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Beliefs of a Master

He was something of an amateur theologian, as were his friends Wystan Auden, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Igor Stravinsky. To Auden, the anatomies of various theologies were his form of chess. To Oppenheimer, as perhaps to Galileo and Newton, theological formulas measured the rhythm of the random. To Balanchine, concepts or images of the divine, even cant uses of “divine” as a shibboleth of quality (“My dear, she danced divinely!”), had their daily resonance. “Divine” is from divinus, Latin “of, or pertaining to God (or, a god); given by, or proceeding from God; having the sanction of, or inspired by, God.”

His most quoted apothegm was: “to make audiences see music and hear dancing.” St. Paul has it: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Shakespeare has Nick Bottom, the Warwickshire weaver, fondle his born-again ears, no longer those of a fantastical ass, trying to make sense of a midsummer night’s dream from which he has emerged as a man, not a beast. The peasant reverses Gospel: “The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”

Balanchine was sometimes amused to contrast notions of good and bad, virtue and vice, grace and sin, distinguishing between his Eastern and our Western orthodoxies. Byzantine icons glossing Holy Script, the mural masters of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom, not St. Sophia), Hosios Lukas (St. Luke in Phocis), and El Greco’s Cretan teachers all depict Lucifer—Son of the Morning, Fire-Bringer, soul of free choice and ultimate possibility—not as a fiend but as an angel. In the West, personifications of d’Evil, Father of Lies, Lord of the Flies, Old Nick, Auld Reekie, Foul Fiend, Satan (Shaitan), looked bad and smelled worse. From pre-Christian to late medieval models, devils were imagined as rough humanoid bipeds bestially deformed, horned, with goat’s shanks, cloven hooves, spiked tails, and hairy anuses that witches kissed. In contrast, Greek Orthodoxy’s knowledge and fear of hell does not argue the simple matter of right and white against black and wrong. So crass an opposition, so low a common denominator, is not existentially exclusive. It is not the deformation or denial of grace that must be considered but the recognition of an equation of right and wrong. This is not “either/or,” an unenforceable law, but “both/and,” a realistic choice. Suffering—education by the consciousness of permanent evil, and of those powers that educate one beyond the capacity of mere self—in the cosmos as in heaven frees the angelic choir.

The Byzantine Lucifer; Prince of Darkness, was to be seen in his glorious mystical uniform identical with his perfect sinless siblings, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, but with one drastic difference. All these last displayed lustrous peacock wings, were robed in gold, haloed in jewels. Fair-haired, brightly complected, the lot. But the hands, face, and feet of the evil one were black. Transparency blessed the good angels; opacity cursed the bad. All but Satan were clear as crystal. Denied by density, impervious to light, he was deprived of the sun of godhead. His was permanent denial, negation of source, of the Logos. Willful incapacity to admit the difference between light and darkness, obsessive preference for personal difference in self-serving isolation, proclaimed the triumph of the self. This dark angel and his myriad progeny set themselves against the Father and his apostolic succession, removed from any deselfed communion and, ultimately, in their selfishness, from fruitful service to their fellow men. This angel of might and darkness could not be penetrated by the mercy of grace. But black as he might be, he was still an angel. Today he might stand for the romantically rebellious solipsist, the unreckoning challenger of historicity, prince and demon of every narcissist aesthete, patron of self-devoted artists wherever they flourish.

4.

When Balanchine spoke of angels, as he often did, and of his dancers as angels, he intended confidence in an angelic system that governed the deployment of a corps de ballet. As was common gossip, he imagined at one time that in this mortal dispensation he had actually “married an angel” in the flesh and had set dances on her, his third consort. Throughout his long life, he contrived to encounter these supernal beings or, rather, their corporeal embodiments, whose habitual flights he made soar into steps less ordinary than heavenly.

Angels were enlisted in a category that commonly registers demons. Intermediate between gods and mortals, they could be hostile or compassionate. There were Egyptian, Assyrian, and Hebrew winged figures long before Christian eras, personifying and revealing multiple aspects of the divine cosmos. Air, wind, thunder, and lightning proclaimed their power. Gentle breezes and stupendous cyclones were their fingers. Hosts of angels chanted music of the spheres. Good and bad angels were protectors, guides, tempters, and betrayers of babes born sinless, but each with a God-granted choice. And there were dangers for the overinnocent in undue emphasis on their assigned dominion.

Angel” in Hebrew or Greek means “messenger,” one sent, and not necessarily with good tidings. In Christian theology, East or West, angels apply to priests, prophets, and messiahs dispatched by the Godhead. They are spiritual essences “created by God before the heavens and all material things.” Black angels fell to devildom, since they were made free to indulge in “desire of absolute dominion over created things, in hatred of any rivalry or subjection.” Their sin and our curse is not simple vanity, but blind pride; in modern dance, this is an incapacity to learn or accept what tradition teaches, the amateur’s boastful proposing of an alternate language that itself delimits, a personal idiom legible for no longer than its inventor’s existence.

