It Seems To Me

A Klutz at the Ballet

More satisfying than watching Clinton waltz with Gingrich.

After 50 years of writing about the budget, I have become bored with the subject, and have been looking for a more emotionally satisfying interest. It may seem bizarre, but I have found one such interest in watching ballet at home on my VCR. I call that bizarre because I cannot dance a step. One of my most anguished memories is of trying to propel an unfortunate female classmate around the floor at the Mohawk Country Club during the senior prom of Schenectady High School. I did not improve much with time, although I did find a more agreeable partner.

Despite that, or perhaps because of that–psychologists always have two options–I have long been fascinated by dance. In college I participated in an essay contest that required entrants to use a nom de plume. I chose “Bojangles,” the nickname of Bill Robinson, the famous movie and stage tap dancer. I mention that partly to show that my interest did not always and only lie in long-legged girls in tutus.

Ifirst became aware of ballet at the University of Chicago. One of my first dates with the young woman who was to be my wife took us to Les Sylphides downtown in the Loop. For 60 years thereafter, the ballet remained an occasional diversion. Only recently, when–as I have noted–boredom with the budget and, indeed, with economic policy in general left a vacuum at the forefront of my consciousness, did ballet come in to fill it. I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert. I am writing only to indicate what pleasure the ballet, now readily available on videotape, has given this klutz, and to suggest that others like me might also get pleasure from it.

Ballet may have special appeal these days, because it is a relief from the verbal communication in which we are all drowning. It is like music in that respect. Music may have a more transcendental, spiritual quality. But ballet has more–of scene, of form, and of movement; for many people, ballet offers more by way of food for the mind than music does.

I am going to focus first on Swan Lake. It is the most popular ballet of all time and probably the easiest to appreciate. Also, I happen to have on tape two versions of Swan Lake, one featuring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev (1966) and one with the Kirov Ballet (1986).

Both versions are characterized by a complete fusion of the music and the dance. The music is simple, clear, tuneful, and rhythmic. It seems to compel the dance, as if the particular steps danced to each note and bar were inevitable and any other steps would be wrong. Listening, one gets–or, at least, I get–the (improbable) feeling that the music is so compelling that if I were on stage and heard it, I, too, would do that dance. Yet, as natural and inevitable as it seems, the dance is also absolutely incredible. It is unbelievable that anyone could do what those dancers are doing. That applies not only to the obviously spectacular leaps and spins, but also to the precise placement of the feet when walking slowly, and of the body when seated.

Everyone knows the story of Swan Lake. It was summed up in the comment of a little old lady (why is it always a little old lady and never a big young man?) who, after seeing it, said: “So, he fell in love with a duck. So what could come of it?” To amplify just a little: Odette is a beautiful maiden trapped in the body of a swan. She can be freed only by someone who will love her forever. Prince Siegfried promises her that love, but he is seduced into betraying that promise by the beautiful, but not so nice, Odile. Dire consequences loom.

The two versions I have differed in the degree to which they emphasized the story. The Kirov version (at least the one I saw) was a vaudeville in which discrete, and stunning, dance performances are hung on the thread of the story. It was staged before a live audience that repeatedly broke into applause to which the stars responded with bows. That, of course, interrupted the story. It also took the stars out of their characters–Siegfried out of his soul-sickness, Odette out of her heartbreak, and Odile out of her seductiveness. Moreover the principals, while their dancing was brilliant, hadn’t really tried to be soul-sickened, heartbroken, or seductive. The problem was particularly serious for Siegfried, who in the first act seemed a happy-go-lucky fellow, with no apparent reason to spurn the beautiful women of the court and go out hunting a mirage.

The Fonteyn-Nureyev version, on the other hand, emphasized the story, with all its. The show slimmed the story down considerably, with some of the most spectacular parts being cut. There was no audience, no applause, no interruptions, no bows in the middle of the story. Nureyev, who was 28 at the time, looked the anguished, searching youth that the story requires. Fonteyn portrayed clearly in her facial expressions and arm movements the contrasting characters of Odette and Odile.

Both versions are wonderful. In a sense, you get more ballet for your money in the Kirov version. But you get more emotion in the Fonteyn-Nureyev version.

My recent interest in ballet has opened my eyes to a newer style that I used to find unattractive and incomprehensible. It is less athletic and acrobatic than the older, more romantic ballets. What there is in the way of stylized leaps, spins, and balancing on the toes comes out as the natural expression of exceptionally graceful human beings and not as a demonstration of what some clever windup toys can do.

The main reaction to the older ballets is, “Wow! How can anyone do that?” The newer ballets do not elicit that response. At first sight they look easy, although further observation shows how precise and disciplined the movements are. The newer ballets aim for more universal and fundamental emotions than amazement–for a sense of beauty, or joy, or love, or sorrow.

How those emotions are generated I cannot explain. But I can give two illustrations, both from ballets by George Balanchine that I have on tape. The Prodigal Son is an old story. But the performance, by Mikhail Baryshnikov and others, is so vigorous and stark that it seems new. And at the end, when Baryshnikov throws himself into the arms of his father, who wraps him in his prayer shawl, one gets a powerful sense of the goodness of man and God. The other example is Chaconne, starring Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. If there is a story there, I don’t get it. However, the dancing seems so free and spontaneous, and yet so precise and with such commitment between the partners, that one is left with a feeling of joy in life that I cannot associate with any other form of art.

I realize I am gushing. That is the way new and naive enthusiasts are. I also realize that ballet may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you are sick of watching Clinton and Gingrich waltz around, you might try Fonteyn and Nureyev, or Farrell and Martins.