Friday, May 11, 2007


The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity. The words of human love have been used by the saints to describe their vision of God, and so, I suppose, we might use the terms of prayer, meditation, contemplation to explain the intensity of the love we feel for a woman. We too surrender memory, intellect, intelligence and we too experience the deprivation, the noche oscura, and sometimes as a reward a kind of peace.

The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Suzanne Farrell and Tzigane

Suzanne Farrell left the New York City Ballet in 1969, and joined the Ballet of the Twentieth Century, Maurice Bejart's company based in Brussels. There can be no denying that her absence was mourned, not alone by Balanchine but by her partners, colleagues, and public. It is unprofitable to speculate whether such a departure should be interpreted as courage, treason, or a refusal to submit any longer to conditions that seemed at the moment confining, as well as a desire to explore alternatives in new capacities and possibilities. Such separation is sometimes necessary...Farrell returned in the winter [Winter 1975] before the Ravel Festival to dance with an extraordinary freshness and greatly increased technical brilliance. The years spent with Bejart, a talent and energy far more loose or instinctive than Balanchine's seemed not only to have heightened her physical proficiency, which had always been large, but to have increased her emotional projection, which had heretofore seemed smoldering.

The first new work Balanchine composed for her was Ravel's Tzigane. Essentially a "gypsy number," it commenced with a five-minute solo of surpassing physical demands and emotional intensity. The music is not exactly a Hungarian cousin to the composer's Bolero, but its nightclub overtones cannot be ignored...This music gave Balanchine, with his every-ready tact, the opportunity to invent a star turn for Farrell. It framed her extremeties of abrupt angularity and off-centered plastic posturing in all their fiery contrast to her natural "classic" grace and ease, her steely fragility and chill authority. In a perverse pattern of steps, Balanchine turned the familiar hungarisch idiom of opera-house Lisztian divertissements inside out. Its positioning was so odd, the sequences in their reversal so unexpected, that what might have been rejected as parody was transformed into assertive rehabilitation. Farrell did not impersonate a "gypsy;" her body played with theatricalized elements of wildness, caprice, longing, and arrant independence which could be read as intensely secret and personal. Was part of this an echo of her own wandering, of the fact she had at last returned to her tribe's encapment, while proclaiming her own increased identity and independence?

In any event, Farrell's reappearance marked a rise in the company's spirits, another chapter of growth...There is no doubt that a powerful personage throws off an aura, sometimes of positive, less often of negative, energy. Farrell's peculiar qualities, the impression these have made in a variety of ballets, have contributed something unique to our repertory. Like other powerful artists she invests her own mystery, an enclosed alchemy of power, vulnerability, the control and conscious manipulation of tension. When she dances it is not only a body in motion but an apparatus analyzed and directed by operating intelligence. It is as if some sort of radium slumbers but is always present and ready in her corporal central; when ignited, it glows to white heat. It enables her to transcend occasions, patterns, appearances. It commands recognition but is not always easy to read. Balanchine has been able to provide a habitation in which this core is fired, or can activate itself.

Thirty Years: Lincoln Kirstein's the New York City Ballet (1978)

In the early days of my career, I was always this virginal girl in white. I liked that, but the tom-boy in me always wanted to be a little contrary. I used to wish that I could play the black swan instead of the white swan, or the evil girl instead of the good girl. So when I came back to the company, this was the first thing Mr. Balanchine did for me. I was curious to know how he would see me. Tzigane means "gypsy", it's Hungarian.

I thought he'd give me something very technical, but the first thing he had me do is sort of mosey on stage in this sort of indifferent quality. I thought this was very strange. "I'm not sure if I want to look like this. What are people going to think? They expect me to dance." And then I said, "No, he's always presented you very well, and you believe in him. Let's try something that hasn't been done before." So we started working on this ballet.

It was a lot of fun to be a gypsy. By then Mr. Balanchine and I had become comfortable with each other, and frequently he would say, "Oh, you know what I want. You fill in." That was very nice of him, but also a big responsibility. Because it had to look like what he might do, be in the same flavor, and the same character as what he might do, and wonderful that he trusted me enough to say, "Oh, Suzie, you do it." It was quite thrilling, and gave me a lot of freedom in a world that has a lot of discipline. At one part in the choreography, he said, "Oh just stand here and do something, and then start turning."

