How did we get here? How did we get to the point where just about every new classical dance is meaningless? Today, premieres at the big ballet companies come dressed in the hippest costumes on the hottest bodies. They boast an haute frame of reference and wear the zeitgeist like a thong. Some of these premieres push the right buttons and generate enough enthusiasm to radiate success, while others push the wrong buttons and disappear after a season or two. No matter what the buttons, there’s not much difference between good and bad. Your average state-of-the-art premiere is so derivative of Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins that it feels secondhand (even when the ballets actually are by Forsythe, Tharp, or Martins, they feel secondhand). Or it tends to trade in age-old clichés.

One might almost think that company directors are actively seeking sameness—last year’s moderate success recalibrated with a machine-tooled tweak or a downtown shrug or a Euro-inflected gaze into the abyss. No, you tell yourself, it can’t be that. And then comes the next premiere, and it’s another work that looks as if it were hurriedly made of pre-fab parts. If these dances were houses, no one would be able to live in them. And no one does. They have no ceilings, no windows, no doors. Another way of putting it is that choreographers no longer seem to know what their ballets are about. Then again, I’m not sure ballets are trying to be “about” anything anymore.

I suppose George Balanchine deserves some blame. Deliberately anti-intellectual when it came to meanings and subtext in his work, he did not discuss intent with his dancers or offer any sort of backstory to help them with their roles. He played up the craftsmanship of choreography versus the artistry, and spoke lightly of his work, comparing his ballets to butterflies, to flowers, to cuisine. This was a form of old-world modesty. Dances, Balanchine took pains to say, were seasonal pleasures, ephemeral entertainments—a leaping, breathing carpe diem. Even Lincoln Kirstein, who in photographs and paintings can look like he’s all brain, a Moses defending his God (Kirstein’s extremely erudite writings intone as if chiseled on stone tablets), even he, in deference to Mr. B, drew back from too much explication of the ballets. This was just fine when Balanchine was alive. The emotional depth and metaphorical complexity of his art spoke for itself and one could take or leave his aesthetic pensée.

But in the twenty-seven years since Balanchine’s death in 1983, choreographers and company directors seem to have made deadly dogmas of his little sayings, using them to justify all manner of mischief. For instance, Balanchine’s affection for fleet and speedy dancing, which was merely one facet of the energy he loved, is now an endgame of fast, faster, fastest. His stress on a spontaneous response to music has led to New York companies putting under-rehearsed dancers onstage—the wrong kind of spontaneity. It has also given critics a bat with which to beat dancers who shape and refine their roles rather than riding the wave or dancing seat-of-the-pants. One must not forget that Balanchine revered Fred Astaire, whose crisp and ineffable freshness was the result of endless, punitive hours of rehearsal (think of this as a form of catch-and-release whereby you catch the dance in rehearsal and release it onstage). As for Balanchine’s response to those who searched for meaning in his ballets—“They spoil everything by insisting on touching”—it has led to a distinctly hands-off approach to his oeuvre and a critical canon that is, compared to the research done on geniuses in other artistic disciplines, woefully superficial. Moreover, Balanchine’s caution to dancers, “You have to be vairy careful when you use your mind, or you will get into trouble,” is now reduced to “Don’t think.”

“He never said to me not to think,” Suzanne Farrell asserted in a conversation we had two years ago. “I think that statement gets misused—overly used and misused. Because he never told me not to think. The essence of all of his ballets requires intelligence. He was an intelligent man. He did not surround himself with unintelligent people.”

