ballet 1

When we care to examine our past and compare it to the present it is tempting to despair of regaining what has been lost.  It is to deplore the loss of a golden age and be blind to the opportunities which surround us.  Sometimes it can appear that the momentum of our culture’s secular trajectory is too strong and cannot now be diverted from its course.  Modern classical ballet however is living proof that the modern world can continue and refine western tradition.

Dance has not escaped the influences of modernism.  Philosophical modernism is supposed to have begun with Kant’s ‘assumption that we cannot know things in themselves and that objects of knowledge must conform to our faculties of representation. Ideas such as God, freedom, immortality, the world, first beginning, and final end have only a regulative function for knowledge, since they cannot find fulfilling instances among objects of experience.’[1]  When applied to Catholicism, philosophical modernism translated into an attempt to interpret dogma and revealed supernatural truth in a way which would conform with current scientific and philosophical knowledge. [2]    This was a heresy because what man thinks he knows ought to be subject to scrutiny in the light of ultimate truth as revealed and encoded in dogma, rather than ultimate truth being subject to the whims of man’s imperfect understanding.[3]

When applied to the arts the Oxford Dictionary of English would define modernism as ‘A style or movement in the arts that aims to depart significantly from classical and traditional forms.’[4]  This modern tendency to break with tradition is explained by Purin’s insight that even moderate modernism is ‘nothing less than “liberalism of every degree and shade”.’[5]  The Catholic Encyclopedia explains liberalism as the belief that ‘”It is contrary to the natural, innate, and inalienable right and liberty and dignity of man, to subject himself to an authority, the root, rule, measure, and sanction of which is not in himself”. This principle implies the denial of all true authority; for authority necessarily presupposes a power outside and above man to bind him morally.’[6] It is this attitude to authority which drives artists to reject all the cultural achievements of the past and pursue meaningless experimentation.  If they were to acknowledge that the art of the past was beautiful, they would be assenting to the existence of objective standards of beauty, which must come from something higher than themselves.

ballet 2
Here we have an example of modern art in Pablo Picasso’s Bottles and Glasses (1911-12) contrasted with Edmund Blair Leighton’s The Elopement (1893), which is in a more traditional romantic in style.  The viewer must decide for himself which is the more beautiful.

 

Modern art no longer works in the service of God.   Instead of making beauty its aim, the new purpose of art is to break down even our conception of the beautiful.  Once, art was the highest example of the goodness of God as manifested in his creations.  Now art is propaganda for the endless rejection of God and the laws of nature.  Artists now see their roles as that of revolutionaries breaking the fetters of an unjust system.  The Scholastics considered aesthetics, or art, to be the science of the beautiful, with its own laws and logic.[7]  As modern artists reject these laws they cannot produce attractive art.  In the case of modern dance, in order to keep the viewer watching a display without beauty, human sexuality must be manipulated.

Many present-day ballet companies include contemporary dance in their repertoires as well as the more traditional ballets.  Contemporary ballet oftentimes relies upon the sexual appeal of the near nude dancers for any aesthetic appeal.  Going to a contemporary dance performance bears some analogy to attending a strip show, but with the added appeal that the attendee can feel culturally superior to those who are honest about their vices.  Certainly, if the contemporary piece is not a simulation of public copulation, then it is usually a compilation of off-putting and bizarre movements which hold the attention of the viewer for the same reasons a contortionist’s misuse of limbs might attract observers.  It is a sad thing to witness the grace and technical expertise of the dancers put to the destruction of the traditional forms which produced those very gifts.

ballet 3
Two images of modern dance.

Because classical ballet has continued the traditional ballets of the past, it is largely unspoilt by modern perversion.  In spite of the reputed prevalence of eating disorders among dancers, which must surely make learning new skills and avoiding injury more difficult, the standard of classical ballet continues to advance in the modern world.   Pierina Legnani was the premier technical ballerina of her day and was credited as the first ballerina to perform 32 fouettés without stopping, although there is recent evidence that she may not have been able to do so many.[8]  Today the technical expertise of the ballerinas is so high that all the prima ballerinas perform 32 fouettés, or even double or triple fouettés in the role of the black swan.[9]  The technical improvement is not limited only to turning in ballet.  A scientist has recently found that a number of attitudes and movements within classical ballet have become more extreme over time, with higher leg positions as the dancers have become more flexible and better technicians.[10]  Also of note is the scientist’s discovery that even unexperienced viewers find the more extreme poses more aesthetically pleasing than the older style.[11]  It is true that the costumes have become increasingly immodest over time, but they at least retain the same basic structure and many of the flourishes and details which have been stripped from the world as religion and meaning have been stripped from our culture.

Ellen Price dancing in 1903.  While the dancer is talented, note how quick and jerky the dancing is.

Iana Salenko dancing recently.  The dancing seems much slower because she is so graceful.  Her leaps are also much higher and we can see higher leg placements in some of the positions.

