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Leigh Witchel

Vulgarity and decorum?

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I thought this aspect of the Lacarra discusssion was best moved to its own thread:

When watching Divertimento No. 15 last night I realized yet again that Balanchine was "vulgar" even in his most refined pieces, that it was calculated, and that it was an asset to the choreography.

The classical axis is not always maintained in any of Balanchine's ballets, where he often asks the dancer to lead with the pelvis. There's no decorum in this. But watching Divertimento No. 15 (most particularly the corps' menuet), I was struck at how this placement is a stylistic hallmark of the ballet, and it sets it apart, giving it a "raciness" - but more literally, like a horse race. It makes them look coltish; after all, this ballet in its original incarnation was Caracole - a maneuver in dressage.

Alas, more often than not, vulgarity is exactly that, and there's a thoughtlessness or a desire to shock uncoupled to any other motivation that's a hallmark of it. But also, at present, one of our most effective weapons for combatting cancer is the minute, controlled use of toxic substances. In the same way, the unexpected, departing from what's tasteful and use of the vulgar or common is a proper tool for the right hands.

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Words again. To me, that's not "vulgar." It's "spice." (I think we're seeing and saying the same thing.) Which, to me, is different from "lewd." I've often wondered if this distinction is not maintained by those who write about Balanchine and seize on the "vulgar" (as in crotchless panties or spitting in public) when what he really meant was to divert from the more old-fashioned "don't do pirouettes because they are vulgar."

I also think that this vulgarity, or spice, or raciness has (through no fault of Balanchine's) become a cliche. I saw an after-Balanchine ballet a few weeks ago where the corps was so tilted, with windmill arms, that it was an example of taking something that was once fresh and turning it into something very routine.

The other notion of vulgarity in Balanchine's ballets -- that they're overtly sexual -- has come up before here (and elsewhere, I'm sure). The San Francisco Ballet's (sorry) "Bugaku" was decidedly UNvulgar to me, with three very different ballerinas. They weren't doing a peep show, where the ballerina's splits have a definite, overt, in-your-face sexuality which I've seen other companies do. I vaguely remember Kent, and, to me, she was not vulgar, and the ballet had a ceremonial atmosphere.

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I've always been surprised afresh with each viewing at just how much "non-classical" movement there is in Divertimento, which is often seen as a paragon of classical style. By this I mean the afore-mentioned hip-thrusting, the overly arched body positions, curved beyond even rococco contraposto, the powerfully turned-in retire that gets repeated over and over.

I somehow see it as Balanchine's reponse to the music, as if in the music there were living Platonically ideal forms so elemental that the dancers just must go a bit "beyond" traditional verticality (Balanchine, after all, always like "more"). It's part of Balanchine's genius that he could do this in a ballet that is also, at least for me, the epitome of gracious, ordered calm and harmony. (I mean, all those ballerinas sharing the stage without clawing each others' eyes out! )

I can't imagine any other choreographer responding to Mozart with a deliberately skewed classical vocabulary, without turning such a vocabulary into some sort of trite commentary on good ol' polite Mr. Mozart. I'm amazed that Balanchine could respond to Mozart with such a vocabulary, and assemble it into something so beautiful and Mozartian.

[ February 08, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

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Thank you for that, Manhattnik -- I don't think the rococco element is accidental. I think "pure classical" is something that, too, is often misunderstood. The Greeks of our imagination wear white and walk around, in stately measures, discussing the position of the planets and the latest Pythagorean theorem before white-columned buildings. I remember being shocked when I first learned that all those buildings were in hot, Mediterranean colors! (I was very young).

I think it's the neoclassical, in the 18th century sense of the term, that treats classicism as a recipe book. "Take one Alexandrine quartet..."

I'd be happier not thinking of Balanchine's particular brand of 20th century neoclassism (which was definitely not following a recipe book) as "vulgar," but that's just me.

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Watching the video of "Cinderella" (Sibley-Dowell) over the weekend reminded me of this thread. The fairy variations, especially (and many of Ashton's variations for women) are....I'm not sure I buy into "vulgar" but definitely post-Petipa. When danced off-the-music or not in an Ashtonian way -- either smoothed over, or danced jerkily -- they can seem awkward or even -- here's an elegant word -- whacko. When they're danced the way they were intended, I think they're glorious.

It's interesting that Ashton still looks quirky. Unlike the Balanchinean hip thrusts that have become of the American ballet vocabulary, Ashton hasn't been standard English classical style for some time now. I think it's because his successors weren't interested in the same things -- weren't interested in classicism, in developing the vocabulary for its own sake, but in expressionism.

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Hi everybody -- golly, this site is so dynamic -- I wrote this last night, while my registration was pending, and already the vulgarity topic has sprouted several new buds.......

what a great topic!!!!

I've been reading about the post-fouette bows in Swan Lake and would like to say a few words in their favor.

