One week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, I went to the ballet. I wasn’t looking forward to it. In the days since the attacks, friends and colleagues had provided critical comfort and support, but I was nowhere near ready to watch something whose only purpose was to be beautiful. In those days, it seemed as impossible as watching a sitcom or listening to Louis Armstrong. Such things seemed, in the face of Ground Zero, offensively blithe. Like someone recovering from a night of violent illness who can take just bread and water, I found myself able to stomach only the bland, sober food of network news.
But because I had been assigned weeks earlier to cover the performance for a dance magazine I write for on the side, I went to the ballet that night. It was a gala opening of the Dance Theatre of Harlem at historic City Center in midtown Manhattan. Just as before, New York’s dance royalty would be in attendance; premieres and speeches would go on as planned. But the city was still shaken. One could sense that few people were entirely comfortable in their glitzy dresses and tuxedos, and that the critics and the dance lovers were as nervous about being in a large public place as they were glad to see each other safe.
Then the curtain went up, and something strange happened. For a week, we had been so focused on the bodies at Ground Zero: dismembered ones, vaporized ones, all dead. At that point we thought there might still be survivors, though with every day the hope grew dimmer. Most of those people had just disappeared; all that was left of them were the faces on the flyers posted on lampposts and mailboxes all over the city. But here, on stage, there were moving bodies, strong and fragile and graceful bodies—bodies of live human beings. The sight was so potent that I had to look away. Tears came to my eyes when I looked back at the stage and saw the extraordinary things the dancers were doing there, in the noble patterns of the choreography, as the music sang through their steps. I regained enough composure to watch the ballets carefully and take notes for my review, but what strikes me now about that evening is not just the works themselves. It’s what the art of dancing said about the creatures that we are.
Dance is not an acquired taste. Most people either love it or they don’t, and if you’ve got the bug it can easily take over your life. Ballet lovers are perhaps the most fanatical of all, forever going on about “purity” and “the classical tradition” and “the language of gestural symbols” as their dance-immune friends politely smile and nod. In the pages of journals such as the estimable Ballet Review, critics write searching commentaries on everything from the way a young star at American Ballet Theater interprets George Balan chine’s 1929 Prodigal Son to the literary origins of the ghostly Wilis in Giselle. For most people, though, ballet is a hermetic, old-fashioned world to which the natural response is either hostility (it perpetuates nineteenth-century stereotypes about women) or indifference (what’s with all these people running around in tutus?).
The indifference is more to be taken seriously than the hostility. Those who find it revolting to watch a beautiful woman in pointe shoes—those satin instruments of torture, often referred to as “pink coffins”—dancing all night in a haunted forest to save the man who betrayed her (as happens in Giselle) are often the same sort of people who object to Jane Austen because her women never discuss anything except their prospects for marriage. They miss the point. Those who find ballet boring, however, argue that there’s not even a point to miss. Music, painting, literature—these art forms speak to our minds and hearts in ways that both deepen and transcend what we see in the everyday world. Ballet seems to be only a notch above pantomime in what it can tell us about the human condition. It’s just people doing things with their bodies to music. What’s more, it’s ephemeral: after a dance is done, it’s gone. It does not endure like a poem or a sculpture; it stays in your mind barely half an hour after you leave the theater. The images pass, and all that remains are snippets of music and the memory of a bit of floating tulle.
But look closer. First: those bodies. What do they show? The human form has been an inspiration for artists since at least the cave drawings at Lascaux. In dance, it is not just the form one sees, but the life—the possibilities—of the body itself. Dance is the most living art form there is, taking as its instrument the muscle and bone that is our first point of encounter with the world. In ballet, that instrument is honed by years of training in a technique that goes back to the seventeenth century. The placement of the feet, the angles of the body, the curve of the arms above the head—all are as delicately calibrated and informed by tradition as the finest timepiece, demanding a constant awareness of both physics and grace. This is the body perfected.
Perfected, yet still imperfect. One of the attractions of a dance performance is the challenge it presents to the dancer. Will this individual—for each body, each personality is distinctive, even after such rigorous training—manage not only to get through all her steps but to present something of herself and even find some new insight in these movements through time and space? “Insight” in ballet is, admittedly, a mysterious quality; it has to do in part with the dancer’s response to the music, the way she picks up its nuances of mood and embodies its rhythmic dynamics. Because the vocabulary of classical ballet is so small—it is based on only five positions (even, some purists say, on the fifth alone)—it takes a sophisticated artist to say something compelling with it. Poor training or physical flaws can stop a dancer from ever reaching that level of accomplishment. Then again, an imperfect body (such as Margot Fonteyn’s) can bring forth unparalleled physical poetry.
There is also the element of risk. We are dealing, after all, with people who are subject more than almost any athlete to injury and nerves and fatigue. In a full-throttle story ballet such as Swan Lake, the ballerina is on stage for almost two full hours; her biggest challenge (the infamous thirty-two fouette turns) comes at the very end of the night. In every performance, the audience lives the role along with the dancer; we track her timing and her line as she negotiates the sometimes terrifying waters of the choreography. We wait to see if she will fail. More than that: we wait to see if she will triumph.
And every so often—maybe only a few times in a generation—we get the kind of thrilling experience that the critic Arlene Croce described watching Suzanne Farrell, at the height of her career with the New York City Ballet, in a 1978 performance of Chaconne, a work created for her by George Balanchine:
To watch Farrell stretching a Farrell part is a front-line experience; dancing just does not go further. On this night, there were quantitative embellishments of all sorts: quadruple pirouettes, sixes instead of quatres in the entrechats, even triple soutenu turns. But quantity is not the end of virtuosity. What Farrell achieved was a heightening of all those fluid transactions between extreme ends of her range—between allegro and adagio—which Balanchine wrote into her role. And though she advanced to the very limit of the ballet’s style, she never toppled into distortion.
Keep in mind that Croce is talking about a human being whose only instrument is her body, and the magic becomes clear. In Farrell’s dancing, she saw music. In her movement she saw a physical expression of allegro and adagio, mirth and solemnity, delicacy and grandeur—qualities that the music (in this case, a suite from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice) suggested to the choreographer, who created a ballet in which they were brought to visibility by his ballerina.
The body is ephemeral. Like a dance, it fades before our eyes. And yet, in dance, one sees not just the glory of the human form—quite simply, how beautiful it is—but what can be done in the midst of (indeed, utilizing) its limitations. Lincoln Kirstein, the cofounder of the New York City Ballet, once remarked that ballet, with its grateful acceptance of its circumscriptions, is essentially conservative. He continued: “The excitement inherent in the moving human body, untouched by any mechanism save its own perfected anatomy, nervous system, and personal grace, released in legible plasticity on opera-house stages, is still an incomparable metaphor of humane possibility, mastered by mind and muscle, schooled by history, reincarnated in styles and visions of a hundred generations of repertoires.”
On that night back in September, with thousands of lives ground to ash just a few miles away, to see that metaphor in the flesh was overwhelming-to watch a dancer cross a stage, and then take flight.