Friday, November 17, 2006

The “Female Take-Over” or “Male Abandonment” of Arts Appreciation

“You want to talk of Keats or Milton, she only wants to talk of love

You go to see the play or ballet, and spend it searching for her glove!”

Professor Henry Higgins in “Let a Woman in Your Life”, My Fair Lady, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, 1956

Above is a comical line, but interesting in its implications. Once upon a time, men were the ones who were interested in the arts and comprised most of the audience; women were seen as lacking the ability to fully appreciate plays, ballets, poems, and music, much less able to produce these works of art. However, over the past fifty years we’ve seen “the arts” become a female enterprise at least in its maintenance – the production of art is still largely thought to be a male endeavor.

In some ways, this is not a shock. Once women gain a foothold in an audience or area, the men start to leave in droves (or are pushed out). Career-wise, this can be followed in the gender ratios of men and women in the medical fields and advanced degrees in the biological sciences, among others. It has also been observed in the decline of male participation in Christian churches. There's even a trend in obtaining college degrees. I’m not going to attempt to undertake an explanation of why and how this complex sociological and psychological phenomenon occurs (or why there’s a branch of feminism that teaches “we’re all the same” even though men seem to disagree); I will instead focus on its repercussions.

In small degrees, it’s understandable why men have almost completely ducked out of the ballet audience. Men were once the largest portion of the ballet audience; it was even thought unseemly for women, in some cases, to attend. But since the rise of the Nutcracker in this country (spurred by Balanchine’s enormously successful production in 1954), ballet is seen strictly in terms of the Nutcracker’s adolescent heroine and the confectionary dream-land that she inhabits in Act 2. No matter that The Nutcracker can be an image of idealized childhood (when the production doesn’t make it have pseudo-Freudian sexual overtones of Clara/Marie’s initiation into THAT adult world) appealing to adults and children; it’s most frequent association is with pink and little girls through the multitude of ballet school productions every year. It is also interesting that the male audience for ballet remains strong in other countries, particularly in Russia, so ballet clearly isn’t something only men can enjoy.

When women began to increase their numbers (in attendance or in occupation in a field), there's a tendency for that art form (or occupation) to become associated with the feminine (or effeminate): men in fields that are dominated by women are thought to be gay. The consequences of this are negative for the arts: men still control many of the purse-strings and may be less likely to financially support something they see as a feminine enterprise, and the homosexual stigma on these men who are involved in the arts doesn't make it more attractive.

Also of concern is that, because of the female associations, men never learn to fully appreciate art. For instance, I heard many times in both primary and secondary school that "girls are the ones who are good at literature" (just like I heard many many times in college, from female classmates, that "engineering is too hard; there's all that MATH"). Both the former and the latter begin to sound like mantras, discouraging the opposite sex from interest and pursuit in those fields. In art, as I elaborated below, lack of interest can have dire consequences. We can't get by on only one gender cultivating the arts in our civilization

The Death of Cultural Literacy

That’s a lofty title, but I mean here to discuss our collective amnesia, or ignorance, of art and “high-brow” culture in Western civilization. Sure, we know it exists, know it has some value, know that there’s such a thing as aesthetics, but we seem to not be very interested in it except when we want to appear “cultured.” This topic is large and encompasses many issues, including arts exposure, a warped version of multiculturalism (the “everything is equivalent” variety), technology, mass production, the decline of education, shifts in demographics, etc. But I wish to focus here on what a certain type of education has done to our enjoyment of the arts.

“Everyone wants to know, ‘well, what does it mean?’ It doesn’t mean anything.” George Balanchine, Complete Stories of the Great Ballets (1977)

“I never saw a good ballet that made me think.” Arlene Croce, Afterimages (1979)

Whenever one speaks of the so-called “high-brow” arts, one can sense the dread in companions: “oh no, we will have to figure out vague meanings! My instinctive tastes will be wrong!” I won’t understand it, I won’t get it is the underlying tone. I propose that this response is NOT actually attributable to art itself, but to the fact that we’ve been trained, in some ways, to think that art will make us feel stupid.

No one likes to be told that there are shades of meaning or pleasures that would be derived from reading a certain book, or looking at a work of art, or attending a performance if one only concentrated hard enough. In fact, such an approach to the teaching of art is bound to leave someone anxious about the experience. And yet, that is how “arts appreciation” tends to be taught in this country. It’s always amusing and troubling to go to a fine arts museum and see schoolchildren running around with paper and (eek!) pencil, reading to see what pieces they HAVE TO look at, and what questions they HAVE TO answer.

