I am a balletomane. So, I'd like to think. I love ballet. I love it obsessively. Those who love ballet tend to love it passionately -- madly, relentlessly, even unreasonably. Balletomanes suffer from balletomania.
There are modern dance fanatics who don't like ballet. Years ago I had a debate with one of them, who argued that ballet is so form-bound and unnatural, and boring, too, because it is tradition-bound and unchanging, with no room for imaginative creation.
I countered her by saying that ballet aspires for perfection. It is an art of refinement such that only formal discipline can bring about. Its beauty resides not in imaginative freedom but in ethereal grace realized by disciplined strength. It is like Raphael's classical art. It looks so natural and simple but its grace is an effect achieved only by rigorous refinement. I find ballet interminably alluring. It is enchanting. It is enthralling. It is entrancing.
I like all dances. That is probably because I don't dance. I've never learned to dance, even socially. It is no surprise then that as I get older I am deeper and deeper into dance -- as a spectator -- to experience its physical excitement vicariously. I like all forms of modern dance that display dazzling strength, speed and imaginative athleticism of the body. But ballet is magical in the dancer's lightness; the body not only soars but floats, light as a feather, defying gravity. It is ravishing. When I watch a ballet dancer turn and twist, spin and leap, my muscles, however vainly, respond to her or his movements, and I am transported.
Balletomanes may be connoisseurs but not necessarily. They love ballet unconditionally and indiscriminately; so, they don't always make good critics. Balletomanes are not balletomanes unless they enjoy any ballet, good, bad, and indifferent, each according to its standard. They are unreasonable; there is no way to change their sentiment about ballet from their set course. They are fanatics. This is not to say that they don't see qualitative differences. Better performances excite them more than lesser ones, naturally; and an extraordinary performance makes them lose their mind, or whatever is left of it after being balletomaniac.
Balletomanes get infected with this condition early in their life, or so a few balletomanes I know all tell me. My first ballet experience was in 1953, within a year of my arrival in the US. I was attending Santa Rosa Junior College at the time. A dear friend, Sidney Honigman, drove me to San Francisco to see the New York City Ballet, and he got us box seats. I still remember the repertory vividly: Scotch Symphony, The Cage, and Metamorphosis. Nora Kaye was in The Cage; Maria Tallchief and Tanaquil LeClercq also danced, if not that evening then another. I was totally mesmerized. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world among all the performance arts. I still think so. The next unforgettable ballet experience was the touring Kirov Ballet who came to Boston in 1961, a Hurok presentation, and Swan Lake was the program. I don't remember who danced; I can't recognize any name from the roster in the booklet I still have. One dancer in the corps fell flat on exit just before reaching the wing; we all gasped and I was sure the poor girl was banished immediately as one would expect of the Soviet regime of the time.
I could watch ballet every night. Edward Gorey is said to have attended every performance of the New York City Ballet every season since the company's inception or since he was old enough to be able to do that, whichever came first. He may still do. I try to go to as many performances as my finances allow -- perhaps close to thirty spread over different companies through the year. But it's only six years since I started going to ballet regularly. Last year in June I went to three performances of Swan Lake within a week danced by three different ballerinas of the American Ballet Theatre: Irina Dvorovenko, Paloma Herrera, and Nina Ananiashvili. Last week I saw three performances of Romeo and Juliet one after the other trying to learn and understand Kenneth MacMillan's choreography. Repeated viewing sharpens our perception and deepens our understanding; as it is with opera, there is no other way to cultivate connoisseurship. We can read books about ballet; but they don't make sense until we have seen enough performances and gained sufficient experience with dances and dancers. We can certainly say this of visual arts, too, but it is even truer of performance arts: music, dance, and theatre.
I do nevertheless read books on ballet. The best introduction by far is Robert Greskovic, Ballet 101, A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet (New York: Hyperion, 1998); it is a thorough and thoroughly enjoyable guide to ballet covering the history and close analysis of the best known and loved works performed today. For writings in dance aesthetics, I recommend in particular Selma-Jeanne Cohen's collection of essays, Next Week, Swan Lake: Reflections on Dance and Dances (Wesleyan University Press, 1982).
