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The Ballet and the Public: Notes from a Diary

JUNE, 1976: NEW YORK

Lincoln Center Council meeting. I was called to defend the New York City Ballet in refusing to be televised for “Live from Lincoln Center” programs. Since money involved is derisory and artistic increment nil, I was something less than polite. Other constituents feel this purely negative attitude is not only damaging to the notion of a cultural center, but also that conditions may improve if there is present participation.

I’ve never owned a television set; the few times I’ve watched local programs in hospital, in the houses of friends, or in bars, I’ve been amply confirmed in my distaste. I know British TV is better and BBC programs on “educational” networks appear as the best that can be shown. Balanchine has a rooted dislike of being dictated to by TV directors, but he has telecast our Nutcracker on several occasions; in 1958 for CBS he himself played Drosselmeyer. Even in those pre-historic days emission wasn’t much to boast about. Commercial TV directors and their staffs always start by admitting they know nothing about ballet, but are experts in TV, which means they know next to nothing about any visual aspect important to choreographers. What they know about are the conditions imposed by advertising, which is the sole reason and support for any cash one can earn by the medium, except token prestige occasionally thrown in to sweeten a smelly pot.

In a brilliant essay in the Times Literary Supplement (London), in June, 1976, Professor Edward Mendelson of Yale gave an extended surgical analysis of the conditions of television. I sent copies of the article to a dozen titans of the media. It obviously stuck in their throats, for I never received an answer, even in defense. Mendelson’s thesis was simply that nothing on commercial television, even by way of “creative” shows, can afford to compete with the advertising that pays for the program. Nothing produced by way of entertainment can consciously attempt to obliterate the drumbeat of the market message. Naturally, for the aim of TV is neither art nor education, unless it is thought that either as a pretext may sell more gas, beer, soap, or cars. This policy infiltrates the lowest member of the camera crew and makes the lens itself enemy to any essential integrity. Photography of dancing is a special problem, apart from any possible commercial exploitation, because of the built-in limitations of the very size of the TV box. Three-dimensional plasticity is always deformed through the lens, color falsified, and the angles and editing, promising to make ballet “more interesting,” are usually an irrelevant betrayal.

Also, since the nature of merchandising is to buy cheap and sell dear, there’s little money left for the likes of dancers, as opposed to the exorbitant rewards to popular singers or actors. The networks now occasionally propose an exposure of ballet, as enlargement of our audience, a popular or populist expansion. Ballet companies should feel lucky to be exploited by the wonderful people who give us murder, mayhem, discreet incest, divorce, brain damage, etc. The dreadful facts of life which corroborate trash, waste, and boredom have, hidden in their fat plastic garbage bags, a few shards of residual political truth. Even ballet’s continued existence is political; to survive one cannot be as intransigent as a saint, and choose a suicidal canonization. Along with the need for cash, of which politics is a paramount condition, compromise is hardly absent from popular art (like ballet). But we are not lucky in being able to call it truly “popular” even at this point.

The New York City Ballet travels little. Its scale is now too large for any but the larger cities to cover touring costs; then only for at least a two-week engagement, or, under unusual circumstances in an unusual place like West Palm Beach. We are funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, and by the New York State Council on the Arts. We were and are grateful to Nancy Hanks and Kitty Carlisle Hart, with their staffs and committees, for enlightened and continuing support. But what was Nancy Hanks to say to Republican congressmen who could ask questions about the New York City Ballet, which gave more performances in Russia (twice), Britain (three times), Israel, Japan, Australia, Greece, Poland, Germany, France (four times), and Italy than in America outside New York. “New York is not America.” We haven’t been west of the Mississippi in years, although we will go to Chicago and tour upper New York State in 1979. So—what’s our exculpatory answer? TV, natch.