If it is really real art and fine great art, it must be studied before it is enjoyed; that is what they remember from school. In school the art of poetry is approached by a strictly rational method, which teaches you what to enjoy and how to discriminate. You are taught to analyze the technique and relation of form to content; you are taught to identify and “evaluate” stylistic, biographical, economic, and anthropological influences, and told what is great and what is minor so you can prepare yourself for a great reaction or for a minor one. The effect of these conscientious labors on the pupils is distressing. For the rest of their lives they can’t face a page of verse without experiencing a complete mental blackout. They don’t enjoy, they don’t discriminate, they don’t even take the printed words at face value. For the rest of their lives they go prying for hidden motives back in literature, for psychological, economic, or stylistic explanations, and it never occurs to them to read the words and respond to them as they do to the nonsense of current songs or the nonsense of billboards by the roadside. Poetry is the same thing – it’s words, only more interesting, more directly and richly sensual. Edwin Denby, “Against Meaning in Ballet” (1949)

Some people have a natural knack for sensing, ESP-like, what one is supposed to derive from a particular poem or book, performance or painting, according to the scholars and schoolteachers. I feel no shame in admitting that I am NOT one of those people. Yet I derive a certain sensual pleasure in a wide variety of arts, and my tastes (my natural responses) have been educated by viewing or reading what is considered “good” or “great” over and over (and over) again. What Balanchine and Croce mean in the above quotes, I think, is not that there IS no meaning in ballet, or that one SHOULD NOT think, but that one’s enjoyment of art is first and foremost a sensual response, not an intellectual one.

Why we are taught to dampen our natural response to art through what Denby called the “strictly rational method” is unclear. I don’t know how arts appreciation is taught in other countries, if our method is tied to reinforcement for the single correct answer, or a sense of insecurity that we might be considered unsophisticated bumpkins by our cultural kin in Western Europe. But that it stifles our response to and interest in arts is unmistakable.

Why should we care? The arts communicate our shared cultural values; they are our spiritual and communal heritage. They are reflections of what we have held dear and the ways we have seen the world; they affirm our uniqueness and our contribution. When we lose sight of those, we lose our grip on our own civilization. We lose our place and time in the world - we allow postmodernism in its nihilistic bent to flourish.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mid-term elections, 2006

Perhaps it is too many years in the ivory tower of academia, perhaps all the reading about ballet history and notable Russian personages has led me to adopt Russian fatalism, perhaps I am becoming more spiritually detached from the ways of the world (ha!), but whatever it is, I cannot get myself worked up about the most recent Congressional elections (and I once thought the failure to convict Bill Clinton, a misogynist power predator, was a sign of the Second Coming).

I’ve written before, elsewhere, that I suspect the current political impasse between the two parties is related to a sixties’ mentality that most politicians who grew up in that era cannot leave behind. The sense of ideological warfare, the vilification of opponents, and even the re-hashed and re-heated arguments, both Democrat and Republican, come from that era.

So I read this blog post with interest. In brief, the author at History Post proposes that the “silent majority,” the mainstream, has rejected extremes and is trying to steer a middle course through the pulls of both the political parties and media; he sees this as the “beginning of a demand for sanity,” I see it as a walling-up away from bad news.

What I find especially interesting is the implication that the power players: politicians, academics, and media operators in this case, are the elite pursuing goals that are undesired or rejected by the majority. And why are they rejected? I fear that it is because the ideas they propose are too far away from the status quo, encroaching on the ideals the average American holds dear. In other words, the mainstream fears too much change too quickly, and want to feel some measure of control over the course of the country.

Those are positive qualities, but at what cost? Have Americans become inspired, by the intrusion of relativism into their store clerks’ greetings during the holiday season, to take action AGAINST relativism in its myriad forms? Are Americans actually inspired to be politically involved, to confront postmodern influence? Is it enough for the mainstream to merely be the guardrail for an elite driven by other ideologies? Are Americans really trying to get a “sense of identity and unity back” by voting in a bare majority of Democrats in the Senate and giving them control of the House? Remember, the Democrats have not been coy about the fact that they actually have no plan for Iraq, or it seems much else that holds the public’s interest.

I’m not attempting to be cynical – I think the embrace of cynicism is one of the greatest moral failings of our age – but I wonder when we will recapture a sense of our identity as Westerners, and not just capitalists (for it is fear of loss of jobs and expense of housing and health care of illegal immigrants that drives opposition to it, not merely fear of their non-assimilation) in it for the bottom line. Unfortunately, we are hampered in the former goal by an educational system that discourages pursuit of knowledge, inspiration, and creativity, besides the moral lapses of our fallen world. We NEED passionate engagement in the direction of our country by people with novel ideas and a sense of history, not people driven by self-interest. In that role, we cannot discount the power of a single person, a single leader to change the tide. Here’s to the rise of many such people in the West, with loftier aims for change than the power shifts between our current political parties.

Mary and the Church, Book Review

Since Cyril of Alexandria proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus (431) that Mary was the Mother of God (Theotokos), Mariology has been used a way of ensuring orthodox Christology. In Mary is a microcosm of the Christian journey. Through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, Mary brought, quite literally, the God-Man into the world, and she lived, very literally, the life of Christ: from His birth to His suffering and death. She was the first Christian and remains the exemplar. But as the Church Fathers remind us, there is more to Mary than that: what the Church teaches about her teaches all of us about the reality of salvation and salvation history, and her unique and continuing role in the economy of salvation.

