Muse musings

3 Jun

Despite being a mere forty some odd pages from finishing the book I’m reading, I couldn’t find the effort.  So I popped in Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas, a documentary featuring interviews with Maria Tallchief, Mary Ellen Moylan, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Merrill Ashley and Darci Kistler.  I needed the break from reading because my eyes were going nuts and the DVD is actually due back at the library…today.  Now, I don’t want to get into a discussion comparing Balanchine’s muses because that’s a history far too convoluted for me to want to know.  When it comes down to it, they all have their place in history and that’s dandy enough for me.  Does it matter who gets the title of “greatest Balanchine dancer of all time?”  Will it ever matter?

At any rate, what the DVD did make me ponder was the relationship between dancer(s) and choreographer.  It seems as though the method for new works these days is to simply do what the choreographer asks (which sometimes comes across as a clandestine exercise in stroking his or her ego) or the “modern” thing to do, which is to collaborate.  I want to say with certain uncertainty that choreographing a ballet on a muse isn’t widely practiced anymore.  Or maybe it is and I just never hear about it…or maybe it’s the politics the higher ups are afraid of; it’s not as if Balanchine’s favoritism didn’t spark some strife here and there.  Merrill Ashley is pretty frank in the documentary that Suzanne Farrell’s departure and return to NYCB affected her career and she said so not with jealousy or contempt, just a plain statement of the truth.  Balanchine was in a funk when Farrell left, and certain roles Ashley had went back to Farrell when she returned.  To be fair though, Ashley did say Balanchine didn’t forget the dancers who “took over” in Farrell’s absence and Ashley even had the honor of having Ballo della Regina choreographed on her.  Is it any wonder that Balanchine’s muses get all sentimental and weepy when speaking of him?  Having a dance be inspired by you and subsequently choreographed for you by a genius is like the ultimate gift.  How can you top the gift of a legacy?  When in doubt, get something edible I always say…

While I can understand the desire to avoid politics, I still love the idea of muses.  What seems to separate Balanchine’s muses from those of other choreographers is how instrumental he was in their development.  I’m fascinated by how he picked so many women at such an early age; off the top of my head I can only think of Kenneth MacMillan having done the same for Darcey Bussell (I have yet to read too much about Frederick Ashton’s muses besides the obvious being Margot Fonteyn—I have a stack of books in queue for a self induced Ashton extravaganza.  Why?  I don’t know, but I may find out).  It seems simpler to admire a known entity from afar and if a choreographer is lucky, get the opportunity to create a work on the dancer of his or her choice…but to be the driving force in the cultivation of a dancer is something else.  Balanchine is heralded as one of the greatest choreographers of all time and the most influential teacher in American ballet but it’s that grey matter—the substance between choreographer and teacher that really interests me.  I can’t shake the feeling that the key to his continual success lies somewhere in there (intangible as it is).  There have of course been others who have studied the vocabulary, technique, worked with greats and have had precious quips passed down to them from previous generations but maybe, just maybe, nobody has made the connection between teacher-choreographer in the manner that Balanchine was so gifted in doing.

Overall I thought the documentary was lovely (the archived black and white footage is to DIE for and criminally short…there were a few seconds of a Melissa Hayden and Edward Villella Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux that had me writhing for more) and especially interesting because it has interviews with a very young Darci Kistler, soon to retire in just over three weeks, thus bringing the dynasty of Balanchine muses to a close.  Blah blah, it’s the end of an era…closing one door…open a window…Wheeldon…Martins…new beginnings for the NYCB.  I suppose NYCB is still in a post-Balanchine/Robbins transitional phase and I can’t even begin to imagine the mess it must be to balance the repertoire while trying to develop new facets of the company’s identity.  It’s that kind of pressure that probably influenced Monica Mason’s controversial decision to make Wayne McGregor the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet.  Oy…who (besides Tamara Rojo and Johan Kobborg apparently) would ever want to be an Artistic Director?  One would almost have to list “Oracle of Delphi” under previous employment on his or her résumé.  Come to think of it, Balanchine must have been a clairvoyant…how else would he have known to pick the women he did and be right, every single time?  It’s not like he went for the same formula each time either (not all of them even trained at the School of American Ballet).

In the end, I find the biggest question I have about muses and ballet is that can a person aspire to be a muse?  Is there even a difference between dreaming of becoming a great dancer and dreaming of being somebody’s muse?  Can the desire to become a muse and to originate a role perhaps negate that it will ever happen?  Maybe serendipity is the cornerstone of supreme artistic inspiration and maybe today’s dancers and choreographers are bogged down by too much desire to achieve or be and thus constrict the potential output.  Or maybe, I’m really hungry and can’t write anything logical on an empty stomach.  Now that I’ve reread this entry, I’m thinking my writing muse did a hit and run.  Too bad.

3 Responses to “Muse musings”

  1. Hilary June 9, 2010 at 4:00 am #

    Hmm this has always been an interesting concept to me as well–particularly when I was museum-hopping in Paris and there were endless tales posted among the art of the artists and their muses. Maybe this is why I always associate them with a bygone era? Do artists still have muses? No, I don’t think you can aspire to be a muse, similarly I don’t think as an artist you can actively seek a muse, I think it has to be serendipitous. I dunno, I guess we could just ask Woody Allen and Scar-jo 🙂

    • youdancefunny June 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks world is in dire need of a Renaissance!


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    […] (In response to the post, ‘Muse Musings’) […]

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