It is possible, in a single week, to see both the sublime and the ridiculous in almost anything.
Exhibit #1: Jerome Robbins’ ballets. His iconic Broadway work, athletic young hoodlums dancing in sneakers, orthodox men with bottles in their hats, is the acknowledged work of a great master. He’s had biographies published and PBS documentaries made, but his parallel career at New York City Ballet, where he choreographed dozens of ballets over decades, is less well known to the general public.
A recent viewing of three of his works made me sit straight up in wonder at the freshness of his ideas and the variety of his vision. The Concert, a comic ballet set to Chopin, in which the piano and pianist are on stage, is charming and such fun to watch, a vaudevillian romp. Moves, choreographed in the 1980s, is set to complete silence: there is no music, no drum, no sound except the dancers’ feet. The focus is entirely on their physical movements. I wondered almost immediately, how are the dancers cuing each other? Intricate sets of corps and solo dancers moving precisely together without music, entirely in harmony with each other – I know of no other company in the world whose dancers are so well tuned to each other that such a work would be possible.
And then there is Glass Pieces, to the music of Philip Glass. It is as masterful and energetic as Robbins’ Broadway works but with a more sophisticated and elegant structure. In three movements, robust and quicksilver images are brought forth to the pulsing Glass music. In the first movement, “Rubric,” the dancers crisscross the stage and each other at high speed, propelled and streaming like confetti driven by the wind. In the second, “Facades,” a slow and intense pas-de-deux takes place in front of a frieze of backlit corps dancers. Evenly spaced and moving rhythmically across the back of the stage, the corps provided a hypnotic counterpoint to the gorgeous dancing of the man and woman in front. The pas de deux itself is powerful and legato; time seems to stretch and the two dancers I saw last week, Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar, were almost sculpted out of the space, like Greek statues who, just for a moment, chose to move. In the final movement, “Akhnaten,” set to the explosive drumming of the funeral scene in Glass’ opera of the same name, a vigorous group of male dancers sets the tone with a dynamic, driving dance of square patterns and surprising modern dance touches. Corps women do the same, interspersed with geometric pas de deux. The speed and complexity of that last movement leaves you breathless, and exhilarated. I left the theatre elated at what I had seen.
Exhibit #2: Flesh and Bone, a TV series about ballet first aired in 2015 through one of the online streaming networks, which I have only recently viewed. Even though there were significant ballet talents involved, both as performers and as creators, this benighted series evoked spoiled meat, a foul, sour soap opera in the guise of a “behind the scenes” ballet story. Drugs! Bulimia! Incest! Nudity! Back Stabbing! Sabotage! Sexual predation! Tantrums! Cruelty! Jealousy! Profanity!….almost every negative human and inhuman trait rolled into one small group of people, in the most contrived of situations. I know from inside sources in the real ballet world that these types of behavior are sometimes present. The same can be said for professional sports, media, politics and the corporate world – no metier is entirely exempt. Are we to believe that such a dysfunctional and corrupt group of people, behaving far worse than animals, is capable of producing great art? No. Of course not all great artists are good people – Robbins himself was notoriously difficult and prickly. But the integrity of his work superceded his personal human flaws, and the proof is palpable, all these decades later. Flesh and Bone, not so much. I gave up after two episodes, not believing any of it for a second. In the worst tradition of what is sometimes being called entertainment on TV, I was alarmed at the waste and abuse of talent.
Great art elevates. Its birth may be difficult, coming at a cost. But whatever its form, it raises our spirits and reminds us of the very best of divine inspiration and human creativity. It is perhaps our greatest treasure. Trash, on the other hand, diminishes us. There may be little thrills in defying social convention, but those are minor compared with the what happens to the soul when we wallow in negativity. The old adage about sleeping with pigs applies.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.
Photo ©Paul Kolnik