Unreal Nature

September 25, 2016

The Believed-in

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:38 am

… it collects the audience’s magic mind, its imaginative attention; it puts one into another time sense than that of practical action.

This is from ‘A Letter on New York City’s Ballet’ [1952] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

I hadn’t expected so intense a pleasure, looking at New York again [Denby had been abroad for four years], in the high white February sunlight, the childishly euphoric climate; looking down Second Avenue, where herds of vehicles go charging one way all day long disappearing into the sky at the end like on a prairie; looking up a side of a skyscraper, a flat and flat and a long and long, and the air drops down on your head like a solid. Like a solid too the air that slices down between two neighbor skyscrapers.

… And the faces on the street by day: large, unhandsome, lumped with the residue of every possible human experience, and how neutral, left exposed, left out unprotected, uncommitted. I have never seen anything so marvelous.

[ … ]

… [At the end of a Balanchine ballet] I was too absorbed still in the solemnity of the vision to wonder then how Balanchine could have circumvented my tense mistrust at the beginning, and made me accept his magic; and grateful to him too, because though I knew what I had seen was real, he at least assured me it was just a trick. Balanchine’s gift for seriousness in the theater is a rare one.

[line break added] While anything happens it looks like ballet, like a step or a joke or a grace; but when it is finished it suddenly can look serious and real. The victim has been struck square. By the time it is over, the immolation has been thorough. Look at it in Orpheus, Prodigal Son (where it is a conversion), or Fairy’s Kiss.

Prodigal Son is told, since it is about good and evil, in two kinds of pantomime: the dry, insect-like, insect-quick elegance and filth of atheism, and the fleshy biblical vehemence — so Near Eastern and juicy — of sin and of forgiveness, the bitter sin and sweet forgiveness. Still bolder as an image seems to me the leisure in the pacing of the scenes, which transports the action into a spacious patriarchal world, like a lifetime of faith.

[line break added] Very different is the ancestral religious Greece of Orpheus. The overslow adagio motions at the beginning and again at the close evoke the magic passes and stalkings of ritual — Orphic and Orthodox both. The forest creatures who witness Orpheus’s grief appear in this magic slowed-down time from so remote and so pristine a country, it feels like a pre-Homeric Parnassus. (And don’t they form a kind of protopediment or roodscreen?)

[line break added] Eurydice writhes at her husband’s feet like a mountain lioness in heat, like the Worm of Death, like an eternal image. A pity the Furies’ dance in Hell is of no value. But on earth the Maenads shudder possessed, swallow the spurted blood. Different again is the brutal romantic Switzerland of Fairy’s Kiss. It is a land of fairy tale, reduced from the country of myth by industrial encroachment.

[line break added] Here the poet is only unconsciously a poet; as long as he may he thinks of himself as an average mill-owner boy. Poignant as is the reduction of consciousness, it is in this particular “world” that the image of looking under the bridal veil in horror becomes so grandiose and takes on so many tragic dreams. And the world of the believed-in fairy story is evoked by the nineteenth-century style of Fairy’s Kiss.

… Dance rhythm is a power that creates the validity of the grand style. It is not rhythm used as a wow effect; I think it begins instead by quietening the audience; but it collects the audience’s magic mind, its imaginative attention; it puts one into another time sense than that of practical action.

[ … ]

… but individuals isn’t what this letter is about, as I said to begin with. I love them all. I went by the air station when the NYC [Ballet] was off for Spain and when your Juniors were off to London, and how ravishing they looked, at the station full of dancers both times; such an elegant and rich habitual way of moving, the little faces green from the farewell parties the night before, but the bodies delicious to watch in their unconscious young feline assurance. So they flew up into the sky.

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

-Julie

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