I Do hate milking the bows, but not nearly as much as that awful thing that happens when someone with a microphone in her/her hand asks for "another round of applause," after the real one we just gave, especially if it's in anticipation of a "curtain talk."

REAL emotion passing back and forth tbetween the audience and the performers moves me a great deal -- and I think it's provincial of us who've been raised on television and movies and other forms of mechanically reproduced art to be so damned blase about live performance.

Maybe it's because i grew up in a small town and haven't outgrown it yet, but the real presence of artists is a thrilling thing for me --

and I love imagining being in a city in Poland or Russia, where it's customary for applause to go on and on and on and it's not unheard of for hte audience to stop hte show and refuse to let it go on until a number is encored. In this country (i.e., the USA), it only happens with African-American companies; only last night, I got up and rocked in the aisle as the Ailey company reprised Rock-a My Soul" after bowing for 10 minutes -- and God knows I wasn't SURPRISED -- at the end of "Revelations" they always do it, and I don't mind; in fact, the whole piece has a triumphant structure so powerful that it's not over till the bows go on and on and they have to dance again, with us out there dancing too.....

At performances -- rather screenings -- of "Down ARgentine Way," when it was new, when was that, 1940 or so?, audiences often actually forced the guy who was running the show to double back and show the 3-minute Nicholas-Brothers bit again -- in fact, in some places, and not just in hte African-American neighborhoods, they had to take Betty Grable's name off the Marquee and put the Nicholas Brothers' name on it, that's how the public FELT about it, and I'd have been totally with them -- the Nicholas Bros absolutely overcame hte deadening effect of the 2-d medium, you forgot they weren't THERE --

seeing something like that is like witnessing a miracle, the applause is a way of acknowledging that we have witnessed a miracle together, and that such experiences as these give us a shared sense of values that constitute the community...... we happy band were THERE, like the night Maria Bylova danced Myrtha with the Bolshoi and took the colossal raft of roses they gave her -- like a coffin-full of blood red roses -- or was it Aegina in Spartacus? she did that too, and it might have been that night, it'd be more appropriate, given what she DID, for she walked to the front of the stage and threw those roses INTO THE PIT....... What the **** did that mean???? But Jesus, it MEANT something magnificent.

The same tour Mukhamedov stayed in the back and sent everybody else out to bow, waving them forward...... and darling Semizorova, who'd just done Aurora's Act 3 variation in the most exquisite way, suddenly became all confusion and girlishness, I mean really like a person who had no persona of her own, like hopelessly gawky, like Olive Oyl....

Those bows were among hte most fascinating things I've ever seen, but the thing that impressed me the most is that they are part of a customary communicatoin between hte artists and their home audience, and more than anything else they did all night transported me to Russia -- they showed us what it was like to be in THEIR own house, they were showing us a kind of hospitality.... and for us not to respond, best we could, to their generosity was -- would have been so stingy, RUDE.

In particular, I felt I got some sense of how performer and audience dealt with the "consecrated lies" of their social system, the things that may not be said, though everyone knows they're true, and the ways they consoled each other for the miseries of existence.......

Paul Parish

[ February 23, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Welcome, Paul Parish. One of your articles (the San Francisco piece in Ballet Review) sure stirred up a lot of discussion. Your ears were undoubtedly burning smile.gif (A note: I edited out a Bad Word from your post, with apologies, but this site is frequented by young people, too, and we try to apply general broadcast rules for appropriate language and subject matter.)

Vulgarity and curtain calls....now, there's a question. I agree that it seems "stingy and rude" to not applaud when the dancers expect it. Washington is not very generous with its curtain calls. During the recent Kirov engagement, there was a good two minutes of dead air between the end of the adagio in the third act pas de deux and the beginning of the Prince's solo at every performance. I remember the Rudi Days when final curtain calls routinely lasted 45 minutes and what seemed to be the entire contents of flower shops were pelted at the stage.

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I wonder if manners have changed, and perhaps people think that they're supposed to sit and not interrupt the performance, obviously a hazard when the piece being performed has those pauses built in, so to speak.

The Nicholas Brothers do seem to be in the room with you, don't they? I always get the feeling that they're going to leap off the screen into my lap, especially when I'm lucky enough to see them in the theatre and not on television.

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Hip thrusts --

another great topic!

It's like in that song, "That's why the lady is a tramp" -- If you can't take a little hip thrust, you must be as square as Margaret Dumont....

First of all, Terpsichore does hip thrusts in her variation -- does anybody know, did DAnilova do those, or did Balanchine add them somewhere along the line, after he got to the US?

Mary Ellen Moylan, the first "Balanchine ballerina" -- in those early pictures, she looks like she's doing a hip thrust just because she's got her pelvis unapologetically vertical, none of that genteel, peek-a-boo forward tilt that made ballerinas look deferential or lady-like or formidably dignified (which Tudor made such fun of in Gala Performance).....

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