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"Exquisite beauty out of nothingness:" Ballet and Western ci

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Thanks very much to Tancos, who posted the link to the full article in The National Review on today's Links thread -- or I never would have seen this. I hate to give away a writer's punch line, but the last paragraph struck me as discussable:

"And in times like these, over and beyond the esthetic pleasures of ballet, I feel a great pride in it, as having come from us, from our civilization. Who but Western man has brought so much exquisite beauty out of nothingness? This is ours, this is us, this surpasses anything created elsewhere by a hundred, a thousand orders of magnitude. Stand up for your civilization, your culture: Go see a ballet next chance you get. Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ's the way to go!"

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Discussable is definitely the word for this one.

I never thought I'd hear a description of someone's performance like this one of Bujones:

[he]lit up this performance like a night attack over Tora Bora.

I'd prefer he did not use ballet as an excuse for jingoism. Much as it is my great love, if you think we are the only ones who make beauty out of nothingness, look at Kabuki. Or Indian Ragas. Or Persian oil miniatures. A statement like that is just blinkered ignorance and caluculated bombast. My Art can beat up your Art.

Flawed logic and xenophobia aside, from the article, Derbyshire is a "dancer man", and I'm a "choreography man". In the article, he basically dismisses what ballet is made of as artificial and foolish (I'm gathering he's either never seen or doesn't like most major 20th century choreography) and focuses entirely on individual performances. Which is just fine to do, but I'm never going to see what he sees on stage; it's way too little of the picture for my taste. I wonder, is a focus on the performer over the work itself a holdover from his love of opera?

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I agree with Leigh about that article- most of it is very discussable, and also perhaps more likely to make the readers feel negative towards ballet than to promote it: "Ballet is an even more absurd and artificial way to tell a story than opera is",

"The music is rarely first-rate, though I will except the Tchaikovsky "big three" from that, and the Enigma Variations, and one or two others."

(has he ever heard of Prokofiev? Stravinsky?)...

All what he seems to like in ballet is its athletic side...

The last paragraph is stupidly jingoistic. Moreover, I don't agree with the "beauty out of nothingness": one of the things I like about ballet is that it stems from a long, respectable tradition, that it has a history, it definitely doesn't come "out of nothingness"...

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Manhattnik, I hope you will read it before discussing. smile.gif It's more than just the last quote.

I agree with what Dale posted on the Links thread -- I don't agree with many of his points, but it's good to see ballet "coming out ahead," as she put it, in an opinion piece. I didn't focus on the PC aspects of it. Of course, I agree that there should be a way of celebrating one's culture without bashing someone else's, but that's not the article's main point.

It was interesting to me that the frame of reference was completely virtuosity -- to my mind, he's not really a ballet lover. I agree with Leigh there; he's a dancer lover. (I wonder if the same dichotomy exists in opera. There are the divamanes, but there are also people who are fanatically devoted to the music.) In a way, this attitude -- that it's good because they sweat and doing it right is really, really hard -- is the Evil Twin of the anti-ballet party. They're seeing ballet in exactly the same way -- the Shades are dumb, anything in between the jumps is a bore (except the anti-ballet people would say the jumps are pretty boring, too). It's always interesting to me that someone can go to the ballet repeatedly -- as this man obviously has -- and finds nothing to look at in the Shades except women going down a ramp.

If ballet says anything about Western civilization -- and I definitely think it does, whether it's better than the Stamping Toad Dance of the Galapagos Cloggers (a made up example) or not in the same league as the Noh play -- Shades, the abstraction of an idea made into physical form -- would be a prime example.

I think it is worth considering what is Western about ballet. Western Europe is the only culture that produced a dance art form independent of social and religious function (some might argue this is its main flaw, others its glory) AND pulled dance out of the larger theatrical context (the same argument applies here). Japan and China have great classical dance forms; they're part of something else. India and Indonesia have developed great classical religious dance forms; they serve the gods, not the public. Why? (And America isolated dancing still further, down to the steps, in some cases, or the movements, without context, libretto, costume, set or music.) That says a lot about us, too.

[ December 18, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Estelle, we were posting at the same time. I disagreed with most of his examples and statements about ballet -- I'd offer this as a good example (preacher's hat on) of the difference between the perfectly valid opinion of a fan and a review by a critic with a larger context. I think the people who are so happy when something "goes beyond ballet" think the same thoughts -- the music is dumb, etc. It's just that he likes them, and the ballet-haters, or ballet-skeptics, don't.

I think what he means by "something out of nothingness" is that there is nothingness until the body moves, and then there is something. But he also could simply mean that all those shapes and patterns, not to mention the underlying meaning and the poetry, are "nothing" but the jump makes it "something."

(For non-American readers, National Review is a right wing monthly political magazine, which probably explains the Tora Bora image, and may be why the author emphasizes the athleticism. He's writing it for his colleagues, who probably think ballet is sissy as well as dumb.)