The practice and craft of politics is unavoidable for any institution that touches public monies, and this can also be extended to those that beg from private or semipublic sources. But there is a difference between beggars, who need funds to sustain themselves, and competitors for the manipulation of large fiscal power. Cultural beggars are more politely termed courtiers, although their struggle for money frequently occurs in arenas more like the office of a headmaster in a parochial school or a police precinct than Florence or Versailles. Wallace Stevens, for years officer of an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut, and at the same time one of the most important poets of his epoch, said: “The imagination that is satisfied by politics…has not the same value as the imagination that seeks to…compose a fundamental poetry.”

There are government and foundation handouts to poets. Otto Kahn, after J.P. Morgan one of the most discerning of our music and art patrons, indeed supported the fundamental poetry of Hart Crane. But the distinction between “fundamental” and every other quality of lyric-making is too complex a question to leave to popular politics. Despite the populist politician, certain crafts must live by elitist criteria, and it is this standard of fundamental superiority which television touches at its peril.

As for Lincoln Center, I have about as much sympathy for its need to find an eleemosynary face as for the beauties of TV itself. Someday I may wish to detail the tale of Lincoln Center as I saw it built, and while normal political accommodations have been made, and gentlemanly courtesies obtain, it is a fact of life that one scarcely loves one’s landlord. Lincoln Center is a real-estate holding company which aspires to some positive social role. It acts no worse or better than any other landlord; for the charitable cash it collects annually is something of a convenience. One would hate to be dependent on its tender mercies if one were in danger of bankruptcy. There was little in the philanthropy of its overall umbrella to make me soften to its insistence on televising us “Live from Lincoln Center.” It was emphasized that previous telecasts were wildly successful, that the Nielsen ratings were astronomical; fan letters flowed in like a grateful avalanche. Maybe it even attracted new subscribers or ticket buyers. It was a fact that millions saw something or other on the tube which reflected something or other that was happening in the flesh around the fountain of Lincoln Center Plaza.

So—for political reasons, exterior and interior—we let them televise Coppélia, “live.” It passed well enough, that is, not much worse than static duets or trios of grand opera or uninteresting photography of string sections of orchestras sawing away while the ecstatic conductor contributes an act that resembles torture by laser beams or preparation for his crucifixion. Despite Balanchine’s earnest pleas, “experts” involved determinedly set their cameras in the top balcony of the State Theater so that dancers shot from there looked as if they were wriggling on the stage through the wrong end of an opera glass. This was to prove that the event was indeed veritably “live,” and had not been previously taped. Which seemed only to prove that if one buys a cheap seat at the State Theater, one can’t see anything. This struck me as miserable advertising, but I’m no expert.

Several months before this, Balanchine was persuaded to go to Nashville, Tennessee, to produce some portions of his ballets for NET. I didn’t go. He liked Merrill Brockway, the director, our dancers were fairly paid, the studio was large, conditions were excellent; the twin resultant programs were well received, and two more of them, with which Balanchine is very pleased, have already been made. One should not, I suppose, deprive people all over the country who have never seen our repertory of the experience or even pleasure of acquaintanceship with our company, however remote.

There are, however, films of dancers which when translated to a big screen are beautiful. The few minutes of Baryshnikov dancing in The Turning Point, an otherwise preposterous camp, were magical. Nureyev’s version of Don Quixote, produced in Australia with an excellent local cast, was very well done. The best filmed sequence I have ever seen was the opening of Ken Russell’s marvelous Valentino, which, like many other first-rate works, at first showing gained no success. It not only revealed a great dancer as an equally great actor, but, in the climactic boxing match, it photographed one of the most astonishing pas de deux ever filmed. What was virtual perfection in setting, speech, music, and dancing was Nureyev as Valentino teaching Anthony Dowell as Nijinsky the tango, in a vast hotel ballroom, circa 1914. Nureyev’s concentration ignites Dowell into a dazzling sequence of virtuoso acrobatics, which Russell’s camera caught to perfection. Reduced to the dimensions of the TV screen, it would have seemed miniaturized puppetry. Films in theaters still hold reflections of human breath, blood, and muscle. They may be tailored to cash for the producer, but often enough they are admirable or even heroic. Commercial TV is a parasitic infection in which mendacity competes with irrelevance. “Educational” side effects may offer some palliation; war has always improved the practice of surgery.