As the ballet starts out, I'm dancing to a solo violin. There is not even a conductor. I don't even see the violinist. He's down in the pit, and there is just a single spotlight on my face. The rest of the stage is dark, so it is very lonely. In fact, it is probably the loneliest I've ever been. Even lonelier than walking down the streets of New York by yourself. To be in front of people, you have to look interesting, have to go from one side of the stage to the other, portray something, but you don't even have the sound of an orchestra to fill the void. Just this one lonely violin and myself. I start to dance. And it stays this way for about five minutes. It was a long solo.

Suzanne Farrell Interview, 1990, Academy of Achievement

I learned a lot from being with Béjart, and George saw that. After all, George taught me the thrill of acquiring information and seeing how that could work in dance forms. To not have learned anything, to have wasted that time, would have been ungrateful, un-Balanchinian and dishonest of me. And if I had learned nothing with Béjart, George and I could never have been able to go on to what we did. He would have been so far ahead of me, I never would have caught up.

When Mr. B started working on a ballet for me, there would be no one in the room except Gordon Boelzner at the piano, George and myself. He would show me a little something and I would try to imitate or shape or decode what he indicated—he would always indicate, not command, and I would try. Choreography is not born as choreography; it grows out of a suggestion or movement indication and then it gets shaped into choreography. Rarely would he say, "That's not what I wanted." He would put the ball in my court and allow me to run with it, but he trusted me and didn't say, "That's not how I would have run with it, if I were you." Sometimes he would have a mistake become part of the choreography. Not that every mistake that happens can be put to music and become beautiful, but he made us see life differently.

Someone once remarked, "Oh, you're a dancer, you're up onstage, you don't like to face reality," and that hit such a nerve because I feel that life is more real onstage. I mourn artifice. I have this little theory that the arts were invented because life didn't measure up to what it was supposed to be. If life were wonderful, we would all dance, we would all sing, we would all be poets, we would all paint. As it is, the arts are the hospitals for our souls, so they need to be of the best integrity. I have a theory that George devoted himself to ballet because it served as his visa out of Russia during those horrific times. Ballet gave him his existence and his salvation outside Russia and nurtured his genius, and that's why he never got bored and why he became so prolific. You can't be flippant about genius. The mind sets you on a path to be the best. You must work at making your life work for you; you are responsible to posterity.

Good theater should always send people away feeling changed.

I'm not obsessed with ballet; I'm passionate about ballet. Some people don't want to have passion because it's too revealing, or they feel that if they're passionate about something or someone, they've lost control, or it will control them. I think passion is such a wonderful word, and such a wonderful feeling. To feel so alive! When they say that George was obsessed with me, it has such a negative connotation. But was he obsessed or passionate? I believe if he had been truly obsessed, the ballets we did would have been different—they would have been darker.

Suzanne Farrell, interview with Emily Fragos, Bomb Magazine

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Rads, Trads, & Cads

If you are from a really large (extended) family, as I am, there's an age where you realize that certain members of that family really don't get along with other members. Indeed, they are so fed up with the other members that if distance doesn't suffice, they make snide comments about being eager for the other to receive their eternal 'reward.' Even though an eternal haven of love and peace is the last place that the offended relative thinks will be the final destination.

In many ways, this situation is similar to that of the Catholic Church. Do you ever read some blogs where the contributions are largely made by those of the Catholic persuasion (is there any such thing as a Catholic blog? How do I know that these people are Catholic?) and where statements are made about the hopeful "dying-off" of the more radical elements of the Church and the "breed them out" desire of the more traditional-adhering members of the Church? Or how some are so "out of step" with the modern world, meant as a pejorative phrase? And the even better, "I love my fellow members in the Body of Christ, but..."

I especially 'love' (having the same meaning as 'reward' above) when some express a desire to choose the town and community where they live around a desire to be close to certain elements, like making sure to have a conservative bishop or a local Indult Mass, or a liberal bishop and a 'relevant' Mass, etc. It's so deliciously arrogant, just like this essay is. It suggests that one knows something above and beyond that of one's fellow Catholics, that material success is God-given and meant to be expended in carefully choosing where one's feet should touch, whose hands one should have to shake (or not), who one should talk to after Mass. "I only want to be around those who have read Newman, Chesterton, and von Balthasar, and can sing Gregorian chant!" "I only want to be around those who know such things are out-dated and represent oppression!" The over-education of the laity may be the worst development of the modern world. Forget the "new" evangelization of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council; no, we must (through de facto schism) cast those sinning members, nay, those who are different from us, out of the Church! Or at the very least make them feel really unwelcome, because we all know Christ only died for those who want ad orientem postures during Mass and frilly lace on the altars, or those who want altar girls and worship Him with guitars. Only those smart enough to know that such is the right way to worship should be allowed in the Lord's House, the ark of salvation. Let's all turn up our collective noses at the little people!

