The Dying Swan: On Jennifer Homans
It’s revealing too that Homans passes over Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s only other surviving work from the Ballets Russes period. Created in 1929, one year after Apollo, it nonetheless drew upon the experimentation that occurred in Russia in the wake of the Revolution, when innovators like Kasyan Goleizovsky expanded the vocabulary of ballet by using extreme poses (splits, acrobatic lifts, interlocking limbs), popular dance forms like the tango and openly erotic imagery. Balanchine had been an enthusiastic participant in this movement, forming a group called the Young Ballet, which performed his experimental pieces (all of which have been lost) in small theaters and cabarets. Prodigal Son drew freely from this ferment, employing expressionistic gestures, mime, extremes of emotion, acrobatic feats (including a mock wrestling match, a human caterpillar and backbends) and brazen eroticism, in a wonderful pas de deux that is comically grotesque and explicitly sexual (the ballerina wraps her leg tightly around her partner’s waist and holds him there as he arches his back with pleasure). The ballet is also an eloquent illustration of Diaghilev’s collaborative aesthetic, which did so much to reinvigorate the art in the early twentieth century: Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by Diaghilev to compose the score, the libretto was written by Diaghilev’s assistant Boris Kochno and the scenery and costumes were created by the French Fauvist painter Georges Rouault.
Because of its vivid theatricality and sentimentality—in the final two sections, the Prodigal does not dance at all but rather drags himself across the stage and into his father’s arms—Prodigal Son is in some ways the antithesis of Apollo. But as with Apollo, its presence is palpable in Balanchine’s later works. Experimentation with nonclassical movement reappears in Modernist masterpieces like Agon; the use of interlocking bodies in partnering is a prominent feature of The Four Temperaments; the totemic presence of a powerful, almost frightening female figure is notable in The Unanswered Question and La Sonnambula; and the evocative use of gesture recurs often, as in the second pas de deux in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, from 1972, which quotes a hand gesture from Prodigal Son. Prodigal is still performed, with Rouault’s sets and costumes, by companies such as the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. It has been a rite of passage for many of the greatest male dancers of our time: Edward Villella, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Herman Cornejo. It seems strange to exclude it from a comprehensive history, especially one written in Balanchine’s shadow. Perhaps its sharp angles do not fit snugly into the clean, Modernist mold Homans has cast for Balanchine: “an art of angels, of idealized and elevated human figures, beautiful, chivalric, and above all strictly formal.”
Balanchine was known to enjoy earthly pleasures like showy virtuosity, sentimentality and kitsch, and appreciated their usefulness in spicing up the rarefied atmosphere of classical dance. He encouraged his ballerinas to move with unseemly abandon—splitting their legs immodestly, raising their hips, against classical form, in order to get their feet up in the air into a 180-degree arabesque, eschewing “proper” form. Many found this immodest way of dancing displeasing, and Balanchine thumbed his nose at such priggishness; when a British critic fussed about his abuses of ballet decorum, he responded that in England, “if you are awake, it is already vulgar.” His ballets Bugaku, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and Western Symphony constantly flirt with vulgarity, employing techniques drawn from sources as diverse as the chorus lines of Broadway (where Balanchine worked in the 1930s and ’40s), popular dance forms and his own eroticized view of non-Western cultures. What could be more “extreme” than the partnering in Agon or the lightning-fast footwork in Ballo della Regina? Or more sentimental than the final waltz in Vienna Waltzes? Kitsch, too, has its place: think of the peppy cheerfulness of Stars and Stripes, all salutes, bumptious jumps and chorus-girl kicks, and the little waves and carefree, flirtatious bravura of Tarantella.
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I don’t necessarily disagree with Homans’s core assertions about the nature of ballet. It is inarguably an elevated form, based on a highly refined and codified technique, and aspires to an ideal (at least most of the time) that is impossible to achieve and beyond expression in words. As the luminous former ballerina Violette Verdy said recently, “We have a responsibility to the audience to give them something transcendent.” But within this framework, variety and even transgression are possible. I can’t help wondering whether Homans’s portrait of ballet’s rise and development could have been richer if her view of ballet’s history wasn’t so rigid. There should be space for more variety, greater contradiction and a healthy clash of contrasts. This, too, has a place in ballet’s past and present. Consider the career of Alexei Ratmansky. To the optimism and athleticism of social realist ballet—a mainstay of the Soviet ballet tradition that he absorbed at the Bolshoi—he has mixed in Massine’s love of gesture, added a sprinkle of postmodern irony and spun it into gold in ballets like The Bright Stream, Russian Seasons and Concerto DSCH. For his part, Christopher Wheeldon has taken the raw emotion of MacMillan, combined it with the fussiness of Frederick Ashton and the theatricality of Jerome Robbins (and the supple torso of modern dance), and produced ballets like After the Rain, The Nightingale and the Rose and Polyphonia. With ballets like these, who can say that ballet is dying?
The best sections of Apollo’s Angels are those in which Homans feels less compelled to distinguish the good from the bad and instead gets down to the business of telling a rich, finely hued story. For example, her discussion of dance in the period after the French Revolution—with its public spectacles featuring gracefully moving crowds of young women dressed in white, forerunners of the corps de ballet—and the institutional and organizational innovations of the Napoleonic era, when the modern dance academy was invented, are especially revealing because they introduce a completely different way of thinking about the symbolism of dance and the role of ballet in public life. They also suggest that ballet is a constantly evolving form that to a certain degree reflects the society around it. Truly revelatory is Homans’s detailed account of the training regime followed by Marie Taglioni, which promoted the muscular development required for her to create the illusion of effortlessness and spiritual transcendence while dancing on the tips of her toes without the aid of modern, padded toe shoes. Homans’s analysis of the work required of a dancer to embody the sylphlike qualities of Taglioni’s character in La Sylphide goes a long way to explain this dancer’s enduring influence on our idea of the ballerina: strong but ethereal, energetic but effortless, virtuosic and yet spiritually stirring. (As odd as it may seem, Forsythe’s choreography could not exist without Taglioni.) Few art forms are so intrinsically contradictory—this is the “magic” of ballet.
Homans’s vehemence in upholding the values of elegance and proportion is heartening, a testament to the coherence and harmoniousness of ballet’s basic principles and codes. And inevitably, I too am captive to my own prejudices and experiences. Having come to ballet as an adult, in the post-Balanchine era, I find that my perspective is necessarily different from Homans’s. Her credo finds its strongest expression in the final chapter of Apollo’s Angels, a provocative essay with the lugubrious title “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” Homans postulates that ballet is dying and perhaps beyond life support, complaining about the “dull, flat-screen look of today’s dances and dancers,” “artistically moribund” revivals, “dispiriting” performances that are “dull and lack vitality,” and an “inaccessible avant-garde.” Even ballet’s angels, it seems, are falling from the sky.
But ballet is always dying. Like all dance, it exists purely in time and leaves no record, and is an art of the external present. Unlike music, it does not have a consistent written language; video can capture only its shadow because it lacks the third dimension, where dancing lives. So we are left with the present. As Balanchine said, “There is only now.” In this light Homans’s discouragement feels like fatigue, her disappointment like complacency. She may tire of seeing yet another production of Giselle or Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, but what about the person who is seeing these ballets for the first time, who stumbles out of the theater in a daze, in tears of disbelief at what he has just witnessed? Is this not worth preserving, worth fighting for? As Homans wrote several years ago, in a different mood, “Who are we to hold old memories so tightly? Perhaps it is time to stop mourning and move on.”