JULY 4, 1978

I answer a letter from an academic sociologist, backed by a great corporation, asking for my opinions as to the popularity of ballet in America for a file-and-forget “survey.”

The metric of the sociologist is weakly mathematical. Its object and its presumptive objective method can hardly eliminate the bias, individual or collective, of the interrogator. Shepherds watch their sheep, but who watches the shepherds? One of the many blameless ways for corporations and foundations to spend money is to license surveys. Surveys are particularly appropriate if they have neither reason nor effect, will arouse no controversy, and yet may hold some imprecise potential to encourage research when filed and forgotten. Why have ballet audiences grown in the United States?

Latencies of interest and focus correspond to historical necessities. The decline of organized religion in the ancient sense of church observance has by no means decreased metaphysical energy or curiosity. Indeed, as we have seen in the rise of interest in Eastern forms and the many expressions of heterodox Spiritualities, the interest of youth in the otherworldly is on the rise. Rituals well performed were first taken over from classical antiquity by the church fathers: cathedrals were great opera houses avant la lettre. The secularization of the church, its fraction and attempts to heal it by ecumenical aims, has, consciously or not, proposed something approaching a general searching or questioning congregation. Since God ceased having His portrait painted as a nude Santa Claus, since nuclear energy with its hopes and fears has permeated the universal imagination, Prime Mover, First Cause, Hollower of Black Holes, Master of Order inspires that type of awe which we once spelled as Yahweh. If these terrible titles could be reduced to one word, perhaps that word, even in the very start, is order. Order is also what is ordained; its pursuit includes those who, in its pursuit, are also ordained.

Ballet is a secular rite; if it is well performed, the congregation applauds; detonations fuse in air; the God has appeared. There has been a transient manifestation of Order—and this despite chaos, anarchy, corruption, pollution, and death and disorder. Order is what ballet is about—just as is music—but with a difference, and this difference is, I think, why its present popularity is not only an ephemeral phenomenon, but as steady and solid as the attraction of museums or symphonic orchestras. In it, order is both visually and aurally legible. Elements of hazard involved in the risk and execution of its acrobatics excite that portion of a public absorbed also by competitive sports. The continual emergence of new dancers in new ballets satisfies that passion for novelty which is a theatrical norm. The sight of exceedingly attractive young persons, highly skilled and moving in an extreme thrust of their physiques’ capacities, is a metaphor of chance and gift seized and well used, of potential explored and shown in full capacity.

The reason ballet is so popular today is that it frames a bare morality in perfect miniature which, however momentary the vision, is both blazingly evident onstage and equally absent in the exterior public dimension. In those of our theaters where ballet is housed with some continuity or stability, ballet performances present maps or models of an ideal civil state, The Republic, commonwealth; The City of God. They are communions of experts and enthusiasts, two-hour services celebrating mutuality of credence in something superior to the miserable I or Me. The mosaic anonymity of corps de ballet and the kaleidoscopic assumption of multiple roles and characters by individual dancers are comparable to choirs and hierophants who, in the splendid vestments of their faith, served under high stone vaults. The reason ballet has arrived in its present impermanent permanency of popular acceptance is its transparent demonstration of the principles of service and order. As an increasingly accepted symbol of our society’s spiritual preoccupations, it could be hardly less representative of an “Age of Me.”

It is not a slight impulse to feel drawn toward such an exposition of service and order. It is by no accident that musicians and scientists are among the most faithful and knowledgeable friends of ballet. Metric is their constant judgment of order and orderings, which also include steps counted and dances metered. While artists measure by fantasy and scientists by mathematics, imagination and counting are shared by both. Great artists, dancers, musicians, and scientists are our only magicians; legible mastery of their several orderings is about as near today as we can come to miracles. Participation in performance, by several supports—applause, money, friendship—is a de-selfed testimony to the magic of methodical process haloed by art. The target of applause, in ballet, is dancers who enter their house of service early on, endure schooling as seminarians and athletes, and touch on a source of order comparable to that which moves the sun and other stars.

