The Pointe of it All
One of the adult pleasures of Christmas is the chance to see some ballet. Both my kids have been in performances of The Nutcracker: the 6-year-old as a cossack in a short, light version for elementary schools, the 8-year-old as a soldier in a full-length, full-dress production by Huntington Ballet Theater, an excellent and very professional local troupe out here on Long Island.
I love ballet, though I don't get much opportunity to see it nowadays. In my bachelor days in London, I had a flat in Bloomsbury, just 20 minutes walk from Covent Garden (that first word, by the way, is pronounced "cuvn't") and a short subway ride to Sadlers Wells. I had got hooked on opera and was going to Covent Garden pretty much weekly to see the Royal Opera. Then summer arrived, the opera company disappeared for the season, and the house was taken over by the Royal Ballet. I kept going from sheer inertia, though I knew nothing about ballet; and soon I was hooked on that, too.
I find it hard to explain why. Ballet is an even more absurd and artificial way to tell a story than opera is. People stand around with their feet splayed out in a most unnatural fashion, hugging invisible pumpkins in their arms, bowing and smiling to each other and moving their lips without making a sound. The stories are mainly the lower, sappier grade of folk-fairytales. The music is rarely first-rate, though I will except the Tchaikovsky "big three" from that, and the Enigma Variations, and one or two others. The humor is deeply unfunny — I did not realize that La Fille Mal Gardée was a comedy until I was told so afterwards.
The nearest I can get to explaining ballet's appeal to me, personally, is that it is a combination of the beautiful and the raw physical — a taming of the brutish vigor of the human species, turning it into something sublime without sucking out its vitality. Of the physicality of the form there is no doubt — for the punishment it inflicts on the human body it is very nearly in the same league as heavyweight boxing. The dance correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph told me that if you want to strike up a conversation with a ballerina, an infallible opening move is to enquire about her latest injury. I once had seats near the very front of the stalls for a performance of the MacMillan Manon, and noticed that, as the principals froze in the final position of the last act, the male lead — it was Anthony Dowell — was panting like a marathon runner and sweating like a horse. Physical, definitely.
And yet it is all transmuted into grace, skill and beauty. Because of the contrast between the one thing and the other, the transformation is especially striking with the male dancers. If you come to baseball for the first time as an adult, you begin by watching the hitters. Then, when you learn more about the game, you find that the pitchers are taking over your attention. So with ballet. At first you are dazzled by the ballerinas, and the male dancers are just props. The more classical ballet you see, however, the more you understand what a joint enterprise it is, and how perfectly, in a well-balanced choreography, the vigor, virtuosity and strength of the men complements the airy grace of the women. If I recall my own greatest memories of the ballet, they feature men as much as, if not more than, women.
Sample: I saw Fernando Bujones once dancing the warrior in La Bayadère at Covent Garden. If you want my opinion, La Bayadère is not much of a ballet, the music uninspired and that business with the ramp in Act Four conforming pretty precisely to Vladimir Nabokov's definition of the Russian word poshlust — overwrought estheticism. Bujones, however lit up this performance like a night attack over Tora Bora. Here is what he did at one point … Well, no, he can't actually have done this because it's physically impossible. This is what he seemed to do: a stunning leap, a grand jeté, clear from one side of the Covent Garden stage to the other, landing perfectly and down on one knee with arms outspread, all in a single flawless motion. Nobody in the house that night could quite believe what they had seen. There was a moment of stunned silence in the hall — did that really happen? — before the entire audience rose as a body and roared their appreciation. You could see that Bujones had rehearsed the thing a hundred times, and got it just the way he wanted no better than thirty; but when it mattered, on stage in front of an audience, it had come out perfect. As he knelt there taking the applause, his face was split with an inappropriate (he is supposed to be in Hell at the time) but utterly irresistible grin of triumph.
Now I bring out treasured memories: Nina Ananiashvili a couple of seasons ago, doing Swan Lake at Lincoln Center. (I am a fool for that ballet. I can judge the quality of a Swan Lake by the point at which I start to cry. End of the fourth act — not bad. Middle of the fourth — a good one. Third act — hey.) Alessandro Ferri dancing Juliet with the Royal, before she defected — that was how we Londoners thought of it — to American Ballet Theater. Bryony Brind in some strange, oddly enchanting modern piece to that same composer's music — the first time I ever saw any point to Prokofiev. (And the only time I ever wrote a fan letter to a stage performer. Bryony sent back a signed photograph and a handwritten note, bless her. She has since made a bundle of money from ballet-instruction videos. Beautiful, gifted and smart.) I saw Nureyev himself onstage once. He was far past his prime and couldn't do much; it was just a courtesy appearance with some young Japanese troupe for which he had agreed to act as patron. But this was Nureyev, and we applauded him for being who he was, and for having done what he had done — a perfectly legitimate reason for applause, far as I'm concerned.
You can even make decent movies of, and about, ballet, a thing that, for reasons I don't understand, doesn't work for opera. Remember Baryshnikov with Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point, and again with Gregory Hines in White Nights. Then there was that late-1940s Moira Shearer classic The Red Shoes, a great favorite of my mother's. The recent Billy Elliot was not bad, if you ignored the ingredient of homosexual propaganda that seems to be compulsory in British movies nowadays — some edict from the European Union, no doubt.
And in times like these, over and beyond the esthetic pleasures of ballet, I feel a great pride in it, as having come from us, from our civilization. Who but western man has brought so much exquisite beauty out of nothingness? What do they have to show that can compare with this, the sullen slaves of Islam, the ant-heaps of Asia, the hapless, hopeless hordes of Africa? Nothing! — this is ours, this is us, this surpasses anything created elsewhere by a hundred, a thousand orders of magnitude. Stand up for your civilization, your culture: go see a ballet next chance you get.
Hey hey, ho ho, western civ's the way to go!