Joseph Ratzinger’s Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief is taken from a series of lectures and was first published in English in 1983. In some ways, it is an elaboration of particular points presented in Hugo Rahner’s Our Lady and the Church (originally published in 1961), a work that rediscovers the beliefs of the Church Fathers through their writings: Mary is a type of the Church; what is true of Mary and fulfilled in her is also true and fulfilled in the Church. (See also John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Mater, 1987). Ratzinger takes up this point and proposes that the theological neglect of Mary in this century is attributable to poor typological exegesis (established in Romans 5) of the Old and New Testaments.

After making the first parallel to Mary as the New Eve (as did Irenaeus), Ratzinger makes a parallel I have never read before: between Mary and the pairs of Sarah-Hagar, Rachel-Leah, and Hannah-Peninna. In the way that the Old Testament and covenant are a shadow of the New, Ratzinger points out that those pairs of women in the Old Testament, contrasted as infertile and fertile, can only be understood through the reality of Mary and her virginity:
“infertile ultimately turns out to be the truly blessed….Barrenness as the condition for fruitfulness – the mystery of the Old Testament mothers becomes transparent in Mary….In this “new birth” [the birth of the Messiah], which simultaneously included the abandonment of earthly fertility, of self-disposal, and of the autonomous planning of one’s life…to bear the Son includes the surrender of oneself into barrenness.” Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2 foreshadows Mary’s own Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Suddenly, the teaching of the Church of Mary’s perpetual virginity can be seen as foreshadowed in the Old Testament.

Ratzinger also points out another reality related to Christ - that of the younger son usurping the older one and seizing the inheritance: Isaac-Ishmael and Jacob-Esau are shadows of Christ-Adam.

Ratzinger elaborates on the type of the woman-savior (Esther and Judith) and on Mary as daughter Zion, the true holy remnant, who brings forth the savior, God (compare Zephaniah 3:14-17 to Gabriel’s greeting of Mary in Luke 1:28-32). Ratzinger ties Mary as daughter Zion, the new Israel, a type of the Church, to the teaching of the Immaculate Conception (Ephesians 5:27), expressing the Church’s certitude of salvation. On the Immaculate Conception, he writes: “Preservation from original sin, therefore, signifies no exception proficiency, no exceptional achievement; on the contrary, it signifies that Mary reserves no area of being, life, and will for herself as a private possession: instead, precisely in the total dispossession of self, in giving herself to God, she comes to the true possession of self.”

The final issue Ratzinger tackles is the Assumption of Mary, standing for the definitive state of salvation of the Church. Death and decay occur because of sin, out of self-determination. To be in Christ is only life (Ephesians 2:6).

Almost all the truths of the Church involve paradoxes: Christ is God and man, Mary is virgin and mother, God is Three in One, death brings forth eternal life. Here, Ratzinger adds that virginity is fruitfulness, dispossession is belonging, and renunciation is fulfillment. In Truth and Tolerance Ratzinger writes that what separates Christianity from Eastern religions is that in the former, God is present and available, not through special knowledge or pursuit but through nothing grander than one’s consent to Him.

God confronts us as Other, but Marian teaching reaffirms that (paraphrased) God really does act in the world, and because of it, the earth produces fruit. And he acts on persons, not on ideas or concepts. The Church, the new Israel, is not just an idea but an actual person in Mary. The cooperation between humanity’s free will and God’s grace is not just an abstract, but is personified: thus Mary as exemplar is called the All-Holy (Panagia).

Ratzinger ends his meditation on Mary by reminding us of Mary as the Ark of the Covenant (the parallel between 2 Samuel 6:11-16 and Luke 1:39-56).

But I’d like to reproduce here something else from the text, dealing with the virgin-birth:

The world-view which would force us psychologically to declare the virginal birth an impossibility clearly does not result from knowledge, but from an evaluation. Today, just as much as yesterday, a virgin birth is improbable, but in no way purely impossible. There is no proof for its impossibility, and no serious natural scientist would ever assert that there was. What ‘compels’ us here to declare the maximum inner-worldly improbability an impossibility, not only for the world but also for God, is not knowledge but a structure of evaluations with two principal components: one consists in our tacit cartesianism – in that philosophy of emancipation hostile to creation which would repress both body and birth from the human reality by declaring them merely biological; the other consists in a concept of God and the world that considers it inappropriate that God should be involved with bios and matter. In reality, precisely when we talk abut corporeality and raise suspicions about the soul, we are dualists.

The subject of presuppositions, especially involving faith and reason, is elaborated on at length in other works by Ratzinger, and is reflected in his famous Regensburg address: the false dichotomy between faith and reason and the West’s inability to recognize the presuppositions that are the basis of post-modern thought.

