The New World

In which he watches an American ballet

(Here are some puzzling things about which, puzzlingly, no one ever talks about.  Like they didn’t notice it, or something).

Watching the American Ballet’s (“American Ballet Theatre (ABT), based in New York City, was one of the foremost ballet companies of the 20th century. It continues as a leading dance company in the world today”) Midsummer Night’s Dream is a puzzling experience. The dancing is bad: the lead male (who shall remain unnamed) has problems executing some figures while the corps de ballet — the “choir” — dressed in some of the most god-awful tututus the world has ever seen — is adequate, I suppose, but… er… ungainly.

No, that word does not describe it. They are… heavy. Jumping up is laborious; they take off like B-52s; they come down with a crushing thud. It’s not a corps de ballet; it’s a brick-layers’ convention. And, this being classical ballet — i.e. it aims to tell a dramatic story — the dancers, god have mercy on us, act. The Stanislavsky method. When they are surprised, boy are they surprised. And when they are jealous… wow.

The sole saving grace is Herman Curnejo’s Puk (above), light and sprightly and airy. He epitomizes what the rest of the ballet lacks: grace.

Grace is not an American virtue. Americans — for all their essential decency and goodness — walk like tanks. Men and women. Now that the whole world is dressing American and Americans are leaving off hair-spray, the one sure way to tell an American from behind is to watch him (or her) walk. It’s very puzzling why that should be so. You’d think the way we walk, being a mechanical function of the suspension system, would be genetic: after all, walking is hardly a matter of conscious aesthetic indoctrination. Though maybe this is not entirely true: an American girlfriend once told me that I “walked like a faggot”. She meant, I suppose, the graceful lightness of foot. Perhaps the thing to do was to walk with a broad gate suggesting a large, half-erect masculinium? Or perhaps it’s a matter of practice: is it possible that, being car people in a car country, Americans simply walk a lot less than the rest of the world, and, as a consequence, the machine has no time to adjust? A mystery.

The continued existence of the American Ballet Theater is a greater mystery yet. It must be expensive. Why spend so much money on a so very second-rate product? The audience is one clue: they clap hands in the middle of a sequence to applaud things like a triple pirouette. Clap hands. Triple pirouette. It’s — er — provincial. In Lisbon they routinely stand up to applaud a pianist; in Berlin they do not stand up for nobody: the reason is clear: pianists rarely come to Lisbon; but nearly every pianist in the world will happily break both pinkies for a Berlin engagement.  Lisboites are thankful.

But understanding provincials’ (in this case, New Yorkers’) aspiration to be more like the metropolis does not explain sitting through the whole performance. Why do it? Why not just have the ballet but send someone else to sit through it? Is anyone really enjoying it? How can they, when it is so bad? I suppose it works this way with other products: if you have never had a jamon iberico, you might well enjoy eating spam until your dying day?

Which accounts for so much of America’s cultural success: one doesn’t need a superior cultural product; one only has to sell it harder.