Online discussion #2 is available for comments February 13-19. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
Music is fundamentally collaborative—musicians to work together, obviously, but musicians almost always work with or are inspired by artists from other disciplines: literature and poetry, painting, architecture, and, of course, dance.
As you prepare to comment on this discussion, try to go beyond your first impressions: listen to the music and watch the videos more than once. Here’s a listening plan (similar to what we do in class) that you can use to tease out more details and more meaningful descriptions of the music you hear:
- Listen to a piece all the way through for the overall impression it gives you but also to get a sense of how long the piece is, how loud/fast/intense it is, and what musical features seem to be the most important to your ears.
- Pick one musical feature (melody, rhythm, instrumentation, etc.) and listen again, following that feature and noticing how it changes (or doesn’t change!). Like we did with Michael Jackson the first day of class, think about what the music sounds like, what it reminds you of, or other associations you have with these sounds.
- Do the same with another musical feature. How does it interact with the musical feature you already noticed (e.g., does the melody change while the instrumentation stays the same?)
- Because this is a visual medium (dance), compare what you see visually and look for corresponding musical differences—use the visual aid of the medium to help you hear more.
- Ask yourself why the artists involved would make the choices they did—they could have done (almost) anything, so why did they do specifically this?
So what is ballet, anyway?
Ballet is a style of dance (moving one’s body rhythmically to music). It began as a pastime for the aristocracy, who, in addition to learning to play instruments to show off how refined and cultured they were (call back to Online Discussion #1!), were expected to dance gracefully at all social gatherings. Diplomatic events, weddings, birthday celebrations, and state dinners would all feature dancing at some point in the evening, and everyone participated. We’ll look at some of the common dances that people enjoyed in the 17th and 18th centuries in class.
Dancing at this point in time was participatory—the people enjoying it and being entertained by it were participating in making it happen. Over time—and the same thing happens in the trajectory of music history—dancing became performative or presentational: something that professionals did (often on a stage) for a passive audience who was entertained by it.
Ballet evolved into a theatrical (with costumes and staging, taking place in a theater), presentational style partly due to another musical genre: opera. Operas in the 17th and 18th centuries always included a few dance numbers — people liked to see dancing! — and these performances of dancers on stage eventually inspired their own independent productions.
The “classical” style of ballet coalesced in the 19th century in France and Russia. It features both intense emotional stories (much like other 19th century music!) and a high degree of elegance in terms of the costumes, set design, and movements of the ballerinas (dancers). [The word “classical” here has nothing to do with the Classical period in music history; it refers to what is now considered the apex of the style and is taught in most modern studios as the fundamentals of ballet.] Ballet is both stylized and quite technical; a difficult and defining feature of high-art ballet dancing is complete control of body alignment: ballet dancers are constantly thinking about the lines that their bodies make, from toes to hips to fingers. Female ballerinas, once they’ve achieved a certain degree of competency in their training, learn a technique called dancing en pointe, going completely up on the tips (points) of their toes:
The effect is the illusion of floating across the stage, weightless and seemingly effortless. The reality can actually be quite painful, and dancers’ bodies are only at their peak until their mid- or late-30s, making their careers quite short. There is a fascinating chronicle of an exhausting week in the life of a professional ballet dancer in NYC available here.
Ballet also has other critical uses outside of the theater: helping children reach developmental milestones, both physical and social (body coordination, confidence, teamwork, self-awareness, etc.); helping people with Parkinson’s disease improve their balance and coordination skills; and helping football players (especially running backs and receivers) improve their finesse, increase their body awareness, and reduce the risk of injuries.
I think of ballet (and much modern dance) as a celebration of the body: its gracefulness, its beauty, its power. I am consistently inspired and awed by dancers’ bodily control, their ability to tell an emotional story using only their bodies, and the joy that their movements often express. Some modern dance companies in New York City include Dance Theatre of Harlem as well as ensembles formed by leading dancers of the 20th century: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Martha Graham Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, and Paul Taylor Dance Company.
How does ballet get made?
When ballets are staged, there are several people involved in the process:
- Librettist – person who outlines the story or plot that the piece will convey
- Choreographer — invents the plan of the dancers’ body motions (called choreography)
- Composer — the person who writes the music
- Set designer — designs the scenery, props, and sets that are the backdrop
- Costumer — people who design and sew costumes
- Conductor — person who leads the orchestra and coordinates musical decisions with the action on stage
As with other genres of theater, including plays and musicals, there are several backstage or offstage jobs required to present ballet: house managers, assistant directors, producers, impresarios (who find or provide funding), marketing, make-up artists, and understudies.
