by Ava Brown
copyright © 2012 by Ava Brown
Boris Lermontov–The Red Shoes: My dear Livy, even the best magician in the world cannot produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.
I love to look at old film of Pavlova. Perhaps it is the shadow effect in the film, the way she appears to flit around the space allotted to her in the film-she seems to push to the edges of the celluloid and back again, up and down-the cameraman has to be fast to catch her! She jumps, she runs, she darts, she flutters, she falls and oops, she’s back up again and dancing away, but she can never get out of your sight. She is on film. I imagine that dancers were more mobile then, freer, less confined to the stage. The screen can barely contain her. Her energy. I feel I can watch her again and again because she has so much to say! Like a butterfly, I have the urge to release her from her celluloid cage. Surely, there will always be something new. Her black hair gleamed in the films; her dresses had a silvery, iridescent quality and sparkled. Her dark eyes looked at you occasionally, so intensely.
Remember The Red Shoes-Moira Shearer and her red dresses, red hair, yes, but she moved! Not static, not posing for her picture in the camera. Movement! The film era had changed since Pavlovas time. The use of color, music and acting in the film was much heralded. To me, the thing that is different from all other films of then, is the main character’s long dancing sequences. Her desire to dance is tied to the storyline, we know. Since that time, I am not sure any film has come even close to depicting as much dance, as many places, so furiously. The message is: Life is short if you dance, or for that matter make any art-it is never long enough to create enough masterpieces for everyone. Life is also viewed in the context of being an artist if you are one. No art without life, no life without art. In the film, when Lermontov meets Moira Shearer (Vicky), the dialogue goes like this:
“Lermontov: When we first met … you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer, you asked me whether I wanted to live and I said “Yes“. Actually, Miss Page, I want more, much more. I want to create, to make something big out of something little – to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question, what do you want from life? To live?
Vicky: To dance.”
It is the fact that Vicky was possessed by the red shoes which made her dance, in Hans Christian Anderson‘s story, upon which the movie was based. Most children read this story, or did. The Red Shoes has recently been restored and premiered in its revised glory at Cannes and can be found on Youtube. Certainly, directors such as Martin Scorcese have been influenced by The Red Shoes due to the use of vivid red color as a focal point in the film. It is also a fact that the dramatization of the story, while containing the story, is far more interesting than the original story. The death of Vicky is shocking when it happens because you are so caught up in the new story and the dancing in that story that even as a fact in the book, you cannot accept it, and feel she must keep on dancing forever. It is my contention that The Black Swan is in fact the same story, without the red shoes. It is this obsession and Van Gogh-like insanity (by the way supposedly caused by absinthe, and not dancing), that would cause her to do anything to be the object of this choreographer’s interest initially, her naivete, her hopes and dreams, and the fact that she just cannot stop dancing!
Though patrons did not believe cinema would keep the ending in The Red Shoes, they did, and Vicky dies, tragically. The many pithy one-liners delivered by actors in the film, the depiction of the tribulations experienced by dancers, the pain, compulsion and experience of living your life in the theater are all eloquently relayed in this little film. At the time, this was not really what patrons wanted to see, so the film had little fanfare and initially no money for major distribution. I read that it was in one theater only, and released on a larger scale much later. Nearly, 100 years later, it is being referred to as one of the most important pictures ever made. I agree, it is an artwork, but what else has there been to compare it to artistically? Not much. It is not that we need more films about dance, it is that we need more films with dancers in them. Everyone knows one-talk to them.
