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Ballet Talk for Dancers

The Critics: Dance Writing, Writers and Analysis

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Guest Leigh Witchel

I'm going to respond to a remark Giannina made in the "The Patient is Breathing Thread" about her confusion with Edwin Denby, but I think the discussion merits a new thread.


Giannina asks if Denby was seeing something she wasn't, or if he was making things up as he sees them, when watching a work, and that sort of analysis would take the fun out of watching for her.


It's a different way of looking at a ballet, but I've always felt that my viewing methods were indelibly formed by the triumverate of Denby, Kirstein and Croce, as well as my own education. One may have quarrels with them, but I can attest that they can teach you to watch ballet and see more.


I think that all art should be viewed on an associative level, and the three above are masters of that. What are you looking at? What does it recall? What links can be made to other artists or artistic trends, past, present or future? Where does it take you?


I'm not saying that a writer should let their fancies overtake them. The last thing I want to read about is what is going through a writer's mind as s/he watches a ballet. I could care less. I want to read about what is on the stage in front of the writer, and what I might take with me when I next view the work. It interests me very much to hear that a port des bras in Concerto Barocco might look to the viewer like semaphore, as if a signal were being broadcast. This forces me to connect with the choreography itself, and ask why the author might have thought that (and also to recall what semaphore is!) It interests me a lot less to hear the imagined thoughts of the ballerina or the choreographer. This connects me with the author's own agenda, and not much more. The point where interpretation becomes personal fancy is a very fine line, but I don't think Denby crossed it.


It is certainly no fun to be a hypercritical viewer, and I have to guard against my dance training taking the fun out of going to the ballet (it's too easy for me to fixate on feet or knees) But I find that watching dance in an interdisciplinary way, and making associations richens the viewing indescribably for me.


I've talked more about my opinions of the authors above in other places, but I thought I'd open the field to discussion. Has anyone else found writers that helped them see the choreography more clearly? What sort of analysis is helpful to you as a viewer?

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Guest cargill

Certainly I agree that reading Denby and Croce are great ways to learn (I haven't read a lot of Kirstein), but every so often, when reading some of the more over the top analytical things (not necessarily by those authors), I do feel like saying "oh come off it". I remember reading some deep philsophical discussion of the meaning of the the solos in the shades scene of Bayadere which almost put me off criticism for ever. I think it is important for criticism to focus on what is going on on stage, and not go drifting off into imaginary meanings.

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Guest Giannina

Cargill pretty much states how I feel about these criticisms that elude me. I'm more like what Leigh doesn't want to be: my ballet training making me fixate on feet or knees. I don't mind other aspects being brought into a criticism/review; I just don't want the point stretched to the extreme that we leave the ballet and enter something else. I'd have to go back to Denby's book and find some of his references and I'm too lazy to do that, but at one point he was comparing the philosophical outlook of a choreographer at the time he made a ballet and finding this philosophy in the choreography. You lose me there. I think Leigh's fanciful example of "semaphore port des bras" would also strike me as being a stretch; that's just looking too deeply into a simple movement. But I'm willing to be educated; maybe Denby offers me too much all at once.



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Giannina, I remember once getting really angry with a critic who said, writing about the pas de deux in Act lll of Sleeping Beauty something like 'The supported arabesques are symbols of the relationship between a married couple' and I thought, no they're not; they are supported arabesques, and as Leigh says, I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW what they make the critic think of - especially as in this case it seems he's projecting his own, extremely sexist, view of marriage on to the choreography (after all, if they *were* symbols, shouldn't the prince be doing some of them?)


There is a British dance magazine I had to give up reading as it made me feel completely excluded - and, though I certainly wouldn't include Denby in this, there is a sort of dance writing that I believe is written, usually by academics, to impress other academics and, perhaps unconsciously, to make 'ordinary' readers feel out of it. I also believe there are many valid ways of looking at dance, or any other art, and the most useful thing anyone can do - if they want to, that is - is find a writer whose point of view seems close to their own and learn as much as they can from him/her before branching out into people with different viewpoints. It took me a long time to work out that the reason I found some writers bewildering was that their standpoint was completely different from my own. Over time one learns to figure out other people's approach, and if writing as a critic one has to take other ways of looking into account; but if all you're responsible to is your own responses, you are perfectly entitled to stick to your own point of view. Personally I sometimes still find myself looking amazed at people who say 'What did you think it meant?' when to me it didn't have any external meaning - it just is. Marie Rambert said 'I don't see stories, I see steps' and at heart I'm with her. (Most of the time, anyway - of course none of us is consistent, even within a single evening.)


