The Center for Ballet and the Arts (CBA) at NYU had an auspicious debut in September. There were the necessary calls to high ideas, grand plans, and donors to thank. But the center of the evening was a ballet class, taught by Mark Morris, with dancers from his company and American Ballet Theatre. What an odd – and exhilarating – experience.
Class is the foundation of ballet, Jennifer Homans argues. As a ballet dancer, historian, and now founder of CBA, she has practiced, researched, wrote and talked about ballet all her life. But, in her touted book Apollo’s Angels, she declared it a dying art form. And now she is charged with bringing it back to life. To do so, she wants to put ballet and the academy together – forces of culture and thought that have been largely separate. So the new Center has traditional academic offices next to a ballet studio, and Homans claimed that her idea was being realized when she saw philosopher David Velleman in earnest conversation with former New York City Ballet principal dancer Heather Watts in the dance studio.
But, first, class. When Homans asked Mark Morris to teach a class open to a select audience, he reportedly replied, “I will not defend my pleasures.” Pleasure? The common truism is that it takes ten years to craft a dancer. That’s ten years of daily class: routine, endless repetition, not getting it right. And then you become a dancer and class continues: routine, repetition, error. Where is pleasure? And yet I remembered it, saw it, and relished it in the class we witnessed.
There is familiarity. Even though it has been years since I’ve taken a ballet class, I knew exactly which exercises were coming next. My body twitched in recognition, what the first dance critic of the New York Times John Martin called “kinesthetic sympathy.” Even though most people in the audience of a ballet performance have probably not been in a ballet class, what communication speaks body to body?
There is persistence. It is hard not to be swayed by dogged tenacity, watching someone struggle to maintain a balance, wavering ankle topped by delicate arms in a halo. Repeating an exercise again and again for minute corrections.
There is fragility. Whatever perfection gained is fleeting. The balance is held for just a few precious moments “at the still point of the turning world,” as T.S. Eliot wrote.
There is athleticism. The sheer physicality and technical mastery is on full display in class beneath the leg warmers, sweaters, and dripping sweat. You see the achievement up close rather than masked by stage lights, costumes, dazzling choreography.
There is intimacy. Class is for dancers. Watching it was voyeuristic, knowing this was not supposed to happen. The mirror may provide constant surveillance but the audience is oneself. Class is internal, a necessary commune with self.
There is expression. This characteristic was particularly evident in the difference between the Morris and ABT dancers. While ballet created a technical base for both, their different dance styles came out in expression. Morris dancers beat the ballet dancers in épaulement, the slight turn of the body, often with a glancing head in opposition to the torso. The ballet dancers carried the torso, neck, and chin up and out, beyond the stagelights to the upper deck. The Morris dancers flexed, shifted gaze and shoulders, and projected to the orchestra seats.
Yes, pleasure. Even more so when I join the Center as an invited fellow in Spring 2016.