Tales of Vengeance, Movie Review

“Anger is like a drug – you could live off of it if you had to.”

In three films by Korean director Chan-wook Park, the subject of vengeance is tackled. Park never questions why his characters would want it, but focuses on how they go about it, and especially the repercussions of doing so. What happens when vengeance is all one has to live for?

These movies have sometimes been called Shakespearean for their twisting plots and their violence. The cinematography is astounding in all 3 films. The camera is often placed with the actor looking straight ahead, en face. Nothing is concealed, but none of the characters are particularly emotive except at certain desperate moments. Scenes outside the main characters’ small apartments tend to be wide angle shots, where the character is part of the rest of humanity that is going about its (hopefully) non-bloodthirsty existence. And there is little dialogue in any of the movies, so problems of translation and reading subtitles are not taxing.

Warning: All three films contain scenes of incredible violence with lots of bloodletting, including extremities being cut off. Oldboy has graphic scenes of teeth being removed during torture. These movies are not for those who become faint at the sight of blood on screen.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002): We meet a young man who is deaf and mute (Ha-kyun Shin). His sister, who supported him for years, is sick and needs a kidney transplant. He goes on the black market to try to procure a kidney for her, but in the process loses his own and the money to pay for her surgery. To make matters worse, he is then fired from his factory job. With the encouragement of his girlfriend, an anti-industrialist revolutionary, he kidnaps his employer’s (Kang-ho Song) child to be able to get the ransom that will pay for his sister’s surgery. Through many twists and turns, by the end of the movie all these characters will be dead and only one death will have been accidental.

The emotional tone of this movie is set at the beginning: Ryu has a radio station read a letter he has written to his sister, describing how he would do anything for her and she for him. She listens to it, leaning her head on his shoulder. There are striking images of his deafness: he can’t hear what she hears, like the couple in the apartment above them loudly making love, or the boys next door loudly masturbating. Their lives will spiral out of control, and the twists are a bit too hard to believe. All the characters in these movies seem just a bit too smart, too quick on the trail of their vengeance.

Oldboy (2004): We are confronted with the image of a drunken lout (Min-sik Choi) holding balloons for his daughter’s birthday party but forced to wait in a police station after getting in an argument. He walks outside, and is kidnapped. For the next 15 years, he is held in a tiny room, receiving food and care (while drugged) with a t.v. as his only companion. He swears his revenge. Upon his release (with money and expensive clothes), he makes his way to a restaurant where he devours a live squid. When he says, “I want something alive,” we understand that he wants to fill up the emptiness, the death of his life. The girl on the other side of the bar (Ji-tae Yu), for unclear reasons, takes him home with her. He wants sex, she refuses, at least for the time being. Jointly, they set out to find who held him prisoner for 15 years and why. He can recall the taste of the potstickers he was fed, leading to visits to restaurants all over Seoul. Ultimately, he finds his captors, and the person who wanted his captivity. The punishment turns out NOT to be the lost 15 years, but something so sickening in its emotional and psychological implications that he cuts his own hand off in shame and pleading. And the crime he is being punished for? As a teenager, he saw two people doing something they shouldn’t have been doing; he gossiped about it, leading to an awful act that has led his tormentor to seek vengeance for the past 20 years.

Lady Vengeance (2005): A woman (Yeong-Ae Lee), imprisoned for 13 years for a crime she did not commit (the kidnapping and killing of a child) is released, and seeks vengeance on the man guilty of the crime (he set her up by kidnapping her own child). Along the way, she reunites with her Australian-raised daughter, but cannot be a mother until her bloodthirst is satisfied. She finds the man, tortures him, and then gathers his child victims’ parents together for some vigilante justice.

There’s a great contrast in this movie: the main character has an angelic face and became incredibly skilled in prison at making and decorating cakes. One of the final moments of the film, when the parents gather and eat one of her cakes (easy symbolism to see) justifies that talent.

There is precious little moralizing in any of these movies; things that are clearly wrong, incest and child-killing, are wrong and that’s that. However, murder (or would it be killing?) is justified, and there is no moral question posed by the movie of whether the various characters deserve the blood of their opponents to a life-draining degree. There is no “turn the other cheek” to be found here. Instead, the focus is on the emotional plane where vengeance lives, how it guides the behaviors and interactions with the people they confront. Does one have something to live for after being sated with vengeance? What is there in life to live for? The films don’t try to answer such questions; it seems enough to acknowledge that these emotional states exist, and their portrayals in these films are among the greatest I’ve ever seen in cinema.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Beginning: Nureyev Part I

“Susceptibility to ballet is a way of being susceptible to animal grace of movement.” Edwin Denby, 1949.