In The Red Shoes – your eyes are drawn to the living color moving across the screen, forcing you to watch her dance-it’s like blood flowing-life being lived as it was meant to be, in movement. It is that movement to which our eyes are drawn and the color accentuates that which we are already, as predators, bound to follow – very Hitchcockian. Like Vicky, we can’t get away! Moira Shearer danced and moved, more liberated than the dancers of older films. In The Red Shoes, at least, the cameraman did not have to chase after her, as he did Pavlova, probably due to the dolly, which had by then been invented and the moving background. Of course there was also editing and Pavlova did not have that option, either. I feel if she did have those tools, she would have used them! The red shoes know no boundaries and they dance her into the streets, they dance her over the mountains- they dance her everywhere, not just in a ballet studio, on a stage, or in front of a mirror. We feel we are there, seeing something impossible, no one in the audience could keep up with her if it were not for the film and the cinematographer. We need the film to go on seeing her. In order to make sure everyone sees the ballet, apparently, we need to view it on the screen or on a stage-and choreographers do construct their pieces with the view to them being danced on the stage and frequently videotaped, even if only for reference. This limits dance, causes it to be created, modified in practice, for performance on the stage and within a box. But still so few pieces are actually filmed and film does not really seem to cross the dancer’s mind-it would interfere with dancing! Dances and choreography were not originally done on stages, but were done in court and socially. It seems to have become more formal as we become less so. Choreographers used to add natural backgrounds, costumes and scenery to their pieces in an effort to create the feeling of landscape settings. Many of Pavlovas films were done outside! Not one contemporary film uses nature as a background when filming dance. Why not film Don Quixote in the streets of Seville, or Sleeping Beauty in the mountains of Hungary or, well, you know what I mean.
In yesterday, theater was an informal thing, performed in front of the masses, for religious purposes and the churches were great promoters. They knew if you wanted to reach people, you had to bring the theater or the message to the people. In the streets, squares, open air, dancing is life, and should be danced everywhere. Although the church was not above device-I like to think of them as the founder of the special effect, think Shroud of Turin, bleeding fountains, bleeding statues. Criticized for their “pop” mentality and devoid of any classical references, music videos have catapulted the careers of many dancers into the six-figure range, but we can not seem to make ballet a nourishing feast for the masses or the senses on film. Perhaps choreographers should use film more often. If ballets were not so “flat,” and dancers were more three-dimensional, perhaps ballet would enjoy a wider appeal. Dancers are looking for films on the Internet, and on Youtube, and there are relatively no(?) contemporary films featuring ballet or modern dancers in real-life scenarios or in dramatic pieces.
When you read many novels, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a character will be described as a dancer, such as Esmeralda. We imagine her skillful dancing abilities, and then we see a film of Salma Hayek dancing, and Walt Disney’s animated version, and it is just not what we imagined possible-a real letdown. Those performances would inspire no one to dance, let alone steal hearts or cause heads to be severed! I have heard people state that seeing The Red Shoes (1) made them want to dance, but I have not heard one person cite The Huntchback of Notre Dame (any version). The director wants her to beguile us with her beauty not her dancing, it is not believable. These women must be the personal obsession of the director alone. Many dancers claim that it was a certain performance of ballet that created in them the desire to be a dancer. However, Gina Lollobrigida, despite not being a professional dancer, is able to give a credible performance as one, the public (at least) feels, that she is a siren. I do not feel she danced, but she moved well and from appearances the filmmakers were persuaded that Quasimodo was not enraptured by her dancing, but rather her sexuality. One can’t help feeling that more dance films would have been made if there were more women making films.
Salome, upon which these later gypsy/exotic heroines are loosely based, is totally within our own imaginations to create, and I have as yet seen nothing that compares with what I conjured-and based on how my mother described her Dance of the Seven Veils to me. It took me a bit of time to separate those words, from a young age I believed it was The Dance Oftheseven Vales , then The Dance of the Seven Vales, and then years later and more mature, I finally realized that the removing of these veils one at a time, to reveal the body, was a seduction. A child in my day be confused about what could be so great about dancing around in or removing the veils. So What? It takes a lifetime, perhaps to understand the statement that less is more -perhaps this was the first written description of a striptease and due to film, its meaning is universal at once. But in all the portrayals I can find in film, only Rita Hayworth’s is considered memorable and take it from me, it is not. It is a let down, frankly, and no one cares to pick up the gauntlet of challenge and recreate this tempestuous display in a faithful manner. On the stage or in film there is no memorable production I can find. Rita Hayworth had many qualities and dancing is one of them, at times. But, she is not able to depict Salome credibly.
