Mighty Metamorphin’ Choreographers

3 Dec

The other day I found myself enjoying a nice cup of tea and this article at the Wall Street Journal about Alexei Ratmansky, like you do. The article is a great read, but what’s this? A certain nugget leapt out at me like a ferocious goblin and STABBED—like mortally wounded—me right in the heart.

“Balanchine was a genius. Ashton, maybe, was close.”

GAH!!! To his credit, Ratmansky went on to say that he loves Ashton, but the damage was already done, and my psyche fell to the floor, bleeding a slow and agonizing death. Obviously, I disagree with Ratmansky’s assessment and of course I’m not the only one—luckily, a restorative elixir of life remained close, as I’ve never forgotten the following words I read in an interview with Baryshnikov: “Ashton’s not a lesser choreographer than Balanchine. Ashton’s a warmer choreographer—his skin is warmer, warmer as a person. I miss him.”

Post-resurrection, I began to consider the reverence of Balanchine and its effects on this generation’s dancers, choreographers, and even the audience. Balanchine was all the rage in Jennifer Homans’s book Apollo’s Angels, and he has throughout history been recognized for revolutionizing ballet. He is a wonderfully prolific figure and I don’t need to delve into his legacy because it’s so frequently discussed. However, I can’t seem to come to terms with such stringent standards for what defines a genius. I found Ratmansky’s words to be surprisingly rigid, and it made me wonder if he sees himself as a choreographer or a genius; but then that raises questions as to whether anyone who is genius truly seems themselves as such, because if someone is born with a certain aptitude, they only know their own point of view…so wouldn’t his/her self-image seem entirely normal in reflection? Ratmansky is rather humble anyway, and like most artists I’m certain he just wants to create, actualize his visions, and be proud of the results.

I’m not letting go of this “Balanchine-on-a-pedestal” business though. It’s not as though he doesn’t belong there, I just don’t think he should be alone, nor do I think it impossible for new choreographers to join him. I have a tendency to accept the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies and if idolatry of Balanchine goes too far, then no choreographer will ever surpass him because they’re indoctrinated with the belief that they can’t, which is indeed the fatal error. Actually, I should rephrase that because surpass is the wrong word—it’s not necessary to “surpass” Balanchine—the idea is to create in ways he didn’t, knowing that he couldn’t. “Compare and contrast” is a dangerous thing to do because it can be such a double-edged sword; one must be able to assess oneself relative to others without getting overwhelmed with competitiveness. Don’t get me wrong—there is a wealth of Balanchine ballets that I absolutely adore, but even a love of his work on a deeply personal level warrants some analysis. For example, I have no problem with admitting that Balanchine’s batterie is not the most interesting part of his work to me, but the batterie in ballets of Bournonville and even Ashton never fail to throw me into a stupor of fascination. If only I could bottle the essence of Bournonville’s ability to create such intricate sequences…I’d contaminate everyone’s drinking water, after taking a healthy swig or two myself.

Meanwhile, I also find it curious that some of Balanchine’s ballets that have not survived the test of time are rarely discussed. A few years ago I was doing a little research on his Metamorphoses, as it was created to Paul Hindemith’s ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis,’ a piece of music that I love to bits and pieces. Unfortunately, my research revealed two things: one, that the ballet has never been revived after Tanaquil LeClercq (upon whom it was made), was stricken with polio, and two, that the description and photos of it revealed a ballet that didn’t fit what I had imagined. Balanchine interpreted the music as a fantasy on insect life, which was perhaps too literal, though I don’t object to the idea as there are trills and such which can conjure images of swarms of fluttering insects. At any rate, the full title of Hindemith’s score is actually ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber,’ and it’s that musical transformation that remains the central idea for me, as opposed to a biological metamorphosis. Having played ‘Symphonic Metamorphosis’ as a part of a wind symphony, I suppose I had experienced the music as quite grand in scope, beyond something terrestrial like the livelihood of insects—the music itself is far too menacing. The last movement (and by far my favorite) is epic—it’s the kind of music that raises your heart rate and can have the audience leaping out of there seats by the end, and yet Balanchine had the dancers fitted with giant feathered wings, and according to LeClercq, there was “lots of running around with poses [and] not much dancing.” It just doesn’t seem right and from photos the wings looked cumbersome and to a modern eye, rather dated.

Reviews generally noted the exhilarating spectacle of Metamorphosis and seemed to like Karinska’s bizarre costumes for it, but there is a possibility that Metamorphosis offered nothing profound. A vehicle for LeClercq yes, but a masterpiece? Impossible for me to say, and the number of people who have seen it is only dwindling. Still, I can’t help but feel that even if Metamorphosis were to be revived, the reality may very well be that it wouldn’t resonate with the audiences of today for any other reason than nostalgia for something Balanchine and an appetite for something different of his. To update it now would be something of a revisionist history anyway, and the ballet itself almost sounds a bit loony—a madhouse of strange costumes, Chinese/Balinese inspired movements, metal springs, and even a pas de deux between a dragonfly and a beetle, where the beetle partners the dragonfly entirely on his knees merely because Balanchine wondered if it was possible, and challenged himself to do it. As the remnants of Balanchine’s Metamorphoses gather dust on shelves, would choreographers today challenge themselves to take on the score he once used, with a belief that they could succeed with it, or more importantly, do—dare I use this ever precarious word—better? And is it audacious to think it possible, or is it a necessary human characteristic? And how does the human tendency to blur the lines between ego and belief play a factor?

Tanaquil LeClercq in 'Metamorphoses' (if the Beetle is the original cast, that would be Todd Bolender). Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

Tanaquil LeClercq in ‘Metamorphoses’ (her partner might be Todd Bolender) Photo ©Gjon Mili/LIFE magazine

I have no idea, but what I do know is that to live a life in fear (or perhaps in this case, inferiority) is a folly. Especially in ballet—we’re all about fine lines and balance so surely a healthy and honest harmony between the awe of others can be woven with a cherishment of oneself. Although it’s never guaranteed, every great achievement begins with a seed of belief. And so does every…uh…“less-than-stellar” one. After all, even the choreographer of “the Chicken Dance” can claim an immortality that Balanchine can’t, even if I’d rather have Serenade danced at my wedding.

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