A review by Laura Jacobs of Melissa Barak's first public ballet, Telemann Overture Suite, appeared too late to be included in my earlier remarks about its critical reception (What Art Is Online, February 2002). Unlike the other writers, who penned their assessments for newspapers or weekly magazines, Jacobs enjoyed the advantages of writing for a journal--more time, more space, and broader scope.
In "Petipaw," published in the March issue of The New Criterion, Jacobs criticizes today's young choreographers (her odd title is a reference to a little-known comment once made by George Balanchine, not relevant to my focus here). She rather disingenously argues that it is "wildly unfair" to compare their "flat and faceless and monotonal and dimensionless" work to that of George Balanchine--"and yet," she goes on to lament, "what can we do?" "There is no escaping . . . [t]he deep and palpable dimensionality of his ballets, that sense of invisible architecture popping up before our eyes, of landscapes teeming with growing, breathing things ." In fact, there is much "we" can do. If Jacobs feels forced to make such comparisons, she might at least be more objective about it, avoiding the hyperbole and meaningless metaphor she to which she repeatedly resorts.
Jacobs has little patience for the choreographers of "gen X, Y, and Z," whom she caricatures en masse as lacking experience in life, tied as they are to "the teat of television" and addicted to "video games, the internet, virtual this and that." Having thus stacked the deck against Barak, Jacobs offers her as a "case in point," lumping her with the two sons (whose age she does not divulge) of her best friend, who must battle constantly to "keep [them] in three dimensions." I happen to know a couple of three-dimensional kids (a grandniece, age 9, and grandnephew, age 12) from Barak's state of California who give the lie to Jacobs's caricature. I have also known college students in recent years (research assistants from Barnard and Columbia colleges) who also belie her generalization. Most readers will no doubt be able to supply their own examples, and may well wonder how Jacobs knows so much about Barak.
The one piece of (faint) praise Jacobs offers for Telemann Overture Suite is that it "possesses a youthful bounciness." Barak also "no doubt keeps the bodies moving," she adds. "But keeping the bodies moving isn't enough. It isn't even the point [of ballet]," she observes, as if to imply that Barak thinks it is. Barak's plotless ballet lacks much more than "invisible architecture" (hints of buildings?) or "landscapes teeming with growing things" (suggestions of flora and fauna?), in Jacobs's view. Also absent are "relationships, flirtations, competitions, or quests." Barak's dancers are like "smiling members of a commune, so equal they flat-line in friendliness." No so. In the performance I saw, there were indeed relationships among an engaging group of what seemed to be courtly young people, enjoying themselves in keeping with the spirit of the music ( which does not at all suggest such things as "competitions" or "quests"). And far from acting like "members of a commune," the dancers (well chosen by Barak) all managed to project individual traits as they responded to each other, and to the music, as dancers are supposed to do.
Also missing for Jacobs is "Telemann" himself--that is, "the atmosphere of the baroque, the theater of his day, the dance forms of his time." "A reference to any of these might have opened out, or dramatically enlarged, the ballet," she claims. Not necessarily. Specific allusions to historical "atmosphere" or to dance or other art forms of the era in which the music was composed are by no means requisite. While such allusions may play a role in some dance, the choreographer's straightforward response to the music is quite sufficient in this work. Poor Barak--her ballet also suffers for Jacobs because it "all takes place on one level, ground level, as if the stage were an empty lot before the building goes up"! The stage is indeed like an empty lot--nothing wrong with that. What fills it is dance, aptly set to a delightful, uncomplicated suite of baroque music. Yet Jacobs laments that "for the twenty minutes of Telemann, amid rows of romps and kicks, nothing happens."
Jacobs's notion of something in ballet is reflected in her remarks concerning two "little Balanchines"-- Monumentum Pro Gesualdo (1960), and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1963), both set to music by Igor Stravinsky--which shared the program with Barak's work (an unfortunate pairing for the neophyte choreographer, according to the critic). Both are so "short and spare" and "even together they can seem slight, nothing really. And yet everything." Jacobs's account is worth examining in detail, for it sheds light on her ultimate judgment of Barak's Telemann.
The music for Monumentum Pro Gesualdo is based on madrigals by Don Carlo Gesualdo, which were adapted for orchestra by Stravinsky. Jacobs finds the ballet "grave and lyric," aptly comparing it to "a recurring pattern of narrow diagonals like long corridors." But in suggesting that "there's a cathedral feeling of vaults and stained-glass windows" in the piece, she overreaches, as she does in this concluding passage:
And the tender pawing motion of the women's legs, well, they might be unicorns wrought, pictured, in those windows. The ballet's famous series of tosses--ballerina in arabesque, thrown high into the arms of partners--feels like white doves loosed at the altar.
