Years ago, I recall, there was a spate of books titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About [name of subject], But Were Afraid to Ask”—basic, but more literate and less technology-focused versions of today’s “For Dummies” manuals. Now, Celestial Bodies: How to Look at Ballet, by The New Criterion’s dance critic Laura Jacobs, provides an extremely literate introduction to classical dance for those who were afraid to ask, presented casually, but with a good deal of technical insight, from an informed, personal point of view. Intended for the novice ballet viewer, Celestial Bodies can also serve as a readable refresher course for the more knowledgeable—a quick review of some of the most eminent events and personages in the centuries-long, continuing story of ballet’s development.
All the same, Jacobs’s aim, she tells us, was not to write a history of ballet; many good ones exist already, she notes, and throughout the book she refers to more specialized volumes for future reading. (She also suggests watching performances on YouTube, without making specific recommendations.) But since Celestial Bodies is organized chronologically, it forms a loose overview of the evolution of ballet as we know it today, beginning with its amateur origins at the court of Louis XIV, in seventeenth-century France, through the Romantic era, to the present. There’s a fair amount about ballet technique and, although Jacobs says the book might be subtitled “how to think about ballet,” some fairly simplistic suggestions about what to watch for in a performance. But there’s also a lot more, including asides provoked by free association about everything from literature to the different ways male and female dancers who defected from the Soviet Union were regarded.
Jacobs begins with absolute basics—the five positions of the feet that initiate every ballet student’s education and from which everything else stems—but for initiates, there are descriptions of crucial, legendary ballets as examples of changing attitudes and desiderata, such as La Sylphide and Giselle in the Romantic era and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and George Balanchine’s Serenade in the twentieth century. These are enriched by discussions of equally legendary dancers and choreographers who at various times embodied, helped to create, or transformed those attitudes. They include, among the dancers, Marie Taglioni, the first Sylphide and, in 1832, the first ballerina to rise on pointe, plus the Russian dancers Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, and, in our own time, the Soviet defectors Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Among the choreographers, Jacobs notes Marius Petipa—the late-nineteenth-century French director of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater who frequently collaborated with Tchaikovsky—as well as, in the twentieth century, Anthony Tudor, the British designer of psychological dramas, and, of course, Balanchine, who for many of us continues to set the standard for continuity of tradition and radical innovation. Quotations from poets and writers, excerpts from interviews with dancers and choreographers, comments from reviews, along with Jacobs’s own recollections and occasional comparisons with sports and contemporary pop culture—all designed to demystify ballet—thread through the informal but informative narrative.
Jacobs points out that of all the art forms, ballet will most often surprise us with each viewing. Like music, theater, and film, ballet exists in time, and like live music and theater (but unlike recorded music and film), each performance is a unique, never-to-be-repeated event. Yet while most of us have the capacity to remember songs and music and can recall the plots of plays and movies, few of us can mentally conjure up long sequences of movement. Even in ballets that we have seen many times, we keep discovering new movements, new interrelationships, new patterns. Changes of cast produce further surprises, since every dancer’s interpretation differs in some way, while individual strengths and weaknesses inflect each performance. Jacobs’s discussion of the physicality and athleticism of ballet is particularly good—and particularly needed. Since the ultimate aim of those long hours in the studio is to make what Makarova termed “impossible” look effortless, beautiful, and inevitable, less informed audience members sometimes fail to appreciate just what is at stake. Jacobs is good, too, on the three-dimensionality of ballet; almost all steps, which develop from a closed starting position, can be performed on the ground or in the air, backwards, forwards, or turning, to make complex trajectories through space. (Although Jacobs doesn’t stress this, the dynamic three-dimensionality that Balanchine demanded of his dancers and expressed in his choreography is one of the distinguishing characteristics of “Balanchine technique” and of his work in general.)
