Recitatives, arias, and mothers-in-law.
Andersen has done a good job on his watch--indeed, there would be many to say, like myself, that he was one of the three most notable directors of the company this century, the other two being Harald Lander and Flemming Flindt. Unlike them, Andersen was not a choreographer, but he was a notable champion of the Danish Ballet's unique heritage, the ballet's of August Bournonville. It was Andersen who had prompted the second Bournonville Festival, in 1992, and throughout his stewardship--along with pressing for the new--he had fostered the Bournonville tradition.
Now the dancing had ended, and the formal reception and the speeches--in Denmark rarely formal--had begun. My old friend Erik Aschengreen, dance critic of Copenhagen's leading newspaper, the Berlingske Tidende, and one of the world's major authorities on dance, was making one of his typically witty speeches. Speeches on such occasions in Denmark always take on something of that ribbing quality we in the U.S. would associate with a roast.
When one particular Aschengreen sally set the whole room guffawing, I asked Niels Kehlet, another old friend, who happened to be standing by me, to translate. "Erik said he hoped that Frank would be the last ballet master we ever had," he replied, "who counted Far From Denmark as his favorite ballet." I dutifully guffawed, second-hand as it were, but just a little guiltily. After all, Bournonville's Far From Denmark is one of my favorite ballets. What's odd about that? These Danes! Will I ever understand them as much as I love them?
Change of backdrop. Kennedy Center. Washington, D.C. Exactly two weeks later. Another Royal Ballet, this time Britain's Royal Ballet, or as they call themselves, with a certain insular arrogance, The Royal Ballet. They have been dancing the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan's morbid spectacular Mayerling. I'm walking home from the second performance that day, remembering that I have yet a third cast to see the following matinee, and idly thinking that there must be less mentally perilous ways of making a living. And I remembered Napoli, Far From Denmark, and Bournonville, and my thoughts turned to ballet and storytelling.
How do you tell stories in the silent world of ballet? Balanchine said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet (or Kirstein said it or maybe Reader's Digest), but need this be true? Exposition is obviously more difficult in ballet, but is it too much to expect an ordinary audience member to look at a cast list before the performance and note: "John Doe, a village idiot," and "Mary Roe, his mother-in-law"? After all, how about all those relationships in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream?
Actually those relationships, exactly like the relationships in Far From Denmark or Ashton's The Dream (also on view at Kennedy Center), are remarkably clear. I recall that John Cranko always rigorously rejected program notes--saying if a synopsis of the action was needed the choreographer had failed--but he was never so scrupulous that he actually eschewed some pretty telling character descriptions in his cast listing. But on the whole choreographers such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, or for that matter Tudor accept that in ballet it is the pictures that must tell the story. With MacMillan, and many, many other choreographers (most of them less distinguished), the storytelling, except in the generic fashion of basic emotions, hasn't much to do with choreography. The story is appliqued on the dance, and the spectator is expected to have read what is happening either before or after. It is like opera without supertitles.
That's a joke--sort of. In considering this whole issue of narrative ballet I sometimes do find it helpful to go back to dance's sister lyric art, to see how another art form. as encrusted with much the same degree of nonreality as dance itself, handles the business of moving, say, Don Giovanni from Point A to Point B. And it seems that it might be possible to compare dance styles with the operatic technique of recitative and aria. Once we accept that in dance we can, as in opera, have both, we may have got somewhere.
Narrative dance is a delicate balance of pure movement, descriptive movement, and pure gesture. The gesture can either be classic mime, as in Petipa, or naturalistic mime, as in Bournonville's ballets d'action, the most notable extant example being the first act of that maligned Far From Denmark. This is recitative dancing and can, as in Bournonville, have a beauty of its own. In 1950 I was lucky enough to see Tamara Karsavina demonstrate a long-lost Petipa "recitative" from La Bayadere and it was wonderfully eloquent.
Then there is aria dancing of the kind you find in, say, Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas or Balanchine's Prodigal Son, where dance and narrative form a seamless whole. Or, commonly, you have an interplay of aria and recitative as in, say, Ashton's A Month in the Country or Cranko's Onegin. What you can't have--or so it seemed to me at that moment of semitruth walking home from Kennedy Center--are a kind of swirl of relationships and undigested goblets of drama, far clearer in the program notes than on the stage, plus your basic, less than specific, emotional dance. This, unfortunately, is what you find in the likes of Mayerling. That is where those mothers-in-law get the last laugh.
Since 1958 Clive Barnes has contributed to Dance Magazine, where he is a senior editor.
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|Title Annotation:||various dance anecdotes, from the tribute to Frank Andersen, retiring artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, to the essence of narration in ballet choreography|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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