Moira Shearer was not boring, and she was really dancing, unlike some stars contracted to portray dancers. We are tricked into watching body doubles and misled into believing that the scene is comprised of real dancing and real ballet dancers. I would prefer to know this before I went to the theater as it is an important consideration for my laying out my $10-15 to see a film. I really feel cheated and duped. I expect device and special effects in Star Wars, but surely not dancing. Similar to the the control employed in virtual animation, such as in Tin Tin, is the manipulation of the senses by the director of Swan Lake. The more convinced film makers are of our the complete betrayal, the more the Screen Actor’s Guild wants to reward them for it. If actors were convinced, entirely, of Ms. Portman’s efforts to imitate a dancer, then they must not have had very much knowledge about dancing or ballet! Without artists in films, actors, dancers, writers, costumes and lighting, any connection with reality is cut, and so is the connection to art. Life is reduced to cartoons.
“What art offers is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit.” John Updike
Every time a major production that could use real dancers does not, it harms the dance community, by separating us from what dance is today and pushing it further back in our consciousness to an indefinite place called history. Dance is alive today! If dancer’s cease to pass this art form down, then the complete record of it will be lost, only to be studied from films and archives, as it practically is already-argh!
Those who dance, who take it seriously, do feel a bit of qualm in stating we are “dancers.” Are we? Does the artist not question himself in the presence of the masters as their works, and sometimes they, look down upon us, from the walls of museums or galleries, on high, and on the stage, and if we have thought of ourselves as artists, do we not reconsider (even a little) as we put the question to ourselves? Are we? Are we dancers, artists, musicians? Do we call ourselves that at first, or do we call ourselves that finally, because there is no other word which describes us? It is at last that we must say so and not at first if we are true artists, no matter what our particular calling. A film maker is not necessarily an artist, anymore than anyone else, nor is an actor, but film is a powerful tool for or against an ideal. Dancers may be the last artists standing! The human spirit is alive in children, who move. For them, at least, dancing comes naturally, just watch them!
Dance films are interactive-they should make you feel like dancing! If a “mere” actor can trigger this reflex, then it could be said one goal has been achieved in the film. Think of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Shirley McLaine. Whether comedic, romantic, or lusty, dancing can be beautiful and exemplifies the human form, and our natural emotions, no matter the perception. I do not think The Black Swan accomplishes this. After waiting for so long to see dance in film again, or a film about dancers, that is all we got? Hollywood studios taught dance to their stars but then there was a switch from the major studios and actors were no longer taught to dance unless, like fencing or boxing, a role required it. Actors have sometimes received kudos for attempting to assume the role of a fighter, country singer, or other notable, bringing a popular icon back to life, successfully. Salma Hayek’s portrayal of the artist Frida Kahlo, was less than stunning, but there are scores of dramatizations in English and in other languages which are triumphant. I worked at the opening of Frida’s first major retrospective of her work which was scheduled to coincide with the release of the biography by Caroline Herrera, and having immersed myself in both her art and her life history, I felt very connected to her. The film was extremely self-indulgent none of the feeling from her work or her life were conveyed. I had similar feelings of disappointment in The Black Swan. Right away, I sensed-this is not a dancer, this is artifice. The film had tons of meaning and innuendo, but i felt as the selection of a non-dancer was part of the trickery. As that it was successful, and there was passion, but it was not the passion of dancing. Ballet was the film’s score-it was set to the music of ballet, but was not.
There is “hoofing”- or getting the job done, compared with classical or modern dance, and hardly an artist was required for that, but “Broadway” dancers who were dancing “extras,” made their living, like Vegas dancers in these chorus lines. A few dancers would rise to stardom from the chorus lines, but even these are few and far between, and more importantly, they became famous, or were noticed for other reasons than their dancing. These dancers are pawns of the director’s vision for a film, always secondary to the story-line, almost never the stars. Sadly, dancers have come to the point where this is acceptable to them as a way of life and they do not fight for more more recognition, rights or artistic control. If dancer’s are not dance “experts” then who is?
