Feb/Mar 2009

Barre Code

Laura Jacobs


The Russian critic Akim Volynsky came late to the art of classical dance but brought to his seat on the aisle a formidable background in philosophy, aesthetics, and polemics—the perfect background, really. He also brought the kind of inflamed idealism, a love of beauty with a capital b, that one associates with nineteenth-century aesthetes: the German Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Davidsbund. Born Chaim Leib Flekser in 1861, to a family of booksellers, Volynsky resembles a character in a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose surreal stories provided the basis for two classic ballets, Coppélia and The Nutcracker. He possessed a sensibility—dreamy, reaching, in love with the ineffable—that is particularly susceptible to ballet. It’s a club that has more recently included Lincoln Kirstein, W. H. Auden, Joseph Cornell, Susan Sontag, Edward Gorey, and Frank O’Hara, to name a few. But for the first quarter of the twentieth century, Volynsky was its president, heart in his eyes and gavel in his hand.

Ballet’s Magic Kingdom marks the first translation into English of Volynsky’s dance criticism, and there’s something of The Sleeping Beauty about the enterprise: The collection’s first essays, written in 1911 for the widely circulated Saint Petersburg daily Birzhevye vedomosti (Stock Exchange News), are now almost a hundred years old. In a sense, editor and translator Stanley J. Rabinowitz, a professor of Russian at Amherst College, has kissed to life one of the most important eras in ballet history—the years when Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina were dancing and when the Imperial classicism of choreographer Marius Petipa was pulled into the twentieth century of Michel Fokine, Sergey Diaghilev, and modernism. How exciting to hear a contemporaneous voice commenting on live performances, artistry that for the most part exists only in still and stilted studio photographs—sepia-colored and sometimes clumsily retouched.

There is no sepia tint to Volynsky’s reporting. His voice is authoritative, erudite, and exacting. He holds dancers, choreographers, composers, designers, and even the balletomania of his day—which, he writes, “often conceals in itself profanation, lust, and blasphemy” (in our day, too, I would add)—to a very high standard. At its best, Volynsky’s rhetorical style recalls the writing in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, the section titled “Observations and Aphorisms”—no surprise, seeing that he wrote a definitive study of Leonardo earlier in his career. Volynsky tosses off maxims that have you smiling with pleasure as you analyze the insight. For instance:

Transfiguration always requires height.

All Greece was somehow completely en tournant.

Men do not dance on the tips of their toes because they retain their unique spirituality by remaining on their full feet.

If a dancer has no plié, it means that his art lacks genuine vitality.

At its worst, however, Volynsky’s prose gives way to florid raptures full of arabesques and mythological references: “They whirl lightly, like fluff from the mouth of the wind god Aeolus, fusing with the melody and rhythm of the music” or “The fragrant wafting of flora accompanies the female dancer’s every step—on the ground and in the air.” One sentence of this is sweet, but a whole paragraph becomes a vine-covered wall of words, a passage it’s best to leap over. One of Volynsky’s most charming essays is called “Leap, Jump, Flight,” and it not only delineates the difference between the three, it embodies a greater truth: that no one dancer has it all. “Some male or female dancers can jump, but they cannot leap,” he explains. “One can have both jump and leap but not flight. . . . Another has vivid ballon but not a large leap or jump.”

The collection is full of surprises, such as the reference to the “triple turns” performed by Mathilda Kshesinskaya. Even today, a triple pirouette is risky, and I had no idea that back then female dancers were technically capable of them. It’s also interesting to learn that Pavlova, whom Volynsky elevated above all other ballerinas, performed pirouettes “with a frightened-looking face.” Some of the greatest classical dancers—poets of the art form—have not been great turners. We see this still, though with the heightened technical expectations of our extreme-sports era it goes unforgiven, the poetic being less valued, because less understood, than the athletic.

The collection ends with Volynsky’s magnificent treatise, The Book of Exultations, published in 1925 and subtitled The ABCs of Classical Dance. Volynsky ran a ballet academy for five years, and in Exultations his practical knowledge is matched by an imagination in full flower. Particularly eloquent is his essay on turnout, the outward rotation of the legs and feet that opens the dancer to the world and allows continuous mobility and extension. He begins by discussing the turn from the back of the hand to the palm, which he calls “the innermost essence of the hand”: “When the palm begins to be engaged in our speech, a new strand immediately appears, warm, gentle, and playful. Everything suddenly lights up from within.” In the essay that follows, he continues: “Turnout is not the property of choreography alone. It is reflected in almost all areas of the human spirit and activity.” He finds examples of it in painting (Rubens), literature (Dostoyevsky), and music (Wagner), and then he shoots into the air: “The creative act is by its very nature an act of turnout.” The same could be said of Volynsky’s collection, bursting with jumps, leaps, and flights.

Laura Jacobs is the dance critic of the New Criterion. Her second novel, The Bird Catcher, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in June.

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