Strangely, my interest in ballet began not with watching it, but reading about it. In the spring of 1999, I read a review in the Houston Chronicle of Diane Solway’s biography of the great ballet danseur Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), Soviet defector (his defection in Paris in 1961 made the front page of all the major papers) and pop superstar. I picked up Nureyev: His Life (1998) on the basis of that review, knowing very little about the subject apart from a vague memory of announcements of his death from AIDS complications or about his art form other than sugar-coated The Nutcracker images (I had been taken to see The Nutcracker a few times as a child).

And yet Nureyev and ballet were once a huge well-spring of culture – the “ballet boom” begun in the 50s and lasting into the 60s and 70s. Our Western society has forgotten personages like Princess Charlotte of Wales (died 1817) and Lillie Langtry (died 1929), but in less than 30 years we have come to ignore an art form and its personages. Balanchine went from avant-garde to institution to trademark, and now many do not know that he is considered an artistic genius of the 20th century, alongside Picasso and Stravinsky. When Robert Garis writes (in Following Balanchine, 1995): “[The happiness from watching Balanchine ballets] was one of the great things in our lives, and one of the great things of the century,” I wonder how this could have been ignored and forgotten? Questions of how a culture begins to lose itself and forget parts of its identity and associations are ones I will expand on in the future, but suffice it to say that those questions, the collective amnesia about ballet as a cultural phenomenon, initially drove my interest in ballet as much as anything else.

Solway’s biography of Nureyev reads like a long encyclopedia entry with interview notes and old reviews added. While this approach to biography would be unbearably boring with some subjects, Nureyev’s life was lived so much LARGER than life, so obsessed with performance, pursuing pleasure, spanning continents (he was born, appropriately, on a train: the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok) and the public response to him in his heyday was both rapturous and manic. There are heaps of good old self-determination in his life story: “Everything I have, these legs have danced for,” says the man who went from having to share his sister’s shoes living in a room with two other families in post-WWII Soviet Union to owning homes in America, London, and Paris, and his own Mediterranean island. There is also sorrow: his slow physical decline, unable to give-up the spotlight so the public’s last memories of him as a dancer were of his clear physical struggles. Solway never captures who the man is, and halfway through the book I realized I needed to learn about this man and this subject the only way one really can: by watching dance.

I will continue with Nureyev Part II in the coming days.

Kirov Swan Lake - Pavlenko & Sarafanov

Matinee, 5 November 2006, Chicago: Pavlenko, Sarafanov

Sarafanov appeared on stage, and I didn't know what to think. Only a few inches taller than the jester, and a few inches shorter than several of the woman dancing, with blond hair, wide boyish eyes, and undeveloped musculature, I thought I was looking at a twelve-year-old boy who had managed to wander on-stage in a prince costume. (Ballet recital pictures with boys dressed up in tights and jackets flashed through my mind.) "Oh, dear," was my reaction. Yet Sarafanov surprised me: he embraced his youthful (child-like) looks and turned in a performance that was consistent with an innocent teenage boy falling in love for the very first time. If at times it reminded me more of Romeo than the noble Siegfried, he still provided a gripping sense of drama. His full smile when he bounded on to stage seemed to indicate that he knew the audience was thinking, "this isn't what we were expecting," and he seemed determined to overcome our hesitations about his ability to convincingly pull-off the mature drama of this role by fully throwing himself into the action. Truly, his mime, his emotions, were so clearly articulated throughout in his physical expression and gesture that he had me thoroughly convinced. His large face and eyes are able to express a good deal of confusion (and hormonal urge), and one got the strong sense that he was lost once the subject of picking a princess came up (but not lost in the way that some modern productions of "Swan Lake" can make Siegfried look as if he's unsure whether or not he likes women at all).

Pavlenko appears, and I was surprised by how small she is. She has huge eyes in an expressive face, and the expression of her eyes can be seen to the back row of the orchestra section (where I was sitting). She conveyed the sense of trembling with fear at the appearance of Siegfried so clearly, like a wild creature, that one could watch true growth in her trust of him - when she leaned into his chest in arabesque, or wrapped his arms around hers over her chest, one saw love and devotion that surpassed what Siegfried deserved - one knew this was going to end badly. Sarafanov had problems partnering her at times: the overhead lifts had to be eliminated, and he had trouble keeping her squared up in supported pirouettes. But I also loved how Pavlenko's willingness to take those big chances - to go off balance. There were technical quibbles with what she didL slightly turned in legs in turns, incorrectly angled working leg in fouettes, but as befits a ballerina, none of these mattered, and showing her weaknesses showed us her heart. Critic Laura Jacobs has written that it's a ballerina's technical flaws and how she compensates for them that show up who she is, and this is true of Pavlenko. And their first parting: Pavlenko leaned slightly in her upper body to Siegfriend once, then again, letting her fingertips stretch towards him, before facing straight ahead and turning back into a swan.