The intelligence of an artist is not the same as scholarship. As W. H. Auden said of Balanchine, “Ideas come to him as images, not abstractions.” Which brings us to the Balanchine legacy that has had the most profound influence, and yet a problematic one: his “abstract” ballets. I put quotation marks around the word because it was a label he didn’t like. Balanchine preferred “plotless” as a description both for his departure from the full-length story ballets of his Mariinsky training and for his development of the neoclassicism that would come to be known as Balanchinean. That said, he found a way to pull story-like dynamics and animating metaphorical suggestion into even his most astringent pieces. Whatever term you use, these ballets—highly distilled poetic expressions—are rich in imagery, in emotion, and in atmosphere legibly articulated. They are now the standard and the starting point for choreographers coming of age today. Yet where do you go from a distillation? You really can’t further distill it. All that’s left is to ape it, exaggerate it, or deconstruct it. There is much to learn about tone and structure from these glorious ballets, but, to learn how to speak for oneself, a choreographer would be wiser to study Balanchine’s apprenticeship, which began in earnest in 1924, when he was hired by the incomparable Sergei Diaghilev to make dances for the deeply influential Ballets Russes. “It is because of Diaghilev,” Balanchine later said, “that I am whatever I am today.”

Last year marked the worldwide centennial celebration of the Ballets Russes—a century since Diaghilev wrought his revolution in the presentation of ballet. The year was 1909, and Diaghilev brought a program celebrating Russian performing arts to Paris. These Paris engagements had begun in 1906, when Diaghilev curated an exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture that was shown at the Paris Salon d’Automne. In 1907 he presented music: a collection of arias from Russian operas, with the composers Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and Glazunov gracing the podium (imagine!). In 1908, the season consisted of one opera: Boris Godunov.

But in 1909, urged on by the artist Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev presented ballet alongside opera. None of these ballets were new works, but all were rekindled with new sets and costumes created not by opera-house employees but by serious artists. The Paris audience was so completely taken with the Russian ballets that for the season of 1910 Diaghilev commissioned brand-new ballets, among them Schéhérazade and The Firebird. These ballets, ablaze with heat and color, were like exotic jewels. Schéhérazade seemed to imply a wealth of stories to come (one thousand and one!), while the stolen feather of The Firebird was a Promethean declaration. Soon enough, the company became known as the Ballets Russes.

“A combination of brilliant energies and practical qualifications,” Lincoln Kirstein wrote, “made [Diaghilev] the isolated genius that he was.” And “brilliant energies” describes exactly what could be expected from the company. Ballets Russes painters, composers, dancers, and choreographers would constitute a Who’s Who of twentieth-century art, introducing the West to artists like Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Pavlova, Fokine, Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Prokofiev, and Nijinska, and employing names like Picasso, Debussy, Rouault, Massine, Cocteau, and Ravel. Rather than set a politically motivated or aesthetically binding artistic agenda, Diaghilev’s mandate was famously summed up in two words: “Étonne-moi.

He sought a heightened and mutually inspiring collaboration between music, design, and dance, and brought impressive learning, high culture, courage in his convictions, and a showman’s bravado to his role as ringmaster. As the critic Robert Johnson so eloquently writes in the Winter 2009/10 issue of Ballet Review:

Although billed as collaborators, the artists of the Ballets Russes did not always work in harmony and it was Diaghilev who envisioned the final synthesis, enabling the arts to mesh in a new form of choreographic theater that he called into being. So powerful is the conceptual unity that Diaghilev imposed with a master’s hand that today the ballets he produced seem like magical things too intricate and beautiful for any individual to have created, and so precious that no one could ever own them.

Though the company régisseur Serge Grigoriev wrote of Diaghilev, “He never tired of repeating that it was essential for choreography to explore new paths and keep in line with contemporary developments,” it is also true that most of the Diaghilev ballets had discernible subjects and many of them told stories. They were about something. Those that did not tell a folk, historical, or mythological tale were poetic evocations that drew back the veil on erotic fantasy (Le Spectre de la Rose, L’Après-midi d’une Faune) or atavistic imperative (Le Sacre du Printemps, Les Noces) or intrigue within various supernatural or social orders (Petrouchka, Les Biches). Even the comparatively abstract Les Sylphides is clearly a conjuring of woodland spirits visited or perhaps envisioned by a young poet. When George Balanchine joined the Ballets Russes in 1924, a tenure as choreographer that lasted until Diaghilev’s death in 1929, he too made ballets that told stories. Indeed, it was in these years that he made his first masterpieces—Apollo in 1928 and Prodigal Son in 1929.

