modernism in dance

I know less about ballet than about any other art form, which

is to say, nothing. Thus I was fascinated to read Jennifer Homans’ article

"Geniuses Together,"

in the New York Review of Books some time ago. I have long believed

that "modernism" means a recognition that all the past

ways of representing the world have been arbitrary and culturally relative

styles. Once modernism arrives, we have three main choices: (1)

historicism, the effort to reproduce past styles accurately and

comprehensively; (2) abstraction, the effort to move beyond style

and representation altogether by taking inspiration from something universal,

such as mathematics or the unconscious; or (3) irony, the joking

recognition that there is no way out of style. I’ve argued that these

are the choices faced by the visual arts and also by philosophy. My friend

David Luban argues

that even law faces this dilemma. From Homans’ article, it appears

that the ballets of Stravinsky perfectly illustrate the same situation.

First came a historicist phase, around 1909, when Michel Fokine was Stravinsky’s


Ballet, [Fokine] said, was hopelessly "confused." It was

historically nonsensical for pink-tutued ballerinas to run around with

Egyptian-clad peasants and Russian top-booted dancers; ballet dancers

were ridiculously "straight-backed." … Ballet, Fokine insisted,

must be reformed, and it was here that his ideas dovetailed with Diaghilev’s:

a ballet, he said, must "have complete unity of expression."

It must be historically consistent and stylistically accurate. Petipa’s

French classical vocabulary was appropriate only for French classical

or romantic subjects. If a ballet was about ancient Greece, then the

choreographer must invent movement based on the art and sculptures of

that place and time. …. In Fokine and Diaghilev’s historicist aesthetic,

classical ballet was not a universal form, but a particular style. ….

And then came abstraction, with Balanchine:

Choreographically, Apollon Musagète created a stylistically

unified, Fokinesque "whole" world. But Balanchine broke with

Fokine in one crucial respect. …. For Balanchine, what mattered was

that the external shape, color, and tone of the movement capture an

important idea. He was not interested in historical accuracy or what

he called "petty, everyday" emotions: he was trying to show

something more elevated: "supplication."[7]

In 1957, Balanchine further simplified Apollo (as it was then

renamed) by dispensing with the ballet’s seventeenth-century sets and

costumes in favor of simple black-and-white practice cloths against

a plain backdrop. As such, he brought Apollo into aesthetic orbit

with his most recent Stravinsky collaboration: Agon. …. Agon

was the culmination of an aesthetic Balanchine first introduced in 1946

with The Four Temperaments, and it changed everything we know

about how to watch a dance. Agon has no clear narrative, no melodic

or lyrical line: rather, it piles blocks of movement and music one on

top of another. ….

Of course, dancing in plain lyotards in front of plain drapes is also

a style. In the other arts, sooner or later, minimalism and abstraction

are seen as arbitrary styles, at which point irony becomes the only option.

I wonder whether this has happened in dance.