Friday, September 11, 2009

The Four Temperaments

Going back to basics in 1946, Balanchine concentrated his attention equally on the smallest details and the largest resources of classical dance and on making transitions from one to the other clearer, perhaps, than they’d ever been before.

When, in the opening statement of the ballet – the first part of the Theme - we see a girl, supported on her points, turning from side to side and transferring her weight from one foot to the other as she turns, we see her do it with a finicky grace: she lifts and lowers the free foot, curls it around the standing leg, and carefully flexes it before arching to full point.We see, in short a foot becoming a point-nature being touched to artificial life. The detail looms for an instant, then quickly takes its place in the grand scheme of the ballet.

The Theme is full of elementary particles, jostling, caroming, crisscrossing space in strokes that define the boundaries of the territory Balanchine will invade.In the Theme’s second statement (there are three such statements, each a pas de deux), the side-to-side turns have become full revolutions, rapid finger turns marked off by the girl’s point as it taps the floor. In the third statement, the finger-turns are taken in deep plie with one foot held off the ground in passé position. The weight on that one supporting point looks crushing, but, as we have seen, there is something about a woman’s point that makes it not a foot – that makes it a sign. The image created by the third girl as she is spun is blithe, even comical; could Balanchine have been thinking of the bass fiddle the forties jazz player spins after a chorus of licks?

The developing sense of the passages I’ve cited is analogous to the process that takes place in the molding of a classical dancer’s body. The “story” of The Four Temperaments is precisely that story – the subjection of persons to a process and their re-emergence as human archetypes – but these citations may make it seems as if that process happened all in closeup, and if that were true we would be in a crazy man’s world. Balanchine has built a large and dense composition on a handful of cellular motifs, and it’s this economy that allows us to perceive the ballet and survive it, too.

Balanchine’s control of the action’s subliminal force allows us the most marvelous play in our minds; we’re torn in an agony of delight between what we see and what we think we see. Metaphoric implications flash by, achieve their bright dazzle of suggestion, and subside into simple bodily acts. The way the women stab the floor with their points or hook their legs around men’s waists or grip their partners’ wrists in lifts – images of insatiable hunger, or functional necessities?

[Melancholic’s] space is penetrated by menacing diagonals for the entries of the corps. They are enough to frustrate and block his every attempt to leap free. He leaps and crumples to earth. We recognize this man: his personal weather is always ceiling zero.

In the Sanguinic variation, the vista is wide, the ozone pure and stinging.The Sanguinic variation takes us to the top of the world, and twice we ride around its crest.

Phlegmatic is indolent, tropical, given to detached contemplation.The male soloist languishes, and loves it. Slowly he picks up invisible burdens, lifts them, and clothes himself in their splendor.

Choleric enters in a burst of fanfares and flourishes, kicking the air. Her fury must be appeased, assimilated by the ballet’s bloodstream. The entire cast collaborates in the process.

After a silence in which nobody moves, the great fugue of the finale begins its inexorable massed attack. All the parts the ballet is made of are now seen at once in a spectacle of grand-scale assimilation. Apotheosis. We see a succession of sky-sweeping lifts; we see a runway lined by a chorus of grand battements turned to the four points of the compass. The lifts travel down the runway and out as the curtain falls. Balanchine has interpreted the subject in the form of a dance fantasy, but never so literally or schematically that we need fear, if we miss one element, having missed all.
8 Dec 1975

- from the essay “Momentous” by Arlene Croce

"The Four Temperaments" was not a Balanchine ballet that I "got" immediately. My first exposure to it was on video, from the Dance in America series of the 1970s with a highly praised revival cast. The themes consisted of couples moving to create shapes but their movements would be abruptly stopped by foot, leg, or arm. Was this ballet about movement arrested? I was equally confused by the men's sections (Phlegmatic and Melancholic). The four women who sometimes accompany the men pose fashion model style, sometimes blocking the path of the men with their arms, torsos, or legs. The only sections I really responded to were "Choleric" with her sharp kicks and the ending, which really does surprise with the mass of dancers suddenly present on stage dancing in unison. It was a ballet I admired in the back of my mind, but didn't really care to see again, no matter how many ballet critics I read maintained that "The Four Temperaments" was a ballet they NEEDED to see at least every 5 years.

However, as I saw more ballet - particularly more traditional classical ballets - I could see how Balanchine was building off of the basics of ballet movement. I was also able to get beyond the early ballet-watcher confusion of "what am I seeing here?" and enjoy the pure movement - the languorous backbends, the sharp kicks, the flexing feet, the hip thrusts - not merely their shapes, but their force and impact as movements. Not that one cannot immediately enjoy "The Four Temperaments" as movement, but it took me seeing the way Balanchine was altering those movements - through their placement in the music, or accents, or general force - from their more typical use in older classical ballets to understand what was going on here. Only now am I beginning to understand how much this 1946 Hindemith ballet can train the eye and teach us of how much ballet still has to communicate.

