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Société Auguste Vestris - The ’Affect’ as a Subject of Classical Dance
  Auguste Vestris


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The ’Affect’ as a Subject of Classical Dance
December 2005

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Have you heard of the word "Affect" ?


It is no longer part of English parlance, nor does it appear in any standard English dictionary. But in a dictionary a half-century old, I did find the term, described as "obsolete", and defined thusly,


"An inward feeling or disposition",


and as a term of Nineteenth Century German clinical psychology, viz.,


"feeling, emotion and desire as factors in determining thought and conduct".


As for the reference work known as "Medical Subject Headings" its definition is,


" Ressenti-tonalité accompagnant une idée ou une représentation mentale. "


Without fully-defining what we shall be trying to outline here, the above does get at the general area, the purview, of the concept.


Could there be some reason that this more-than-useful term have vanished from English ? I do believe so: it refers to a species of awareness, that the "entertainment industry" has been designed, purposefully, to destroy.


As one mulls this over, new "thought objects" make their presence felt.


This particular chain was touched off, as it were, on watching a film produced by V. Chappell and S. Powell of the Cecchetti Society, and kindly forwarded to me this past week by a colleague in the trade.


The film, of the Cecchetti Elementary Syllabus (not so very "elementary", dear friends !), is danced by two superbly-trained artists (Jessica Clarke and James Bailey), educated from their early years in the Cecchetti method, first by Sandra Powell at Horley and then by Richard Glasstone.


The aforesaid pair of artists are thus in a position to call up precise referents, forms charged with meaning. Forms, that themselves recall the high-point of the classical Greek period, how that became a subject of transformation under the Renascence, and how, in the late 18th and early 19th Century, draughtsmen like Antonio Canova, and artists of the ballet, reflected on that tradition in the light of changes in the world around them.


Seen on that film is what one may call "cultured artistry", of a rare kind, and one that requires a more-than-passing acquaintance with other disciplines. Without forgetting their remarkable pianist-accompanist, one should point out that the two dancers do not "tack on" expression, or assumed emotion, to their steps. The way the traits of the visage are organised, and how the affects called up by the step and the music materialise to the very fingertip, even in the way the hand is placed, with awareness, onto the barre, is inherent to the action - because they learnt this very young. They did not "acquire" the "right quality" of emotion as a "stylistic feature" when they became professionals, the way young ladies used to be sent to finishing schools.


Here is dancing that "does its job" as a work of art.

Caliban, there’s Nothing to eat here


Now, in say, an attitude croisée, what does a member of the public actually perceive ?


What he sees on stage as a discrete figure, is the materialisation of a chain of thought that goes back to ancient India, and one to which musicians, painters, sculptors, architects and mathematicians have in past centuries all contributed. The deployment into the surrounding space, declivity of the spine, position of the foot relative to the knee, and that of the head, relative to the arms and torso, the various degrees at which the leg may be lifted, are not fixed for all time. They are, or should be, appropriate to that time, that place, that passage in the music and in the drama. If they be so, then they will produce what is known as an Affect.


The Affect is neither instinct nor impulse - Caliban would be sorely put out ! Nor is it an object that can be instantly consumed, for example, what one "feels" when one pops onto one’s CD player a Country n’Western "Hit". It is an artistic idea, a thought object, the which, being peculiar to that moment of action, and to the individual artist impelling it, has never before existed in precisely that way. Seeing in a flash - whether consciously or not - his own place in history, the spectator is moved: years, indeed centuries, of work lie behind that one form, and he feels himself to be in direct contact with those centuries.


In the ballet, this is but a fleeting instant, amongst thousands of such perfect forms produced on a single evening. Perfect, in the sense that they are executed to the artist’s greatest ability, at that moment, in a way fitting to the need.


Those fleeting instants, are Affects.


Developing in the public the ability to isolate, identify and focus upon the Affects, is akin to a pedagogy that encourages abstract reasoning in mathematics and the physical sciences. It is thus an important contribution by the artist, to awakening the spiritual powers of the general public.


How does the notion of plastique, in the Russian acceptance of the term, come to bear on Affects ?

