Unreal Nature

October 23, 2016

Hopping About to Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:29 am

… he will tell you that he enjoyed it long before he knew what it meant or how it worked.

This is from ‘Ballet: The American Position’ [1947] found in Edwin Denby: Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (1986):

… Ballet is absurd by nature. But its absurdities are civilized ones. It is as absurd as a symphony concert. A symphony is seventy-five men on a stage who make noises together very earnestly for a couple of hours; and music lovers beam at some of the noises and lose their tempers over others. Ballet is a lot of young people hopping about to music in a peculiarly exhilarating way. Sometimes they’re being sad and sometimes funny, but they’re always in the pink of condition, charmingly built, graceful, well-mannered, and serious.

[line break added] Like an orchestra of musicians or a cast of actors they are busy building up the illusion of some sort of event; but they don’t waste so much time about it as actors and they are pleasanter to watch at work than musicians. Dancers appear briefly in all the glamour of orchestral sonorities and surprising fancy dress, and you find intelligent people who long afterward remember with affection some brief illusion that dancers created.

This is from ‘Against Meaning in Ballet’ [1949]:

… [Nineteenth-century French poet and ballet critic] Gautier assumes that all people need do to enjoy art is to look and listen with ready attention and trust their own sensual impressions. He is right. But when they hear that ballet is an elaborate art with a complicated technique and tradition, many modest people are intimidated and are afraid to trust their own spontaneous impressions. They may have been to a few performances, they may have liked it when they saw it, but now they wonder if maybe they liked the wrong things and missed the right ones.

[line break added] Before going again, they want it explained, they want to know what to watch for and exactly what to feel. If it is really real art and fine great art, it must be studied before it is enjoyed; that is what they remember from school. In school the art of poetry is approached by a strictly rational method, which teaches you what to enjoy and how to discriminate.

[line break added] You are taught to analyze the technique and the relation of form to content; you are taught to identify and “evaluate” stylistic, biographical, economic, and anthropological influences, and told what is great and what is minor so you can prepare yourself for a great reaction or for a minor one. The effect of these conscientious labors on the pupils is distressing. For the rest of their lives they can’t face a page of verse without experiencing a complete mental blackout. They don’t enjoy, they don’t discriminate, they don’t even take the printed words at face value.

[line break added] For the rest of their lives they go prying for hidden motives back of literature, for psychological, economic, or stylistic explanations, and it never occurs to them to read the words and respond to them as they do to the nonsense of current songs or the nonsense of billboards by the roadside. Poetry is the same thing — it’s words, only more interesting, more directly and richly sensual.

The first taste of art is spontaneously sensual, it is the discovery of an absorbing entertainment, an absorbing pleasure. If you ask anyone who enjoys ballet or any other art how he started, he will tell you that he enjoyed it long before he knew what it meant or how it worked.

… To some of my friends the images ballet leaves in the imagination suggest, as poetry does, an aspect of the drama of human behavior. For others such ballet images keep their sensual mysteriousness, “abstract,” unrationalized, and magical. Anyone who cannot bear to contemplate human behavior except from a rationalist point of view had better not try to “understand” the exhilarating excitement of ballet; its finest images of our fate are not easier to face than those of poetry itself, though they are no less beautiful.

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

-Julie

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