Unreal Nature

August 28, 2016

Odd Little Vivacities

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:44 am

… one can find virtuoso subtleties and ingenuities … , odd little vivacities, implications, hesitancies, bursts of rhetoric, tiny gusts of inspiration …

This is from ‘An Open Letter about the Paris Opera Ballets’ [1950] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

… When they begin they suggest a kind of glitter of stylishness onstage that fills me with happy expectation. They show at once that they are going to have variety of expression, that they are not going to do the immature juvenile charm act far too many adult Anglo-Saxon dancers do. So I look forward to the dance action to come when their interesting expressions will become an interesting grace of movement, when it will bloom and shed a radiance over the stage as a dancer’s expression does in dancing.

Instead, what I see is different. The dance action looks small and constricted and close, it makes the dancers become short-limbed. In the general effect of shrinkage, the dancers keep their pointed expressions, and the result is arch. Affectedly so, it often seems to me. When I see them stepping out gingerly, when I see a large bold step modestly diminished and a stabbing rapid one becomingly blurred, see the girls separate their thighs as if reluctant to do that in public, the world of decent domesticity it conjures up appalls me.

[line break added] And when I catch fretful flappings and crookings of elbows, dissatisfied glances of the girls toward each other and irritated ones at the conductor, a fluster of waist wriggles, wrist flicks, and head tosses, the expression reminds me of a nervous woman who can’t resist tidying up her furniture and her person after the guests have already sat down.

[line break added] The boys seem to take the feminine flurry with a slightly superior or interestingly sullen male detachment, though their own action is not free of what look like fatuous flourishes and they promenade about with a tight bouncy step that looks silly. All this is my first impression and at this point I realize I have misunderstood everything so far and missed the point completely. So I look more closely at what is happening.

The dancers are well-built and strong; but I begin to see that the Opera style transforms them according to its own ideas of grace.

… The style’s idea of musical grace in dancing is as peculiar as its idea of grace of movement, I mean equally puzzling to a ballet-goer used to the Russian-derived style. The Opera dancer likes to put the dance stress where the shape of the musical phrase gives it no support; so it gets a petulant look. She likes to begin a shade behind the beat as if prettily taken unawares, and end a little ahead as if in confusion; then she adds a vigorous flip of the wrist on the last note, which by being synchronized makes the wrist suddenly look disproportionately big, as big as a leg.

[line break added] I speak from the standpoint of the Russian style, which treats the score like a glorious partner on whose strength the dancers soar and dart and effortlessly end. By contrast the Opera style has the music run along beside the dancer like a stray dog — it keep shying away from her when she stops and getting underfoot when she goes on again. An accomplished Opera dancer is one who makes one forget what a nuisance it is.

But such a view is based on the assumption that the Paris Opera style is doing worse what the Russian style does better. Looking at it closer, the Opera style indicates on the contrary that its intentions are different to begin with. Its conception of rhythm and of phrasing inclines away from that of the music and toward that of speech. The general effect is not unlike that of speech rhythm. The dancer shapes her phrases by giving them point, as one would in speaking.

[line break added] She selects a step in the sequence and points it up, giving it a slight retard and a slight insistence, and she lets the other steps drop around it so to speak casually and a shade hastily, much as a glittering conversationalist stresses the telling word, delivers his epigram and seems to throw the rest of the sentence away. Following the step rhythm as speech rhythm — and as speech rhythm set against music — one can find virtuoso subtleties and ingenuities in the phrasing of an Opera soloist, odd little vivacities, implications, hesitancies, bursts of rhetoric, tiny gusts of inspiration that hurry her onward.

[line break added] We Anglo-Saxons think a dancer looks like a lady when she dances divinely; but that is our lack of realism. The Paris style doesn’t mean to transport you so far from the appearances, from the awkward graces and characteristic reserves of normal sedentary city life. The point of unprofessional carriage and unmusical rhythm is to make the dancer look less like a marvelous vision and more like an opinionated Parisian with all her wits about her whom one might meet in a room full of conversation.

… as for me, I see that by instinct I can hardly be fair to the style. The weak rhythm it has by choice depresses me as I watch. … I love the thrill of [Russian-style] grace in meaning. But large-scale vitality in ballet, even apart from any meaning, is also a pleasure, deeper than it seems. The Paris Opera style has too weak a pulse, too weak a dance rhythm for these two kinds of exhilaration.

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

-Julie

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