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Abstract. Decorative. Illustrative. Evocative. Narrative. Story. Full-length. 19th Century. 20th Century. Modern. Traditional. There are a number of words that are used to differentiate styles of ballet, most of them indicative rather than comprehensive. There are moments of story in abstract ballets, and non-linear or decorative moments in narrative ballets. “What is ballet?” is a big question, for every time a dancer steps on a stage to do a pattern of movements, the meaning changes.

George Balanchine, largely considered to be the most innovative of 20th century ballet choreographers, worked more in abstract than in narrative forms, although he arose from the greatest of Russian narrative traditions. His emphasis was on the music, bringing to life in visual form the work of composers, and his deep love and respect for music is apparent in the work. Mark Shapiro, a talented choral and orchestral conductor, said recently that he only understood a certain musical and rhythmic idea after seeing Balanchine’s interpretation. “Mr. B”’s work even instructs musicians about music.

Is ballet ever truly abstract, though, in the way that the paintings of Kandisky or Mondrian are abstract? I heard a balletomane say recently that ballet was, to him, “moving sculpture.” To me that implies cold, perfect bodies-in-motion, but of course as soon as the human body is involved, the human experience is included. We the viewers bring our own minds and hearts to the mix. If the figure represented is human, even sculpture in the hardest of stone summons forth something of that humanity…the gentle, profound grief that pours out of Michelangelo’s first Pieta, the panic and horror in Daphne’s face as Apollo’s touch turns her to wood in Bernini’s work….these works do tell stories. But even abstracted human figures, such as the monumental work of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, speak to us of a lives lived, hopes denied, peace sought, sorrow endured.

Not all dancers have the ability to bring emotional intelligence to their dancing. During a recent experience at American Ballet Theatre, in a newly choreographed abstract ballet, one could compare the bland, blank performance of Daniel Simkin, who jumps and jumps and jumps and never imparts anything, with the exquisite communicativeness of Marcelo Gomes, whose slightest movement of back or shoulder, even facing away from the audience, is endowed with expression and meaning. In a performance of Mozartiana at New York City Ballet this fall, one was aware, especially in the Corps, of the difficulty of the steps and the intense concentration it takes to work in their fast style. They are impressively accomplished. But it took the lovely and special Sara Mearns to bring to the first movement the longing supplication of prayer. Her grace, dignity and humility transformed the piece at that moment into something ineffably moving and resonant. The ballet is an abstract tribute to Tchaikovsky and Mozart, but Ms. Mearns managed to bring to the stage our relationship with the Divine.

Bodies in space, moving to music or even in silence, whether in the work of Cunningham, Morris, Ashton, Petipa, or Balanchine, conjure the deepest of our shared experiences. That is what makes all performing arts so deeply wonderful and important to our world – our very souls are brought forth, expressed and celebrated.

©Poets Sinews, 2014. Reuse with permission.

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