16 giugno 2013

“Dance and Poetry” by Alfred Corn

Mirth by William Blake from
John Milton's “L'Allegro”

In George Balanchine’s great ballet Apollo, choreographed to one of Stravinsky’s most ravishing scores, we see the god summon three Muses to assist in the invention of dance. One of these is Calliope, Muse of epic poetry; her presence stands as a symbol of the fact that choreographers have many times drawn on poems for themes to be developed into dances. Without giving an exhaustive catalogue, I’ll begin by mentioning Le Corsaire, based on Byron’s narrative poem and choreographed by Petipa in 1899. There is Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose, drawn from a lyric by Théophile Gautier, as well as Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune from 1912, which was inspired by the Mallarmé poem. And that same theme was thoughtfully updated in the early 1950s by Jerome Robbins in a work for the New York City Ballet. A few years earlier, Robbins had choreographed The Age of Anxiety, a ballet based on a dialogic long poem by W. H. Auden. Stepping back a decade, recall Martha Graham’s Letter to the World of 1941, whose title comes from the first line of Dickinson’s poem, “This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to me,—”. The work has two characters, named simply “The One Who Dances” and “The One Who Speaks,” the latter reading passages from Dickinson in the course of the dance. From the same years is Graham’s Appalachian Spring, choreographed to one of Aaron Copland’s most vital scores and drawing part of its inspiration from a passage in Hart Crane’s “The Dance”:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!
In the tradition of story ballets, there is John Cranko’s elegant Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s masterpiece and choreographed to music by Tchaikovsky for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. And then, bringing the topic up to our own day, we have the splendid example of Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, to the Handel’s score, a work using verses from Milton’s paired pastoral poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Mr. Morris incurs a second debt to poetry (or at least to a poet) by borrowing from the 1816 set of pen and watercolor drawings William Blake made to accompany the Milton poems. Blake’s drawings suggested not only costumes and color schemes but also dance steps as well, which sometimes resemble the poses of Blake’s exhilarated or pensive figures. The resulting work, based on several artistic sources from disparate eras, is described by dance critic Joan Acocella (in her book Mark Morris) as follows: “So everything is there together, and bound together—the universe, the human race, and also the arts, for L’Allegro is a hymn to the unity of poetry, music, and dance: a story of how each . . . can follow its own laws and still harmonize with the others. The piece is also a hymn to the unity of history, for the poetry, music, and dance that are wedded in this piece are from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries.” To that cavalcade of earlier eras, Ms. Acocella also appends the nineteenth century (because of Blake’s drawings) and finally reaches back as far as the third century B.C.E., when the tradition of pastoral poetry was first inaugurated in Hellenistic Alexandria.

We’re also concerned here with the complementary question, how poetry has drawn on dance—as religious ritual, performance art, or a popular pastime—for subject matter and for aesthetic cues. A vast topic, because the association of the two arts is as old as the Western tradition. Only think of the Psalms, the Bible’s most ringing praise songs—for example, Psalm 149, which exclaims, “Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.” Or, to turn to Greek tradition, recall (from Book 18 of the Iliad) the description of the shield that Hephaistos makes for Achilles. Among the subjects sculpted on it is an elaborate scene of dancing, with young men and women engaged a choral performance described this way: “At whiles on their understanding feet they would run very lightly,/as when a potter crouching makes trial of his wheel, holding/it close in his hands, to see if it will run smooth. At another/time they would form rows, and run, rows crossing each other./And around the lovely chorus of dancers stood a great multitude/happily watching, while among the dancers two acrobats/led the measures of song and dance revolving among them.” [Richmond Lattimore, trans., ll. 570-72; and ll. 599-605]

This is a good spot to mention the connection between dance-rhythm, the stamping of feet, and meter in poetry. It is suggested, pointedly enough, in the Greek word pous, which means “foot,” both the human foot as well as a unit of metrical measure, as in iambic or trochaic “feet.” Consider the classical ode, for example, in which a chorus sang and danced to the words of poets like Pindar even as their dance steps reproduced the rhythm of the poem’s metrical feet. We might recall, too, Paul Valéry’s comparison of prose to walking and poetry to dancing. Dancers only occasionally perform without musical accompaniment, and if we look for the unifying element in music, dance and poetry, we discover a bliss at once simple and powerful, the pulse of rhythm, primitive and vital as life itself. So much so that Valéry also said (in “Dance and the Soul”) that “Life is a woman who is dancing.” In that spirit Pindar composed his choral odes, and so were they danced, a frieze of singing and physically expressive performers unified by rhythms that codify the structure of space and time. The only comparable fusion of word, music and dance we have today is MTV rock videos, which have, as Pindar’s odes once did, the capacity to whip up audience participation into ecstasy or frenzy.

