Unreal Nature

August 29, 2012

The Water the Wheel Does Not Need

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:45 am

… Pantomime is the energy it takes to turn the water-wheel; dance is the gay, spectacular splash of the excess water, the water the wheel does not need.

This first is from an essay ‘The Purism of Étienne Decroux’ by Eric Bentley first published in 1950. Decroux is advocating mime as opposed to dance, which he disparagingly describes as (among other things) “the weakest of the arts, the one that can’t exist alone — like potatoes, the weak vegetable, a parasite on meat!” I don’t agree with him about dance — or about potatoes — but enjoy the following anyway:

… [Decroux speaking] ” … you have fallen into a cardinal error in thinking of pantomime and dance as akin. They are opposites. Dance is abstract and based on music. Pantomime is concrete and based on life. Dance flows like a stream; pantomime moves with the natural plunge and lunge of the muscles. Dance is soaring and vertical, pantomime earth-bound and horizontal. The dancer works with the leap, the mime with the walk. The dancer deals in symmetric patterns, exact repetitions, regular rhythms, as music enjoins; the mime in asymmetry, variation, syncopation, the rhythmic patterns of speech and natural body movement. Dance comes from excess of energy. When a bear paces to and fro in his cage, he is finding the symmetric patterns of the dance in the usual way. A dancer is a man taking a walk — whereas a mime is a man walking somewhere, to a destination. Pantomime is the energy it takes to turn the water-wheel; dance is the gay, spectacular splash of the excess water, the water the wheel does not need. Watch dancers on the stage pretending to carry a grand piano. They rejoice in the hollowness of the pretense. They trip along. The piano has no weight. Now watch mimes going through the same act. They present precisely the weight of the piano by indicating the strain it occasions.”

The following is from an essay ‘Edgar Degas and the Dance’ by Theodore Reff first published in 1978:

… The struggles of the young dancers — or “rats,” as the very young ones were commonly called — their unceasing efforts to master a difficult art, their daily round of exercises and lessons, clearly fascinated Degas, who must have compared these strenuous efforts with his own as an artist. In literally hundreds of paintings, drawings, and prints, he shows dancers straining and twisting at the practice bar, or rubbing aching muscles and joints, or bent over double to tie a slipper, or in unguarded moments of fatigue stretching or yawning or scratching themselves. … It was just this dichotomy in Degas’ vision of the ballet and the theater that appealed to his wordly contemporaries, writers such as Champsaur who, in L’Amant des danseuses, describes pictures based on Degas of the dancer on stage “in the splendor of her somewhat artificial beauty, in her glorification under electric lights,” but also backstage, “breathless with fatigue, her features sagging, the muscles of her calves and thighs bulging, the lines of her body graceless and almost brutal. … ” Like the laundress pressing down hard on her iron or yawning, overheated and exhausted, like the street-walker waiting on the café terrace in a torpor, the dancer in Degas‘ work is often an embodiment not of feminine charm but of the lower-class woman’s struggle for survival, burdened and deformed by her labors. Yet nothing is more characteristic of his achievement than the way in which he extracts from such scenes of awkwardness and distress — and here the pictures … of a bather precariously balancing herself as she washes or lying in a strangely undignified position on the floor also come to mind — images of transcendent beauty. To create beauty out of urban dreariness was essential to his naturalist conception of modern art.

The ballet, then, had a dual attraction for Degas: it was at once realistic and artificial, like the Opera or the theater itself. He could respond with equal interest to the pathos of the dancer’s daily existence and the magic of her momentary glory on stage.

Edgar Degas, Danseuses à la barre, 1876

… The classical ballet was for Degas a supreme example of formal, disciplined, even artificial beauty. The dancer’s steps, the movements of her body and arms and legs, down to the smallest inflections of her hands and feet, were part of an elaborate ceremony, mastered through years of exercise and rehearsal, and were thus a living demonstration of the superiority of art to nature. To the creator who never tired of saying, “No art is less spontaneous than my own; what I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters,” the classical ballet, whose steps had been invented and named at the court of Louis XIV and had changed little in the following two centuries, despite the innovations introduced in the Romantic period, was bound to seem an ideal source of inspiration. It is the conventional and classical aspect of the ballerina’s appearance and performance that distinguishes Degas’ Danseuses à la barre of 1876 from the young couples in modern dress dancing informally in Renoir’s exactly contemporary Moulin de la Galette.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Gallette, 1876



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