I also read books on ballet techniques because learning them enhances our appreciation of the performances. But for techniques, I prefer videos; I continue to study them visually (since I am too old to act them out), reviewing periodically The Balanchine Essays on video (Arabesque, Passé and Attitude, and Port de Bras and Epaulement) and, especially, the remarkable and indispensable Video Dictionary of Classical Ballet. I also view and review the performances of the Kirov, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Royal Ballet, and various American companies and dancers on video. It is from exposure to live performances, however, that we learn best about the art of ballet. In the course of repeated exposure, nevertheless, we come to gain some knowledge of the history of ballet, too.
Not long ago, a companion at a ballet performance asked me how the ballet came into being. To my surprise and delight, I was able, at a moment notice, to give a five-minute lecture on the history of the ballet, and I transcribe it here, slightly expanded, as a balletomane's drastically simplified minimal ballet history.
Ballet had its beginning as a court dance in the 17th century. In general, it was more like a pageant; Inigo Jones' masque in England was a ballet of sort, too. In the 18th century emphasis shifted from pageantry to story telling and Ballet d'action evolved and thrived in France. Jean Georges Noverre was the leading figure. But it was not until early 19th century that ballet began to take on the appearance of the dance we recognize as ballet today: dancing on pointe, the tutu, and the appearance of ethereal creatures like nymphs and sylphs. La Sylphide, 1832, created by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie Taglioni and revised a few years later by the Dane, August Bournonville, survive to this day in the repertory of Romantic ballet together with the better known and more frequently performed Giselle,1841.
Toward the end of the century, ballet in Paris was losing its vitality; it declined into a visual spectacle with emphasis on set and costumery. The resurgence of the dance owes to Marius Petipa, a Frenchman, who settled in Russia. He developed an extended dramatic form, composed of ballet d'action interspersed with formal set pieces, typically the pas-de-deux, and ballet blanc of white-clad maidens danced by the corps de ballet. In 1890s, in collaboration with Tchaikovsky, Petipa created three classical ballet that are central in today's repertory: The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake (assisted by Lev Ivanov). Petipa's legacy was carried back to France and then beyond in the twentieth century in two historic events. The first was the arrival in Paris of Fokine, Diaghilev and Nijinsky and the formation of the Ballets Russes with its success in 1910s and1920s. With Stravinsky as a collaborator, they produced The Firebird and Petrouchka.
The second important event was the arrival of Georgi Balanchivadze, later George Balanchine, in America in 1934 by way of the Ballet Russe. He instituted first the School of American Ballet and later the New York City Ballet with Lincoln Kirstein. In the meantime, the British Royal Ballet emerged with Frederick Ashton at the helm and it brought on Margot Fonteyn as its star. Balanchine's abstract ballet nevertheless dominated the twentieth century ballet; with inexhaustible versatility he choreographed dances on every conceivable musical form, style, and genre, and in his choreography he moved his dancers on the stage to shape and mold spatial configurations just as lines and colors created abstract forms in modern art.
History of ballet explains the French vocabulary in ballet and the predominance until recently of Russian ballet teachers in America. Russian dancers still dominate the world ballet today. At the ABT, Nina Ananiashvili is at her best, dancing with precision, speed and expressiveness. The two American companies in New York are now hardly at their best, however. The principals are good but not great by and large; in both companies there are young hopeful dancers in the corps and there are upcoming hopefuls like ABT's Gillian Murphy and Herman Cornejo and NYCB's Megan Fairchild. The Royal Ballet seems stronger with Sylvie Gillem and Alina Cojocaru. But there are strong regional ballet companies in America.
So, ballet is not dead, not quite yet. Balletomanes have faith in the future. This one certainly does.
T. Kaori Kitao, 07.01.04