Neither ballet is plotless. Apollo gives us the birth of the sun god, his adolescent play with three muses (ballerinas), and his ascension to godhead (choreographer). Prodigal Son embodies the biblical parable from Luke, setting the fascinations of the flesh (the Siren’s seductive allure) against the eternal stature of classicism (the devout patriarch)—an intense opposition that the art of ballet, by its very nature, attempts to resolve, and which Balanchine, in modernist ballets like The Four Temperaments, would bring to startling oneness. Both ballets tell their stories with bold strokes, potent symbols, and transitions that have the elegance of a cinematic fade. In these two ballets we can see the beginning of a self-portraiture that would shadow, dimensionalize, and deepen Balanchine’s ballets, bringing a powerful sensation of intimacy to work that could often appear cool. Such intimacy is one way to bring meaning into a dance.

In the five years that Balanchine was with the Ballets Russes, however, he made only ten ballets. So what else was he doing? Well, opera and ballet were sister arts at the Ballets Russes, with ballet the dreamier, more wayward of the two, a kind of subconscious of the opera. By the time Balanchine arrived, the company had come under the patronage of the Princess of Monaco, and its dancers frequently performed in productions of opera. According to Bernard Taper’s Balanchine, when the twenty-year-old was first summoned to meet with Diaghilev, the impresario asked if he could choreograph opera ballets “very fast.” Balanchine, who “had only made one opera ballet in his life,” said yes. A look at George Balanchine: A Catalogue of Works shows that most of Balanchine’s work during the Diaghilev years was on opera ballets—a total of thirty-seven different productions that required divertissements, seguidillas, kermesses, ballets volants, valses, and the odd polonaise. One cannot over-estimate the importance of this experience. Balanchine himself cited his work in opera as a godsend, saying, “From Verdi’s way of dealing with the chorus, I learned how to handle the corps de ballet, the ensemble, the soloists—how to make the soloists stand out against the corps de ballet and when to give them time to rest.” He was learning structural verities and tonal range, dramatic tropes and theatrical pacing.

Balanchine’s involvement with opera did not end with the Ballets Russes. In 1932, with the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo—a new company made from the old—he set ballets on eighteen operas in three months for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. In the fourth month, he made the ballets Cotillon and La Concurrence, the former a sophisticated between-the-wars house party (beautifully reconstructed in 1988), the latter a tale of two competing tailors (long lost). Cotillon is explosive with brilliant energy and imagery. It is plotless, as all parties are, yet not abstract. Perhaps it was the sudden release into ballet after so many operas, or the culmination of choreographing so much over such a short period of time—mastery does not come without concentration and momentum, the approach to critical mass—but Cotillon, torn between innocence and menace, both hot and cold, is amazingly complex. When the reconstruction was shown in New York by the Joffrey Ballet, critics invoked that subtlest of storytellers, Henry James.

Through the 1930s and into the 1940s, Balanchine continued to choreograph for opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera (whose conservatism peeved him no end) and the New York City Opera (the sister organization to New York City Ballet). He also worked on Broadway, choreographing successfully for the musical theater. All this work in musical genres composed around a story line gave Balanchine a distinct advantage in his move from narrative to plotless ballet. It gave him formal foundations, infrastructural imprints, and a vault from which to pull shadows, echoes, and reverberations (in other words: ceilings, windows, and doors). He learned how to remove the story but to keep the line—a meaning—however invisible or ineffable. In fact, Balanchine was suggesting as much when he said, “You put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story; a man and two girls, there is already a plot.” This is completely true of opera, where there are words. Balanchine showed us that it could also be true of dance, without words.

The daily interplay of opera and ballet in sustained stretches of time is no longer the norm for young choreographers. And there are no more Diaghilevs around to nurture talent in fiery crucibles like the Ballets Russes. Choreographers have to figure it out for themselves while dealing with company directors who, on a good day, lack passion or taste and, on a bad day, are competitive or cowardly. Whatever the case, the bottom line is this: just as you must walk before you can run—or leap—choreographers must first learn to tell a story, for everything follows from there.