I'm sorry if this is rather rambling - I write from the depths of a hellish cold and may be more feverish than I think!

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Guest Leigh Witchel

Giannina's post gives me an opportunity to make a distinction. Let's use the "semaphore arms" metaphor I was thinking of in Concerto Barocco:


"In the first movement the corps de ballet flashed their arms en haut and en bas as if it were semaphore, or a signal beamed from outer space." (I didn't quote it from anyone, just made it up.) This might be a fanciful metaphor, but it would make me watch for that spot in the choreography, and perhaps even see it a new way - especially if I feel the metaphor is apt. I'm a writer at heart, as well as a choreographer, so the use of metaphor is very enjoyable to me. Of course, that enjoyment depends upon the skill of the writer. I tend to enjoy my own metaphors, because I usually find myself in agreement with them!


Here's a variation of the same sentence. "The rapid arm movement of the corps de ballet is a message in semaphore from Balanchine to the audience." Umm, no it's not. It's what the writer saw.


Apologies for the dubious ability of the above passage to illustrate my point, but I don't mind the writer or the audience viewing a work metaphorically. One of the best things about a work like Concerto Barocco is that it can be looked out on many different levels. I certainly don't mind it if you just look at the legs and feet, Giannina! That's why dancers have become so technically proficient, because there is pleasure in beautiful execution. But I do think that it is also a tremendous pleasure to look at *more* than what's in front of you - just so long as you don't lose track of what's actually there. I mind very much when the author forgets that he or she is the one doing the interepreting, not the choreographer.


[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited 03-10-99).]

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I agree with everybody! But I think it would be nice to hear from some Ballet Talkers who aren't writers. Easy for us to say we like good, simple writing that describes what we see!


On Denby, I agree that he's terribly important, and influenced a lot of contemporary American writers (and is a fine writer) but I have to say, the more I read him and the more I learned about ballet outside New York, the less I like him. I'm not saying that you can't learn a lot, you can. But he has a large ax to grind -- namely, that Balanchine is the great choreographer who ever breathed and NYCB was already a major international company five seconds after its birth -- and in doing so, he dismisses, often quite nastily (under cover of politesse) anything remotely a possible threat. He was writing at a time when the other critics were very anti-Balanchine, so I understand his reasons, and he was also in the position of understanding a great artist who, at the time, was working against the mainstream, and I'm sure his reviews were very helpful in educating Balanchine's audience.


I read Croce's "After Images" and "Looking at the Dance" every year until I'd practicaly memorized them. I disagreed with her, and much of what she said angered me when I first read it but I read her essays at the back of "After Images" over and over until I thought I understood them. Now I realize that she predicted in the '70s and '80s just about everything going on today. Smart lady; great writer.


I would say generally, that most people go to the ballet because they like it and probably many don't think more about it than which dancers or ballets they liked, and I think that's fine. But, Giannina, if you're reading critics, this is a sign that you're also interested in what other people think. I think if you feel you're missing something, you probably are. (I took a course in criticism my second year of viewing because I knew I wasn't seeing everything, and I wanted to be able to, fast. I thought taking a course with a critic would help. It didn't.) Sometimes there is a philosophical underpinning or a deeper meaning, I think, than just a few pirouettes -- "La Valse" has references in Romanticism, and someone who understands the Love/Death connection beloved of Romantic poets will probably see something more in that ballet than someone who doesn't. But any really good ballet, I think, can be enjoyed on its face. It's when you have to read three pages of program notes and/or attend a workshop to know what's going on that I'd leave the theater and go home to a good book.


Your question was excellent, I think, and I'm off to start a new thread.



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