At the Museé des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle in Alençon, France, there are works made of linen and air of such virtuosity that one stands, dumbfounded and frozen, gazing at them with incomprehension. Even those of us brought up in the needlework tradition, who can understand knitting, crochet, sewing, quilting, needlepoint, embroidery, and who have first hand knowledge of the time and patience required to accomplish these crafts, even we cannot grasp the Sisyphean efforts that produced these clouds of complicated delicacy. Watching a demonstration from a “living artist” and realizing that in one year she can expect to finish a small piece the size of a coaster, raises the astonishment even higher. To produce a fichu for a woman’s gown? Men’s lace cuffs, worn by a cavalier at court? A veil? A priest’s vestment? Years and years of work on a single piece, by many women, over a lifetime. It is no wonder that in wills of the time, laces were included along with family jewels and silver, as the most prized of inheritances. And reconciling the muscularity and endurance of this effort with the floaty and utterly ephemeral laces puts one in awe of human endeavor in the pursuit of beauty.
These lace pieces came into my mind on Saturday, watching Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco at New York City Ballet. One of Balanchine’s great masterpieces, set to the Double Violin Concert in D Minor by JS Bach and first choreographed in 1941, Concerto Barocco dwells inside the music, conjuring it from the aural to the visual realm. Two principal ballerinas, representing the voices of the two violins, engage in a complicated series of mosaic relationships with a male partner and a corps of eight female dancers. The difficulty of the dancing, its speed, its virtuosity, is belied by the soft clarity of the patterns and the aching loveliness of the stage picture. It is as if the soul of this music went from Bach’s brain to Balanchine’s brain and then to the dancers, in a direct communicative link, allowing us the illusion of sharing in the eternal. I am aware of the intense labor, discipline and decades of work it takes to make a world class ballet dancer – as Mark Morris says, it is the Olympics of dance – and that made watching Concerto Barocco, like viewing the Alençon lace, a stunning experience in the duality of our very human striving for a tiny moment of exquisite wonder. The joy of it!
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