Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ballets Russes

The poetry of motion

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Ballet 422

Over the last few days, my daughter, who turns three in December, has become obsessed by a movie called Ballet 422. It’s a documentary, released earlier this year and now streaming on Netflix, about the creation of an original work for the New York City Ballet by dancer and choreographer Justin Peck. I hadn’t even heard of it until last week, and I cued it up for Beatrix mostly out of desperation: I was reaching the end of a long day that had encompassed visits to the library, a sushi restaurant for lunch, a bookstore, and two parks, and as usual, when it was time to make dinner, I was scrambling to find something that could keep her distracted. But the movie sucked her in from the very first shot—of dancers arriving for their morning exercises—and it never let her go. Since then, she’s asked to see again it multiple times, and we’ll sometimes end up watching it twice on the same day. And in retrospect, it’s the kind of movie that was made to hold her interest. There’s no narration, no talking heads, no grownup’s idea of a plot: just the camera calmly recording attractive people as they engage in intensely interesting creative work. (Documentaries, in general, seem like a promising avenue for the two of us to explore. An attempt to interest her over the weekend in Bering Sea Gold on the Discovery Channel didn’t go as well, but I’m tempted to see what she thinks of Happy People, Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s look at life in the Siberian taiga.)

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’ve written here before, perhaps at excessive length, about the oddly prominent role that ballet has assumed in my inner life. I’m not a dancer, or even much of a real balletomane, but there’s a thread in my thoughts about art that runs through The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, through Ballets Russes, the most moving documentary I’ve ever seen. And in the process, I’ve become increasingly convinced that ballet is the art form that tells us more than any other about the nature of art itself. Along with singing and oral storytelling, it’s the medium that requires the minimum amount of necessary equipment, aside from a functioning human body, but it can also blossom, step by step, into Diaghilev’s idea of the full gesamtkunstwerk, in which all the arts find unified expression. And it’s also the form in which art’s essential transience feels the most visible. Even if it’s preserved on film, or in the notes by the choreographer, a dance exists in the moment, leaving nothing but a memory behind, which I’m starting to feel is fundamentally true about all kinds of art, even those that seem superficially more lasting. I doubt that my daughter senses much of this—she’s more interested in all the pretty people, their movements, and their makeup—but as I watch her face as she watches it, I can’t help but reflect on the role that art plays in giving a shape to a life.

Ballet 422

I’d also like to think that Beatrix is receiving a quiet education in the art of documentary filmmaking.  Jody Lee Lipes’s movie is the kind of unobtrusive, absorbing work that is so easy to take for granted and so very hard to do well. Instead of imposing himself on the material, as a lesser director might have done, he holds himself—and us—at a slight distance, and the result is defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. We don’t learn anything about Peck’s background or his personal life, and we pick up information about the other participants on the fly. Everyone we meet is intently focused on the business at hand, and the camera takes it all in with a serene equanimity that allows us to forget how difficult it must have been to capture. In a profile in the New York Times, Lipes recalls how he had to work within considerable constraints:

The deadline to create the work gives the film a tautness that was reinforced by the filmmakers’ tight budget: They could afford only limited shooting. Mr. Lipes said his wife, Ellen Bar, a producer of the film, was especially helpful in guiding his choices, since she is a former City Ballet dancer and the dance company’s director of media projects.

“I would say, ‘Should we shoot today?’ ” Mr. Lipes recalled. “And Ellen would say, ‘This is the first time Justin is going to see the orchestra perform the piece; we have to be there.’”

In other words, Lipes’s film becomes an understated emblem of the exact kind of restraint and ingenuity that it celebrates. The “deadline” mentioned above refers to the fact that Peck had only a couple of months to put together his ballet: a hole had unexpectedly appeared in the company’s roster, and he was asked to fill it. Another movie might have used this detail to set up an artificial ticking clock, but Ballet 422 doesn’t go out of its way to emphasize it. Like dance itself, in which artistic self-effacement and discipline are channeled into the creation of overwhelming emotion on stage, the movie’s air of detachment becomes almost a fetish. And yet its closing scenes—in which Peck watches his premiere along with the rest of the audience, strips off his suit and tie, gets into costume, and joins the corps de ballet onstage for the last performance of the evening—are indescribably moving. This last sequence includes the only showy edit in the entire movie, as the image of a ring of dancers cuts to the matching circle of the fountain at Lincoln Center. From there, it moves to a view of the entire plaza, seen from far overhead, and as the credits roll, I always find myself thinking of my own life. I spent a memorable year in my twenties, not all that much younger than Peck, living just a short walk way from that fountain. And when I look away from the screen now, I see my own daughter dancing before it.

Written by nevalalee

October 5, 2015 at 9:52 am

The dancer from the dance

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The Voyager golden record

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What one piece of pop culture would you use to teach an artificial intelligence what it means to be human?”

When I was growing up, one of the books I browsed through endlessly was Murmurs of Earth by Carl Sagan, which told the story behind the Voyager golden records. Attached to the two Voyager spacecraft and engraved with instructions for playback, each record was packed with greetings in multiple languages, sounds, encoded images of life on earth, and, most famously, music. The musical selection opens with the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, which is about as solid a choice as it gets, and the remaining tracks are eclectic and inspired, ranging from a Pygmy girls’ initiation song to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” (The inclusion of “Johnny B. Goode” led to a legendary joke on Saturday Night Live, purporting to predict the first message from an alien civilization: “Send more Chuck Berry.”) Not included, alas, was “Here Comes the Sun,” which the Beatles were happy to contribute, only to be vetoed by their record company. Evidently, EMI was concerned about the distribution of royalties from any commercial release of the disc—which says more about our society than we’d like any alien culture to know.