Three examples of ballet
For this discussion, let’s consider three contrasting examples of ballet by three different composers:
- Pytor Ilyich Tchikovsky (1840-93), Sleeping Beauty (1890)
- Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Rite of Spring (1913)
- Aaron Copland (1900-90), Appalachian Spring (1944)
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s style and career strongly aligned with classical ballet. He wrote much other music, including chamber music, opera, piano works, concertos and symphonies, but these works often sound like Romantic ballets: sweeping melodies, clear rhythmic accompaniments, and melodramatic emotions. Tchaikovsky was quite successful as a ballet composer, largely because he was intent on pleasing his listeners. His music features what 19th-century audiences wanted: beautiful and lyrical melodies, clear (but long!) phrases, rich sonorities and colorful orchestration, and sweeping emotional buildup. Most ballet companies in the US today earn their yearly revenue every November and December by staging his ballet The Nutcracker (1892).
His other ballets, including Swan Lake (1876) and Sleeping Beauty (1890), are staples of the classical ballet repertoire and a good introduction to the ideals of classical ballet dancing: graceful gestures (pointed toes, curved arms and fingers), feet turned out, bodies that seem to float or fly across the stage (dancing en pointe, leaps, lifts), light colors, romantic pairs of male and female dancers, celebration of dancers’ physiques (tight-fitting clothes, slender bodies, flexing muscles), and traditional notions of beauty.
Sleeping Beauty is a fairy tale (a princess is cursed to sleep until a charming prince wakes her with a kiss). There are hundreds of excellent productions of this work, and the short excerpt below is performed by Aurélie Dupont (b. 1944) and Manuel Legris (b. 1964), dancing with the Paris Opera Ballet in 2011.
Igor Stravinsky was also Russian, but he settled in Paris, where he composed a series of experimental ballets for the opera company Ballets Russes; he later moved to the US during World War II. His ballet Rite of Spring (1913) depicts a pagan fertility ritual in an imaginary primitive society (the central young female character is a virgin who sacrifices herself by dancing herself to death) and was created by a powerhouse line-up of leading artists working in Paris: Pablo Picasso (set designer, 1881-1973), Vaslav Nijinsky (choreographer, 1889-1950), Sergei Diaghilev (impresario of the ballet company, 1872-1929).
There are many things about the music and the dancing in this work that are “wrong” right from the outset compared with the Tchaikovsky’s precedent: the eerie opening bassoon solo (that doesn’t sound like a bassoon at all!), avoiding beautiful melodies, intense and aggressive rhythmic accents (e.g., around the 3’00 time stamp), the almost constant use of dissonant harmonies, the dancers’ feet turned inwards, their gruesome makeup, costumes that hid the dancers’ bodies, grotesque or contorted body positions, and the story line is neither moralistic nor uplifting. The video below is a 1987 production by the Chicago-based company Joffrey Ballet that recreates the original 1913 choreography and staging.
Stravinsky is a fascinating composer in that he is difficult to pin down stylistically: every piece in his oeuvre seems like it could have been written by a different person. He fastidiously made sure that whatever artistic impulse he had for one work was completely expressed in that piece, and then he would move on to another style or idea for his next work. His catalog includes emotional Russian music, neo-classicism, and serialism, all deftly executed and completely different from each other.
Aaron Copland was an American composer who composed ballets, symphonies, film scores and chamber music, much of it with the intention of being artistic, accessible, and utilitarian. His music often has a simpler sound quality than either Tchaikovsky or the Stravinsky, which some people interpret as have a pure, innocent, or uniquely American quality to it: open spaces, a can-do attitude, a Protestant work ethic, and uncompromising optimism. Appalachian Spring was written at the request (a commission – another call back to Online Discussion #1!) of dancer Martha Graham (1894-1991), and the set was designed by Isamu Noguchi (1904-88).
The story line of the ballet follows a group of 19th century pioneers in Pennsylvania: building a farm house, a young couple getting married, and Americans conquering new land. In the video below, filmed in 1959, the main female dancer is Martha Graham herself, and Noguchi’s original set design is used.