Plastique, and the Affects


The fleeting instants are fleeting, only on stage. They continue to exist in the mind, individually, jointly and severally, beyond the stage performance. They become part of what Herbart calls Geistesmassen. In creating the Affects, the artist puts a receptive member of the public in touch with his own mental processes, in a way unlike what either may ALREADY KNOW. A person thus made aware, will conduct himself otherwise, than one persuaded that life on earth means sating instinct, while thrusting one’s fellow man away from the trough.


In this respect, the apparently fleeting, elusive Affects, have a direct impact on the material world.


To achieve this, the dancer must be able to do what Sarah Lamb has called "holding the forms", as opposed to a Joycean, inchoate Stream of Consciousness. If but for an instant, he must hold forms of severe purity and definition.


Below, two paraphrases, not an exact quote, from a conversation with Professor Roger Tully.


"The meeting between the eternal forms, and the dynamis that lies behind motion, that lends energy to motion, is the plastique. It must exist at all times. This can be compared to water, that if left unchannelled, will be lost and dispersed. If channelled, in pipes, in a canal, it becomes efficient and powerful. The dynamis must be given a channel, and the channel, are the forms."


In other words, the temporary, earthly manifestation or materialisation (if one may call something that lasts but an instant, materialisation) of the eternal forms, is the plastique.


"Adagio work (....) is not just ’strength building’ or ’balance building’ or ’back-building’, or whatever. The true purpose of adagio is study the method for generating the forms, to be able to hold or sustain the forms in one’s mind and as a physical incarnation, and then to transfer that, to petit and grand allegro. One needs the slowness, to be able to focus and concentrate, and give oneself fully to the forms."


That the kinship between the Affects, and plastique, be recognised in other branches of theatrical art, is shewn by the passage below, taken from the memoirs of the great actor Alec Guinness.


The year is 1936, the location, The New Theatre, the Play, Chekhov’s Seagull, and the Director, Komisarjevsky.


"On this particular night, during a rehearsal of the last act, I was sitting in the darkened stalls a few rows behind Edith Evans. Peggy Ashcroft and Stephen appeared to have got into emotional difficulties with a scene, and Komisarjevsky was being belligerently unhelpful. I could see the back of his bald head twitching. Edith decided she had spotted the trouble (....) and strained from side to side seeking an audience; She spotted an unknown face in the darkness - mine - and said ’You see, young man, it’s all a great big glass tube, and you blow down it’ (...) leaving me totally in the dark.


"Later I worked out what she was getting at: that emotion must be channelled through some invisible technical achievement, which would direct it, shape it and lend it force."


in ’Blessings in Disguise’, Ed. Penguin Books, 1996


Before the public may even begin to grasp a notion, the artist must perceive it himself. He cannot just allow it to "blob out". The proper term would be the French verb entrevoir, one does not actually see, but rather "perceives it, as though from afar".


Or, to pursue the train of Gennady Albert, in his book on Professor Pushkin, one cannot have a Fokine, without Mikhail Obukhov or Nicholas Legat.


As Albert writes,


"Fokine saw poses emancipated from the canonic positions, an épaulement that had its own aesthetic value (...) In his dream of new expressive means, Fokine seemed to have forgotten the school’s primary demand - maintaining a literate execution of all the movements of the ballet catechism ... he considered the academic canon the heaviest chain encumbering contemporary ballet (...) In 1911, he left the School for good. As a result, the work of Fokine’s antagonist, Legat, became the decisive factor in the future of ballet pedagogy.


Fokine (....) insisted upon an aesthetic essence in the execution of steps [and] felt oppressed by the’dead’ paradigms of mandatory classical exercises. Legat, on the other hand, could spend hours seeking through various combinations of connecting steps to find the most rational preparation for executing a turn or jump. [this] Rationality (...) would later be the hallmark of the methodology of Agrippina Vaganova (....)"


One cannot have the sfumato, the melting or shading away of the forms, unless the form itself exist in all its severe purity. But, if there be no melting or shading away of the forms, new forms cannot emerge from the apparent instability and "chaos". So there must be a tension between the two.

Affects, or Death-thrill ?


Now, how do we know if the Affects be permanent, i.e. whether they have any consistency, or whether they be merely daydreams, impressions, or sensations, such as the death-thrill in bungee-diving (saut à l’élastique ), or hors-piste ski-ing ?


