Auguste Vestris


Essais / Esssays

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Kick-Ass, or Jackass?

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Kick-Ass, or Jackass?
11 January 2007

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It was last week that Chris Wheeldon, heretofore NYBC’s resident choreographer, announced that he will shortly form his own troupe, Morphoses, comprised of "twenty kick-ass (sic) dancers" (The Guardian, January 8th 2007).

Kick-Ass. A pregnant term, and that leads one to hope much! And clarified to The New York Times that same day by Mr. Wheeldon himself, thusly:

"We will be trying to appeal to a fresh audience, a young audience," he said. "Dance, ballet, is sexy. Sex is so much a part of our culture, especially youth culture. We can tastefully touch on that and show people that ballet is not just about tutus and leotards but about the sensuality of young bodies moving."

Sex, a Spectator Sport

Almost exactly two hundred years ago to the day, ballet dancers shed their heavy costume, to dance in garments so close-fitting, that little was henceforth left to the imagination.

Was this about sex?

Sorry to disappoint, but it was not.

For so radical a change in costume, there was one reason alone.

Before Beethoven’s day, classical dance was terre-à-terre, and batterie, petite batterie alone. One jumped but an inch or so above the floor, and the parcours, the distance travelled, was restrained.

It is significant that Beethoven was a student of Schiller, and an exact contemporary of Vestris fils. His work challenged the dance to break with the agreeable and ornamental, and to move men’s souls.

That is how we came to strive to quit this earth. And why we began to jump.

Too cumbersome to allow for the jump, the man’s full-skirted coat with its narrow set-in sleeve and huge cuffs, the tight waistcoat, stiff high collar, heeled shoes, and the woman’s stomacher or laced-bodice, and great hooped or farthingaled skirts nigh to the ground, were all shed.

Because it was, and is, called for by the technique, the new, close costume was, and will remain, acceptable.

At Marseilles, at Bordeaux, at Paris in this period, dancers and teachers experimented with integrating the old terre-à-terre dance and the geometrical depth afforded by its épaulé forms, with a new dance of great elevation. Elevation in the fullest sense: it was this new dance that first introduced an element of difficulty such, that it required utmost concentration of the dancer’s powers, a paroxysm of effort mental, physical and even and especially, spiritual.

Their experiments took place against the background of Schiller’s work on the Sublime, then widely read all over Europe. His view on the subject diverges from the so-called "Gothic" or "Romantic" writers.

To Schiller, the Sublime is not a spectator sport, as it was to Edmund Burke, who wrote,

"WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."

Burke, On the Sublime & Beautiful (1757)

To Schiller, the Sublime is an issue at once practical and dynamic. It becomes manifest, only where the individual willingly bear an idea through to its very end, and regardless of the eventual consequences to himself, in a paroxysm of effort or kind of agony. To the extent that a creative personality can be said to have an "everyday life", that agony will as a rule be mental, although by a sharp turn in history, it may become physical.

To Schiller, the sublime individual, when faced with mortal peril, fears, but nonetheless remains morally independent of "all, that physical Nature can produce".

"Our intelligible self must [faced with peril] distinguish itself from our sensuous existence (...) we must become aware of our independence from the effects produced by physical Nature.

"(...) Thus, we must remain entirely indifferent to how we fare as sensuous beings; our freedom must consist only in that we count physical circumstance, produced by Nature, not as our selves, but as something outwith our selves, and devoid of influence upon our moral person.

"He who subdues the fearsome, will be counted Great. Whereas, Sublime is the man who, though he succumb, yet fears not."

Coming back to earth with something of a thud, we are, of course, in the realm of the ballet, and were dancers to destroy the body at every jump, the art form would have died out in 1807. So let me make it plain that this discussion over the Sublime is the background to our story. One would not advise pitching oneself mindlessly into the lion’s maw, in a fever of Sturm und Drang.

Now, France was not just any old country, nor Paris, any old city. Erstwhile the greatest power in Europe, France was wrecked by the Terror (1792-1794), followed by a grotesque dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte. In Old Boney’s wars, half a million Frenchmen and as many foreigners again found death, and not a pretty death. Shell-shocked and bitter, France lost touch with the idea that human life might, in any way, be sacred.

