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
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."
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.