Or the death-thrill of watching Russell Maliphant’s Broken Fall


"the sleek Oxana Panchenko now taking the Guillem role with steely aplomb. Anything less and the piece would be life-threatening. Even seen for a second time, its plummeting falls and tests of trust make spectators gasp. (...) Nunn and Trevitt tip, flip, haul and toss the woman’s body as if it were a plank (....). On Tuesday night when Panchenko fell backwards from Trevitt’s shoulders like a felled tree (Nunn’s receiving arms held inches from the floor), you believed that she dared them to do it - just to scare them rigid."


Jenny Gilbert, in The Independent, March 28th 2004


This is very like the public that will watch circus acrobats perform without a net, or attend car-racing. Will anyone be killed ? Oh, there was ? How AWFUL for you, darling ! It must have SPOILT your day !


Walter-Mittyesque daydreams of omnipotence, that may end in a car-crash. On either side of the footlights, such subliminal anxiety is not an environment where the Affects can emerge.

Beyond the contemplative


As the universe itself changes and advances, it cannot be, that a great art form and a great artist remain within the boundary of forms and affects that ALREADY EXIST. But for the new to have any weight, any power to evoke the movement and passage from the old to the new, to go beyond the merely contemplative however beautiful that may be, the artist, the professor must be as committed to the importance of the tradition, as he is to breaking through to the new. The fact that he be possessed of that competence, and push through onto a higher level, is what lends the new Affect its importance, and thus its "permanence", in this special sense.


So, for example, in the thirties and forties, Agrippina Vaganova created as a result of her research into technique, and through students like Marina Semionova and Ulanova, entirely new forms that were unknown to the classical dance before her day. Some of these forms, and the thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with them, have vanished, because they were too much "of their time", while others have unfortunately been distorted, by being taken now to an extreme. Others still exist, clothed in a distinct emotional colour and with a resonance that can be compared, perhaps, to overtones in music.


Again, although the attitude croisée devant, for example, has existed in India for at least two thousand years, in the Western world, several hundred years ago, neither the arabesque nor the attitude were known as a "permanent" or eternal form, but only as Affects. Somehow, the Affects were channelled, and partly crystallised, into those academic figures, which figures themselves still and will always retain an element of instability, because they must be put to the specific dramatic and musical purpose.


In these reflections, one is helped by the fact that there be a few theatrical artists about, like Emmanuel Thibault or Sarah Lamb, who live in that domain, as, manifestly, do their professors. Whereas, it will be hard for someone who has only seen dancing with a lot of people throwing their legs up into the air, to imagine that there might be something else.


An example of how "Affects" arise, was seen at Paris last year, when Ould Braham has danced Aurora. In the Prologue to Nureyev’s version of "Beauty", Aurora appears in a lunette above the stage. When effected by that particular artist, the use of the eye and gesture, in giving off an indefinable sense of anticipation, enriched our expectation and understanding of what was about to occur in a manner that cannot be reduced to a material instinct or impression.

Raskolniki


Breakdance is thus well-named, because it is a break with sense. Amazing and spectacular as it is, one’s only "emotion" on watching it, is puzzlement at man’s ingenuity, as well as gloom, that broad swathes of our youth are become "Raskolniki", i.e. cut off - broken off - from what some would foolishly call "high-brow" art. It is an irony that many of the great classical dancers of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, came from poor and simple families, and some, like Anna Pavlova, of parents who could neither read nor write. But today our culture, if that is the word, has so declined, that we think that the "Workers" and "Darkies" were better "cut off" from literacy in whatever form.


On account of mass electronic brainwashing, we have become persuaded that language is, in its essence, literal, and that when one speaks, one is basically pointing out material objects, and concrete facts and events.


Nope. Virtually every word, term, expression in any language known to man, is actually a simile, an allegory, a metaphor, an onomatopaea, a play on words, or some sort of game between tangible reality, and the mind. And "tangible reality" itself, as Plato discusses in his Cave Simile, is but a shadow or epiphenomenon, of the vaster universe.


Every word has a history, stretching back thousands of years (which explains the folly of any attempt to simplify spelling to NITE LITE RITE effect), and it is exactly the same in the classical dance. It is a language. It was never intended to represent anything literal, because there is plenty of the Literal, the braying and the barking of it, all about us.