The influence of dance on poetry has usually been less volcanic, however. It is regularly invoked as part of the pastoral tradition mentioned a moment ago, the green world of shepherds who join together in rollicking country dances while singing to the accompaniment of woodwinds. Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” proposes this kind of entertainment when he says, “The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing/For thy delight each May morning:/If these delights thy mind may move,/Then live with me and be my love.” Or, as Ariel in The Tempest advises: “Foote it featly heere, and there, and sweete Sprights the burthen beare.” Traces of pastoral felicity reach as far as Keats’s somber “Ode To a Nightingale” when he invokes a vintage, “Tasting of Flora and the country green,/Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!” as an antidote to twilight melancholy. Long before Keats, pastoral dancing had become, paradoxically, an integral element in the ordered assemblies of the court. It was consecrated for poetry in the text of the Jonsonian masque, which always concluded in a mandatory invitation extended to James I’s courtiers, summoning them to join in with the performers in carefully choreographed measures, an emblem of the harmonious collaboration of society in its several degrees. Here is a stanza from the final scene of Jonson’s The Vision of Delight, which deftly describes the interlacing of dancers in chorus:
In curious knots and mazes so
The spring at first was taught to go,
And Zephyr when he came to woo
His Flora had their motions too,
And thence did Venus learn to lead
Th’ Idalian brawls, and so to tread
As if the wind, not she, did walk;
Nor pressed a flower, nor bowed a stalk.
Court dances had two offspring; first, the ballet that only trained performers can manage and, second, cotillion or ballroom dancing, whose latest incarnation is free-form American disco that began in the early 1960s and shows no sign of exhaustion. From the performance tradition another offshoot appeared in the early twentieth century, beginning with Isadora Duncan. I mean of course modern dance, which might be regarded as a re-pastoralization of courtly dance, considering that modern dancers dispense with toe shoes and have given up ballet stylization in favor of movement derived organically from the body electric at its most spontaneous. Disco, too, might be described as pastoral, except that it is so thoroughly urban in its attitude.

Poetry has responded to all these developments in dance. One of the earliest and most brilliant descriptions of ballet performance is found in the first chapter of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, where the dancer Istomina is presented this way, “ . . . then suddenly she’s off, and there/she’s up and flying through the air/like fluff before Aeolian breezes;/she’ll spin this way and that, and beat/against each other swift, small feet.” [Book One, XX, Charles Johnson, trans.] As for cotillion dancing, in Chapter Seven when Tatyana comes to Moscow, she is taken to a ball at the Assembly, where she fails to enjoy, “the blaze of candles, and the trembly/flicker of swiftly twirling pairs,” the “Noise, laughter, bowing, helter-skelter,/galope, mazurka, waltz . . . ”, the decorous amusements of Russian society being put through its paces.

Turning to the 20th century, we might recall William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe,” whose title obviously refers to the Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes from the early part of this century. The poem’s speaker performs a free-spirited personal adaptation of those revolutionary works, naked, in front of his mirror at home, concluding with the question, “Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household?” Perhaps it is a similar dance, this time for chorus, that Wallace Stevens invokes in the conclusion to “Sunday Morning,” when he imagines, “Supple and turbulent, a ring of men/Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn/Their boisterous devotion to the sun.” Williams will return to a communal version of the subject in “The Dance” of 1944, a meditation on Breughel’s painting The Kermess, in which “the dancers go round, they go round and/around . . . / . . . / their hips and their bellies off balance/to turn them.” Still in an exuberant mode, recall the description of social dancing in Part II of Hart Crane’s “For the Marriage of Helen and Faustus,” where jazz provides the music for social dancing in a style that must be the Charleston: “Glee shifts from foot to foot . . . ” while “White shadows slip across the floor/Splayed like cards form a loose hand,” the merriment unleashed “Among slim skaters of the gardened skies.”

Turning to dance theater again, Richard Howard has written poems that make scintillating observations about Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Martha Graham. The latter he addresses in a poem titled “To an Old Dancer,” written in the 1960s, when she was getting on in years. He remarked to me once that he regarded Graham as the greatest theatrical genius America had yet produced. In the poem he describes her as “Half-visionary and half voyeur,” and says, “What you were, a whole theater/has become. What have you lost by that/Exchange, save as the tree loses by/Giving up its leaves and standing bare?” In the early sixties, Mr. Howard’s late contemporary James Merrill wrote a paired set of poems titled “Watching the Dance,” the first dealing with Balanchine, whose spectator is instructed to “Be still. Observe the powers. Infer the stream.” The second part is titled “Discothèque” and imagines the prophet Jonah visiting some Peppermint Lounge or other, a Jonah appalled (and perhaps a bit wistful, too) as he watches “A teenage plankton luminously twitch.”

