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A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.

Example:

Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.

Example:

Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.

Example:

Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.

Example:

….

From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

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Friends at the Theatre

Today I read Balanchine in the New York public library. Balanchine both personal and professional – the choreographer and dancer, the man and the lover.

Being somewhat familiar with the material (set texts for the next semester), I didn’t try to go in chronological order – I simply worked m way alphabetically down the list: from Acocella to Gottlieb, taking notes as I went. I took a break to grab a bagel. Before I knew it, hours had slipped by – I could happily have stayed for more.

I read about his material and his teaching style, recognizing fragments from my own classes. I learned that he shared tender evenings with a young Suzanne Farrell in an inn, and later a 24 hour Dunkin’ Doughnuts, only a few blocks from where I’m currently staying. I made a mental note to try and find them on my way home.

First though, the library was showing Cover Girl, a classic film from the 1940’s with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Too much to hope for, I guess, that they’d be showing one with Balanchine’s choreography, although I did note some of his collaborators in the credits. Since this was a free screening on a Sunday, the room slowly began to populate with individuals somewhat older than myself.

The first friend I spotted was, unsurprisingly, Martha Graham, white hair in a bun, perching a few rows behind me. A wispy John Cage sat at my left shoulder, telling jokes through the opening credits; Maria Tallchief made elegant gestures from the front row as she conversed with a companion whose face I couldn’t see.

Mr. B. arrived just as the film was about to start, slipping through the door and taking a seat far right, missing nothing over his hawk-like nose. Merce Cunningham was conspicuous by his absence, although perhaps he could have been in the back – I don’t suppose it would have mattered to him.

The credits rolled.

For me New York is always the home of dance. This may well be a betrayal of both my geographic and pedagogic origins, but I am long since past caring – I’m a modern baby. The inn and the Dunkin’ Doughnuts have sadly gone, but the city, especially at Christmas, still reminds me why I love what I love, and chose to do what I do.

From Broadway, Manhattan, happy 2015.