Posted on August 11, 2017
In July 2016’s Dancing Times, Dominic Antonucci wrote about dancers on holiday, so in the spirit of summer, this month my own vacation to Italy is my starting point. It was the first time I had visited the country, but amongst much fun, photo-taking and pasta-eating, my mind didn’t stray too far from ballet. Associated with France and the court of Versailles, ballet’s roots actually lie back across the Rubicon in the Florence of the Medici. My trip helped me remember that ballet is not only about balance and harmony; it is an interface between artistic moods and the visceral form of the human body.
How do we learn about “artistic moods”? Do we absorb them during our daily lives; in books we read and films we watch? Yes, but I was lucky to have teachers who showed me the fundamental importance of the visual arts during my formative years. Visits to galleries and museums were a treat, and for me today these buildings are places both of learning and of sanctuary. The Uffizi in Florence contains treasures such as Botticelli’s Primavera and Michelangelo’s The Holy Family; Renaissance images of ideal shape and form. The cultural resonance for ballet dancers is obvious, though not without impetus for discussion. The gallery archly drew the viewer’s attention to a Roman copy of Doryphoros by Polykleitos, illustrating the mathematical theories this Grecian sculptor believed underpinned ideal beauty. It’s accompanying note read: “15th century artists were trained to emulate the art of the ancient world …[looking] to that art throughout their careers.” I feel that same imperative for dancers: we can look at art extolling classical ideas and understand something of how to hold ourselves in The Sleeping Beauty. This approach can be extended, looking at images by more recent artists, including Lucian Freud or Samuel Palmer. It allows us to understand dance contextually, providing a dancer with departure points into the diverse worlds of later choreographers.
I’m not advocating a prescriptive approach; you can take or leave what you like from art. The value lies in the generation of ideas, replenishing your “reservoir” to use in your own work. As a side note, I think we box the 19th-century classics in a rather tired way. The Sleeping Beauty was first performed in 1890; Swan Lake (in the version we see today) five years later. At the same time, Monet and Van Gogh were tearing up the rule book and striving to show the world how light moved. There are connections between these worlds, but the ties are too rarely highlighted. Why? Is it current culture within education? In my November 2016 blog I referenced STEM versus STEAM subjects [link]. Looking at Doryphoros – a version of this work also appeared in the British Museum’s fantastic 2014 exhibition, Defining Beauty – made me wonder if an innovative teacher could explore maths inspired by ratios and sacred numbers?
I read Luke Jennings’ June 11, 2017, piece about The Royal Ballet’s recent Frederick Ashton triple bill for The Observer with interest, but also a little sadness. Indeed, “the world has changed beyond recognition since Ashton’s day”, Jennings astutely commenting that audiences in the choreographer’s lifetime were more familiar with “neo-Hellenic ideals of beauty” compared to today’s ballet-goers, but this is not good reason to dilute these works. How Symphonic Variations converses with classical ideas is what places it as a beacon of our dance culture, and design is as pertinent in forging this chain as choreography. Rightly, Jennings warns of “a Miss Havisham look” about the repertory; by sensitive, enquiring coaching (and dancing), the vibrancy of these ballets can be renewed. Would we talk about the Balanchine/Stravinsky Greek trilogy of Apollo, Orpheus and Agon in a similar way? The stark designs of these ballets – Balanchine’s idiosyncratic classroom aesthetic – could exempt them from this discussion, but again, it is Balanchine’s discourse with classical ideas that make the works take off. The choreographer produced ballets that covertly mine the nature of being an artist. Images of exhaustion and deflation stud his canon, as well as images of revelation: divine; profane; pedestrian. This online discussion of Agon makes some astute observations.
Apollo, a ballet about learning and inspiration, seems an appropriate ballet to close with. Back on home shores, I think it’s vital that many of our national museums and galleries remain free – the Uffizi charged a whopping €17 for entry! Simon Jenkins raises some intriguing points in the London Evening Standard, but this is a discussion for a whole other blog. Walk around The National Gallery and you’ll see that images of pools and bathing abound. Across art history, bodies of water have been metaphors for repositories of knowledge; the source of inspiration. For me, museums are these pools. They are a way to get out of yourself and meditate on life. Significantly, Terpsichore rests on Apollo’s shoulders and swims at the close of their pas de deux in Balanchine’s 1928 ballet.
Photograph: Daniel Pratt.