Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Apollo's Angels - A Ballet History

Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels – A History of Ballet, London, Granta, 2010.

Ballet is an art form rooted in the Italian Renaissance during which a renewed interest in the classical texts was pursued. It has to do with harmony, proportions and ideals, aspects perfectly embodied by Apollo, "the god of civilization and healing, prophecy and music". And ballet dancers can be compared to angels (as Balanchine does), with their ethereal and imalpable movement quality. Choosing to refer to both Apollo and angels in the title of this book, is a particularly sophisticated choice.

When Apollo's Angels was published five years ago, it stirred a controversial debate on the state of the art, because the Epilogue declared the end of an era and the possible death of ballet. Reviews flocked and debated the question (here and here two examples) without focusing much on the previous chapters and the enormous work Homans had accomplished (see here for a more comprehensive view). I will return to the Epilogue, but for now I would like to focus on the subtitle, "a history of ballet" where the choice of the indefinite article says it all. Homans's perspective is not The perspective (or "Olympian truth" as one critic labelled it) but her own and is the result of a decade of research and a "lifetime spent in dance".

To begin with, the book does not simply follow the development of this “system of movement as rigorous and demanding as any language” that we call ballet, but inserts it in a cultural, social, economic and historical context that makes its meaning and achievements much clearer and more powerful. For example, August Bourneville’s Danish ballet, which was essential to preserve the Romantic tradition, owns a lot to the writings of Hans Christian Andersen, who was very interested in ballet (he even tried to become a dancer) and “imagined women as sylph-like figures, unattainable and alluring”. He reworked Danish folklore changing “the occult worlds that had informed the French Romantic ballet”. That is why, Bourneville’s Sylphide exemplifies a “fanciful bourgeois domesticity” where the male title role is given more substance with respect to the original French work and the story is transformed in his “regrettable lack of self-control” rather than “the loss of the sylphide”. Another enlightening example connects Russian ballet with serfdom, “the Imperial Theatres of Moscow and St. Petersburg were both fed by serfs from serf theatres, and it is this strange social and political phenomenon that provided a blueprint for the art”. According to Homans, this aspect contributed to shaping Russian dancers’ submission to authority, “their sense of duty, and the reverence and humility they bring to their tradition”.

Then, Homans, throughout the history she recounts, focuses on the description of ballets, steps, dancers and choreographers letting us almost vividly see them. She was a ballet dancer before becoming a historian, and this probably helped to pay special attention to the steps. For instance, the five basic feet positions that constitute the skeleton of ballet and were codified by Pierre Beauchamps in the seventeenth century, were a question of etiquette, posture and body mapping, “first position was a gathering point, a ‘home’ or balletic equivalent of a musical tonic, in which the body stood elegantly at rest, heel to heel, legs slightly turned out at the hip. The other four positions prepared the body to move”. Among the choreographers she pays a due tribute to George Balanchine who emigrated from Russia to the United States, laid the foundation of ballet where there was almost nothing, and transformed it into a superb twentieth-century art form, firmly keeping its bond with the past, “for him ballet was an art of angels, of idealized and elevated human figures, beautiful, chivalric, and above all strictly formal”. Serenade is a perfect example, with its refined allure, buoyant dynamism and witty irony and Agon represents a milestone in ballet history with its sharp lines, upbeat rhythm and chromatic black and white contrast. With regards to other choreographers, something more could have been said on Michel Fokine and something less on Jerome Robbins, whereas Kenneth MacMillan was too quickly dismissed.

Last but not least, Homans’s writing style is impeccable and makes this five hundred and fifty pages tome a page-turner book. One simply does not want to put it down. Homans commands her prose wonderfully, tying up her analysis with humour and sagacity, as when she talks of Italian choreographer Luigi Manzotti, “it was a stunning paradox: Manzotti’s meretricious and bombastic dances – which had pushed ballet as far from antiquity as kitsch could take it – would become a vital element in the making of high Russian classicism” or when she deals with Soviet ballet, and, in particular, with Bolshoi style in Grigorovich’s Spartacus, “it appeared classical – the steps were all there – but it was not. Grigorovich had crushed ballet’s delicate internal filigree and erected an arduous athleticism in its place”.

Coming to the much-debated Epilogue, it is important to set it in relation to the rest of the book. Homans highlights how the development of ballet was related to the affirmation of the nation states that gave birth to the many schools and approaches, like the Cecchetti or the Vaganova school. Ballet masters and choreographers often travelled and moved from one country to another, as it happened with the French ballet master Marius Petipa, the creator of Sleeping Beauty who worked at St. Petersburgh’s Imperial court and with the Ballets Russes who became famous in Paris, not in their homeland. But, in general, it was the political and cultural decisions of each nation state that decided the fate of ballet as it occurred with Denmark or Russia. 
Nowadays, with globalization, “national distinctions have been flattened into a common international style” and “rather than perfecting a native tongue, they [dancers] speak a mellifluous hybrid language”. I do not think Homans to be nostalgic of the Cold War, she just focuses on the fact that at its end, something got lost, a legacy that Petipa had from his French school and Balanchine from his Russian has not been properly transmitted to the future generations that tend to revere their past without being able to fully grasp it, “today we no longer believe in ballet’s ideals. We are skeptical of elitism and skill, which seem exclusionary and divisive”. 

