In all fairness, my reasons for putting it off weren't, well, unreasonable. One quick scan told me this was going to be a project, not because of the subject matter (which is, as the subtitle indicates, is "Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925") but because the book would demand a lot from me as a reader. And that's not a bad thing, of course: it just means you have to be prepared for it.
If you're wondering, I wasn't wrong about what this particular read would ask of me. The book isn't long, coming in under 300 pages. But it's the type of read that requires serious focus. The introduction alone was like chewing a mouthful of taffy. For instance, these two sentences are but a small taste of the introduction, and fully representative of it in its entirety:
Yet though moved by the same impulse to reestablish the inherently mythical basis of art by recapturing the Greek past, Volynsky short-circuited the Dionysian decadence associated with Nietzsche and changed the emphasis from the theater of drama to the theater of dance. If, in Ivanov's view, the dramatic could reunite life's disparate, contradictory elements into an indissoluble unity, then for Volynsky it was the balletic which vouchsafed the attainment of such harmonious perfection.Got that? Even interested in continuing? I mean, really...it's like reading a scholarly essay that was submitted to an MLA journal. Which isn't surprising given that the author of the introduction and overall editor is a professor at Amherst. It's great writing, but it certainly isn't the stuff of page-turners.
Anyway, if you can actually wade past the introduction, the content of the book is significantly more accessible. I won't pretend that the writing style isn't equally erudite, but my goodness! Mr Volynsky had an opinion or two to share. Without any formal training of his own, Volynsky was actually a journalist who turned his somewhat predatory gaze in the direction of dance around the beginning of the 20th century and decided to become a dance critic. He didn't just show up at a few ballets and start whipping out ideas, though. To his credit, he immersed himself in the study of dance and arrived at the ballet a more than unusually educated observer. At least he knew what he was talking about. That doesn't always mean he was right, of course, and there were definitely places I could sense he was getting a little too worked up in justifying his opinions. There were also places where I wanted to guffaw and say, "This goof needs to tone it down a notch." But never once did I not enjoy reading what he had to say.
I'll give Volynsky serious credit for one thing: he definitely doesn't just offer an opinion and stop there. He offers an opinion and then explains what he means, and why. It's a little long-winded at times, but he appreciates the importance of substantiating his views. For instance, when he complains about the performance of Taisiya Troyanovskaya (you get major points if you can roll that off your tongue without first squinting at it for 30 seconds) in Sleeping Beauty, he goes into extensive detail to explain why he objects. It's a little pedantic, I suppose, but it indicates, at the very least, a real knowledge of dance:
Her performance was not stellar, and I have a list of objections...There are no bold or decisive tours, but as much bending as you like in a soft but colourless pattern. Although her eyes...sparkle, they do so not with an individual gleam but rather impersonally and pointlessly, just passably, as they glance rather coldly and emotionlessly from side to side. Her smile...is the same throughout the entire ballet: it is conventionally and sweetly motionless without directing anything, or ultimately being directed by anything, from within...Troyanovskaya dances only in flat and open little scenes that do not originate from any depth...There is emptiness within, and thus on the beautiful exterior there is no inspiring pathos. In light of such an inner structure, her performance, with its copious abridgements to make the acting and dancing lighter, and its stripping down of all complex technique, cannot capture and please the eye for a moment.Yes, that's very picky and appears to be ungracious to the performer. But at the same time, the performer has an obligation to carry the viewer into another world, so to speak, and it appears that she fails. (For what it's worth, though, any dancer today who abridged part of Sleeping Beauty to make it easier would be anathema. If you can't handle the Rose Adagio, get off the stage.) What's more, this particular passage reveals a great deal about what's important to Volynsky in ballet, what he sees in it that makes it special. For him, it's essentially poetry in motion, something otherworldly and ephemeral that should pick up the viewer and transport him in an almost supernatural moment. It's definitely a somewhat different attitude when compared to today, since dancers are often viewed more as athletes than artists (the athlete part being much easier for the non-balletic world to appreciate). But for me, Volynsky's thoughts were once again a reminder that ballet is an art form and one that's often very, very difficult to explain in words. You just...know...when you've seen something magical.
