Recently we attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2, which opened with Mozart’s “Divertimento 15” and choreography by Balanchine, continued with Mark Morris’ “Drink to me only with thine eyes” on piano etudes by Virgil Thomson, and closed with Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and the original Diaghilev choreography by Possokhov.
I’m not a dancer, I’m a musician, and my reaction to the program can be summed up as briefly as: “I’m a hopeless modernist.”
The Mozart was performed well and the dancing was lovely, but all I got out of it was, “Oh, look at the pretty dancers. Oh, hear the pretty music. They make it look and sound so pretty and easy. Ho-hum. Zzzzzz.” Honestly, I think I would have gotten more out of the music if the dancers hadn’t been there doing their repetitive arm-y fluff-y things every beat. They made pretty shapes, sure, they looked graceful, and for the first movement, it was all very pretty. After that I was bored silly. My dancer mate Victoria loved it. (I’ve lived with ballet dancers. I’ve roomed with them at summer camps. I’ve learned all about toe-tape and how broken dancers are from all the crazy stuff that they have to make look easy and natural. I have tremendous respect for the accomplishment of it all, and then I’m bored.)
I loved the Morris/Thomson. The visuals perfectly matched the music and added to it. The dancers embodied what I hear in the music, carving melodies with arms, tracing harmony in the space. Not only did it all match what I as a musician-geek hear in the music, it also created a complementary new, spatial dimension that was right and appealing, making the music fresh. This is pretty much always my response to Mark Morris’s work, and it’s a sharp contrast to the Balanchine, where I think I’m probably seeing ballet the way amateurs hear music: the way I used to hear music before I had all this music education: “oh, look at/listen to the pretty dancing/music!”
And then came the Stravinsky/Possokhov! It suddenly hit me what the problem is–I’m a modernist!
The classical Balanchine stuff bored me silly, the newest stuff was fascinating, and the big shocker from about a hundred years ago seemed perfectly natural to me. Instead of being tempted to riot, as Stravinsky’s first audiences apparently did, I felt at ease watching the narrative play out. I got it in both large and tiny strokes, from the blocking to the fingers fluttering and the flirty eyelashes. I still saw plenty of tutu-arm-fluffy stuff, but with a backdrop of evocative music that keeps spinning out at least an abstraction of a story. And for this musician, finally seeing the ballet was a revelation. I noticed lots of music that didn’t make it into the Firebird Suites we always play in orchestral concert presentations, and I’ve decided that’s just as well, but I also noticed many passages where familiar music made sense for the first time, seen in its narrative context.
I was puzzled by some details. I’m not sure where the schoolgirl picnic fits into the story. I’m not sure why the one character had a train of chiffon coming out her ass; it reminded me of when our black lab eats too much grass and then has the so-called “Klingon effect” when she poops.