Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ballet lives

I’m reading Apollo’s Angels: a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans again. I picked it up last year when it first came out. It’s more than just a history of ballet to me for it reads like a history book of Europe and America with dance as an anchor, or better yet a lens through which I’m seeing the passage of time, people, generations of influence and an art form. Jennifer was a ballet dancer and that experience she brings to the narrative makes the narrative that much more compelling to me.

Dancers express with their bodies. Talk, writing seems to understandably take a back seat to being in the moment of the dance, residing in the body to use it as a multi-faceted vessel to express and articulate, to tell a story. And while we do have film and video to capture the dance, the art form continues to be one so dependent upon memory in terms of thought but also as something, I understand a bit about having played too much golf, we call muscle memory. Deep below this muscle memory is the aesthetics of the art form, the memory and expression of heart and feeling.

Jennifer Homans laments what she sees as the slow disappearance of ballet. I hesitate to use the harsh word, death. The demographics and revenue numbers point to a dip in the Ballet Stock on Culture Street perhaps. It’s more than flat-lined from a quantitative way of looking at the world. But my optimism for the art form is purely subjective here and transcends that concept of hope. Here’s why.

Tonight, I’m going to the ballet to see three pieces with a contemporary, recent tag upon them. I know we categorize things based upon time and style, but this gives you a reference point. Two of the pieces are creations of living choreographers and the third is a very interesting dance without music by Jerome Robbins…you may remember him as the choreographer for West Side Story; another good reference point in your dancing memory. This performance will be fun. I’m in no way a purist or an aficionado when approaching ballet or writing about it. My ballet vocabulary is very provincial. I simply like it a lot.

I like thinking about the art when I see it. It challenges me to listen with my eyes and my heart. Listening with the eyes sounds strange I know, but by watching closely as well as stepping back to see the entire picture, the many dimensions, I always feel a story, a statement, even questions course around in my head. Realizing that these dancers create these dances from scratch, from utter stillness makes me appreciate that what I see upon the stage is but the tip of the iceberg that is their art. Add to this all of the musicians, production staff, set artisans, lighting artists, on and on. Ballet is theatre for sure.

Ballet as ballet as a singularity, as the only art form upon a stage, in its pure sense is a challenging prospect for modern day theatre-goers faced with a myriad of entertainment choices. Ballet is foreign upon initial consideration. But for me, while it’s cool to see dance as part of a musical, or inserted in a rock concert, as a sort of side-show in what we awkwardly call “performance art” a la Fringe Fests, seeing the art form as the focal point of one’s experience makes me feel something, intensely. It reminds me of the current showing of Monet’s Water Lilies triptych at the Nelson. You should see that as well. When you do you’ll be delighted by the setting for seeing the paintings. I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, but I’ll just call it serene.

Ballet’s not always serene in its form, for there’s lots of arresting pieces, but the setting for the art form, the atmosphere, the anticipation in me anyway, is always a neat mix of emotion grounded upon this idea of serene. It’s a peaceful place where I know I’ll see quite a number of things to add to my definition of beauty. I know the dancers will stretch their bodies and souls beyond my comprehension but I do my very best to stretch with them. I know it hurts too, truly there’s immense pain, physical and intellectual associated with dance, and ballet narratives speak to that often. I’m not going to talk about Black Swan, OK?

While Jennifer Homans’ book is stunning to me, while it teaches me so much, while I’m thankful that a dancer took a decade to write about her art, I must sway in my agreement to one of her conclusions. I think ballet lives…it resides in the hearts minds and bodies of those who dance, and for this person, it’s in me too. It’s deeply inside Jennifer as well, I just think that sometimes when we look back and then look forward, we become uncertain and a bit sad in the process trying to compare then, now, and a future of which we’re so unclear. After watching members of the KC Ballet rehearse Moves recently, under the direction of Eddie Verso, after talking with Bill Whitener about his new piece that premiers tonight…I’m certain that ballet lives…intensely. This is more than hope, this I feel, this I know.

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