Classical ballet has as its aim the grace of dance.  It showcases the agility, the lightness and fluidity with which human movement is possible when properly trained and imbued with the spirit of classical music.  The dancers have fully subjected the matter of their bodies to the direction of their souls.   ‘The only real gains ever made are spiritual gains – a further subjection of the gross to the incorporeal, of body to soul, of the animal to the human.’[12] Through ballet we are granted a glimpse of the potential grace of all human movement when freed from injury, tightness, awkwardness and distraction.  In fact, it may even afford us a premonition of some of the qualities of the resurrected bodies of the virtuous.

The quality of agility in the resurrected justified body is that of efficiency and quickness of motion.[13]  The dancers have far greater efficiency and litheness of movement than the ordinary untrained person.  It is the economy of their movements, which go exactly to the positions required rather than taking a less exact line which makes them able to perform movements most cannot.  Subtlety in the resurrected body is the quality by which ‘the body becomes subject to the absolute dominion of the soul.’[14] The bodies of dancers do what they intend them to.  With those of us who have subjected less of our bodies to the dominion of our souls, we may see the movements that the dancers perform and wish to do them, but find we do so imperfectly.  It is not that the dancers have access to movements which the human body cannot do, it is simply that many of us lack the sufficient range of human coordination, balance and flexibility needed.  The dancers have progressed further in the bodily virtue of subtlety than we.  Unsurprisingly, virtue in the use of one’s body tends to produces very beautiful bodies.

ballet 4

Where modern art advocates freedom to indulge in error, classical ballet demonstrates freedom from the restraints of error.  This second freedom, the freedom to be fully human and realise more of our potentiality, is true, and truth is beautiful.  The freedom to indulge in error is no freedom at all as it leads directly to our enslavement to our vices.  As Saint Augustine commented in The City of God ‘…the good man, although he is a slave, is free; but the bad man, even if he reigns, is a slave, and that not of one man, but, what is far more grievous, of as many masters as he has vices.’  Error is neither true nor beautiful and so neither is modern dance.  For this reason classical ballet is far more appealing than most contemporary dance.

There can be dangerous and subtle combinations of both classical and contemporary dance which are powerful marketing tools for revolutionary ideology.  John Neumeier’s ballet ‘Nijinsky’ combines classical technique and choreography and a beautiful classical score by Rimsky-Korsakov with modern dance and harsh music by Shostakovich to portray the life of Vaslav Nijinsky.  A famous male dancer and choreographer, Nijinsky’s short career was extremely influential and pushed the boundaries of ballet in the early 20th century.  He was infamous for having mimed masturbation on stage in his ballet The Afternoon of the Faun[15], and for the riots caused at the premier of his ballet The Rite of Spring with music by Igor Stravinsky.[16]  He is rumoured to have been dismissed from the Imperial Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) for refusing to wear trunks over his tights in a production of Giselle.[17]  Lamentably the attire of most male classical dancers is now extremely close fitting tights.  This surely causes embarrassment for the dancers as well as the audience who see far more male anatomy than desired.

ballet 5
Nijinsky in both ordinary dress of the time, and in costume as the golden slave.

Unfortunately, Nijinsky suffered from same sex attraction and sexual incontinence during his life, and eventually succumbed to madness.[18]   A tragic end for a talented dancer.  While some might see this descent into insanity as a result of the effects wrought upon the soul by sin, one suspects that this balletic depiction of Nijinsky’s life is not attempting to warn others of the danger of sin.  Because of the clever blending of great beauty, intense emotion and good stage craft with the ugliness of modern dance it is suspected that the audience may not come away from this ballet convinced of the truth of western tradition and orthodoxy.  The large traditional content merely renders the rejection of those traditions more palatable to the observer.  Most likely the audience will come away convinced that Nijinsky was ahead of his time, a daring and visionary individual whose gifts were not appreciated by the cold and unfeeling society which repressed him.

The trailer uses beautiful music and mostly classical style ballet to excite interest in this ballet.  The second clip from within the ballet perhaps gives a rather different impression of what the audience is in for.

The other side of this dangerous mix of tradition and modern is the occasional successful experiment.  While it is wonderful that the traditional ballets continue to be danced, and danced very well, it is also exciting to see classical ballet combined with the present day in a way that does not degrade it.  One particular aspect of classical ballet that might benefit from some minor adjustments are the male roles.  While the male dancers are very talented, some of the choreography and costumes for men in classical ballets do look quite effeminate to new observers.  The commercial for the Bolshoi Ballet’s cinema season indicates some ways that classical ballet may be incorporated into the present more fully.  That ballet might be successfully filmed is exciting for those who do not have the opportunity to attend a performance in person.  While ballet theatres have much practice at stagecraft, film is a different medium from theatre and needs to be treated differently in order to display dance to the best of its abilities.  We are now beginning to see ballet companies exploring the possibilities that film offers them to market their productions by taking the medium of film seriously.  For children, being able to see examples of the very best dancers performing their art must surely motivate them to persist through the less exciting elements of their training in the hope of reaching such abilities.

