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Oh my goodness, am I going to watch a ballet?

Yes, I probably am.  The other day I was reading this complaint by Terry Teachout about the arts programming on PBS, and I have to agree with him that documentaries on Pearl Jam and Women Who Rock are really not what we need PBS for. (And Andrea Boccelli with Celine Dione?!?!)  But one thing in that list caught my eye: the George Balanchine ballets. 

I suppose I have a slightly higher degree of tolerance for ballet than the average man: whereas, on a scale of -10 to 10, most men would probably rate watching ballet at about -5 or so, I might go as high as 2. And I think that's mainly because of happy memories of taking my children to see "The Nutcracker" at Christmas when we lived in Huntsville.

But in recent years my interest has been piqued by two things. One is Terry Teachout's admiration for Balanchine. Here's a guy who likes a lot of the same things I do, and when he described his reaction on first seeing a Balanchine work performed--"Why has no one ever told me about this?", or something to that effect (much like my first reaction to tera misu)--I wondered what he saw in it. 

Second, Laura Jacobs' writing about dance in The New Criterion. I used to skip those pieces, but one day I read one, and found it intriguing: again, what does she see in it? Well, she's a very good writer (though sometimes a bit on the precious and self-consciously artful side), and although I really had no interest in the subject, her descriptions made me feel that it would be nice to see what she sees. Which I suppose is what good criticism of good work should do. Here's a sample: "The Nutcracker": A New Awakening, from the March 2011 issue. I have to admit that what this piece really provokes in me is a desire to hear Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta, which Jacobs says is sort of a companion to "The Nutcracker."

Anyway, the people who know seem to think that Balanchine is, like, the Dylan of dance or something. So I'm planning to watch this performance. It'll be broadcast on October 28 here but I don't know if that holds for other places. You can read more and find a schedule at the PBS site.


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I was enrolled in ballet class for one summer, and we performed The Nutcracker. Is that a kind of ballet rite, I wonder? :-D

I think so. I seem to remember one of my sisters being in it.

Oh!! Well, then, I guess that settles it :-)

Forgive me if I've said this before.

When I was 6, my parents in a desperate attempt to do something about my innate clumsiness sent me to ballet school. I always thought that I was doing what they told me to do, but I always seemed to be wrong. We had a mean teacher who would yell at us and say that if we didn't pay attention he would turn into a dragon. We called him Dirty Kirby.

Then came time for the recital. I don't remember anything at all about whatever dance I was in. I just remember Dirty Kirby coming out in his very heavy stage makeup. He had thick, black eyebrows that jutted out from his forehead. He looked, in fact, as if he were changing into a dragon. It was pretty scary.

After about a year, my parents gave up in despair and withdrew me from the class.


That bears some resemblance to my athletic career, though mine dragged out a lot longer. However, your dance teacher was much meaner than any coach I ever had.

Well, I had a similar athletic career, except that my career was cut short every year when they cut the team.


Well, it must be a rite of clumsyhood to not last more than one round of ballet school :-D

I should be thankful that they didn't make boys do that.

Some boys they did, Mac.

My deep sympathy.

I took ballet lessons for several years as a child, though in those days there was only the one Nutcracker, put on by the city's professional company. I was never good enough even to be a party guest in that production. My most vivid memory is the drive home from a recital during which my mother said, "I think you would look more graceful if you pointed your toes."

We went to see the Nutcracker every year, though, my sisters and I in velvet dresses and patent-leather shoes. In fact we had subscriptions to the entire season. To me Balanchine seemed like Bach: beautiful in an orderly, mathematical way, but containing more emotion than a lot of people acknowledge.

As an adult, I read memoirs by some of his ballerinas and the demands he put on them rubbed some of the shine off my view of him.

Reading about the personal lives of people one admires is, alas, all too often a huge letdown like that. I tend to avoid it. I picked up a book about Dylan in a bookstore one day and read an incident that made him seem pretty despicable--according to this, he hired the daughter of a friend to run a coffee shop for him and then fired her after spending a while yelling at her about what an idiot she was. If that had been my daughter, I would certainly have despised him from that moment on. This wasn't something from his young and crazy days, either, it was relatively recent.

I suspect ballerinas generally have a very hard life. Sort of like models--they probably get treated somewhat like domestic animals, unless they're absolute superstars.

How is a ballet preserved? I mean, what did Balanchine write down so other people would know what to do after he was gone? Is there a notation system of some kind?

There's a picture here of choreographic notation.


Well, duh.

Very interesting. And that leads to this.

Well, when I have dinner with my choreographer-sister this evening, I will ask her how she does it.


I figured there had to be something--the way people talk about so-and-so's Swan Lake, etc., made it sound like there was something much more precise than just a general impression.

I talked with my sister about this last night and she said that very few people use that notation. The classical ballets are like oral tradition. They are handed down from one generation of dancers to the next. She said that if you were going to perform a Balanchine ballet (and few companies are allowed to do it), that you would learn from someone who learned from Balanchine.

As for newer ballets, the choreographer just teaches the dance to the company and then, of course, everything is on film now.


Very interesting. I cannot imagine being able to remember something like that in even a tenth of the detail needed to re-create it.

So, did you watch it?


Not yet. I hope I recorded it--I haven't checked.

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