In a real dancer’s life almost everything is secondary to the dancing! And it is shocking to me, that a film, such as The Black Swan, whose main purpose is to portray this would use non-dancers at all. Perhaps dancers are okay with taking the crumbs proferred by the writers and director and producers of this film, but I believe artists should have more to say about it than they have. When Little Saigon was on Broadway, the producers were required to use Asians in the parts. Why should film makers not be required to use dancers in the parts? Well, dancers are not a protected minority but I think this might be a good time to fight for that status. I will not buy the video! I think parents, ill-informed about the realities of the entertainment industry, make a grave error by forcing their children to study dance, based upon a fantasy they have derived from looking at the media. Due to the way that dancers overall, are treated in the media, and due to the fact that no opportunities exist for them beyond the classroom and small stage, parents should not mislead their children into believing that false hopes exist and the pursuit of ballet should only continue seriously if the dancer herself, is aware of the remote chance of any success. There should be an International Dancers Forum to address these matters and I would like to be involved! Why torture them, learn the discipline that is dance, pay for coaching and do competitions, and then turn them loose on the world – to do what – hoof for pennies? At least a sports player has the opportunity to make some money!
If parents and teachers and children find dance important to be the best at-why do film makers not consider their audience and their standards? Their expectations? Part of the excuse for not using live dancers in roles would be that dancers are not taught (anymore) to show emotion, to dance with feeling, pieces are usually all about line, music and the choreographer, and very often, abstract. It is no wonder so many dancers cannot really act, they have too many other requirements to get to the top of their field to add another one-even an important one! They must have the feet or they are discouraged. They must have the body or they are discouraged, They must have the flexibility and control of an Olympic gymnast or they are discouraged. They must balance. They must listen to the music. They must dance on point. If they fail in any one of a number of other areas they are also discouraged. They are seldom encouraged unless they have all of the above and money. If it were not for misfits and oddballs, this country would have virtually no entertainment! I for one, am glad that Audrey Hepburn was too poor to continue ballet and opted for films, otherwise we might have never seen her again!
Balanchine was not a great dancer. He was a great publicist and choreographer and he gave the people what they wanted. That is why he rose to such prominence and fame. He taught dancers to dance what the public wanted to see, and he made jokes about it, teaching elephants to dance! He did not find the public very picky, but he did realize that the public wanted to be entertained. Later, he became more entranced with bodies, the art, or the “refinement” of the spectacle, but this related to his work as a choreographer and in no way disavowed those previous works any more than Picasso’s last painting was his best one. Those who witnessed this passion for dance were drawn in and convinced, that ballet was formidable. But, such is the public fervor-on and off. To date, no other dance benefactor, choreographer or artist has brought ballet to us in so many ways and from so many different perspectives. Many potential stars, who might have astounded us, probably did not get a chance to, so little attention is paid to the art. Perhaps it would have been better to turn over the reins to someone who was more of a publicist or a manager than another dancer. Perhaps dancers do not know how to promote their art because they are too busy learning it. The market is still there, but it is different and even more sophisticated than it was, and more particular. It is ready to be tapped. If shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” can succeed, then it must be time for ballet!
Why not make movies using real dancers, write stories for dancing films, and not just use dance as a device for another story within a story within a story or as the profession of a character? The Black Swan said, “we all love ballet- if the dancer is a psycho, there are lesbian love scenes, gratuitous sex, murder, gore and violence.” It did not say, “we should all appreciate ballet,” but instead, the dancers depicted in the film are characterized as sweaty and pathetic victims who are tied to ballet until they get a chance to shine. I liked the film, too, it really shook me up-it took something sacred and stately and gave it all the drama of 90210. I believe there is a place for everything in art, but in dance films there should be real dancers used. That’s all, no matter the supporting story, I think there are dancers who can act it and it should be a rule for them to find them.
Some of this responsibility also rests with the dancers. The ability of a dancer to convey the temperament and feeling of a piece should be required and taught, otherwise we will always see vapid actresses mimicking serious dancers and vice versa. There is no law that says a dancer cannot be both and they should be! Why not create new roles, push forward to collaborating in great films using real dancers? Why spend any time at all in this life, publicly practicing? Why redo the same old tired pieces and not freshen the pot, bringing new works with new dancers, creating new films and memorable dancing moments.
