Apollo’s Angels, part V

Crossing the ocean…

From chapter 11: The American Century I: Russian Beginnings
It seems to me from this book that a requirement for ballet is that the state be involved. Not only was it an art that relied on stately support in Europe, but in America it only started in spurts and starts before being established on more solid footing once more powerful entities helped. “One explanation for its precipitous rise is sheer talent: its most prominent leaders, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Antony Tudor, were supremely gifted choreographers, and the dancers they worked with were no less impressive. But this alone cannot explain the force of the shift. It was the changing shape of America as much as the changing shape of dance.” p. 451
In America more powerful entities includes the state only partially. We’re talking about figures like Lincoln Kirstein. “Kirstein had no theatrical background. His grandfather, who was German and Jewish, was a lens grinder from Jena who emigrated in the wake of the 1848 revolutions, and his father had risen to a position of prominence (and wealth) as a partner at Filene’s Department Store in Boston. The family was cultivated an actively involved in the cultural and charitable life of the city. Kirstein’s father was president and patron of the Boston Public Library and his parents read widely and attended opera, ballet, and concerts. They were also Anglophiles, and as a young man Kirstein spend time in London, where he mixed with the Bloomsbury set (it was Maynard Keynes who first introduced him to the work of Gauguin and Cézanne) and went to the ballet.” p. 457
Another figure was New York city mayor Fiorello La Guardia. “La Guardia’s parents were Italian immigrants, and as a yong man he himself had lived and worked in Budapest, Triete, and Fiume. He spoke several languages, including Italian, German, French, and Yiddish (his mother was Jewish), and had a lifelong interests in music. La Guardia wanted New York to have theater, music, and dance on a par with the great European cities, and he wanted them to be affordable and accessible to working people. Top this end, in 1943 the city turned an old Shiners meeting hall on 55th Street into a performing art center, financed by wealthy New Yorkers but also by trade unions. They called it the City Center for Music and Drama.” p. 463
The New Deal arts programs, the post-war economic boom and competition with Soviet ballet during the Cold War got the state involved. “It was no accident that the grant came just four years after the Bolshoi Ballet’s first-ever tour to New York, amid wide-spread discussion of the “Soviet advantage” in state funding for the performing arts. In 1964, thanks in large measuer to Kirstein’s friendship with Nelson Rockefeller, NYCB moved from City Center to the newly minted Lincoln Center. […] By the mid-1960s, then, classical ballet was on firm footing.” p. 467

From chapter 12: The American Century II: The New York Scene
Conditions are one thing; there was also the talent. The three figures Homans choses to show ballet in America after WWII are Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, and George Balanchine. Without going over everything she wrote about them, I’ll give you the little tidbits that amused me.
“[After his career stalled,] instead of regrouping or persevering, however, Tudor did something quite extraordinary: he bowed out. He retreated into Zen Buddhism, and in the course of the next four decades created very few ballets – and only one of lasting value. That one ballet, however, was hi greatest (if least known) work and a key to his perplexing withdrawal.” p. 480 Homans is referring to Echoing of Trumpets, created in 1963. “Tudor stopped short in the 1930s and ’40s; that was the story he told, and that was the limit of his talent.” p. 484
“Everybody knows Jerome Robbins.” p. 484 “He began in 1944 with Fancy Free, for Ballet Theatre. It was a landmark production – American, vernacular, and jazzy – and the first collaboration between Robbins and Leonard Bernstein. They were both twenty-five years old and the connection was immediate: like Robbins, Bernstein was the child of immigrant Russian Jews, and he too aspired to create a distinctly American style of musical art.” p. 488 [Later]”came The Age of Anxiety (1950), to the poem by W. H. Auden, again with a score by Bernstein… […] A year later, Robbins created one of the ugliest and most disturbing ballets of all time. The Cage is a twenty-five-minute orgy of savage female insects who stalk, kill, and feed on male intruders with explicit sexual pleasure. It is as relentless and driving as Stravinsky’s score, and also as poignant.” p. 489 And of course there is West Side Story, wit slightly different beginnings. “At first Robbins had imagined a Romeo and Juliet story of rival Jewish and Catholic families on the New York’s Lower East Side (working title: East Side Story).” p. 491
“Balanchine was a world apart. His ballets are the jewel in the crown of twentieth-century dance: their depth and scope far surpass those of the dances made by Robbins, Tudor, Asthon, or any of the Soviets. And even if their work at times played into his own, few doubted that Balanchine towered over them all; they were standing on his shoulders.” p. 504  (I will point out the mixed metaphor in that last sentence only because it’s such a striking gaff in Homans’ otherwise excellent writing.) “All of Balanchine’s great dancers were of course talented, but not in the ways that people often assume – long legs, turned-out feet, small head, and unusual flexibility. In fact, his featured artists never fit to this (or any other) type. […] What they did share – and this is far more important – ws an unusual physical luminosity. When a Balanchine dancer performed a step, you could see more in the movement – more dimension, more depth, more range – than you could with another dancer, no matter how perfectly shaped her legs or feet. Unconsciously or otherwise, the dancers Balanchine chose made you see. (He said of audiences: “They look but they do not see, so we must show them.”)” p. 512 He created over 400 ballets and the list of composers to whose music he set his dances is simply dizzying: Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Schumann, Brahms, Hindemith, Strauss, Bizet, Ravel, Glinka, Weil, Glass, Fourré, and above all Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. “”Stravinsky made time,” Balanchine once said, “not big grand time – but time that worked with the small parts of how our bodies are made.”” p. 526 And this produced fantastic results: when he and Igor made Agon in 1957, Marcel Duchamps said “that the electricity in the theater that night made him think of the premier of The Rite of Spring.” And he went on to produce works until his death in 1983.

From the epilogue: The Masters Are Dead and Gone
“After years of trying to convince myself otherwise, I now feel sure that ballet is dying.” This is a stunning statement. But it comes from a very conservative outlook she has (and admits to). Perhaps looking so far back has left her without the ability to see forward. Still, she adds: “if artists do find a way to reawaken this sleeping art, history suggests that the kiss may not come from one of ballet’s own princes but from an unexpected guest from the outside – from popular culture or from theater, music, or art; from artists or places foreign to the tradition who find new reasons to believe in ballet.” Insha’Allah!

My own conclusions to follow…


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