This seems to be an appropriate place to break for a photo, so I'm going to do so. And here is my favorite photo of my favorite "old-school" ballerina, Alla Sizova (who post-dated Volynsky):
This is poetry in motion. This is a moment, captured in time, where you can read expression, emotion, yearning, and so much more in sense of movement. She's not just placing herself in a ballet pose (which is basically first arabesque, by the way). She's using the pose to tell the viewer something with her legs, arms, face, entire body. That's what ballet should be. Poses are pretty, but they get boring in a hurry. Ballet is so much more than that.
And just one more, my favorite current ballerina, the Romanian-born Alina Cojocaru (now with the Royal Ballet in London):
So much joy. Now this is an expressive Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, unlike Taisiya Troyanovskaya it would seem. The happiness extends to Cojocaru's very fingertips. (I think I'm starting to sound like Volynsky...)
Now back to the book.
Another quality of Ballet's Magic Kindgom that makes it priceless is the window it creates into the world of ballet we've, for the most part, only seen in photos. Those black-and-white images of dancers like Anna Pavlova and the incredibly beautiful Tamara Karsavina come alive in his words. (For what it's worth, you can view a few brief video clips of these dancers on YouTube now, but a few moments on film aren't quite the same as having a contemporary critic describe the entire performance.) And Volynsky loved both Pavlova and Karsavina. He wasn't afraid to point out their flaws, but when he praised their accomplishments you got the idea that they had risen to extraordinary heights. (No pun intended.)
The reviews comprise the first half of the book. The second half is essentially Volynsky's exposition of what ballet is (or what he thinks it is) through the different steps. I skimmed this for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, I don't need someone explaining to me what croise, efface, pas de chat, and battement are. Got it. On the other hand, Volynsky had something of an obsession with describing the female ballerina as "plantlike." In my own opinion, this is a metaphor that should have spent more time in his head. I just didn't really get what he was saying -- or maybe I didn't really agree with it? -- but by the 457th time I read the word "plantlike," in the second half of the book alone, I was ready to throw it across the room. I suspect that I should have given myself more time with the book. Had I read it over the course of a month, rather than a week, I might not have been so irritable and could have let the symbolism simmer a little. As it was, though, I just got ticked off and started skimming at an almost embarrassing speed.
But all in all, I still enjoyed it. The first half of the book is a treasure trove of information, and I grew to appreciate the way ballet appeared to people back then. We have a tendency to think of the early 20th century as a kind of "good old days" for dancers, but in many ways Volynsky was saying the same things that people say now. What does ballet mean? What's the point? Is it a dying art form? Does it have a future? And so forth. In other words, ballet has always held a somewhat tenuous place in the minds of those who enjoy it, with the fear that it's one foot out the door, and yet it continued. And continues. As long as people are still attending ballet, thinking about ballet, talking about ballet, it must have some kind of relevance, right? Volynsky even points out that, in the early 20th century, the audience didn't have a clue what the mime in ballet meant. So this would suggest that it never really made much sense to the audience. (Several of the ballets with the mime he talks about dated from Marius Petipa, who hit his peak in the mid-to-late 19th century. It wasn't like the mime was 300 years old. It was only a few decades old, and people in the audience had no idea what it meant -- in Russia, no less, where ballet has always been like opera to Italians. In other words, mime was just another language that needed to be translated for viewers.)
This is definitely a big thumbs-up for me, but (obviously) only if you're interested in the subject matter. It's something of a commitment to read this, because you have to sit down and take it all in: the opinions, the past, the overall world of ballet. But it's fully worth it if you want to know more. I reviewed Apollo's Angels before, and disliked it immensely I should add; if you want to read about ballet and really understand what ballet is all about, Ballet's Magic Kingdom is a much better choice.
Year of publication: (collected writings, in translation) 2008
Number of pages: 288