The reader of Celestial Bodies progresses, like the beginning ballet student, from first position—legs together, knees taut, feet turned out in a straight line, upper body pulled up. Jacobs leads us through the other four fundamental positions of the feet, up to the tight, cross-legged fifth, from which almost all movement begins, then to pointe work, jumps, and turns, choreography in general, and more. There’s a chapter devoted to reading a program that devolves into a discussion of partnering and company politics. Other sections focus on the elegant position called arabesque—essentially, one taut leg raised behind, torso facing forward, as erect as possible, opposite arm stretched forward, other arm to the side—and to ballet’s relationship with music, with Tchaikovsky, who composed Petipa’s enduring ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, as exemplar. We are treated to disquisitions on dualities in ballet stories, on the pirouette, on balance, and on the virtuoso “whipped” turns known as fouettés, along with information on the construction of pointe shoes and how dancers ready them for performance.
The greatest strength of Celestial Bodies is Jacobs’s analysis of particular ballets as illustrations and expansions of details. Following her discussion of first position, there’s a thoughtful explication of Balanchine’s Serenade. Made in 1935 and set to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Serenade was Balanchine’s first ballet for American dancers. On one level, it’s a demonstration of fundamentals made to educate an uninformed public. It begins with a slow arm movement executed by the seventeen women on stage, followed by their snapping their feet into first position and placing their arms in an equally basic configuration. They raise their heads, open their arms, extend one sharply pointed foot to the side, along the ground, in the most elementary of movements, and then explode into dance. Jacobs’s description and dissection of Serenade, as well as of the Romantic ballets La Sylphide and Giselle and the nineteenth-century classics Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, will sharpen the ballet novice’s awareness and engage even seasoned observers.
The reader of Celestial Bodies progresses, like the beginning ballet student, from first position—legs together, knees taut, feet turned out in a straight line, upper body pulled up.
We learn that ballet was originally an amateur, aristocratic-male province, a demonstration of elegance and agility involving quick steps and turns close to the ground, with none of today’s big jumps or multiple pirouettes. Louis XIV loved to perform. Noblewomen occasionally took part. Then professional women dancers took the stage in 1681, opening the door to the emphasis on female accomplishment that began in the nineteenth century when the celebrated dancer Marie Camargo took the heels off her shoes, allowing for more speed and virtuosity. It continued when Taglioni rose on pointe, and, it could be argued, culminated in Balanchine’s much quoted “Ballet is woman.” (Balanchine, of course, choreographed brilliantly for men, as well, while in many contemporary ballets, men and women often perform the same steps, side by side; same-sex partnering is in vogue, too.)
Quibbles? I wish Balanchine’s collaborations with Igor Stravinsky had been given some emphasis, especially the still-astonishing Agon, which changed forever the possibilities of the time-honored pas de deux danced by a man and a woman. I wish that Jacobs had made more of the fact that ballet technique and ballets themselves have been transmitted, over the centuries, from dancer to dancer; unlike music notation, ballet notation is cumbersome, not entirely accurate, and intelligible to very few. In the section on the arabesque—whose first syllable does not rhyme with “air,” as Jacobs claims—where is the iconic pose of the three muses in Balanchine’s early masterpiece Apollo, as they lean on the young god, their legs raised in a “fan” of stacked arabesques? Then, alas, there are the stiff, banal drawings by Jessica Roux, which punctuate the book. Jacobs cites Edgar Degas’s images and sculptures of dancers and racehorses without, it seems, having noticed that part of their stunning potency results from the fact that Degas, unlike the author of the images in Celestial Bodies, never shows static beginnings or achieved poses, but always presents animate, unstable transitions. Enough said.
But these are details. Celestial Bodies should be made required reading for all those annoying ballet audience members who excitedly applaud flashy but not very difficult steps, yet ignore exquisite performances of real challenges, such as the adagio movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C, set to Georges Bizet’s youthful dazzler, with its long, unbroken phrases and sustained balances. Even experienced balletgoers can gain a deeper appreciation of the intellectual and physical complexity of what is unfolding before them, an awareness of the extended, evolving tradition that this peerless art form represents, transmitted body to body and periodically refreshed and transformed by remarkable individuals.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 58
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