In the Revelation of St. John the Divine, it is written that he prostrated himself before an angel who’d been sent to humble him. John’s automatic reverence showed mindless dependence and lazy irresponsibility. The angel bid him rise: “Seest thou do it not, for I am also thy fellow-servant…. Adore not me, but God.” Balanchine believed that he, as well as his dancers, was in constant service—not to any individual ambition, but to the principle of a general humane alliance and need. He had his demonic advisers who helped him in his service of propelling bipeds forward across the stage floors of the world in a shared conquest of earth and air. In this process, often accompanied by “heavenly” music, dancers appear as messengers of fair weather, occasional safeguards from streets outside swarming with chaos, anarchy, and despair.

5.

Balanchine’s method of instruction was twofold. First came daily class for his company. This might be called “practice,” but in reality it was incessant reiteration toward technical refinement. In this endless process, mind and matter were anatomized. He might allow, in tones of cool disparagement, that the only thing students could learn in seven years of academic training was to recognize the difference between correctness of execution and the intensity achieved by stage performance. The scale of the school’s annual workshop-demonstration—a program rehearsed during the entire school year in preparation for three open viewings—which marks the advance of students from a lower to a higher division, was tiny, compared to the stress and pressure of working in the company’s huge repertory, on a big stage, before a critical public.

Promising aspirants who are marked for eventual soloist standing often disappoint teachers, parents, and, worst of all, themselves. Cute kittens turn into scraggly cats. Children of promise—who had been cushioned by strict repetition under secure conditions, daily, monthly, yearly—when released to the vulnerability of fuller responsibility may collapse or, more trying, hit a median level of blocked progress with little hope of more capacity. They fade into a dim if useful support, a modest service, in which a passive or resentful handful may find some satisfaction. The life and schooling of professional dancers have their negative aspects; these Balanchine never concealed. He realized that perhaps half the force and efficiency of a supporting corps is fueled as much by resentment as by ambition. Fury at failure to advance or achieve a desired status is not negligible as a source of negative energy. Balanchine calibrated dancers also for their spirit. Some of the lower order of angels are able to accommodate themselves to their assigned rank; some abdicate while still able to perform; others abandon hope at some crisis in a dubious career. Balanchine could be polite enough; he seldom wasted optimal opinion. “Damn braces,” said Blake. “Bless relaxes.” Willfulness is the curse of children set on stardom.

Modern and now postmodern dancers convince themselves and their annotators that minimal motion is as interesting to watch as to perform, at least to cult or coterie audiences in minimal spaces, clubs for companionship rather than frames for absolute skill. Minimal movement exploits a token idiom of natural motion: walk, turn, hop, run. Also, there is free-fall to the floor plus rolling and writhing. But angels don’t jerk or twitch, except for irony or accent: they seem to swim or fly. The domain of ballet dancers is not earth but air. Long, strenuous preparation aims to allow them to defy the pull of floors, releases them from gravity toward the apparently impossible. Academic dancers are trained to leap, as well as to appear to leap, as high as Olympic record breakers. Theirs is an academy of physical, visible magic. Acrobatics are supranormal, or maximal. Acrobats are not walkers, joggers, hoppers, or bores. Their effects are not minimal but angelic.

Angels are androgynous, lacking heavy bosoms and buttocks. Portraits of angels in mural or mosaic have slight physiognomical distinction one from another. There is a blessed lack of “personality” in their stance against the skies. But this aerial or ethereal positioning grants them a special grace or magic in accepted service. Ballerinas are kin to those mythic Amazons who sliced off a breast to shoot arrows the more efficiently. The criterion of professional owns not only a particular psychic tempering, but also peculiar anatomical configuration. Balanchine’s standard controlled his company. The few deliberately outstanding exceptions in height or style proved his general rule. His corps was and is a band of brothers and sisters; maybe it is no accident that it contains so many twins and siblings. He would say, of those he could or would not accept, “She (or he) doesn’t look like a dancer.”

Those candidates who anatomically and temperamentally possessed the qualities that Balanchine required were ordained by methods that dissidents found diminishing or deforming. These methods could be taken as frustrating adolescents at the very moment of their incipient expansion. But liberal educators seldom realize that “success” or “happiness” lies neither in self-satisfaction, in self-indulgence, nor in that unfocused hedonism which too many young people believe is their franchise, obligation, and destiny. Their precious “personalities” are but a bundle of chance preferences, since as yet they have had only the opportunity, but hardly the ability, to analyze received data, to think.

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