Can ballet really survive such big changes? Maybe; Homans’s bitter-ending is not a mere provocation, but a call to action addressed to dancers, choreographers, scholars and all those who are part of this centuries-old tradition. It is vital to reflect on ballet history and language, and learn about its transformations, because ballet is not just about "the next genius", but about "honor, decorum, civility and taste (...). We would have to admire ballet again, not only as an impressive athletic display but as a set of ethical principles".

Monday, 11 May 2015

Letter SI MUOVE (Letter is on its way) - Libreria delle Donne di Milano

The entrance at the Libreria delle Donne.

Wednesday 22 April 2015, at the Libreria delle Donne di Milano [the Women's Bookshop in Milan], there has been the event "Danza e poesia" [Dance and poetry] dedicated to the study I conducted on Martha Graham's Letter to the World, a choreographic work dedicated to Emily Dickinson.

The Libreria delle Donne is a historic place and since 1975 it has been a reference point for the debates on the condition and history of women. It was a real honour for me to speak of Graham there. The Libreria has a wide space dedicated to books, a wonderful kitchen where sophisticated meals are cooked and another wide space for events and meetings.

Preparations before the event.
Pat Carra has opened the event, introducing Alessandro Pontremoli who has engaged a dialogue with myself. Carra is one of the most famous cartoonists in Italy for her unmistakable stroke and her subtle and perspicacious humour: She is also part of Aspirina's editorial staff, the satirical online magazine of the Libreria with which I have been collaborating for about a year with my strip on la studiosa precaria, the precarious scholar. I have particularly appreciated Pat's words as she talked about the circumstances that brought us together as well as the precarity od research today. Pontremoli is professor of the Dance and Mime History course at the University of Turin, refined expert in Renaissance Dance and not only that. He is also the author of numerous publications, such as La danza. Storia, teoria, estetica nel Novecento [Dance. History, Theory, Aesthetics of the Twentieth-Century]. With Alessandro, whom I have known for nearly a decade, we have talked about Graham, Letter to the World, dance, the complexity of the reconstructing process and, thanks to the questions of the people who came (formidable people!), we also talked about Isadora Duncan and the little known and still too little explored Italian modern dance. Ane we also discussed about Graham's unusual portrait of the Virgin Mary in primitive Mysteries and showed some videos, such as the iconic Lamentation and some extracts from Letter to the World. It has been a really beautiful event, very rich in stimuli and reflections. I thank again the Libreria and Pat Carra for having organised it and all the people who were there for having turned it into a special moment. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Moving Without a Body - Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thought

Stamatia Portanova, Moving Without a Body – Digital Philosophy and ChoreographicThoughts, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2013.

Odette from Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballet roles in dance history and is paramount of this art. The unusual port de bras, the pondered gestures, the finitude of pointwork. Dance is about moving bodies, but what if dance and movement could be re-thought in their absence? What if movement took a life of its own and stepped away from the muscles and bones that usually create it? Odette could be captured by a camera and her movement remastered through digital technology. What would the result be? Her body parts could be altered, the pace of her solo transformed and the spatio-temporal sequence of her phrase changed.  

Before the digital revolution, there have been attempts to conceive of movement in the absence of bodies. One fascinating example is the ballet Feu d’artfice (1917), set by Giacomo Balla, music by Igor Stravinsky, a ballet that consisted of geometric solids of different colours animated by forty-nine polychromous lights, which were being turned on and off as the music score proceeded. No dancers at all, the kinetic element being created by the interplay between lights and solids. As a Futurist artist, Balla was interested in exploring the relationship between artificial landscapes and speed, and this ballet was a particularly experimental example.

With the digital revolution, the idea of movement without a body has become a multifaceted and changing reality and Stamatia Portanova’s book is an example of how this question can be addressed from a philosophical point of view. It is a challenging and significant work at the same time. Challenging, because it destabilizes, at times even in the writing style, the reader accustomed to think of dance as an embodied art form, and significant, because sometimes we need to move and, in this case, re-move the given for granted aspects of dance to see what is there to be further discovered. Drawing from the theories of scholars like Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the choreographic work of William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham among others, Portanova asks its readers to think and envision movement according to different parameters such as numbers and the idea of the cut. In other words, “the aim is to give to conceptual reflection another capacity: not as an in-depth excavation of subjective, bodily, human experience, but as a superficial abstraction of concepts beyond subjects, humans, and even (human or technological) bodies”. 

According to Portanova, we have to “think choreography as a movement-thought” in order to focus on “how [movement] is thought”, thus recalling Rudolf Laban’s “movement-thinking”, a notion that he described as “a gathering of impressions of happenings in one’s own mind” and as a way to focus on thought in movement terms. In both cases, we have a momentous approach that attempts to go beyond the mind/body dual system to re-consider the way we think and act.

