PURITY OF IMAGINATION
During the past several years, I have pursued an interest in ballet, viewing and to some extent studying it. I have not been interested in technical aspects. The spark of this interest has to do with an attraction to the idea of the purity of movement without words as a means of presenting an artistic message. It seems intriguing in a manner similar to Japanese Noh theater. The focal point of dance is mainly the body, and thus the perception of what is taking place enters the observer via unspecified and seldom trod paths. As a writer, I feel movement can demonstrate conviction and simplicity and perhaps suggest more direct and serious ways of using words.
I write from a sketchy and speculative knowledge and feel a safe place to begin is with the well-known ballet company, the Ballet Russe, formed by the Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, and which included premier dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Though the company began in Russia, it quickly relocated to Paris, and its most notable early glories came in productions that brought together an assortment of some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Besides its famous dancers, the Ballet Russe featured work by composers Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy and painters such as Picasso and Miro designing sets. This was at an early time in most of these artists careers. As just two examples, Stravinsky's ballets, The Rite of Spring and The Firebird (in London), had their initial performances with the Ballet Russe.
The Ballet Russe could be said to have emerged from the tradition of classical ballet in Russia. The figure of Marius Petipa was instrumental in establishing that tradition. Petipa was born in Marseilles, France, in 1819 and was directed into dance by his father. He learned his profession in Brussels, Paris, Spain, Italy and North America. In 1847 he joined the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, performing mainly at the Mariinski Theater. He later became `master choreographer' for and the director of the Imperial Ballet. He died in Russia in 1910. He is called the father of classical ballet and his name is associated with most of the ballets that comprise the classical repertoire, including the oldest of these ballets, Giselle, and probably the most popular, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
The Ballet Russe premiered in 1909. Many of its well-known `modern' ballets were performed before 1914, the year World War I broke out, and contain a daring unconventionality and experimentalism that prefigured the stormy outbreaks of war and revolution. The Rite of Spring choreographed by Nijinski provoked a near riot in the audience and was considered a `succes de scandale' to the approval of its sometimes enfant terrible composer standing in the wings. In 1912 Nijinski danced in L'Apres-midi d'un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) with music written by Debussy based on a poem by Stephan Mallarme. The problems facing the Ballet Russe were the problems of a new, foreign company seeking to establish itself in a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The problems faced by the musicians, dancers, composers and choreographers that were a part of the already established Imperial Ballet seeking to maintain its position must have been quite different. The ballets themselves give a feeling of provincial isolation, of remote St. Petersburg above the arctic circle, with its Winter Palace and phenomenal `white nights'. They indicate an intimacy with a cousin aristocracy that constituted a regular audience. They convey a feeling of family and seem to have been written for special occasions, anniversaries, name days and holidays. A ballet such as the Rite of Spring performed for the Czar would have been unthinkable, as would any artwork overstepping its bounds with overt political references. (In 1911 Nijinski was expelled from the Imperial Academy for political involvement.)
Whereas an experimental ballet of a composer such as Stravinsky might have as its stage set a solitary, abstract sculpting, the staging of a Petipa ballet characteristically has a standard theatrical setting--a royal hall or dining or toy room. But a Petipa ballet is fragmented and its setting invariably becomes an exotic, fantastical place of dreams or sweets or spells or mystery, realms inhabited by fairy godmothers, toy soldiers blasting cannons, graceful swans, the powers of seasons, pharaohs, bluebirds dancing with princes, swirling sparkling snowflakes, dew drops, sugar plums, dragons, drummers, blooming flowers, toy trains carrying lovers to crescent moons. The warm imagery is generously applied. These entrancing works are surprising, kaleidoscopic glimpses of the real world in which the emotion and seriousness of its troubles are refined and heightened by the wordless movement of the art.
The ballets of Petipa, of the classical repertoire that he is credited with establishing, might be called frivolous. But I recently viewed the production of a ballet which gives evidence to the contrary. The ballet was Sergei Prokofiev's Cinderella.
This ballet was begun around 1940 and first performed in 1944 or 5--the time of World War II, an extremely arduous time in Russia. Stalin still ruled. Communism was in power. Surely production of a fairy tale type artwork such as a version of Cinderella must have had to explain itself to some degree before the censorious and stern eye of unflinching Soviet authority. Thinking of a Russian play I recently read, The Bedbug, by Vladimir Mayakovsky--I wonder if Mayakovsky wouldn't have rolled over in his grave at the proposal of dramatizing something as `parasitic' and petit-bourgeois as a fairy tale about a prince and princess. However ballet in Russia, perhaps especially at this time, seems to have enjoyed a special place as a national treasure that exempted it from this type of reproach. It is interesting that Prokofiev would turn to this genre at the end of World War II--a moment of triumph in Russia.