Her Odile was shy at first, convincingly like Odette, occasionally seeking guidance from von Rothbart to know how the seduction is going. The sense of evil grew in her performance. Her fouettes started off so fast, and at times so off-balance, that the orchestra was having difficulty playing that quickly: she slowed down the speed, and one saw that it really was a manifestation of control. She ended with her head thrown back, and she gave the most delicious and evil laugh when Siegfried realized his mistake.

In Act IV was all the forgiveness one could hope for. Even with dreams crushed, she is ever-devoted to Siegfried, thankful even for the love he has given her and faith that he restored in her. She crumples to the floor in tragedy, then is awakened and looks like a young child awakened on Christmas morn, to a whole new life with disbelief and elation. Theirs will be a happy kingdom, one can tell.

Kirov Swan Lake - Lopatkina & Korsuntsev

“The first taste of art is spontaneously sensual, it is the discovery of an absorbing entertainment, an absorbing pleasure."

Edwin Denby, from the essay "Against meaning in Ballet" originally published in 1949; compilation published as Dance Writings and Poetry in 1998.

One always has one's personal bias in the interpretation of Odette. There are two standard approaches: Odette as a swan and Odette as a trapped woman. In the 70s, Makarova's performances fell in line with the former: an emphasis on bird-like movements of the head and arms. Plisetskaya in the 50s and 60s had a similar approach; critic Robert Garis referred to her swan-like arms as a "magic trick." Mezentseva, Anashiavilli and Lopatkina followed this approach. An examplar of the former interpretation can be found in Ulanova's recorded performance of Act 2 in the 1940s: a woman who is trapped into being a swan, but is a woman first and foremost at night. Fonteyn's performances (seen in the 60s' video with Nureyev) followed this approach, as do Pavlenko's.

Arlene Croce famously wrote (of the Bolshoi corps' "swan arms" in Swan Lake) "If it's swans you want, go to the zoo." I agree with her assessment: as beautiful as a great ballerina pretending to be a swan can be (Pavlova's "Dying Swan" comes to mind), with grace, long lines, lifts in the breastbone, supple backs, undulating arms, and all rest, the drama of Swan Lake is of a woman trapped by a magical spell into becoming a swan during the day, but a woman at night. Emphasize bird-like attributes and your noble prince now has a fowl fetish, and one wonders why the swan creature would ever want to cease being a swan creature. Instead, it must be emphasized that she aches to be a woman: Ulanova did this through a certain softening of her already soft line and her proud carriage; Fonteyn accomplished this same feat by drawing focus to the expressive power emanating from her back - when she took THE Odette pose, one saw a fantastic release of energy that amounted to a cry. (Depending on the length of leg, or illusions of it, some Odettes have a larger cry than others). With that in mind:

Evening, 3 November 2006, Chicago: Lopatkina and Korsuntsev

Act I of the Kirov's production is almost entirely composed of dancing; what mime there is occurs while the dancing is going on. During this part, I heard grumblings of "when is the ballet actually going to start," as if one goes to see ANY ballet for the plot (nearly all ballet plots, including this one, are silly and ridiculous on the surface); no, one goes to the ballet to see dancing, and it's rather silly to quibble that one is seeing "too much dancing." The pas de trois was performed well (Sunday afternoon's performance was better), but I also noted the current fashion for thinness of the Kirov women: the long legs, thin thighs, and small hips, reduces the power of the dancing. It diminishes the poetic power of turnout, if not the motion itself, and arabesques do not seem to be drawing their energy from the core of the body. Limbs then, have a tendency to look as if they have been flung here or there, instead of positioned from the strength of the lower and upper back; the sense of bodily dynamic and opposition are lost. However, these are minor quibbles, especially when one sees a corps fully invested in the dancing, something not seen at the NYCB's recent visit. Demonstrated even more fully in the later acts, the Kirov dancers BELIEVE in this ballet, believe IN ballet, and believe in the aesthetic that they are investing themselves in: this is not just their job, but a spiritual and moral quest. Thus, they can act as one, as they seem to float and swim as one in Act IV. But I'm jumping ahead of myself. The jester is the only annoying part here, and he has been roundly vilified by generations of ballet critics, so no point adding to that here. The wild clapping that he is bound to get for his high-jinks detracts from our main hero who doesn't even get to do a real variation until well into Act III.

Korsuntsev is old-fashioned in his approach - his prince is self-contained, ardent without being too emotional, heroic without mussing his hair. At the end of Act I, he hears the familiar Swan motif, and does a bit of "hmm, that's interesting" before running after it.