[ December 18, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Of course, I agree that there should be a way of celebrating one's culture without bashing someone else's, but that's not the article's main point.

Sadly, I think this in fact was the article's main point and that's the problem with the article, it's not really about ballet, but about the complete and totally undeniable superiority of Western culture. Regarding that argument, to quote another icon of the undeniable superiority of Western Civilization, Cher Horowitz of Clueless fame, "Whatever."

That aside, I think Alexandra has brought out of it a perennially interesting question. What's unique about ballet and how does it help to define our culture?

And as she mentions, the most unique concept in ballet, pushing physical movement to abstraction, is the one Derbyshire seems to miss.

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I think that what ballet implies about Western civilization is the same as what baseball and other professional sports imply: The West invented a usable steam engine.

Almost two centuries ago the industrial revolution started in Europe. This produced a large number of people with leisure time and money to spend. Professional entertainment - ballet, baseball, et al. - flourished.

On the subject of how the West came to its place in the world, a fascinating book is _Guns, Germs, and Steel_ (subtitled "The Fates of Human Societies") by Jared Diamond. It covers the geographic reasons as to why different cultures developed differently.


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Ah, the unique joys of Western culture, whether we speak of indulging in the excesses of ballet groupieism or bombing the stuffing out of impoverished Third World nations with third-rate peasant armies! (Of course, with ballet one does get that frightful "homosexual propaganda," but then what can you expect with all those pretty boys swanking about in tights?) I see what the writer thinks he means by "nothingness," but it's sloppy writing not to refine his meaning further. And....well, you've probably gotten my drift.

I will go so far as to say that, as a fan of Western culture and one who's happy to see the Taliban get the gate, anything I might even consider agreeing with in this piece is vitiated by the, uh, other stuff. With all due respect, Alexandra, I do not think the two can be separated in this instance. And I agree with Leigh that ballet or any art should not be used for purposes of culture-bashing, and agree with him also when he suggests that such bashing is the article's main point.

We shouldn't dump on the National Review, however. This kind of thing is popping up everywhere these days. And anyone reading this who wishes to come to the article's defense should feel free. There's no good discussion without opposing views expressed freely and vigorously (and civilly).

Cliff and Alexandra raise some interesting points about dance and its place in our culture, but I can't deal with anything that complex until my nasal passages clear up. Thanks, Tancos, for the link!

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Well, as Arlene Croce once wrote, (I think it was her anyway), if you don't like the Shades scene, you don't really like ballet. It seemed sort of like a puff piece on a deadline than an honest investigation of what it is in ballet that appeals to people. I think I understand what he means by its artificiality and unnaturalness, but that applies to a number of art forms, and not just Western art forms, either. All in all, a trivial article.

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As a slightly less than amusing epilogue, Mr. Derbyshire got all bent out of shape when people wrote to him regarding his comment on Billy Eliot's "homosexual propogandists" (haven't seen the movie, don't have a clue, didn't write the gasbag) and penned this screed:


with these words:

Now, it is a common stereotype that the world of ballet, and of balletomanes, is heavily homosexual. My own sources tell me that this is true to about the following degrees: choreographers — 100 percent, male dancers — 50 percent, male balletomanes — 25 percent. (The figure for the general population is much disputed, but the consensus among the disinterested seems to be two or three percent.)

If those numbers are correct, it seems to me deplorable. I have expressed my own love of ballet, and the pleasure it has given to me. I'd be sad to think that a sphere of activity I admire so much is dominated by one single self-interested group. Any group — Rastafarians, alcoholics, conservative Republicans — but especially, of course, a group defined by behavior I don't much like. However, the injustice, possibly tragedy, of this imbalance is a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is the fact of my disliking homosexuality.

Poor Mr. Derbyshire, so ill at ease among the fairies. As part of his 100% stereotype, I guess I'm going to have to tell my straight choreographer friends that they better start practicing the Princeton Rub. He seems to be an almost breathtaking combination of intolerance and ignorance, made all the more exciting by the availability of a public platform which allows him to speak at length on subjects he hasn't done any fact-checking to support his blather on.

Call me stubborn, call me leftist, but I'm not sure I want this strange bedfellow in the fight to place ballet in the public consciousness.

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I'm going to move this thread to Anything Goes, as it turned away from Aesthetic Issues (except for Cliff). I've posted a separate "What is Western about classical ballet" there, and I hope we can have another go at that question, sans article.

I think I must say, since there are so many people from so many different places, backgrounds and, I would assume, political persuasions who read this board, that Ballet Alert! is neither right wing nor left wing, and that I will happily accept subscriptions from Republicans as well as Democrats -- or Communists, Druids and Nonbelievers biggrin.gif

Those who wish to do so can go right ahead bashing Derbyfield's opinions (or defending them) to your hearts' content smile.gif

[ December 22, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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