It could be also that the play was considered symbolic--poor Cinderella the proletariat, mistreated and held down by the step-mother and sisters (perfect foils for anti-bourgeois snickering) and her rise to a queenly level the Marxist triumph of the working class. Whether this was the intent of this ballet or not I do not know. Seen on stage in year 2002, the ballet does not seem to need to be considered in a specific historical context. As a full-fledged production, with new costumes made in South America, it is, in my opinion, a stunning marvel, in keeping with its classical predecessors.
What is revealing of the earlier tradition is that Prokofiev is a modern composer. I cannot claim to be well acquainted with his music. He is best known I would guess for his musical tale `Peter and the Wolf'. He seems more romantic and intricate than his contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich. Prokofiev wrote the musical score for the Sergei Eisenstein film Alexander Nevsky. (Shostakovich wrote the music that accompanied the original production of The Bedbug.) Shostakovich more characteristically portrays the tumult of revolutionary times, the discord, the uncompromising principle, the harshness and relentlessness, the tragic factiousness. The music for Alexander Nevsky, though, has a full measure of these same intense qualities, as anyone that remembers the dramatic scenes of charging, opposing Medieval armies across barren, frozen lakes can attest. Prokofiev, in fact, had trouble with Soviet critics for the `harsh dissonance' of his early work.
The climax of Prokofiev's Cinderella is the stroke of midnight at the royal ball which Cinderella has attended through the magical transformation of a pumpkin into a coach and mice into horses. In the production I viewed, the coach sparkled with fruit-orange-colored lights. As midnight approached, the noise of a clock winding and tick-tocking was heard, a large mechanical-looking gear appeared above the dancers and the music became loud and ominous. As midnight struck, Cinderella was overcome with remorse and ran away through the crowd, leaving behind a crystal slipper, but her circumstances did not especially stand out. The stage had darkened, smoke emanated from the fizzled coach and the entire ball was thrown into chaos. It was as though Cinderella could not have escaped, as though midnight had struck for all in attendance, all society.
It is this subtle `political comment' latent in the classical tradition that I think Prokofiev's ballet elicits. Rudolf Nureyev's version of Prokofiev's Cinderella was set in Hollywood, with Cinderella as aspiring starlet. An English version had it set in London during the blitz, with the time following the ball showing Cinderella staggering through war-torn London streets. In the end the couple catches a train to the suburbs to live happily ever after. It should be remembered that Tchaikovsky, who wrote the music for the most famous of the earlier ballets, is considered a modern composer. The greatness of his music seems to me to be a profound revealing of human feelings. His universally recognized vignettes in The Nutcracker are an undisputed delight. Petipa's final ballet, a failure that caused him to be dismissed from his position, was called The Magic Mirror. In a recent New York Review article, Jennifer Homan writes of the modern choreographer George Balanchine, `Balanchine transformed classical ballet from a lyrical, romantic, fairy-tale art into a gripping, sharp-edged, plotless drama of pure movement...' But later in the same article, she notes, `In 1915, at age eleven, George Balanchine made his stage debut at the Mariinsky Theater as a cupid in (the Petipa-Tchaikovsky ballet) The Sleeping Beauty, and it was the magic of this ballet that first prompted him to devote his life to dance'. Undoubtedly, `sleeping beauty' was intended not as a character but a quality residing deeply in the wondrous artwork.
With its music, its choreography and dancing, its inventiveness, classical ballet tradition reflects a vast and lucid love of life. The `modern' in dance could be said to date from 1910, Michael Fokine's letter to the London Times outlining his five points which call for in dance approximately what Imagism was calling for in poetry at the same time, namely the elimination of extraneous formal considerations; everything should relate to the `subject' or `meaning' of the artwork. This is sometimes considered a rebellion against the classical style. But I feel it is merely a verbalization of what is good about it, as dramatized in one of the many classical scenes that take place in deep woods in which a main character, perhaps lost or banished, dances searchingly or the entire company in ethereal sequined costume (white tutus are said to date to an early ballet in which ghosts danced in a cemetery) dances in synchronization, as though it were the imagination itself forming into an idea that will be born and return as new life to a more just and compassionate society.
choreographer, Jean Paul Commelin
composer, Sergei Prokofiev
sets and costumes, Peter Cazalet
reviewed by T. Hibbard