ballet, Bolshoi, David Hallberg, Don Quixote, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Martin McDonagh, Melody S. Owens, Mozart, opera, Shakespeare, Stephanie Blythe, Tennessee Williams, the Cloisters, theatre
The good fortune of being exposed to excellence in the arts makes one wonder what it is that takes a movement, a sound, an object, and elevates it from the prosaic to the divine? It is as much to say, how to define the indefinable? Somehow, one knows perfection in the moment of experience – it is fleeting but unmistakable. It can be as specific as say, Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes or David Hallberg’s feet, but it can also encompass a body of work – Fred Astaire’s dancing or Stephanie Blythe’s singing. One can find it nestled in the midst of mediocrity – the second act opening of La Bayadère in an otherwise uninspired production can still leave you breathless. Moments of extreme pleasure can be found in Mozart’s operas, even when they creak under an extreme directorial concept: listening to Leporello’s list is always, always fun, and the Countess almost never fails to bring tears. Passing hurriedly through The Cloisters on one’s way somewhere else, a tiny boxwood carving of Madonna and Child, centuries old, is of such extraordinary delicacy and tenderness that it stops you dead in your tracks. And the beauty of spoken language in the theatre, whether a sharp turn of phrase by Martin McDonagh, the glory of Shakespeare’s verse, something sad and lyrical by Tennessee Williams, all provide moments of ecstasy in the hearing. These moments provide food for the soul.
Does it follow, then, that exposure to kitsch leads us in the other direction, to the lowest common denominator? The current production of Don Quixote, by the renowned and powerful Bolshoi Ballet, is a busy, noisy, frantic example of an art gone so wild as to distort the meaning of ballet. We think we know this piece, a 19th century Russian classic, originally choreographed by the same man who gave us Swan Lake, Nutcracker, etc. The third act grand pas de deux, or pieces of it, are a staple of ballet competitions and galas. But the ballet as a whole? If technical wizardry without characterization, thought, emotion, dramatic arc or soul is your cup of tea, then this is the show for you. To be sure, the dancers seemed to be having fun amidst all the claptrap – the Kitri never stopped smiling and the Basilio never lost his “I can top that!” expression. Gypsies! Knives! Matadors! Capes! Flamenco! Fans and Castanets! Death-defying lifts and leaps! It is a tongue-in-cheek romp clothed in Las Vegas exaggeration, and the audience seemed to enjoy all the gasping and applauding.
There was one moment that worked dramatically, thanks to the character dancer playing the minor role of Don Quixote. In the first act the Don, who has confused Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea, dances with her in a courtly minuet. It lasted a very short time but was infused with warmth and wonder, as he gently held her hand and danced with her, savoring this chance to be near, even touch, his dream. This moment shone like a jewel in an empty basket, and made me wonder what might be if the entire ballet was interpreted with the same level of emotional intent?
It will be argued that this ballet is not intended to be taken seriously, to be dramatically viable, or even of a piece (certainly both the music and choreography have been much altered over the nearly 150 years since it was written). It could also be argued that silly pastiche, too, has a place in ballet, which as an art form can embrace many periods, many styles, many voices and the full range of human experience, from Mount Everest to the Sun King to the Real Housewives, the sublime to the ridiculous.
One yearns for the sublime, though. A good potato chip can be wonderful, but of course you would die if that is all you had to eat.