Figurative language such as metaphor and simile (which find via implied analogy the similarities in seemingly dissimilar things) should, like the art they purport to describe, make sense, be apt. Neither of the images in the passage quoted above (particularly the one comparing tossed ballerinas to loosed doves) meets this standard. In her characterization of the second short ballet by Balanchine, Movements for Piano and Orchestra--set by him to a serial composition by Igor Stravinsky--the metaphor Jacobs employs is even more inapt:
Its silences and stillnesses are aggressive, the abyss that lives in every laboratory. Sravinsky described the women in Movements as "a hexachord of those bee-like little girls who seem to be bred to the eminent choreographer's specifications." They do look bred in test tubes. That could be dangerous.
Serial music may indeed be characterized as "aggressive" at times--disturbingly so, I might add. In What Art Is, Michelle Kamhi and I described it as "disjointed, containing wide leaps and lacking recognizable themes," and we further observed that, "since one interprets music in human terms, if such compositions are grasped at all by ordinary listeners, they tend to be perceived as 'insane.'" (In Lives of the Great Composers, Harold Schonberg notes that with the advent of serialism "a chasm developed between the composer and his public." No wonder!)
When Jacobs conjures up the image of an abyss in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, therefore, she may not be far off the mark. But her notion that scientific research is inherently fraught with the darkness and horror connoted by the term abyss is patently absurd. And while audiences may applaud the artistry of the dancers in this ballet, and that of Balanchine as well, I would venture to say that very few are responding to the work's bleak sense of life. Finally, Jacobs's notion that the dancers look as if they had been "bred in test tubes" seems to be influenced by Stravinsky's own strange metaphor; and her ominous warning that this "could be dangerous" is surely overwrought. Though Movements for Piano and Orchestra is no doubt an uncomfortable piece for most to watch, its inhuman quality is of of a decidedly non-threatening variety.
Ironically, Jacobs--who discerns nothing in Barak's Telemann Overture but "romps and kicks"--finds in this same article much to admire in the work of the postmodernist Merce Cunningham--in particular what she characterizes as "its creaturely feel, its prickly skin and warm-bloodedness." Of Cunningham's Beach Birds, she writes:
We're not supposed to say that Cunningham's dances are "about" anything, but given the title, and the dancers wearing unitards halved in black and white, an evocation of laughing gulls was clearly at hand. The dance plays with the seemingly empty patience with which these birds stand on the beach, the sort of I Ching toss of their groupings, the random landings and liftoffs. As only the cry of a gull in the air can do, the dance questions the meaning of life, the transcience, the wind. It is nothing and everything, beneath and beyond, gulls there but not there.
Readily ignoring her own gratuitous reference to the dictum that one is not supposed say that Cunningham's work is "about" anything, Jacobs goes on to find much purported meaning in it--or, rather, outside it, which she then ascribes to the work itself. As she herself indicates, her take on the meaning of Beach Birds rests not only on the work's title, but on the fact that a documentary film on Cunningham revealed to her that he "sketches daily--pictures of birds, mostly shorebirds, and with an acute eye for the character of a species as revealed through posture and grouping. . . . From these delightful and true sketches, the camera cut to a tape of . . . Beach Birds."
Moreover, Jacobs's assertion that Cunningham's work "questions the meaning of life" is preposterous. As we argue in What Art Is, Cunningham's entire oeuvre is "dehumanized, abstract, and lacking in dramatic point or focus." He himself once said that his Summerspace, for example, was "about space," not about "winged insects in a summer landscape"--as one critic (who no doubt ascribed some profound meaning to their flight) had put it. Jacobs's implication that the cries of gulls on the wing also question life's meaning is even more nonsensical. Further, the confused syntax of the remainder of her sentence makes her thought virtually inscrutable. Is she saying that both the gulls and the dance question the transcience of life, as well as its meaning? And what is one to make of her reference to "the wind"--is it, too "questioned" by both the gulls and Cunningham? Finally, Jacobs's declaration that "it [the dance?] is nothing and everything, beneath and beyond, gulls there but not there," sounds portentous, but what can it possibly mean?
Harking back to Barak, Jacobs offers this summation:
Look at a work like Beach Birds and you begin to understand that the absence of dimension in our new ballets is an absence of metaphor and simile, the time-honored tools of the poet. Great choreography is poetry, and where would poetry be without its nightingales and glow-worms and long-legged flies and fleas, without the leaps and flights they bring the artist.
Look at a work like Beach Birds (or any other piece by Cunningham)--with its simultaneous but unrelated "score" by his long-time collaborator, John Cage--and one may begin to understand that the absence of discernible meaning in such postmodern work is due largely to the absence of music (from which metaphor in a plotless dance springs), and of the personal response to music that informs the work of choreographers like Melissa Barak.
What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 12: "Avant-Garde [and Traditional] Music and Dance." Copyright is held by the authors.