If you read November's edition of Dancing Times (and I strongly recommend that you do!), the magazine's Talking Point column has some musings by Gramilano on the importance of dancers being informed not only about their own art, but about other arts, many of which are accumulated to make a ballet anyway: prose, music, painting, sculpture. Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet is opening the season at La Scala in December: this guy called William Shakespeare wrote the story; another, Sergei Prokofiev, the music; and the beautifully painted and sculpted sets were designed by Mauro Carosi. Voilà!
Several years ago, I was with a group of dancers in London, commiserating with one who had been slightly wounded during the big Romeo and Juliet sword fight. Only one in the group – who had once danced Romeo – was certain as to how the ballet ends. They all knew that both Romeo and Juliet die, and that she uses a dagger, but there was general confusion about who took the poison. If I remember correctly, (there was a lot of vodka going around at the time), this arose from Juliet having taken the sleeping potion in an earlier scene. There was also some perplexity about what Paris was doing in the crypt and where the dagger came from. It became a running joke about several ballets thereafter: “I love the bit at the end when Manon marries Des Grieux,” and so on.
It's not that I have it in for dancers. I love dancers! My first jobs, however, were in opera, and some chorus members can be just the same, especially if it isn't a well-known Verdi or Puccini, and above all if they get to go home before the end.
Another thing I've noticed, especially with dancers who have come up through the school of the company where they work, is that they sometimes have little idea of the repertory outside that of their own company. Many just don't go and see a visiting company when they come to town, or watch videos from around the world; maybe just a video clip of a variation they are learning or the latest gobsmacking gymnastic feat on YouTube. When I go to a cinema relay in Milan or Rome it is rare that I see a dancer from La Scala or Rome Opera Ballet huddled up with their popcorn and Coke.
A dancer must have a real depth of culture
Just after I sent in my Dancing Times piece, the great Yvette Chauviré died. I came across an interview from 1989 where she said,
History, mythology, the literature of one's own country, but also that of other countries, that is the very least we must know! Geography, I love to study, much less arithmetic, but just because one doesn't like arithmetic, doesn't mean that one shouldn't study it! Getting a degree is fine, but even that is not enough. A dancer must have a much broader mind, and real depth of culture. People must use their spare time to improve their minds.
Two centuries before, one of the creators of what we now know as ballet, Jean-Georges Noverre – whose birthday, 29 April, is observed as International Dance Day – wrote various comments on the argument. In his Lettres sur les Arts Imitateurs en Général, et sur la Danse en Particulier, there are many references to education, culture and taste. Here's one:
In order for our art to reach the degree of the sublime which I wish for and demand, it is imperative for dancers to divide their time and studies between the mind and the body, and that both become the aim of their labour; but, unfortunately, all is given to the latter and nothing to the former. The legs are rarely guided by the brain, and, since the spirit and good taste do not reside in the feet, they often go astray. The intelligent person disappears and we are left with a poorly put together machine, winning the pointless admiration of jumps, and the rightful contempt of connoisseurs.¹
Ouch… and so true.
1. Pour que notre art parvienne à ce degré de sublimité que je demande et que je lui souhaite, il est indispensablement nécessaire que les danseurs partagent leurs temps et leur étude entre l'esprit et le corps, et que tous les deux soient ensemble l'objet de leur application ; mais on donne malheureusement tout au dernier, et l'on refuse tout à l'autre. La tête conduit rarement les jambes ; et, comme l'esprit et le goût ne résident pas dans les pieds on s'égare souvent ; l'homme intelligent disparait, il n'en reste qu'une machine mal combinée, livrée à la stérile admiration des sauts, et au juste mépris des connaisseurs.
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Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.
What an astonishing quote; so prescient. Looking back at Ballet Russe, one of the things I find so touching is that Nijinsky, and the other dancers, spent so much of their time looking at art in galleries, meeting and listening to great artists, concerning themselves with stage and costume design. So many of these wonderful dancers came from humble beginnings but their lives became a vast panorama of creativity. A long time later, Rudolf Nureyev seems to have been the same, as have many others. Beauty for the individual and the things that bring joy and maybe even good health when the days of dancing close, may be the continued understanding of art in all its wonderful guises.