Friday night, Zeitgeist Films’ terrific Ballets Russes opened here in Sarasota, and I ran off to see the 8:15 show. It was a wonderful respite from the festival programming routine. Sure, I have been spending every waking hour pouring through films as we are slowly but surely finalizing our line up for the Sarasota Film Festival, so it might be overkill to head off to the local art house and take in a movie. But I was really craving a communal movie going experience, the feeling of watching a film with an audience, of sharing the feeling of discovery, and Ballets Russes didn’t disappoint. A near full house, and everyone was engrossed with the story of the dancers, the ballet wars, and the political intrigue.
I will admit, I have never been much of a fan of dance or ballet because I have never understood the language of the art form. It seemed to me so detached from my own understanding of music and movement, I simply never got into it. That said, watching Ballets Russes tonight, I felt doors opening in my head. Seeing the archival films of the dancers filled me with an enormous longing; there is a palpable feeling of vitality and celebration in ballet, this expression of living. I don’t want to overstate things, but I was captivated by the dancers’ performances, and ballet has never made me feel that before. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the young dancers with their 80-year-old selves, the radical transformation of their soaring youth and beauty into a different kind of flightless grace, but there is something about the film that moved me tremendously. Of course, like any movie with which I connect, it also instilled me with a sense of loss; not just the loss of a dance company (which is only enhanced by the fleeting, temporal nature of the dance performances), but the loss of what was possible in the world.
Let's Dance: Karsavina and Nijinski in the early days...
Everyone has a time or place that they wish they could have experienced, a bygone era with which they identify; mine is the explosion of modernism, the era in which the Ballets Russes was formed and which the trusty Wikipedia* describes perfectly:
”Modernism encouraged the idea of re-examination of every aspect of existence, from commerce to philosophy, with the goal of finding that which was ‘holding back’ progress, and replacing it with new, and therefore better, ways of reaching the same end. In essence, the Modern Movement argued that the new realities of the 20th century were permanent and imminent, and that people should adapt their world view to accept that what was new was also good and beautiful…There was a subtle, but important, shift from the earlier phase: in the beginning the movement was undertaken by individuals who were part of the establishment, or wished to join the establishment. However, increasingly, the mood began to shift towards a replacement of the older hierarchy with one based on new ideas, norms, and methods.”
Can we imagine an idea as powerful and progressive as Modernism defining our own era? An understanding of the world that leads to a creative flowering, to an overwhelming sense of possibility, of transcendence of national identity, of collaborative forms? Until then, it is truly important to me to find hope in looking back, but this is (and completely feels) antithetical to the hope that Modernism fosters; Don’t look back, it teaches. Look anew.
For me, there are two seminal events of that era. First, there is the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. I have written about it before, but it’s a book that I adore despite its undue reputation for being unreadable and possessing an impenetrable ‘gravitas’, and it is the book that truly opened literature and art up to the full range of human subjectivity. Of course, cinema has yet to capture the interiority of Joyce’s work, although I think Au hazard Balthazar may come the closest to the idea. To me, Ulysses still stands as a symbol of what I value most in art; the heroic universe that exists within every single person and the possibility this universe holds for empathy and identification. Ulysses is also a book without a sense of shame; it treats the full range of human behavior and experience, from a funeral to sexual infidelity to a drunken walk through the city streets late at night, as not only normal, but as the source of forgiveness. I hold its ideals close to my heart.
The modernist age was also built upon the singular moment in the history of art I regret I could not have seen with my own eyes; The premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du printemps ( The Rite of Spring) on May 29, 1913 (written, coincidentally, for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and the great dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky). The film doesn’t discuss this performance (I assume there is no filmic or photographic record), but its stands up in my mind as one of the most important moments in the history of art.
First and foremost, the music itself is my favorite piece of classical music, hands down. It is just about as beautiful and cinematic as music can possibly get, with constantly changing moods and tone. I am by no means an expert on the subject of classical music, but there is something about the Stravinsky’s compositions that connects with my heart, and for me, Le Sacre du printemps is the motherboard of all connectors**. When listening to the piece, it is sometimes hard for me to remember that it is, in fact, only music; I see a film in my head. And no, it is not Fantasia. I have never seen the ballet performed, but maybe the dance looks something like what I feel.
At the 1913 premiere in Paris, an argument broke out in the audience among supporters and detractors of the piece, and a near riot ensued. Now, I have been to my fair share of punk rock shows where near-riots are de rigueur, but the idea of men and women in black tie coming to blows about the relative aesthetic merits of a ballet is not only exciting to me, it is a testament to importance of art at the time and to the passion of the audiences for ideas. My point is this; art mattered, and for many, it mattered a great deal. I sort of idolize Stravinsky as well; to launch Le Sacre du printemps on the world, to challenge convention with powerful, modern ideas that (I believe to this day) are beautiful and true is heroic to me-- to have those ideas launch one thousand musical ships, to have history prove you right, well, I find it tremendously hopeful. The premiere of Le Sacre du printemps is for me a very modern, very real symbol of the power of ideas to triumph over fashion and superstition; it is the presentation of timelessness to a world fixated on temporal concerns. I just wish I could have been there when it mattered.
I have to admit, these past few months I have been thoroughly disheartened by the political and intellectual climate in the country. Maybe it is constant barrage of enormous tragedy (hurricanes, war, the destruction of New Orleans, the tsunami, the earthquakes) or maybe the lack of collective will to do much about it has inspired this terrible sense of claustrophobia in me. Deep down, I fear that I am living through an era where there is an absolute dearth of new ideas and productive energy, and most of the time feel totally surrounded and boxed in by bullshit. I just don’t feel a connection between the way in which the world is being framed; the way life and human experience are being represented and the way I try to live my own life are at an extreme disconnect. My concerns are not those of my own culture, and those like me, living and working outside of this monotonous spectrum of thought seem so quiet. Adrift, like me. This may sound melodramatic, but just for a night, it was a huge relief to escape into a movie theater (darkness and silence, the great levers!) and experience the lives of people who took aesthetic desire and created something from it, who lived lives that were concerned with ideas, with art. Sometimes I worry that writing sentences like that will come off as pretentious and aloof, but I don’t mean it that way at all; I know there are vital artists working today and I am a true believer in the power of art to foster empathy in the world. But I also know that right now, longing and empathy are pretty much all I have in the tank. I am feeling somewhat pessimistic about the future, only because the bad ideas from the past, these small, petty ideas that I thought had been proven irrelevant by history a long time ago, keep rearing their ugly heads. Cycles, I tell myself; the truth will come around again. Hell, maybe one day soon the nation will be proud of scientific truth and will retreat from antiquated notions of morality and art will matter again. For now, I just want the comfort of my own history, to find captivating representations of my own loves and concerns. Small though it may seem, I can’t live without them.
*Where was the Wikipedia when I went to High School? Yeesh! No fair!
** Oh, and you know it is on the iPod as I type this… Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic are rockin’ it.