Over the last half century, the academic classic dance has been in the custody of a single person. Before him, Marius Petipa held the same position for a similar tenure. Others have used the language with ingenuity, wit, and beauty. Few have matched Balanchine in capacities either to extend the idiom or to assemble steps which hold interest, both for dancers and for their audiences, over so extended a period. The classic academic dance is neither a series of styles or fashions which correspond to shifting hemlines or waistlines, nor a packageable product grateful to renovation from ingenious boxing or wrapping. What Balanchine has been able to do is to take the academic skeleton and, without essential repudiation, re-form it by extension, and reclothe it in novel measurings and surprising release. This exercise amounted to reconstitution, a propulsion past the capacities of previous practitioners. It depended on sophisticated equipment, not only in his own mind and body, but in those dancers first schooled in the traditional system upon which his own practice is based, and then further trained by him in class and rehearsal to fulfill the stringency of unique requirements.

He was the child of an epoch in contemporary history in which space and time were awarded new dimensions, in a universal shrinkage of mileage and an acceleration of movement. Two world wars in their holocausts cleared away much romantic rhetoric which was once social amenity and imaginative convenience, but which no longer stands for much except as thin decoration. Ornament became a luxury; the modern dance, born out of a historical inadequacy of training and tradition, made a virtue of necessity and abstracted itself into a position of ethical virtue. For acrobatic virtuosity it substituted starkness, self-pity, and canonization of the ego. Modern dance was only as strong as the personalities which promulgated its particular idiosyncratic accents. Children never took to it.

As for the enigma of Balanchine’s mind, its endurance, operative intelligence, or inventive capacity, it would be brave indeed to attempt its anatomy without information which is still incomplete. He has been compared to Petipa, but this is matching muscle more than mind; the complexity of contemporary music reduces the serviceable scores of Minkus and Pugni to parallels with Stravinsky which approach the ridiculous. Strangely enough, there is indeed a fairly accurate prose portrait of a character which does in several ways correspond to our choreographer. He is Monsieur Edmond Teste, and is the subtle invention of the great French poet Paul Valéry. M. Teste (Mr. Mind, Master Head, Sir Intelligence?) is analyzed in depth by Valéry, and a sampling of this analysis, for those hardy enough to follow its ratiocination, may tell us much of Balanchine’s peculiar capacities.

His memory gave me much thought. The signs by which I could judge led me to imagine incomparable intellectual gymnastics. This was not, in him, an excessive trait but rather a trained and transformed faculty. Here are his own words: “I gave up books twenty years ago. I have burned my papers also. I scrape the quick…. I keep what I want. But that is not the difficulty. It is rather to keep what I shall want tomorrow…. I have tried to invent a mechanical sieve….”

After a good deal of thought, I came to believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to this research; even more certainly other years and many more years had been set aside for maturing his inventions, making them his instincts. Finding is nothing. The difficulty is in acquiring what has been found.

The delicate art of duration, time, its distribution and regulation—using it on well-chosen things to give them special nourishment—this was one of Monsieur Teste’s great experiments. He watched for the repetition of certain ideas; he sprinkled them with numbers. This served to make the application of his conscious studies in the end mechanical. He even sought to summarize this labor. He would often say: “Maturare!…” [Become mature!]

This man had known quite early the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!

I had a glimpse of feelings in him that made me shudder, a terrible obstinacy in his delirious experiments. He was a man absorbed in his own variations, one who becomes his own system, who commits himself without reservation to the frightening discipline of the free mind, and sets his pleasures to killing his pleasures, the stronger, killing the weaker—the mildest, the transitory, the pleasure of the moment and the hour just begun, destroyed by the fundamental—by hope for the fundamental….

Monsieur Teste had no opinions. I believe he stirred his passions when he willed, and to attain a definite end. What had he done with his personality? What was his view of himself?…. He never laughed, there was never a look of distress on his face. He hated sadness.*

  1. *

    La Soirée avec M. Teste” (1896), Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Vol. VI, translated by Jackson Mathews (Princeton University Press, 1972).

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