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Ballet's Magic Kingdom

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Ukranian Chaim Leib Flekser (1861-1926) changed his name to Akim Volynsky and became an influential author and critic in Russia. Ballet was the last art to attract his attention, around 1907, and he wrote about it through 1925. Dr. Stanley Rabinowitz, who did not change his name to Robbins, collected, translated, edited, and published these as Ballet’s Magic Kingdom, Yale University Press, 2008. Quite recently a thoughtful daughter made me a present of this book, and I have begun reading it.

Generally, I can’t tolerate art criticism, for the reason that it’s too often a stream of high-flown language, teasing the boundaries of philosophy, psychology, emotion, and most everything except the subject at hand. It is frequently composed by people with no background in the particular art, and they couch praise for unmitigated tripe in words individually interesting, even poetic, which, taken in the aggregate, signify nothing.

For example, I have read ballet reviews that touch upon every aspect of the performance except the ability and execution exhibited by the dancers! A memorable piece was one by Clive Barnes from which Margot Fonteyn might have been supposed, for the absence of descriptions of what she did, to have sat in a wheel chair. What Clive thought to commemorate were her “feminine wiles.”

To the extent that Rabinowitz’ translations are accurate, I can’t say that Volynsky did not drift at times into baffling, entropic passages that leave one wondering just what he said, but for much the greater part I’ve found his commentary intelligent, informed, and refreshingly blunt. This last is conspicuous in our times of “Don’t say anything critical; someone might be offended.” mentality, which is destroying our standards and consequently our nation. Don’t let me forget to add “scholarly” to the list of adjectives. This was a man that, wishing to understand the roots of ballet in ancient Greek theatre, traveled to Greece to study and appreciate them.

If that sounds appealing, and you’d like to read intellectual evaluations of the work of the likes of Kschessinska, Karsavina, Pavlova, and Fokine by one of their contemporaries you will like this book. Of particular note, though, is the lofty, sublime level, where I feel it belongs, to which he elevates ballet. The title says much about Volynsky's sentiments.

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I mentioned that Volynsky wrote reviews a little more incisive than what I see today and thought you might be interested in the concluding passage from “Pavlova’s Farewell Performance: La Bayadere,” 25 Feb., 1913. She was the ballet dancer against whom he measured all others. His praise for her dancing was ardent, his analysis of her arch, her “elevation,” the shape of her legs, the nature of her shoulders, almost encyclopedic.

“This is Pavlova’s last exit at the Maryinsky because of her year-long absence from Petersburg, which seems a difficult, almost tragic, break with ballet. Indeed we recently had the occasion to be convinced with our own eyes of the kind of art this gifted talent cultivates on the stages of Europe among the degrading working conditions their nightspots provide. The rays of light cast into the soul of this artist by the Creator of the universe, by the Creator of all that is marvelous, will undoubtedly be replaced there with the pathos of market transactions from which one can mint a fortune. A column of dust circles the eaglet, which has fallen onto the road of vanity and deceit. And although it is particularly unpleasant, it nonetheless needs to be said that Pavlova’s genius on this new path is fraught with danger. This is yet another dash for the mirage of universal fame along the path of golden, diabolical temptation, and her talent will smash to smithereens. It will split into little pieces, it will disperse into fragments, kindled from the stage for the crowd, but no longer providing elements of integral beauty.

Falls from such heights are shattering.”

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This is a wonderful book, for all its occasional esoteric obscurities. It was fascinating to read well-argued critical reviews of performances many of us would give our right arms to have seen. When he discusses dancers like Kshensinskaya, Gerdt, Preobrazhenskaya, Karsavina, Pavlova, Danilova and Spesivtseva one appreciates his commitment to improving and illuminating the art. The book is composed of newspaper reviews and this conveys a sense of immediacy. Essential reading.

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