Act II begins, and the mechanical swans appear (notorious in this production). Finally, Odette shows up, fresh from being a swan. Lopatkina enters, and one feels that one is about to see technical perfection. Indeed, every hand, every finger, every glance, is thoroughly planned and thoroughly perfect. She poses beautifully, letting one admire her from all angles. And she is utterly swan-like, and utterly cold. She performs the swan movements with such grace that it looks like she has been a swan creature her entire life, as if von Rothbart's spell is turning her very physiology into a swan and she is developing avian bones. The pas de deux is performed ridiculously slowly - slower than Makarova even, and violin music performed that slowly starts to sound like a dirge after awhile. But there is no vulnerability, no sense of being trapped. Instead, the impression one gets is of a swan creature meeting a man, saying, "oh, he's nice enough," and deciding to show off her avian skills for a bit. In her solo, the passes can look like cries of hope and joy, renewed belief through the power of love; with Lopatkina, each passe up to the knee from fifth position was done with such an emphasis on line, and without variation in the speed that it was another attempt to show beautiful dancing, but without the motivating drama. What's Siegfried to do?

Act III: The charm of the dancing princesses was displayed better in the Sunday matinee, when Sarafanov really seemed to be flustered, and then headstrong in his refusal to choose among them. But the character dances were astounding. In the Spanish dance, the women's backbends were so eye-popping I had an immediate "I want to see those again!" Indeed, they did do them again! The castanet player down in the orchestra also did a great job. The Neapolitan dance was also delightful and light, the Hungarian czardas was wonderful, and the mazurka was poweful and energetic. I loved the costumes, the energy, and how much time was given to the performance of the national dances. As others have written, these character dances aren't really supposed to be "the real thing," but an impression of the impression that these dances leave (and in the time of the czars - Swan Lake dates to the 1870s - a chance for the audience to see other cultures in that same haze with which the West regarded Russians as Oriental exotics during the same time period).

Lopatkina's Odile had such a "guns-blazing" approach that one thought it was a different woman! (My friend initially thought just that.) Her turns, attitudes, balances, were technically superb, the 32 single fouettes perfectly timed to the music. But this approach also confused the drama - there's no way that Siegfried would believe this warm, evil seductress before him was his beloved Odette, so he must be the type who has his head turned by a woman thoroughly chasing after him. But after the cold Odette, one understood while he would prefer this different woman, Odile, to her. Korsuntsev was solid in his solo. Odile was also so certain of her win, there was no clear reaction from Lopatkina. She runs off, head lifted high, as Korsuntsev's Siegfried looks slightly confused and has an "oh no" expression that makes one think he has just learned that he's dirtied his white tights a bit. As I've stated before, Lopatkina's approach throws the drama off.

Act IV began with the white swans, now with black cygnets scattered among them, showing their mass captivity and helplessness. Here, the Kirov corps' arms moved and beat as one. Gorgeous. Odette comes out again, dancing beautifully, only to be captured by von Rothbart. Not much helplessness from our Swan Queen, though. When Siegfried shows up, there is no sense of forgiveness and redemption (neither is there much remorse from him), only a sort of, "oh, you're here again - partner me well." He does, the final confrontation arrives, Siegfried pulls von Rothbart's wing off, begins flogging him with it (this was an unneccessary bit of action - von Rothbart can flop and roll around on the floor to indicate his death well enough; he doesn't need to be beat down with his own wing by our hero), and we have the happy Soviet ending: Siegfriend gently lifts Odette up (fingertip by fingertip is removed from the stage) and we have arrived at the final ending tableau. Absolutely beautiful, but with the sense of drama misplaced. It was a performance I respected, but did not love - I don't think Lopatkina would have allowed it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Fourth Crusade book view

Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice by Thomas F. Madden (2003)

After a post on the First Crusade, I have to address one of the most infamous ones: the Fourth Crusade. (An aside: the numbering of the Crusades post-dates the events themselves, and there are several crusades between the main numbered ones.) Madden wrote, with D.F. Queller, The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, a book that challenged the previous scholarship by Runciman and Norwich, among other less prominent historians, that the Venetians were motivated by greed to take out their maritime rivals, the Byzantines.

This book focuses on the Venetians, beginning in the 9th century with the establishment and changes in the political structure of early medieval Venice and the rise of the Dandolo family to the positions of Patriarch of Grado (also named Enrico) and doge. Related to the Fourth Crusade, Madden makes a strong case for an “accidental” conquest of Constantinople through the following points:

  1. The Venetians believed, above all, in stability. They strictly limited the power of both the doge and of the people (after the assassination of Doge Vitale II Michiel after he failed to follow the popular arregno and attack Constantinople in response to the imprisonment of all Venetians in Byzantine land and seizure of their property by Emperor Manuel Comnenus). They would have been unlikely to destabilize the region.
  2. Enrico Dandolo himself had been involved in diplomatic efforts with Byzantium since 1171, and had secured a chrysobull with Emperor Alexius III in 1198 granting Venetians exemption from taxing and tolls in Byzantine ports and Venetian jurisdiction over most matters involving Venetians in Constantinople.
  3. The original deal between the Venetians and the Frankish leaders (to secure from Venice transport to the Holy Land) failed to account for the fact that the number of crusaders would not be as high as the Franks thought, and it didn’t guarantee that those crusaders would have to leave from the Venetian port. The siege and eventual destruction of Zara was the Frank “repayment” of the debt owed to Venice.
  4. Venice more-or-less shut down their regular trade for a year to build and prepare transport vessels for the crusaders, indicating a high level of popular piety for the crusade mission.
  5. The transport galleys were designed and built for the planned (but secret) invasion of Egypt at Alexandria, not assault on Constantinople.
  6. The Venetian crusaders sent an envoy to Constantinople sometime in March 1203, following the decision of the Frankish leaders to try to seat the young Prince Alexius (son of deposed emperor Isaac II), brother-in-law of the leader of the Crusade, Boniface of Montferrat, as Emperor. The envoys were captured unfortunately by Genoese corsairs.
  7. Enrico Dandolo took the cross, and in doing so, had to relinquish his title as Doge (to his son, in his stead).

