Unreal Nature

September 11, 2016

Airy and Mild, Transparent and Still

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… a sense of grandeur is given by stillness that is “inside” a phrase of movement the way a musical rest is “inside” a musical phrase.

This is from ‘Impressions of Markova at the Met’ [1952] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

… She did the contrary of everything the new generation of ballerinas has accustomed us to. With almost no dazzle left, Markova held the house spellbound with a pianissimo, with a rest. A musician next to me was in tears, a critic smiled, a lady behind me exclaimed “Beautiful!” in an ecstatic, booming voice. Her dancing was queerer than anyone had remembered it. A few days later, meeting a balletomane usually far stricter than I on the street, I asked him what he thought of her this season.

[line break added] “More wonderful than ever,” he cried aggressively. When I asked if he thought she had shown this defect or that, he admitted each in turn, but his admiration was as pure as before. This is the sort of wonder a real ballerina awakens, one our young dancers are too modest to conceive of, and that Markova’s dancing used to do for me, too. Though I wasn’t carried away this time, I found watching her so-different method intensely interesting.

Details were extraordinary — the beautiful slender feet in flight in the soubresauts of Giselle Act Two, how she softly and slowly stretches the long instep like the softest of talons as she sails through the air; or in the échappés just after, how they flash quick as knives; or in the ‘broken steps” of the mad scene of Act One, when, missing a beat, she extends one foot high up, rigidly forced, and seems to leave it there as if it were not hers. I was happy seeing again those wonderful light endings she makes, with the low drooping “keepsake” shoulders, a complete quiet, sometimes long only as an eighth note, but perfectly still.

… Surer than I remembered is the dancelike continuity she gives her gestures and mime scenes — all the actions of the stage business embedded in phrases of movement, but each action so lightly started it seemed when it happened a perfectly spontaneous one. In this continuity, the slow rise of dramatic tension never broke or grew confused. It was the technique of mime in the large classic style.

In classic miming, a sense of grandeur is given by stillness that is “inside” a phrase of movement the way a musical rest is “inside” a musical phrase. Markova’s strong continuity of phrasing, the clarity of shape that mime gestures have when they are made not like daily-life gestures but like dance movements from deep down the back, and her special virtuosity in “rests” — these give her miming grandeur. But for dancing, her strength is too small for the grand work of climaxes.

[line break added] She cannot keep a brilliant speed, sustain extensions, or lift them slow and high; leaps from one foot begin to blur in the air; her balance is unreliable. In ballet it is the grand power of the thighs that gives magnanimity to the action; there is no substitute and a ballet heroine cannot do without it. Once one accepts this disappointment, one can watch with interest how skillfully she disguises the absence.

Merce Cunningham, with whom I was discussing her technique, spoke of the illusion she gives of moving without a preparation so you see her only already fully launched, as if she had no weight to get off the ground (the stretch from plié is so quick). He remarked very vividly that in a leap she seemed at once “on top of her jump, like an animal.”

… In contrast to the solid, sharp, professional, rather impatient brilliance of our grand and powerful young ballerinas, the kind of effect Markova makes seems more than ever airy and mild, transparent and still.

… I have wanted to focus attention on the difference, but I don’t mean to judge between these two styles. For my part, I enjoy our own new one because the neutral look of it, a sort of pleasant guardedness, seems to suit our dancers better. Someday they will find out how to open up, but in terms of a technique that suits them. Markova happened to learn a style that suited her physique, her temperament, her environment; and a born ballerina, she made the most of it.

[line break added] The public responds to her now, not because of her style, not because it is the right one, but because she is a wonderfully compelling theater artist. For me she was, this fall, exhibiting her highly elaborated style rather than dancing a dance or a role, and that limited my enjoyment. But for fans who love classic dancing, and because they love it are happy to see as much as they can of its possibilities, of its richness and scope, it is well worth seeing her perform effects no one in our generation is likely to make so lightly and so lucidly.

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

-Julie

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