Unreal Nature

January 30, 2013

Virtuosity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:01 am

… without … the “willed awareness of the mountain peak,” the leap had better be performed in the circus, jumping over chairs or over people’s heads, because it only astonishes by its skill and cannot affect the heart.

This is from Next Week, Swan Lake: Reflections on Dance and Dances by Selma Jeanne Cohen (1982):

Virtuosity, epitomizing the dancer’s mastery of the ordinary impediments to human movement, is a palpitation of the heart for the fan and a pain in the neck for the theorist. “Wow!” screams the aficionado as the dancer leaps (after performing a far more difficult feat of balance quite unnoticed by the audience). “But my dear,” intones the purist, “there was no dramatic motivation for that display. Simply playing to the gallery.”

“Bravo!” shrieks the watcher of the thirty-two fouettés which Fokine termed “the most hateful invention of the ballet.” He wrote those words in 1916; in 1942 he choreographed Bluebeard — which included a passage of thirty-two fouettés.

Does virtuosity lie in the actual skill demanded by the movement or in the appearance of skill? Can virtuosity serve drama or will it necessarily distract the viewer from more “serious” concerns? Is virtuosity today still virtuosity tomorrow? Is virtuosity necessary? Is virtuosity even — good?

… The virtuoso dancer is often accused of usurping the territory of the athlete, stressing quantity instead of quality, for aiming to set a  numerical record rather than presenting a persona to charm the audience with its beauty or move it with an emotional portrayal.

[David] Best argued that a proper art form “must at least allow for the possibility of the artist’s comment, through his art, on life situations and this is not possible in diving, skating, trampolining and gymnastics.” While Best was willing to grant aesthetic values to sports, he was not willing to accept them as art forms.

[Louis Arnaud] Reid did not call gymnastics an art; it has artistic elements, but this is not its dominating purpose; therefore it is not art. Would a change in purpose that is unknown to the audience make the difference between nonart and art? If I turn on the television set in the middle of a program and if the bottom of the picture is cut off and I don’t see the skates, if I just see people moving beautifully in time and space — what would lead me to conclude that this is not art?

Bull-leaping
bull-leaping fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete

… Today the image for some choreographers is deliberately pedestrian. The key is antivirtuosity. The appeal is to the kind of person who does not desire to soar above the crowd but to be one of it. Sally Banes notes that, beginning in the 1960s, “there was freedom to express all the faux pas dancers must repress and mask in ‘normal’ performance — such as stumbling or forgetting … they ate, hummed, walked away from a group activity, explained to the audience what was going on.” There was freedom to stumble, but there was  no freedom to shine in a bravura feat. Marcia Siegel has suggested that such dancers appeared as people “like us almost.” But this was not the exclusive image of the time. Arlene Corce, reviewing Balanchine’s dancers of that decade, remarked that they “have no age — they’re divine.”

According to the standards of Edward Bullough the choreographers of the postmodern dance err by erasing the aesthetic distance between the audience and themselves, while Balanchine rightly maintains it. Bullough believed that awareness of distance was necessary to aesthetic appreciation. The theatre generally is vulnerable in this respect, because the very physical presence of the performers tends to narrow the gap; they seem too much “like us almost.” In what he called the “higher forms of dancing,” Bullough found that “technical execution of the most wearing kind makes up a great deal for its intrinsic tendency toward a loss of Distance.” Paul Bouissac has analyzed the solution to the problem as proposed by the circus acrobat who accentuates his difference from the audience with a costume that erases the outlines of his muscles, and with his smile, his courtly mode of social behavior. Most important, of course, is his display of technical accomplishment which, with its expertly hidden mechanics, demonstrates his biological superiority to the mere mortals who observe him. Display of virtuosity would seem to achieve the same kind of goal for dance. But Balanchine’s ballets generally do not display virtuosity.

Most of the works of Balanchine do not exhibit the skills of his dancers, do not frame the feats of technical prowess for the audience to admire, but rather absorb them in what Denby called a “continuity of impetus.” The ongoing momentum, the steady flow of phrasing, envelop the potentially bravura passages so that they are not isolated for exhibition (barring a deliberate touch of vulgarity as in Stars and Stripes). The dancers remain distinct from the audience because their movements seem determined only by the choreographic form, untouched by the exigencies of the real world. Balanchine’s ballets use skill but they are not about skill; they are about Valéry’s “most subtle essence of music and movement”; they are about the “state of dancing.”

Fokine hated the fouetté of his day because, since it was such a novelty, it was bound to distract the audience from any thoughts of drama. He objected to it also because it was so difficult that the dancer had to step out of character to set all her attention on the accomplishment of the physical task. But in 1942 when Fokine choreographed Bluebeard, the thirty-two fouettés were no longer a novelty to the audience and they held no terrors for Irina Baronova. As Bluebeard’s sixth wife — and, she hoped, his last — Baranova cornered Alica Marakova, who seemed headed for the status of number seven, whipping her across the stage in a series of thirty-two furious fouettés. These were not about skill; they were about jealousy.

According to Nicolas Giuduci, Vladimir Jankélévitch claims that musical virtuosity is self-inflating — faster, still faster, infinitely faster. Historically each achievement extends the point at which the feat can thrill. As the artist adds more onto more, he tries to give his act cosmic dimension, but actually this attempt is futile, for sheer multiplicity leads only to homogenization. The limit becomes the norm, quality is submerged in quantity, and the result is decadence.

What can determine the boundary? We may thrill to thirty-two fouettés, but as they approach sixty-four they begin to bore us.

… Transfiguration, [says] Volynsky, always requires height (and he seems to mean this both literally and figuratively). No transfigurations occur over a cup of tea, though they may take place with a glass of wine, which can make the spirits soar. The dancer who is not transfigured in flight, who does not exult in high places, lacks artistic fire. The true classic dance is exultation. This desire to soar upward (again both literally and figuratively) is natural to the human being, which accounts for our understanding and feeling of soaring along with the dancer.

Volynsky adds a further point: without this aspiration, without what he calls the “willed awareness of the mountain peak,” the leap had better be performed in the circus, jumping over chairs or over people’s heads, because it only astonishes by its skill and cannot affect the heart.

My most recent previous post from Cohen’s book is here.

-Julie

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