I don’t want to give the impression that poems have always presented dance in a redemptive light, so let me simply mention a demonic orgy involving dancing—the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust, which has several fascinating musical settings precisely because it is demonic. Recall, too, Baudelaire’s “Danse macabre,” a medium-length poem depicting a public dance one of whose participants is a woman of advanced age in heavy makeup and dressed decades younger than her years. This spectacle stirs up in Baudelaire grim reflections about human mortality and the thirst for pleasure in the face of Time’s ravages. More frightening still is Anthony Hecht’s “Tarantula or the Dance of Death,” on the subject of tarantism, a disease that afflicted many thousands of people in Europe from the 15th to the 17th century. Its symptoms included a flailing and whirling about of the body; and this was the origin of a Neapolitan dance known as the tarantella, which was performed by couples enacting, simultaneously, the themes of love and death. In Hecht’s poem, the illness is described as follows: “ . . . A sort of trance//Glazes the eyes, and then the muscles take/His will away from him, the legs begin/Their funeral jig, the arms and belly shake/Like souls in sin.” And so on until they expire. Grim also is the advice Elizabeth Bishop gives (in her poem “Pink Dog”) to a pitiful, hairless stray at risk of being dumped in the river during the pre-Carnival tidying up of Rio. Bishop’s speaker urges the dog to put on a mask or carnival costume so as to elude his abductors. “What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?” she asks and says, “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” We’re not told whether the stratagem is followed—or even can be—but are left simply to imagine the ownerless animal’s dilemma.

On the other hand, despite the word “victims” in the title poem of Cornelius Eady’s second book Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, the “dance craze” being dealt with is not really lethal or even especially dangerous. What Eady describes is a whole city overtaken by enthusiasm, an exhilaration that takes physical and kinetic form, as people from many walks of life break out in irrepressible fits of dancing. “A delivery boy discovers/His body has learned to speak,” the poem tells us and we are meant to understand that he has been endowed with the inspiration of poetry as well. The balance of the book carries through the metaphor of dance-as-poetry in surprising and revealing ways. If the authorities are alarmed, there’s nothing new in that. Those who attended the Congress of Vienna in 1815 at the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars returned to their respective courts and launched the vogue for the Austrian waltz, at which the guardians of respectability were duly aghast, foreseeing immediate collapse of the social and moral order. Likewise, in New York City almost exactly a century later, when shock troops of young New Yorkers began dancing what they called “the turkey trot” to the Irving Berlin tune “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now,” the New York State grand jury for a while looked into the possibility of banning the offending dance from public venues in the city. Even if they had, Grace Schulman’s parents might still have danced together at home, as she describes them doing in her poem “The Dancers,” her mother’s hair cropped like Vilma Banky’s, the young child watching as, “They’re caught winging the air, kicking a high/rage as on a tightrope, showing off glossy/smiles to Aunt Rose who tilts the camera—.”

Now and then poets have saluted particular dance performers, as when Frank O’Hara writes an “Ode to Tanaquil Leclercq,” New York City Ballet’s great ballerina, saying, “ . . . you were always changing into something else/and always will be/always plumage, perfection’s broken heart, wings/and wide eyes . . . ” And Elise Paschen, in a poem titled “The Other Mother,” tells us what it is like to be on tour with a dancer who happens to be her parent—Maria Tallchief, one of the twentieth century’s brightest stars. From the wings the child narrator watches her mother perform as Cinderella, and this is what she sees: “A dove balances on each shoulder./Her hair tied with a scarf, she sweeps across/the stage—her broom, a branch, a courtly partner.” Choreography is of course always fused with actual performance, which is one sense of Yeats’s celebrated query in the poem “Among School Children”: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

I want to conclude these remarks by noting that America has been lucky in its dance critics, beginning with Edwin Denby, who, in addition to criticism, wrote excellent poems; and then Jack Anderson, a fine poet who currently reviews for The New York Times. We’ve already heard some keen comments from Joan Acocella; and special tribute goes as well to Arlene Croce, whose New Yorker reviews of the New York City Ballet during the last Balanchine years have the density and elegance of prose poems. I was struck, moreover, by a recent review she wrote of a Mark Morris dance choreographed for Stephen Foster songs performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Croce had this to say: “The cast of nine dancers shows off its chameleon style. It is by means of this style, incidentally, that Morris projects a Whitman-like metaphor of mid-nineteenth-century racial and sexual relations: dancing is the fundament of democracy; we can be anything we want to be.” Croce’s conclusion is identical to the one we must reach as far as contemporary American poetry is concerned. In it, we can be anything we want to be; and sometimes what we want to be is dancing.

Alfred Corn

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