Of course, the odds of either record ever being found and played are infinitesimal, but it was still a valuable exercise. What, exactly, does it mean to be us, and how can we convey this to a nonhuman intelligence? Other solutions have been proposed, some simpler and more elegant than others. In The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas writes:

Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

If such thought experiments so often center on music, it’s because we intuitively see it as our most timeless, universal production, even if that’s as much a cultural construct as anything else. All art, Walter Pater says, aspires to the condition of music, in which form and content can’t be separated, so it’s natural to regard it as the best we have to offer.

Ballets Russes

Yet music, for all its merits, only hints at a crucial aspect of human existence: its transience. It’s true that every work of music has a beginning and an end, but once written, it potentially exists forever—if not as a single performance, then as an act of crystalized thought—and it can be experienced in pretty much the form that Bach or Beethoven intended. In that sense, it’s an idealized, aspirational, and not particularly accurate representation of human life, in which so much of what matters is ephemeral and irreproducible. We may never have a chance to explain this to an alien civilization, but it’s likely that we’ll have to convey it sooner or later to another form of nonhuman consciousness that arises closer to home. Assuming we’re not convinced, like John Searle, of the philosophical impossibility of artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before we have to take this problem seriously. And when we do, it’s our sense of mortality and impermanence that might pose the greatest obstacle to mutual comprehension. Unless its existence is directly threatened, as with HAL in 2001, an A.I., which is theoretically immortal, might have trouble understanding how we continue to find meaning in a life that is defined largely by the fact that it ends.

When I ask myself what form of art expresses this fact the most vividly, it has to be dance. And although I’d be tempted to start with The Red Shoes, my favorite movie of all time, there’s an even better candidate: the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, available now for streaming on Hulu, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. (I didn’t even realize this until I looked up its release date shortly before typing this sentence, which is just another reminder of how quickly time slips away.) Just as the Voyager record was a kind of exercise to determine what art we find most worthy of preservation, the question of what to show a nonhuman intelligence is really more about what works can teach us something about what it means to be human. Ballets Russes qualifies as few other movies do: I welled up with tears within the first minute, which juxtaposes archival footage of dancers in their prime with the same men and women sixty years later. In the space of a cut, we see the full mystery of human existence, and it’s all the more powerful when we reflect that these artists have devoted their lives to creating a string of moments that can’t be recaptured—as we all do, in our different ways. An artificial intelligence might wonder if there was any point. I don’t have an answer to that. But if one exists at all, it’s here.

The logic of tears

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Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture made you cry at an inopportune time?”

I’ve never been much of a crier. There have been plenty of novels that left me emotionally devastated, but none, as far as I can remember, that caused tears to flow, although The High King in fifth grade and The Magus in high school probably came the closest. Part of me sees this as a personal failing: I tend to read books with an eye toward craft, and I’m often too conscious of how the author is achieving the effects to be moved in the kind of raw, unmediated way that leads to real sobs. And it strikes me as a loss. Around the time he turned thirty, Charles Darwin found that he could no longer enjoy poetry—Shakespeare bored him “to the point of physical nausea”—and he memorably described what he saw as the human cost:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

But the movies have always been a little different. Maybe it’s in the way they present themselves to us in a form that requires little, if any, intellectual intermediation, or the fact that we often watch them in a darkened room surrounded by strangers, but I’ve teared up at movies as dissimilar as Apocalypse Now, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the documentary Ballets Russes. (This last film probably holds the world record for speed: I’m pretty sure I choked up within the first thirty seconds.) As I’ve noted before, the films that get to me are the ones that make me reflect on my own mortality, and particularly on the passage of time. Many of them center on the image of a young man’s face juxtaposed with that of the same character in old age, which may be why the only movie that has destroyed me to the point of embarrassment in the theater is Saving Private Ryan. Subsequent viewings haven’t had quite the same impact, but after the closing scene, I stayed in my seat throughout most of the end credits, trying to get it together, which hasn’t happened before or since.

Harrison Young in Saving Private Ryan

What’s funny is that many critics I respect, from Roger Ebert to David Thomson, have argued that the last scene isn’t necessary, and the movie as a whole might be stronger without it. (Although it’s only in rereading Thomson’s review now that I realize that Ryan’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who I later came to love through her performances in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room.) On the whole, I agree with them. But there’s a wide gap between what you can objectively know as a critic and your subjective experience as a moviegoer. Pauline Kael puts this in somewhat defensive terms in her famously negative review of The Sound of Music:

Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and readymade are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.

I wouldn’t go so far with Saving Private Ryan, which, whatever its faults, can’t be described as cheap or readymade. But it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to regard movies on two levels at once, even if it seems hard to argue against the logic of your emotions. I can admit that the ending of Ryan is powerful as a necessary moment of audience catharsis, while also suspecting that denying that catharsis, which dissolves our higher faculties in tears, might have been the braver choice. As Ebert writes:

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful experience. I’m sure a lot of people will weep during it. Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in City Lights. But weeping is an incomplete response, letting the audience off the hook. This film embodies ideas. After the immediate experience begins to fade, the implications remain and grow.

Which may be why I distrust tears a little. When we cry, it’s hard to think. Yet sometimes we can do both, and when we do, it’s worth asking what would have been left—or what we might have thought—if the tears had refused to come.

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

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