What is inspiring about this particular footage is that it is not a purely traditional depiction of classical ballet, but it has avoided many of the pitfalls of modern art.  The set for this footage is not a traditional stage, but neither does it reject the theatrical tradition of classical ballet and make as its setting a monotone box as much contemporary dance will.  Instead a majestic classical theatre lends its grandeur to the set.  The music used is a recent popular track, but it is one with comprehensible lyrics, and an emotional narrative rather than a series of meaningless electronic beeps.  Although traditional costumes are not always used, they are relatively attractive and more than merely flesh coloured underwear.  Most encouraging is a male costume featuring close fitting but not skin tight trousers, which does much to bring forth the masculinity of the dancer.  Of interest also is that the non-traditional female costumes are actually more modest than many current classical outfits.  Similarly, the choreography, while most likely not from a traditional ballet is still graceful and does not make lust its object.  For these reasons this advertisement is an example of the potential which exists for us to continue to develop our traditional culture without damaging it.    No doubt many ballet companies around the world are working to keep classical ballet a living art form and finding ever better ways of expressing its beauty.

ballet 6

[1] G. Aylesworth, ‘Postmodernism – 1. Precursors’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 30 September 2005; substantive revision 5 February 2015, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/ (accessed 30 March 2017).

[2] A. Vermeersch, ‘Modernism’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911, retrieved from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[3] Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Vol. 1, 8th edn., trans. T. L. Parker and S. A. Parker,  London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD., 1916, p. 22-23.

[4] Oxford Dictionary of English, ‘Modernism’ Oxford Dictionary of English Online, [website], https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/modernism, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[5] A. Vermeersch, ‘Modernism’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[6] H. Gruber, ‘Liberalism’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1910, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09212a.htm, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[7] Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, vol. 1, 8th edn., trans. T. L. Parker and S. A. Parker,  London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD., 1916, p. 19.  This book can be accessed at https://archive.org/details/AManualOfModernScholasticPhilosophyCardinalMercierVol1 .

[8] Royal Opera House, Ballet Evolved – Pierina Legnani 1863-1923, [online video], 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyXq4ChEmc8, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[9] Ibid.

[10] E. Yong, ‘Ballet postures have become more extreme over time’, ScienceBlogs, [web log], 31 March 2009, http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/03/31/ballet-postures-have-become-more-extreme-over-time/, (accessed 30 march 2017).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Etiquette: Rules and Usages of the Best Society, abridged edn., Leicester, Promotional Reprint Company Ltd, 1995, p. 28-29.

[13] A. Maas, ‘General Resurrection’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12792a.htm (accessed 30 march 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. Atwill and J. Irvin, ‘Manufacturing the Deadhead: A Product of Social Engineering…’ Gnostic Media, [website] 17 May 2013, http://www.gnosticmedia.com/manufacturing-the-deadhead-a-product-of-social-engineering-by-joe-atwill-and-jan-irvin/, (accessed 30 March 2017).

[16] ‘Vaslav Nijinsky’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaslav_Nijinsky (accessed 30 March 2017).

[17] ‘Vaslav Nijinsky’, Encyclopedia of World BiographyEncyclopedia.com, [website], 2004, http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/dance-biographies/vaslav-nijinsky (accessed 30 March 2017).

[18] ‘Vaslav Nijinsky’, Encyclopedia of World BiographyEncyclopedia.com, [website], 2004, http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/dance-biographies/vaslav-nijinsky (accessed 30 March 2017).

Bibliography

Vermeersch, A., ‘Modernism’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 10. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm, (accessed 30 March 2017).

Aylesworth, G., ‘Postmodernism – 1. Precursors’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 30 September 2005; substantive revision 5 February 2015, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/ (accessed 30 March 2017).

Oxford Dictionary of English ‘Modernism’ Oxford Dictionary of English Online, [website], https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/modernism, (accessed 30 March 2017).

Gruber, H., ‘Liberalism’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1910, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09212a.htm, (accessed 30 March 2017).

Cardinal Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, Vol. 1, 8th edn., trans. T. L. Parker and S. A. Parker,  London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., LTD., 1916.

Royal Opera House, Ballet Evolved – Pierina Legnani 1863-1923, [online video], 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyXq4ChEmc8, (accessed 30 March 2017).

Yong, E., ‘Ballet postures have become more extreme over time’, ScienceBlogs, [web log], 31 March 2009, http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/03/31/ballet-postures-have-become-more-extreme-over-time/, (accessed 30 march 2017).

Maas, A., ‘General Resurrection’, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12. New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1911, retrieved from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12792a.htm (accessed 30 march 2017).

Etiquette: Rules and Usages of the Best Society, abridged edn., Leicester, Promotional Reprint Company Ltd, 1995.

Atwill, J., and Irvin, J., ‘Manufacturing the Deadhead: A Product of Social Engineering…’ Gnostic Media, [website] 17 May 2013, http://www.gnosticmedia.com/manufacturing-the-deadhead-a-product-of-social-engineering-by-joe-atwill-and-jan-irvin/, (accessed 30 March 2017).

‘Vaslav Nijinsky’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaslav_Nijinsky (accessed 30 March 2017).

‘Vaslav Nijinsky’, Encyclopedia of World BiographyEncyclopedia.com, [website], 2004, http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/dance-biographies/vaslav-nijinsky (accessed 30 March 2017).

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s