Compare and contrast Maya Plisetskaya and Sylvie Guillem in the short film of the piece Bolero by Maurice Bejart. Sylvie Guillem unwittingly (or not) allows the comparison to be made of herself with Plisetskaya. With her choice of opportunities, Sylvie Guillem is surely always looking to dance that master role in which she finds herself perfectly formed to dance. Any other new piece would have fostered her own creativity and would not rehash, almost exactly, what was already done by Plisetskaya, and I think better. Self-indulgence should not ever, and theory should not always, be taken to the stage-it sets us, whether we like it or not. It shows a lack of creativity. Film and video give us the opportunity to see what we are producing before we let others see it, so art can be better for films existence as a visual correction tool. why copy, even from the filming angles and the set design, what has already been done before?
These are two completely different dancers, in different times, and with the technology available, naked of tricks, I do not feel as though, oh well, Sylvie Guillem has picked up where Plisetskaya left off, so forget Plisetskaya! No more are these classic modern pieces or ancient ballets set for the present? If one film maker, or one dancer, could imbue into those old relics, the relevance of those performances today, then I would be impressed, but making dance no better off by their production, harms the cause. Instead, Sylvie should use her power in dance to make something entirely new (preferably film as it can popularize the art form) and spread that all over the media channels. Why not use that power to promote ballet, cement its importance and relevance in this new century, right away. Perhaps other dancers to come should think about this, and their fellow dancers, when they become famous-do originals! Dance and theater and music, unlike art begs you to recreate a piece, to live in it, yourself and to bring it to an audience desirous of seeing it performed again, but theater is different, even an art of its own, lends itself and can connect to other forms of media, including film, although their are adaptations that are failures, there are more numerous examples. Some people have said, they find it unbelievable that a character suddenly begins to dance. Why not dance if that is how you express emotions. Too many people are ignorant about dance, unaware of the artform, and equate it with popular musicals and farce. Yes, it is in those, too, but not exclusively.
A dancer has to have respect for the choreographer-they are taught to-one has to adhere to the work, be true to it. But they are not. We would all be less impressed with annual Nutcracker performances, if we had to watch children and amateur dancers perform the original parts of the ballet as they were designed for dancers of consummate skill. They are revised, shortened and changed at the discretion of the teacher, so that the students can dance them and so that uneducated audiences can sit through them. The purpose of art is not always to please, but to touch the viewer and to cause in that person some emotion. Like sitcoms and blockbusters, pop music and romantic comedies, when we attend shallow performances,we are not moved deeply, we are being entertained shallowly usually using the most basic forms of humor and predictable situations. But we are wrong if we think this is art, maybe bravado and canned laughs, the same devices in film after film, pushing the same emotion buttons, but not art. This is understandable, but to superimpose Natalie Portman over any professional (and beautiful) dancer is just artistic suicide by the director and every person of intelligence out there, with an appreciation of ballet, had to ask themselves at first, is this going to be a comedy? Well, it is considered to be acting, at least in Natalie Portman’s case, bar far too much was made of her tortured performance. Shot in the style it was, her acting was cut off (fortunately) and scenes changed so quickly that you were again in the director’s control, but you couldn’t have helped but notice the limit of her emotions in the film, which, if the editing had not been so adept more people would have observed. We again have to ask ourselves, when she did not actually dance the parts, if her awards were truly earned? I definitely believe the editor deserved an Oscar and it was an important film because nothing else has come out in so many years. But those who were anticipating it, for the dancing, or to be entertained, were disappointed. Does the film industry even understand ballet? And this brings the whole question around again to, is integrity of ART totally forgotten, lost? Compared to The Red Shoes, whose producers had not just knowledge of ballet, apparently, but also a storyline, it was just a better film.