For example, numbers can be a viable method “to capture, store, and manipulate movement, abstracting it from the body”. They offer a new way to focus on movement because they represent “a data flow that can be used to activate further physical or mental, technical or creative processes”. In this sense, numbers, as well as technology, are not cold and sterile, but “can reveal a sign of aliveness and affective potential”. According to Deleuze and Felix Guattari, numbers can be considered “as a counting and measuring tool”, which they call “numbered numbers” and which connect movement with geometry and physics. This all becomes particularly interesting when thinking of Cunningham’s chance procedure in his choreographic creation. Taking inspiration from the I Ching, Cunningham based his compositional process on numbers and their combination, such as in Torse (1976), where he focused on the different movements of the torso. On the I Ching Cunnigham said ,“it’s the element of chance bringing up something my own experience might not produce. Even though I have made the movements that will be utilized in the dance, I use chance operations to devise the continuity so that what comes after what can be a new experience”. 

Linked with the resourceful importance of numbers, there is the idea of the cut. Gestures are “always an aggregate of microgestures” and, digitally, these microgestures can be rearranged in a creative way according to a cut and paste process. Montage rightly comes to mind; I would add collage and photomontage come to mind too, as they both imply the act (virtual or real) of cutting and rearranging an image. According to Marta Magaglini, photomontage has the ability to “activate the imagination”, in that its space is multiple and dynamic. Similarly, Portanova believes that the idea of the cut can contribute to the way we think movement in the digitalised era. She notes that this idea is well defined by Whitehead’s “nexus”, i.e. “a series of disconnected occasions held together by the uniqueness of an idea”. There are various kinds of nexuses, like the “presentational nexus” or the “digital nexus” where the idea of the cut can be exemplified in different ways. In the former, it “determines the disappearance of the sequential form”, while in the latter it “implies a cutting out and a magnification, in the image, of that quantum divisibility and extensive relationality”. An example of the idea of the cut and its “intuitive logic” is Antonin De Bemels’s Il s’agit (2003), a video where a man stands against a black background moving and mainly articulating his arms in a digitally reworked choreographic pattern. It is hypnotic in the way it perpetrates the “microscopic cutting of the digital and its endless repetition”. 

Numbers, cuts, and also objects and softwares are some of the thought-provoking concepts explored in the book, a prodigious achievement where movement, devoid of  the body presence, acquires an unconventionally abstract connotation in the light of a mathematical and philosophical approach. 

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lecture at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo (some other photos)

Here are some other photographs from the lecture on Graham's Letter to the World that I delivered at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo on March 25th. Here some info. I would like to thank Cristina Squartecchia for the photographs.

Opening of lecture with the question: what is a choreography?

Asking students some questions.

I asked a volunteer to show us the basic principles of the Graham technique.

Lecture finished, nice pic with two students.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Letter - REVIEWS

Two reviews (in Italian) so far have been published on my book: one is by choreographer, dancer and dance writer Stefania Zepponi, and was published on Krapp's Last Post; the other is by dance journalist Leonilde Zuccari and was published on Il Giornale della Danza. I thank both of them for their nice words and insightful comments.

Letter SI MUOVE (Letter is on its way) - upcoming events

In April and May, I will talk about my book on three occasions. Two will be a classic book presentation, one in Milan and the other in Chiaravalle (Ancona) in two of my favourite bookshops. The third one will be a lecture delivered at a high school in Macerata, a bit like the one I gave in Teramo. Here are dates and places:

22 April 2015 "Danza e poesia" (dance and poetry), Simonari talks about Letter to the World with Alessandro Pontremoli, Dance History professor at the University of Turin. Introduction by Pat Carra, renowned cartoonist and coordinator of the feminist online satirical magazine Aspirina La Rivista (with which I collaborate). Audiovisual projections, Libreria delle Donne di Milano, Milan, 6.30 pm. A buffet will follow.

29 April 2015 "Così lontane, così vicine: Martha Graham ed Emily Dickinson" (so distant, so close: Martha Graham and Emily Dickinson), Tè Letterario, Istituto Superiore "Matteo Ricci", Macerata, 3.30 pm.

2 May 2015 Simonari talks about Letter to the World with Enrico Guida, eclectic and well-read bookseller. Audiovisual projections, Libreria Il Grillo parlante, Chiaravalle (Ancona), 6.30 pm.

Lecture at the Liceo Coreutico in Teramo (Italy)

On March 25th, I delivered a lecture on Graham's Letter to the World at the Liceo Coreutico (a high school specialisedd in dance) in Teramo. Following the path of my book, I first talked about the meaning of the term choreography, to then focus on Graham's piece itself and conclude with a reflection on Graham's production in the light of the above-mentioned analysis. The boys and girls from the school have actively taken part to the lecture with questions, observations and curiosities, making the afternoon very pleasant. I truly thank them, as well as the Dance History professor at the Liceo, Cristina Squartecchia, the School Head and the other professors for the perfect organisation, their help and participation. Here are some photographs. 


Liceo Coreutico in Teramo.
Getting ready.
Me and Cristina Squartecchia.