It isn’t easy, as recent seasons in New York have shown. Alexei Ratmansky’s narrative ballet for American Ballet Theatre, On the Dnieper, shouldn’t have been a failure, seeing that Ratmansky has choreographed some full-length ballets in Russia. Yet it was shockingly flat. Characters were not developed through posture, gesture, or step. And they hardly connected with each other or their community at large, perhaps because Ratmansky had them dancing so fast and so fussily. Like a paragraph on a page, the ballet was an abstract, a summary on speed. If only Ratmansky had slowed down and laid in the human touches that could have been pressure points, pulse points. Why didn’t he?

At New York City Ballet this last winter, another Russian, Alexey Miroshnichenko, attempted to tell a story—and not just any story, but Anton Chekhov’s classic The Lady with the Little Dog. This, too, was an empty and often irritating abstract. Miroshnichenko did put a man and a woman onstage (Andrew Veyette and Sterling Hyltin, who both danced well), along with eight “angels/fates” who brought out hallway runners which they unrolled, rolled up, and unrolled again, endlessly. If you hadn’t read the Chekhov you wouldn’t have had a clue as to what was going on. Why wasn’t Miroshnichenko pushed to shape a place, create a milieu, contour a time? Why not take Prodigal Son as a compositional model? Or Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden, a ballet that was once in the NYCB repertory? Both these works, with minimal props and backdrops, give the dancers—and the audience—everything they need to live in the ballet. Instead, we got carpeting.

Lately, the most satisfying works are coming to us from outside the ballet. The choreographer Larry Keigwin, whose Keigwin + Company spring season at the Joyce was something to sing about, is not afraid of subjects. His dances are always about something, though the more mysterious ones allow multiple interpretations. In fact, his Caffeinated was actually criticized for having a squarely framed, jazzily sustained subject: the elating energies of our coffee-achieving culture. Mattress Suite, a dance I had only seen pieces of, was on the program in full and—lo and behold—it told a story. With childhood echoes, economy of gesture, and inventive variations on a mattress, we saw a marriage, a separation, a search for the right partner in bed. It was quite simply Balanchine’s man and woman “on a stage.” Springing off pieces like Caffeinated and Mattress Suite, Keigwin is then able to walk tightropes into strange places. His premiere to Haydn’s Symphony No. 6, Bird Watching, was a surprisingly delicate yet glittering metaphor—a meditation on spring plumage, flock dynamics, and beauty. It was more of a ballet, and with a lighter touch, than many new classical works of the last few years. As for Runaway, a dance Keigwin choreographed in 2008 for students at The Juilliard School, it was the phenom of spring 2010. Runaway is one of those dances with a magnetic core so powerful it pulls all kinds of cultural markers and symbologies into its vortex. Runway models, Fellini divas, corporate boards, Blade Runner futurism, sexbots, celebrity, the big city lit up—talk about brilliant energies! Runaway is the closest thing I’ve ever seen, though in a completely different dance vocabulary, to Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.

Finally, I must mention Paul Taylor’s Sunset, a work from 1983 that grows both harder and softer with time, and was performed this season. Taylor has always been able to make dances that speak (remember, he came of age in the company of Martha Graham, a woman who knew how to tell stories). Sunset is plotless, but when it’s over you feel as if you’ve read a novel, such clarity presides over time and space. The music is Edward Elgar, his Serenade for Strings and Elegy for Strings. The dance takes place in a park, where six men in khaki uniforms, soldiers on leave, interact with four women in summer dresses. Among the men there is some of the jostling and one-upmanship we know from the sailors in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. But Taylor’s men move in smoothly shifting alignments and with a sense of hierarchy, as if they are a seasoned unit, mortally bonded. The way they approach and touch the women is careful, with an air of sacrament. You feel the vast space between male and female. Midway through the dance the music drops out and the mating calls of loons are heard. This brings a haunting quality of darkness, water, tumescence to the stage; we feel the full-bodied romantic yearning of young adults and of nights that feel eternal. That these young men, because of war, may be at the sunset of their lives makes the dance almost unbearable. They are thinking of love, and watching them, we are thinking of death. This is meaning. This is about something. This is art.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 9 , on page 16
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