If I were Natalie Portman, I would give the mantel ornament to the dancer who spent her life learning to dance, faceless and unnamed in the film. Paid for her work in the film, like an extra, this dancer fell prey to the oldest tin pan alley trick in the book. Dancers also need to be a little more savvy about entertainment law. That dancer never should have signed that contract without being aware of what it meant. But it is a big issue nonetheless. If you were to imitate a piece of art, you would be called a forger, but dance, like theater, has at least two variables in every work-the dancer, the choreographer and the public; the artist, unless working under a benefactor, has only two, himself and the public. When you add in a film, it gets much more complicated. In other words, she could be expected not to fully understand the impact of her performance, how the film would be edited or the public opinion. Is mimicry in film or acting any better than forging an artist if the artist’s medium is dance?
In Bolero, I see the subtle differences in the movement of their feet and hands at first (watch the videos), Sylvie Guillem, being more staccato on the movement, and her hands being held more rigidly, angularly if you will, as if she were trying to do something right, like cheerleading. When you are free to dance, you don’t worry so much about so much, you just dance. It’s not only that I think Maya is more sinuous, but she seems to me to just have less fear of doing something wrong-she feels it, originally-no fear. Sylvie points her feet sharply, with every step, as she has been taught to do, but Maya does not seem to be thinking about it at all, although we know her foot points. She is more concerned about the subtle expression created, and intended by the slight releve, and not a pique (what is the viewer supposed to notice? That is the question Bejart might have asked the dancer). It is also what is going on in Maya’s torso that we are watching and I think this is what Bejart intended-a the seduction-of the senses. Dance should force you to watch. Maya becomes more beautiful as the piece progresses. In The Black Swan, precisley where we would be watching the dancing, the scenes are cut and there is just a great flapping of wings! It is very funny actually. Maya is happy, smiling, inviting. Look at her. It is her piece. Natalie Portman as the The Black Swan, a fraud. Who could dislike Sissy Spacek for playing Loretta Lynn-what did we really know about her? Well, we could ask Dolly Parton. But somehow, I have no doubt of Sissy Spacek’s ability to portray Loretta Lynn and she did a good job-the film was really carried by the story and the acting abilities of the stars alone. A dancer or an actress need to look for those pieces that they can make their own. Why not something new? A new ballet? Only new ballets? I can understand a film maker wanting to capture Maya’s performance-it was original, but I do not see the same necessity for capturing a second version of the same thing. Remakes, rarely as good as the original and made because the artists have no repertoire of their own. The idea that one must make something do something prevails. After viewing The Black Swan, it does not seem as though there was a rabbit in the hat at all. But it does remind us subject can be the basis for a horror story and that there is turmoil offstage.
Pavlova, being gone, can have no objection to all these ballerinas portraying her work and trying to emulate her, but she would probably note the lack of understanding and passion, maybe even enthusiasm for dance performance, and probably be very disappointed in the failure of ballet to move to the big screen with the same intensity it was then beginning to do, and I feel dancers might disappoint her too, she clearly used every part of her body and mind for the seduction of her audience, nothing was left to chance. Had she lived, I have a feeling we would have had scores of real films of ballet, as it is she alone seems to have left the most history of dances on film! I think she would have left the theater laughing. She would also have demanded to be in the film! She could have. Imagining what the film could have been, with a real dancer, a real artist, causes me to go back to those old films of Pavlova and try to figure her out, see what made her tick. Film makers wanted to capture dance on film at that time, why not now? pavlova was not intimidated by film, but seemed to relish it, as a way to communicate her message to more people. Was she more provocative, passionate, determined than dancers today? Was she more talented, if you mean by the use of every device within her reach to herald herself and dance? I believe so, and if ballet performers encompassed more of those characteristics today, perhaps film makers would feel that they must capture this spirit on film.
Maybe it is indoctrination which compels dancers to dance the old ballets and now the old modern dances? But we should learn from this and work to give the public what they want-in a ballet and then perhaps film makers will be inspired to make films about dance once again. Maybe we have forgotten that dance to Pavlova, to Shearer, to Plisetskaya, and to Guillem – was not just art but life. With greatness not only comes the opportunity to perform ones art, whatever it is, but also the opportunity to inspire others to dance, to choreograph and to write. So I guess, even in that sense a dance film about anything is a film about dance which may inspire writing, choreography and maybe even dancing!