For her to survive as a nation and as a spiritual being, there had to be a breakthrough in her culture. But under Napoleon, there was heavy censorship. Enter the ballet. Wordless, its steps could not be black-pencilled, not even by Joseph Fouché. Therefore, the breakthrough occurred in the dance.

What was the importance of these - French - steps of great elevation, if performed with grace and majesty?

Just as most tongues in the Indo-European area are Sanskritic, so the Western classical dance descends from the classical dance of the Indian Sub-Continent. However, the one element lacking in the Indian classical dance, is great elevation.

In the Indian dance, the sacred is otherwise explicitly present. In their steps, the dancers narrate episodes from the Sagas of the Gods, the singers who accompany them recite religious poetry, and the musicians play in modes said to have been dictated by the Gods.

Although all the technical features of Western classical dance, starting with the turnout, come to us from India, the relation between elevated ideas and dancing, was on our own Continent much obscured - whether clod-hopping amongst the people, hide-bound by tradition, or entangled at Court with the aristocracy and its appetites.

With the storm kicked up worldwide by Revolutionary America, led by men like Beethoven, Keats, Pushkin and Goya, the decision to engage in an occupation of transcendental difficulty, and thus "sacrifice oneself" for others, came to the forefront of the intelligentsia’s concerns. Compare the ornamental François Boucher to the great Hogarth, for example, or the frivolous Marivaux, to Schiller.

Although received opinion refers to this period as one entirely secular, pragmatic and cynical, I believe otherwise. In an unexpected way, these artists and thinkers opened a window on to the divine for tens of millions of individuals, a mode of being new, in that it was personal, direct, and accessible to individual responsibility.

The word "sacrifice" means "to create something sacred", in other words, something which partakes of the Eternal, the Unchanging Changing.

People who are concerned solely with themselves, their career and creature comforts, have "opted out" of partaking directly of the divine. They do so, only through the mediation of others, those willing to undertake what the common man would decline. Too much effort!

Why care to compose, or interpret, a thing that calls for a paroxysm of effort? Well, partly because like Mount Everest, Difficulty is out there in the Universe, waiting. And partly because, through that effort, the artist takes on the authority to say to the common man "In the hope that you too, will go beyond the call of duty, I shall now do this for you".

That is how, in modern Western society, the artist has become the mediator to the divine. But unlike Hermes, the pagan Messenger, the artist himself, being Man, is actively engaged in that specific form of sacrifice through his work.

That classical dancing, whether Indian or Western, be in this particular way, sacred in character, does not exclude its being "sexual", because there is the man, and there is the woman.

It is not, however, erotic.

Why? Because no thing need exist, unless it have a raison d’être. What exists, has a cause.

We may not like the cause, but there it is.

Thus, we have strip tease, skin flicks, dirty mags, computer porn and video games, "touching" more or less "tastefully" on sex, and sometimes, as with our Bluebell Girls for example, quite "aesthetically". Like psychotropic drugs or alcohol, sex, as a spectator sport, readily becomes an addiction.

On the other hand, burlesque and revue theatre, being all that remain in Europe of the Commedia dell’arte and its device Castigate ridendo mores, do have a purpose. The public gathers to laugh at admittedly coarse jokes about themselves and obsessions, be it with sex, money or whatever, thereby becoming a little less obsessed. Therefore, smutty as it may be, vaudeville, revue and so forth, do not qualify as pornography - while most of the rest actually, should be illegal - spreads disease, mental and physical.

In quite another domain, there is also a cause, that brought classical dancing into existence.

Classical dancing exists ONLY because it is none of the above entertainments. It exists, because it fulfils a need in the human mind to explore, though wordlessly, thoughts, feelings and emotions in an uncharted domain between music and geometry.


Perhaps with his antennae out for sponsorship, Mr. Wheeldon has eagerly declared a willingness to pander to the aforesaid addiction, and let our youth to feed on what they have already supped.

Now, Mr. Wheeldon’s career as a ballet dancer was short even by the standards of the profession - he left the stage at age twenty-six. So far, the author of these lines has seen but two of his ballets: "Quaternary", an ice-cold study of Muriel Maffre’s hyper-extensions, and a new Garland Dance for Covent Garden’s restored "Beauty", that can best be described as "decorously limp". Many believe he is a genius. They may, or may not, be right, but one word of advice - stay clear the path of "Kick-Ass", unless, down in the garden, you’ve a jackass ready to kick back.