Ballet’s Perilous History on Video

Written by City Arts on . Posted in Arts & Film.


Natalia Makarova with Ivan Nagy in Swan Lake

by Joel Lobenthal

Not enough of Natalia Makarova’s high artistic quality nor her particular qualities were on view at the tribute to her staged by prix late last month. The videos shown of her performances existed almost in a class of their own. I don’t think that this was deliberate, for the performers chosen were top international names. Granted as always that they came from all four corners of the globe and may have been tired, etc., etc., I still missed Makarova’s line—flowing even when she stood absolutely still. I missed her float and illusion of impalpability. I missed her ability to sustain the fiction that a kinetic pulse continued beyond the actual conclusion of a step or an extension.

Of course Makarova would have been extraordinary at any time or place. But watching the videos shown and thinking back to the many times I saw her dance live in the late 1970s and 1980s, something startling was clear: Although individual aspects of technique have strengthened quantitatively, technique as an integrated expression has not really progressed.

But going back 100 years or so, there is no question that what was considered ballet dancing is a world apart from what we think of it today. Recently I was studying with fascination a 1917 silent melodrama, The Dancer’s Peril. Twenty-four-year-old Alice Brady plays both a student at the imperial ballet school in St. Petersburg, and her mother, a lesser-caste sent back to Paris by her grand duke husband once the czar has made his disapproval of their liaison quite clear.

The young dancer goes to Paris with a Diaghilev-like troupe, which could not have been a more timely career path. In the year prior to the film’s release in March 1917, Diaghilev’s troupe had played three seasons in New York and made two cross-country tours of the United States. A title card tells us that “Le Ballet Russe performs Le Ballet Scheherazade”—one of Diaghilev’s greatest hits. On film we see a simulacrum, elaborately staged. It doesn’t borrow steps from Fokine—there were already lawsuits concerning choreographic copyright—but the derivation is explicit.

Non-dancer Brady throws herself with gusto if not finesse into all sorts of dance moves, but she never tries to go on pointe—in class she wears a Grecian tunic while the other women toil in rehearsal tutus and pointe shoes. (Most of what Brady does kinetically is of course framed in medium or long shot.) Moscow-trained Alexis Kosloff is Brady’s instructor, and he’s the male lead in the ballet. He can jump, beat, and boy can he clutch-and-stagger!

In the studio and onstage vignettes we see continuity and rupture between technique then and now. The tutus are much more voluminous than today’s. The dancers’ extended legs are much lower. The women are on the whole shorter than today’s. They are certainly sleek and many are well proportioned. But they have much larger and rounder muscles than ballet dancers have today. I think these dancers may have come from the ’s resident ensemble, the city’s major ballet troupe at that time. (Kosloff eventually directed them.) Watching The Dancer’s Peril today, we have the chance to see ballet through eyes of a different public who came long ago to ballet with a very different set of visual expectations.

Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal.com

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