"But didn't worship develop over centuries, and who were they to change it forty years ago?" some astute reader with traditional inclinations wonders. They are probably the same people who have been screwing things up for centuries, whether through the teaching of heresy or denial of the sacraments based on race and ethnicity or abuse of power...etc. 'They' are 'us', and we're all guilty of failure to love, caritas. And the result is disorder - the abuses sometimes displayed in the Novus Ordo liturgy aren't the result of the evil actions of a small group of men - the Almighty is certainly great enough to preserve liturgy - no, they are your fault and my fault. Those "Clown Masses?" They are the result of what I have done and what I have failed to do. And what I have failed to do is not to banish the participants of the Clown Mass out of the Church, but to pray, to give myself over to God. I've chosen sin, too many times, over Him Who gives Life. And by doing so, I have allowed Him to be mocked.

The best (as in ironic) part in the divisions in the Church is certainly that both the rads and trads want schism. They are eager for it. They don't want to be around the other; they see the bleeding body of Christ on Calvary and run the other way - the trads trying to catch up with the Pharisees, the rads wanting to just be part of the larger mob. In mentality they are typically Protestants. My interpretation is correct, and this is what should be done about it, and I will not allow myself to be around those who disagree. Clearly from this essay this is my own mentality too, except for that very last crucial phrase.

Back in the New Orleans metro area, I used to attend evening Mass with my mom on the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. These Masses featured guest speakers and musicians, and would draw every Charismatic Catholic in the area out of the woodwork, with their speaking in tongues, intensely personal revelations on the Spirit at work in their lives, and the altar calls to come forward and be born again of the Spirit, for some of the participants 'knew' through the voice of God that a member of the congregation had recently experienced a death in the family, or bore lack of forgiveness towards an uncle, or other revelations. Those who participated in these Masses were the same as those who regularly attended daily Mass and also included those who sometimes got tired of the 'stuffiness' of a typical Sunday Mass. Good for them. How wonderful it was to be around such a group of people assured that God was acting personally in their lives. And it wasn't some quasi-Gnostic belief that only through special knowledge could one have this experience of God - no, He's waiting for you, He wants to send out His Spirit upon you. People could have had all sorts of other motivations in being there, other proclivities that rendered them 'susceptible' to the Charismatic movement, but the message as I heard it was right on. I didn't become a Charismatic Catholic (neither did my mom), but it was joyous to hear people be excited about the hand of the Lord at work in their lives, and I have yet to meet any lay Catholics willing to proclaim it as much as those Charismatics were. Yes, it's a movement inspired by a Protestant movement and it will probably die off, but in many ways it may have served a valuable purpose, even if only for a few souls. After all, God can use the seemingly ridiculous human ideas and inventions to get His message across too.

And that, finally, is the problem as I see it. For some people - the cads of the rads and trads - God seems to be very small. He is only present here, or there, or gives graces most abundantly here and not there, and He cannot preserve me from influences there, so I must be here instead. But in truth, it's only by the grace of God that I am kept, and only the grace of God that can keep me. So for those who want to start judging where your small God gives graces to your fellow Catholics - and isn't it always members of the laity who are quickest to judge? - go sit in the corner and pray that He gives grace to you.

Monday, May 7, 2007

"Without the grace of God I should not know how to do anything"

For those history buffs, on 7 May 1429 Jeanne d'Arc was wounded below the neck and shoulder during the siege of Orleans. Read about the siege here.

St. Joan of Arc's Feast Day is on May 30th. One can read an English translation of the transcript of her trials (one to condemn her to death in 1431; the other to declare her innocent in 1456).

Perhaps the most famous lines from the first trial (found in the 3rd public examination):

"Do you know if you are in the grace of God?"

"If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest in all the world if I knew that I were not in the grace of God."