restricted access Part III. Some Contemporary Masters
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THREE Members 0/the New York City Ballet's male ensemble in George Balanchine's Kammennusik No.2. Photo © Steven Caras. @(ost dancegoers of the mid-twentieth century have surely had to come to terms with six great choreographers: George Balanchine , Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham. One cannot escape them. Both when their creations inspire and when they exasperate, one feels forced to mull over them. One has to take them seriously. It was Balanchine who explored the possibilities of the plotless, or abstract , ballet. Tudor became knownfor the ''psychological ballet." Ashton's works exemplify a lyrical manner that some viewers have pronounced "typically" British. Robbins first attracted attentionfor his balletic adaptations ofjazz. Graham developed her own form ofpsychological dancedramas on mythological or literary themes. Cunningham ignores traditional concepts of theatrical unity by creating dances in which he treats movement, music, and decor as independent entities that simply coexist in the same time and place. For viewers inordinately fond oftidy categories-and for those young choreographers who do little more in their 'own works than imitate their elders-such summaries may suffice. But what helps make these choreographers so fascinating is their creative restlessness. Balanchine choreographed more than abstractions: he produced comedies, dramas, and symbolical mood pieces, and even some ofhis abstractions seem to possess a secret dramatic life oftheir own. Tudor engaged in social commentary as well as in psychological introspection. Ashton and Robbins have been astonishingly versatile. Graham, the solemn dance-dramatist, has also choreographed abstractions and giddy comedies. Cunningham may claim that all the theatrical components of his works are autonomous, yet, though they may have no direct connection with one another, they nevertheless often appear tofit together in such a way as to provide each ofhis works with its own special climate or atmosphere. 78 / Choreography Observed In their plotless as well as their dramatic choreography, these six masters show worlds ofbehavior that can be ponderedfor their moral, as well as their purely aesthetic, meaning. They have all significantly shaped the dance ofour time. And, as influences to learn from or rebel against, they may affect the development ofchoreographyfor generations to come. THE GLORIOUS UNPREDICTABILITY OF GEORGE BALANCHINE r;it finally made sense. For years I'd been seeing George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, liking parts of it, but finding other parts bothersome, parts which seemed to violate the most sensible rules for constructing dramatic ballets. It particularly annoyed me that the first act was mostly story, while the second was all divertissement. It annoyed me, too, that Balanchine had no pas de deux for Oberon and Titania. How could he miss so obvious an opportunity? Now, after having seen the New York City Ballet perform A Midsummer Night's Dream during its 3 May-3 July 1977 season at New York State Theater, I think I understand. The ballet is peculiar not because Balanchine has fumbled, it's peculiar for a purpose. Balanchine wishes to show how passion deranges people, how passion is no respecter of persons , and how lovers in the throes of passion may appear ridiculous to detached outsiders. Typifying Balanchine's thematic concerns is the idiotic, yet curiously touching, scene where, to some of Mendelssohn's most ravishing music, Bottom transformed into an ass prefers to nibble grass, though the smitten Titania employs a whole arsenal of feminine wiles to entice him. The most important beings love deranges are Oberon and Titania. They are beautiful people in both the literal and the slightly disparaging slang sense of that term. They lord it over elfin high society and, used to Some Contemporary Masters / 79 living in the lap of luxury, are capable of collecting people in the way other socialites collect objets d'art. Titania's pas de deux with an anonymous , compliant Cavalier is no structural fault, it says something about the extravagance of the leisure class. So does the fact that Titania has her own private limousine: petals on which she reclines like Botticelli's Venus on her seashell. What a great lady she is! Then she falls in love with an ass-a social blunder of the worst sort. Eventually, she realizes her foolishness and patches up her differences with Oberon. But their reconciliation seems not an instance of newfound devotion, but an attempt to maintain proper social appearances . They like each other, to be sure, but their marriage is essentially a matter of social and political expediency. There can be...


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