As you watch these pieces, try to notice the differences in the way the dance is presented: costumes, body lines and body carriage, staging. These visual differences are also reflected in the differences in musical style: melody (how prominent the melody is, how complicated it is), rhythmic regularity or predictability, timbres or instruments used, etc. Try to think about what visual cues you see that correspond to the differences in musical sounds that you hear.
One particularly interesting thing about all three of these ballets is that they all attempt to depict an idealized past: a historical time that never may never have actually happened but that is inspiring in its beauty and gives its viewers a sense of pride or comfort in where (they imagine) their culture comes from.
Tchaikovsky, Sleeping Beauty (1890)
Stravinsky, Rite of Spring (1913)
Copland, Appalachian Spring (1944)
An amuse-bouche: Riot at the Rite
The premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was scandalous (May 29, 1913 in Paris) — audience members started to hiss and boo during the first notes, already displeased at the ugliness and un-balletic quality of the music, hecklers threw objects into the orchestra pit to disrupt the players, and a large fist-fight broke out between people who hated the ballet and those who appreciated it. Those who hated it felt their beloved balletic tradition was being mocked, parodied, and distorted; they found nothing in it to be beautiful, graceful, or harmonious. Those who loved it were drawn to its freshness, its newness, and its overt break with the stifling or hampering traditions of the past. In short, the work became a litmus test for where people fell on the spectrum between tradition and modernism.
During the collaborative process, Stravinsky and Nijinsky both thought specifically about the necessity of novelty in their work. Stravinsky complained about audiences who wanted to hear music from him that sounded like his previously successful works, writing in a letter to a friend, “I cannot…compose what they want from me, which would be to repeat myself.” Nijinsky expressed similar concerns — and delight about the shock value of their work — in a letter to Stravinsky in January of 1913 after rehearsals for the premiere had begun:
Now I know what Le sacre du printemps [The Rite of Spring] will be when everything is as we both want it: new, beautiful, and utterly different — but for the ordinary viewer a jolting and emotional experience. (January 25, 1913)
Stravinsky knew the immediate reaction to his work would not be favorable, saying that “we must wait a long time before the public grows accustomed to our language. Of the value of what we have already accomplished I am convinced, and this gives me the strength for further work.” Following the premiere, one music critic in attendance, Louis Laloy, similarly remarked that “The composer has written a score that we shall not be ready for until 1940.” The dancer Marie Rambert thought the work was “fifty years ahead of its time.”
The artists’ intentions were also driven by how they perceived themselves to fit into history, society, and politics. Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Stravinsky were all Russian, having moved west for more professional opportunities, but their progressive and un-traditional style of art was partly fueled by their participation in the contemporary political climate. In 1916, Diaghilev proclaimed in an interview with the New York Times that
We were all revolutionists…when we were fighting for the cause of Russian art, and…it was only by a small chance that I escaped becoming a revolutionist with other things than color or music.
In his 1989 book Rites of Spring, the historian Modris Eksteins argues that this ballet contains several themes that are sympathetic to or a product of empathy with a revolutionary political position:
The ballet contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous in flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the revolution against social convention (Eksteins, Rites of Spring, 52).
Although there are one or two images or stereotypes that often come to mind with a word like “ballet,” the medium is quite varied and constantly evolving. An interesting question when thinking about art and society is of who is pushing whom: does art push society to change, or does a changing society lead artists to produce new art? The differences in these three ballets (spanning approximately 50 years) bring questions like this to the fore and force us to think about what remains constant within the medium as significant changes occur.
Questions to get the discussion started:
Don’t feel like you need to answer all of these questions, and there’s no need to restate the question in your comment. Think of your responses to these questions as interesting things you would say out loud—be clear, be concise, and leave room for others to respond. The most effective comments are brief, contain specific examples, and would feel reasonable to say in a stimulating conversation to another person directly.
- What differences do you notice between these pieces, either in terms of choreography or music? Based on what you know about the plot of each ballet, why do you think the artists chose to distinguish their work from other ballets in this way?
- Ballet dancing is a short-lived career that can come at a high physical cost. Why do you think someone would choose this as a career path? Can you think of any other careers that are similarly short and/or intense?
- What kinds of artistic production today elicits reactions from audiences as strong as those that The Rite of Spring did? Is it possible for art to serve as political/social commentary without being experimental/unpleasant/a departure from tradition in some way?
- Why does the past matter—or, why is the past interesting enough for three different groups of artists to attempt to tackle it with the medium ballet?