Other issues are dealt with more fully in the Queller & Madden and Phillips books I am currently reading, and hope to review later.

First Crusade book review

The First Crusade: Origins and Impact by Jonathan Phillips, ed. (1997)

There are only a few historical events initiated with Christian fervor that, on the face of it, are as hard to defend as the Crusades; the Catholic-Protestant wars and the policies for dealing with heretics are probably the others. And yet the First Crusade was initiated by the appeal of Pope Urban II, partly in response to the increasing encroachment of Muslim armies on previously Christian lands, including an appeal by the Byzantine emperor.

This collection of essays on the First Crusade, written by professors and lecturers of history at UK colleges and universities, revises and corrects myths about the First Crusade. Jonathan Riley-Smith, Marcus Bull, and Carole Hillenbrand each point out that two sources of information for the First Crusade have been neglected: monastic charters and Arabic texts that have not yet been translated into English, including Arabic poetry and geography.

In the first essay, “Patronage and the appeal of the First Crusade,” John France dismantles the myth of the younger son and briefly states the amount of supplies a typical crusader would have needed and the issues of patronage that would have arisen. Crusading was an undertaking that required a large amount of resources and any possible plunder would have been property that the crusader seized during forays or captures of a city – there was no organized division of property among crusaders in the First Crusade (William G. Zajac’s “Captured property”).

Most interestingly, France points out that many of our views of medieval people and society are formed by our modern conception of “separation of the poor…from political structures” – a class society that uses the Marxist dialectic. France writes: “The analysis of the motives of the first crusaders based on the notion of a simple stratified society has been particularly unhelpful, because in most of the countries of the West vertical ties of patronage were at least as important and probably had more bearing on individual decisions about Urban [II’s] appeal” (pg 7). It’s a subject dear to me: one must understand the presuppositions of the people in any given era and how those presuppositions shaped their actions and behaviors, so to read that a class struggle dialectic may have been read (and written) back into the Middle Ages by major historians of the 19th and 20th century is not surprising but it is cautionary.

A prime example of this error also relates to the First Crusade: in our cynical age, we do not understand how a group of people, motivated mostly by piety, could agree to take up the Cross and recapture the Holy Land. And yet generations of Western Europeans did exactly that, hoping to recapture the land on which Christ was born, suffered, and died (they also turned against other Europeans in an attempt to “cleanse” their own land in later Crusades).

Other essays address the historiography of the crusades over time (Susan Edgington’s “Reviewing the Evidence,” Alan V. Murray’s “The Chronicle of Zimmern as a source for the First Crusade”), a few major players including Peter the Hermit (Colin Morris) and Alexius Comnenus (Jonathan Shepard), and how the principality of Antioch came into being (Thomas Asbridge).

This is not a book I would recommend for anyone with less than a sure footing of the known facts of the First Crusade and the essays are certainly less than comprehensive, but they do provide many jumping-off points for a person interested in issues related to the study of the event (or series of events) in history that came to be known as the First Crusade.

Book Reviews, Coming Soon

Books I've finished in the past month; I will be reviewing them in the coming days:

Daughter Zion by Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI
The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell and Basil Pennington
Enrico Dandolo & the Rise of Venice by Thomas F. Madden
The First Crusade: Origins and Impact by Jonathan Phillips (Ed.)
Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes by Arthur I. Miller
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Books I'm currently reading:
Christ in Eastern Christian Thought by John Meyendorff
The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips
Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
Margot Fonteyn: A Life by Meredith Daneman

and Books that I Can't Quite Finish:
Mirror Mirror: A Novel by Gregory Maguire
Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Titles and Miscellaneous Discussion

The blog title is a reference to my tendency to make my opponents, ahem, partners in discussion feel a keen sense of punishment. Alas, I am not using this blog to argue with any person. Instead, I will be discussing books I've read and subjects of personal interest. In the coming days, I will be posting a few book reviews. I will also be discussing ballet, from the point of view of a fan (I've never taken a ballet class in my life). I may also have discussions of Catholic theology, though my days of Catholic apologetics are behind me.