Dancers from the American Ballet Theater dancing La Bayadere went on television to say: “We do not know what this ballet means, we just show up and dance it-it is too confusing to explain.” How can I ever watch those dancers again? I am no idiot. I have read 101 Stories of the Great Ballets! Is it all right to just be a dancer and not an artist? Does dancing imply only a body capable of gymnastics, but not artistry? Fire those dancers and they were principals! An artist attempting a master’s style used to write “in the manner of” Cezanne or Da Vinci, so that a “study” would not be mistaken for the real thing. Is it really different for dancers or actors? Should we re-think dance ethics before entrusting those choreographers works or ideals to mirlitons to influence whole generations of other dancers? Does any dance performance require believability to be great? Or authenticity? Originality? Do all ballets or dances have meaning and is it important that the meaning be adhered to? These are questions which are not dealt with in most dance schools. Dancers have the obligation to educate others about dance. Otherwise and eventually, these decisions will be left to the aspiring 14-17 year-old want-to-be-dancers who feel that they have the right body type or ability to copy other great artists movements-that is all. “Mommy, I want to grow up to be a replica.” We have to pass on, not just the ballets, but the art of dance.
An appreciation for great art may be a higher ideal than to be an artist. I worry about what masterpieces the next generation will leave out in their so-called estimable appreciation of great art. I hope history does not stop here for too long because there isn’t much worth keeping. Anyone who has been to the bookstore looking for dance books, even magazines, can attest to the one book they have on the dance shelf, Apollo’s Angels. In the biography section, there are at least 1000 books. If anyone wants to submit a dance manuscript to me, I will act as their agent and try to get it published. It is as much in our tolerance we promote this apathy, not bothering to learn much about it and yet shelling out for classes, privates, toe shoes, the works. For what? If there is nothing in the hat?
A point is made to preserve the works of ballet as though in anticipation of its demise. Of the moment, briefly publicized, dance performances or works do need to have an archive, like films, or museums like art. Why are there no museums of dance artifacts? It is things like this that really get across the lack of protection for the art. If dance is not protected, it will become extinct, like the emu. But, instead of putting so much focus on what dance was, energy would be better spent in creating new works, promoting new dancers, promoting dance! Maybe, part of the problem is, the dancers themselves. I must be perfect, thin and sylph-like (what is a sylph?), have hyperextended feet, be beautiful, be like other dancers, be a gymnast and an acrobat,” rather than being creative, having a voice as well as a body, anything to communicate and not just a vehicle for choreographers or directors to use. In the words of Jane Austen in “Pride and Prejudice,” If a woman must possess so many traits to be considered accomplished, I am no longer surprised at your knowing so few, I am surprised at your knowing any!” If a dancer must be all of the things the schools intimate they have to be, then how can they be artists, too? Where is the opportunity for education, and why are only some children exposed to the prestigious education dancers receive at some schools. What about the feeling, the stories, the self? With so many insipid posers standing about, I have more desire to see the male dancers, who have the best time of it, except for the lifting-there are so few of them, they can do whatever they want and bad or good, they are cheered. They can be funny and entertaining, a little short or fat and still be successful. They appear more relaxed, you almost never hear about their anorexia. I am surprised that the double standard which exists for women in ballet is not challenged as being grossly discriminating and unconstitutional, because it is no better than Nazism. If so many things come to the mind of every artist or composer or writer, before we put a word on the page, a rendering, a song, then, as we all know-nothing gets made! Therefore, I am not surprised that few new ballets come into being, I am surprised that ANY do!
I believe we spend too much time in dance copying the great masters instead of getting on with the art of dancing. If art comes from life, and drama and greatness from torment, then all of these young dancers should have plenty of it-and they don’t. It becomes posing and not dancing. I think real torment is not being able to tour with your Russian company abroad because you are Jewish and other natural disasters which life affords you. In other words, there is no point putting obstacles in your own path, or in the path of children who just want to dance, because there will be lots of real trouble along the way. And they can truly have nothing worthwhile to say at such a young age, so why torment them and force them to do The Nutcracker every year which draws away from their work in classes? It is to the detriment of the art that these traditions are reinforced, as if to say, just keep doing it and you will be great, when in reality, it is what puts money in the pockets of the studio for sure! More money should be spent on training, acting and music if studios really want to turn out dancers who can earn their keep in adulthood. Dancers need to think, be educated and be smart!
