Wednesday, February 28, 2007

If I Were George Balanchine (1904-1983)

If I were president, I would devote at least one speech to a very large section of our population which is not usually thought of or addressed as a separate unit by people in the government - I refer to the intellectuals and artists of the United States and to people who are interested in the intellectual and artistic life of our country, in other words in the spiritual and not just the material values of our existence.

There are a great many of us: writers, painters, sculptors, actors, composers, instrumentalists, and dancers. And there are uncounted millions of those for whom their interest in our creative efforts is as important and sometimes more important than all the other ordinary details of their lives. That is why we would like the president to show an interest in and speak to us about that other half of our life - the nonmaterialistic part of life, which we represent. Actually this very large group of citizens of whom I am speaking has never made any very great demands. None of us is especially interested in money or power, but all of us want to be recognized and given the possibility to create and to enjoy art. Certain forms of art have received wonderful support from the public itself, from private citizens and groups of interested people, who have created libraries and museums and supported symphony orchestras, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. But writers and artists have never been fully accorded full recognition by a government body or official - and the person who first gives us this recognition will earn our wholehearted gratitude and support.

I firmly believe that woman is appointed by destiny to inspire and bring beauty to our existence. Woman herself is the reason for life to be beautiful, and men should be busy serving her. That is why I feel that if the woman will take into her hands the task of restoring the true purpose and values of life, then the man who in our civilization is caught like a squirrel in the wheel of fortune, will find the strength to escape out of it and bring all his highest qualities to this purpose.

This brings us to the important problem of our children who are our future. Their taste for art should be developed from early childhood. They should learn to love the beautiful and impractical as well as the useful and practical. One should give them fairy tales, music, dance, theater. This is real magic for children, and it is strong enough to overcome many dangers that threaten them, mainly because their minds are unoccupied and their imaginations unfed. Developing these qualities in our children is the first step to promoting peace in the world - by giving them true standards of what is most important in human life. Inner nobility will safeguard them from the cynicism of utilitarianism. Some twenty thousand young children saw special performances given for them by New York City Ballet. It was absolutely extraordinary to see how avidly they devoured these performances. The children must be reached before they are corrupted by life.

In conclusion I would like t osay a few words about my special field of art - the ballet. American people have a special affinity to movement in general and to ballet in particular. They are superb dancers, and their interest in this art deserves to be encouraged and channeled in the right way.

In ballet, woman is all-important. She is the queen of the performance, and the men surround her like courtiers. This is perhaps why I have thought so much about the woman's role and enormous possibility in real life as well as on the stage. (1961)

George Balanchine became an American citizen in the 50s and was the first official visitor to the Kennedy White House. He was also in the first class of honorees for the Kennedy Center Honors (1978), and received the Congressional Medal of Freedom from Reagan in 1983; it was accepted on his behalf by Suzanne Farrell.

First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty - if you're vairy lucky and have said your prayers. - Balanchine

I mean here only to encourage people to go out and see dance. Dance is extraordinary in that it is the only occasion I know of, outside of a church service, where people gather to participate in an activity that's been passed down from body to body over generations, where the most important aspect of the performance is that the participants believe in what they are doing, first and foremost, and there is no disconnect between what is thought in the mind and expressed through the body in gesture and form. Dance, ideally, is a seamless coming together of the human body, sound, space, and time. My own favorite dance form, as should be obvious, is ballet. Ballet's realm is above the earth, in the real world of the spirit, not the material world under our feet. It exists in another world of ideal behaviors and attitudes; more than any other Western dance form the goal is to achieve something that the human eye and soul recognize as beauty. The beauty that can be achieved conceals the physical strain and effort of the participants. Ballet movement is unnatural, and yet spiritually it shows how we should be. As Balanchine once said to a woman who asked him if he thought her daughter could be a great ballerina: "Madame, la danse - c'est une question morale."

Or, as Balanchine would say, just go to listen to the music. Balanchine was a huge proponent of 20th century music, and if you go to see a Balanchine ballet, you have a chance of listening to music by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Weill, Ives, Webern, Pierre Henry, Xenakis, and Schoenberg (actually, Schoenberg's arrangment for orchestra of Brahms' Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor). Just this past season, NYCB was performing Jerome Robbins' ballet In Memory Of... to Berg's violin concerto "To the Memory of an Angel." Robbins, Eliot Feld, Laura Dean, and Lar Lubovitch have all choreographed dances to Steve Reich's music; both Graham and Agnes de Mille used Copland's music. Merce Cunningham has had a long creative association with John Cage; Paul Taylor has choreographed Piazzolla Caldera, many (too many) contemporary choreographers use the music of Arvo Part. Robbins' Glass Pieces and Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room were recently performed in NY; those are among several ballets choreographed to Philip Glass's music. And I'm only mentioning the use of Bach, Mozart, Gluck, Glazunov, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Delibes and so on. Sheesh, Leonid Massine even choreographed ballets to Mahler and Beethoven symphonies. Get a music education and a dance eduction - two for the price of one! Just go, and bring your friends and your children! And you can ask me questions afterwards....

It is not too much to consider a well-performed ballet a rite, executed and followed with intense devotion, that shares in some sort of moral figuration. The response of the audience to good dancing is a release of body and breath, a thanksgiving that is selfless, generous, complete, and leaves the spectator corroborated in the hope that, despite the world and its horrors, here somehow is a paradigm of perfection. - Lincoln Kirstein (1983)

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