Chicago, 20 October 2006, Evening

Throughout the day and evening performances, I kept thinking that NYCB has sure turned into a "short" company with a lot of short, compact female dancers. Martins was clearly keeping all the tall, long-limbed, Balanchine-caricatured women for this ballet, and I immediately wondered why several of them (Krohn, Bar, Riggins) weren't dancing soloist roles in Concerto, Symphony in C, and Divertimento, as they had the energy and phrasing and individuality one had been waiting for. (I also would have liked to have seen Somogyi in 1st movement Symphony in C.) I thought this was the best performed ballet (at least it had energy!) but I also thought it was a bit uncontrolled. It seemed like the dancers were breathing easier in this space, but at the same time not realizing that they were still performing classical ballet. In other words, they looked happy to exaggerate, and exaggerated too much for it. But there was a real sense of commitment, a real excitement to be out on stage that was sorely lacking in the other five Balanchine ballets, and for that (at the end of the day) I was grateful.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

All I ever wanted to know about Hell, I learned from Vincent Price

“You are about to enter Hell, Bartolome - Hell!...The nether world, the infernal region, the abode of the damned...The place of torment. Pandemonium, Abbadon, Tophet, Gehenna, Narraka...the Pit!...And the Pendulum. The razor-edge of destiny.”

My mother, no fan of modern horror movies, has always been a Vincent Price horror movie fan. Thus, Roger Corman’s 1961 film "The Pit and the Pendulum" was taped from late night Houston t.v. and watched and re-watched in my house whenever we wanted to see a “scary movie.” (Even scarier were the commercials for the Time Life series of books on the paranormal, with images of specters floating down hallways and demons in the woods, all of which could have been mine to learn about if I would have called and ordered the first in the series.)

“The Pit and the Pendulum” is a child’s nightmare of a movie, filled with the forbidden and the horrifying – and without supernatural elements. Incest, torture, insanity, being buried alive, a huge castle with hidden passageways, and obviously, a pit and a pendulum. The plot, which bears little resemblance to Poe’s original story, is about a young man, Bartolome, who comes to the Medina castle to find out how his sister Elizabeth, wife of Nicholas Medina, died. Nicholas is played by the incomparable Vincent Price, complete with grief-stricken face, bulging eyeballs, looks of despair, and even a fainting spell. We eventually learn that Nicholas’ father was the local inquisitor who conducted his torture sessions in the basement and who tortured and killed his wife and brother on suspicion that they were having an affair, while his son watched. Prior to her death, Elizabeth (Barbara Steele) had become increasingly fascinated with these torture devices, and it was believed that the “ghosts” killed her. But Nicholas is haunted by his beloved Elizabeth, and begins to believe that she was buried alive. In one of the most indelible images in the movie, they open her casket to find a decaying face frozen in a scream.

Of course, there is the plot twist: there is no supernatural explanation for the death of Elizabeth, as she did not die in this gruesome manner. She was having an affair with the doctor, staged her own death and is now trying to drive her husband crazy so she can run off with the doctor free and clear. “Nicholas…Nicholas…” she keeps calling to him*, luring him down into the basement, where she hopes he will die of fright. Right when it seems that he has cracked up and died, he turns the tables on Elizabeth and the doctor and assumes the persona of his inquisitor father, torturing his wife and friend. Unluckily for him, Elizabeth’s brother is the one who gets tied to the pendulum torture device. Nicholas’ sister comes to Bartolome’s rescue, and Nicholas ends up dead at the bottom of the pit, an evil grin on his face. But if that isn’t enough, the final scene is of the basement torture chamber being locked up, while Elizabeth is frozen inside the iron maiden.

As already stated, there are no supernatural aspects in this movie. It is all the more terrifying because of that – it is about a descent into insanity and evil, based on the wickedness of others and their ability to deceive. It’s one of the scariest things in the world – that people are not as you thought them to be. (One of my childhood nightmares was that people would shape-shift in the dark, that they could become other people or creatures in a room with no light, and then attack me.)

But even that as not as frightening as how delighted Price – as Nicholas – becomes when he is freed into pure evil. It’s not just a twist on the old saying that bad ‘guys’ have more fun; it’s this passion to act in a newfound way, free of concern and responsibility. It’s appropriate that he cannot recognize anyone as they are. He is oblivious in his desire to complete all his wicked aims. Hell becomes the scariest place possible.

*The way Price calls after her, “Elizabeth? Elizabeth?” reminded my sister and me of the way Macho Man Randy Savage called after Miss Elizabeth, for ‘80s WWF fans.

Guitar-playing days are here again...

I have decided to take up the guitar. About 10 years ago, for a very boring summer where I was mostly confined to the house, I briefly tried to teach myself to play the guitar using Roy Clark’s Big Note Songbook. The guitar I used was given to us by a cousin and was missing a string; it had been previously used as a fake weapon (machine gun) by my sister and me when we were younger. Ten years ago, I mastered the melody to “Amazing Grace,” and that was about it.

So how difficult can it be to learn to play the guitar? I have always been amazed by the sheer numbers of people who can play it reasonably well. After all, I have 12 years of piano lessons and 8 years of clarinet lessons, so this should be fairly easy, right? Come on, I can play Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” and Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto.” I can certainly play the guitar, right?

First things first – I cannot figure out how to hold a guitar correctly and comfortably. Perhaps I am cursed to not join the masses of guitar-players because my hands are too small, or my fingers are too short. But I am determined to persevere.

My sister, who cannot do anything halfway, has given me a classical guitar given to her by a coworker. She has purchased strings for it, a tuner, and a whole pile of guitar-learning books and songbooks. She even has an interactive computer program to help me learn (now how I am supposed to master holding the guitar correctly while messing around with the computer, I do not know).

In an attempt to force myself to write on my blog daily, I will provide frequent updates on my conquest of the guitar. And conquer this instrument I will. I cannot wait to play Haugen ditties from the choir stall at Mass.