So how do films reinforce this? They don’t, but they are just as devoid of creative talent as ballet studios and companies are. Our country used to sponsor the arts and encourage thinking and creativity. It was not Russia or even France that put modern dance on the map, it was Americans who understood it, supported it and made it our own, and yet, we have no link in the chain between Merce Cunningham and today. When the greats die off, there are no new and rising stars or choreographers to take their places. There is less about dance now with all the technology available to communicate it. There is a lot of buzzing and talk, but no fruit. There are some great choreographers around today, and there would be more if more children were encouraged to dance. It might be relatively easy to begin a dance company, invent new forms of dance and works, make films, but we have to educate them first. If filmmakers used the technology available to them and collaborated with dancers, some amazing achievements could be made.
I enjoyed the Black Swan for what it was, a film. It was no more about real dancers than its lead was played by one. With all of it came Natalie Portman, with her usual self and that colored the film for me. Instead of feeling that the film was about dance or dancing, it managed to reduce dance if possible to even more of a cliche than it already is becoming. All actors-no dancers, like all Caucasions playing Asians on Broadway. Zero believability. Not believable in any way and not anymore related to dance than McDonalds is to “health food.” I took my daughter, not realizing that the movie was r-rated, and her response to it (of course I covered her eyes-for most of the movie), was that she did not like it at all. Did I mention I was not going to buy the dvd? Why? Because the movie was cliche. It had all of the predictable twists, turns and scenarios that a viewers poll would dictate it to if those polled were blase about the film, and were stoked for Rocky III or Twilight. At least Rocky III viewers did see some real fight scenes! It was simply: let’s put all of these devices in the story in case the public finds it boring. I think it could have stood on its own, and with real dancers, would have been a much better (and believable) film.
I was surprised, when I thought about it, about how little we have progressed in not being able to do anything more with real dancers, in fact less, than was done by even Pavlova in those films, The Red Shoes, or in The Hunchback and in other films of those days, with all the creative minds and technology available. 100 years have passed since Pavlova made her little black and white films, dancing wildly in the light viewer-and NOTHING has come close to capturing her essence, or almost any other dancer (Hines and Barishnikov did cross-over in White Knights and that was an excellent film), but there has been no succession of good films involving ballet or dance. If the Black Swan had used a real dancer in the role and not just been the vehicle for the glorification of a certain actress, I would have liked the film better, and obviously a lot of people disagree with me. It captured emotions, but not those felt by dancers, really. I do not believe dancers to be maniacal at all-in the words of Elle in Legally Blond, “exercise makes endorphins and endorphine make people happy.” Not entirely, but nearly true.
Non-dancers and the public will say, what is the point, why does it matter? It does. I fear what is being lost is any integrity in art put to film. Pretty soon, writers won’t even bother to verify their sources! Dancers should work on acting skills, mime and learn more about dance. Perhaps if dance topics are popular, more books on dance will appear on the bookshelves of stores and libraries. Perhaps more focus on arts education is necessary, because if more people were taking ballet classes, and more emphasis was placed on dance as a career, and more parents could afford ballet, more students would emerge, becoming choreographers and writers, as well as more dancers and more dance teachers, and more schools and more dancing. When the final curtain is drawn it will be dancers who make these changes, demands, and innovations and lovers of dance. But there must be a rabbit in the hat.
Keep on dancing!
2 thoughts on “Why Do You Want To Dance?”
Mysylph (I like that name),
Welcome to following Harkness Ballet, and I am happy to reciprocate because of the wealth of material you have here. I’ve just scanned it, but will give it a real read soon.
Thank you so much! I am just getting started but hope to be able to add relevant items of interest. I am hoping to get dancers to answer the survey questions found on my site. These results are the focus of the blog.