence, I am relieved to say...

In a nutshell, as a potential, every normally-constituted human being, might become, had he the will power, what by the standards of any day would be called a "genius".

How is it possible, that in one brief period at the Paris Opera, the students of a single man, namely Gaetano Vestris, became the world-famous Carlo Blassis, Jules Perrot, and Auguste Bournonville ?

These people had no degrees at all, but they were possessed of a breadth and depth of knowledge, in all fields, that would put many if not most, university professors today, to shame.

To speak of Bournonville, whom I know the most of, as a youth he toyed with the idea of being a violinist or singer (oddly enough, like Johann Kobborg of the Royal Ballet today) before finally opting for his father's profession, the ballet.

Clara Schumann refers to him as "extraordinarily musical - by far the most interesting individual I met in Denmark".

He read musical scores like others on a book, wrote decent poetry, painted in oils, and was a first-class writer, as his memoirs clearly shew. He was a keen student of theology (most of the books in his library, recently discovered in a cellar of a Copenhagen school, were of theology), of Shakespeare and Schiller. Perfectly Fluent in at least five languages, he learnt Russian at the age of seventy in order to travel to that country.

He was married at a young age, and had ten or so children.

He was heavily involved in politics ("in this country, I respect our Monarchy, but as soon as I cross the border, I revert to my true Republican self...." can't remember the exact words of his memoirs), and ran a large theatre and school. I might that he also composed something like sixty ballets, as well as his Schools, which are a monument to our art.

When exiled from Denmark, he ran the Royal Opera House at Stockholm, and introduced into the LYRIC opera there, reforms (eliminating the intercalary vowels in singing in the Swedish language) that are one of the main reasons that country has since produced so many great singers.

For the ballet to once again produce genius, there will be no short cuts. The upsurge of the period of Gaetano Vestris, was based on a close study of the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. These people were competent to hear what no choregrapher today can hear. They read on musical scores like a book. They were in the music, they were part of the music, their minds worked as an intrinsic part of the music. In terms of space-time, music is the most concentrated form of thought accessible to man, even more than physics or the most advanced mathematics. Classical dancing is something called forth from the music, it is a secondary form, relative to the music, but it is not without worth or meaning.

If we get back to intensely training dancers in music, and in the sort of subjects that were of interest to our friend Bournonville, I believe that we will once again produce great men, and in great number.

[ January 07, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]

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Hello, Katharine; good to see another Bournonville person here. Some of our regulars think I made him up smile.gif

I don't have a theory of genius, but I believe in the species. I prefer the Jeffersonian definition of "all men are created equal" -- in the sight of God and/or the law, meaning we all get a chance at Heaven and fair trials -- rather than the Leninist one that we all are born with the same talents and IQs. I think Mozart had something that I don't have.

What it is, I don't know, although I enjoy the probing. I believe it's likely that there are, sadly, thousands of people who are latent geniuses who go undiscovered, or never find their niche, so I do believe in the rising to the occasion, or "greatness thrust upon them" theory. But there are also some whose talent simply will not be stilled.

I've read several books about the link between manic-depression and genius, one actually called "The Key to Genius." There's certainly a link (there are a staggering number of artists who suffered from manic-depression; perhaps the most well-known study of this is Kay Jamison's "Touched with Fire"), though whether it's causal or not I doubt can ever be proven. That theory goes that IF there is talent AND there is manic-depression there is a great likelihood of genius.

The simplest theory I know is that IF there is talent (whatever that is) AND there is training and opportunity, there is the likelihood of genius.

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I find this subject very interesting, but I have no answers, just a few questions. Can a performer be a genius, or does the word apply only to a creator: composer, choreographer or writer? What on earth causes genius? Are geniuses ever happy? Are there degrees of genius? I have read biographies of people I consider to be geniuses - Schubert, Ashton, Britten, Nureyev among them - trying to find a common thread to their lives, and I can't find anything in common except perhaps a sort of tunnel vision and determination. Certainly nothing in their backgrounds or their families. All of these people seem to have sprung, more or less complete, from nowhere in particular. I'd welcome any thoughts on these questions, because they have long puzzled me.

[ January 07, 2002: Message edited by: Helena ]

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All good questions -- I think it puzzles many people, Helena smile.gif I was especially interested by your "are there degrees of genius?" Are there greater or lesser geniuses? Is there a threshold? I suppose since genius isn't quantifiable, it would be hard to say.

I think there are genius performing artists. Alexander Bland used the term "monstres sacres."

I've thought a lot about these questions while researching ands writing my book. I began being interested in Kronstam as a coach and thinking he was a good dancer -- he must have been, or he couldn't have created Ashton's Romeo. Then I began interviewing dancers of his generation and nearly every one I spoke with ranked him equal to, or greater than, Bruhn or Nureyev. THAT raised questions about genius or greatness versus fame.

Studying that one artist and going into his background, there were no artists in the family, although his brother, niece and nephew have each reached the top in their respective fields, so there is competitiveness and drive there. He was singled out very early (ages 10-13) for roles in plays and operas, and older dancers felt sure from the time he was 13 that he would become a principal. This does seem to be one thread, at least in performers: they may get better as they grow older, but "it," whatever it is, is there from the beginning.

Nureyev may be the greatest puzzle, growing up in a mud hut and walking like Louix XIV smile.gif

Is it a gene, or a conflulence of genes? If so, how great a role does opportunity play? (In Kronstam's case, his mother, whom he resembled physically and in many aspects of his character, seems to have been an undiscovered actress. When family members speak of her it sounds as though they're describing performances.

I saw a PBS telecast about China years ago, and one segment featured a 6-year-old Chinese boy from some terrible slum, with nothing resembling art in his environment, who became a classical Chinese painter the minute he hit kindergarten. He knew nothing of the history and tradition of the genre, he'd probably seen few trees, but in his first year of exposure, he was making paintings of trees that compared with the greatest Chinese master painters. (He was, at least at six, a very happy genius, but I've never seen a book with that title smile.gif )

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