I have become fascinated by ballet. I do not understand ballet, but I am fascinated by it. This is unusual for an academic, since (1) we usually hate things we do not understand, and (2) we fear dancing as the infernal instrument that was designed to expose our near-complete physical atrophy.

But I can’t seem to help myself. Ballet is irresistibly interesting.

They leap and turn as if pulled by invisible wires, floating high above the stage; they bend the body as if it were itself a molded piece of art. And all with such apparent effortlessness, which is really the most difficult illusion of all. The way they move seems more like an act of God than a human being. Observe, for example, rising star Natalia Osipova. The sheer athleticism of the art astounds. But then, it is not – at all – a show of athleticism, of brute force. That is never the focus. Ballet conceals the musculature of its movements beneath the silk of liquid arcs, curving spins, and aching pauses. Beneath the slow burn of romance.

I almost hate ballet for its romance. Most of its glittering narratives are romantic, and there is little to compare to the force of a pas de deux with its careful entwining of yearning and concealment. Ballet can be charged, all afire with love, and with such force I sometimes must glance away – as if I had walked in on the most intimate of moments, and cannot help blushing with embarrassment. (Watch, for example, a video about a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet on this page, arranged by the Russian ballet. Scroll down to find it.) At the same time, ballet is not so feral about its topic as movies often are, and it is almost shy by comparison. But this is ballet’s appeal, its electric secret. The heart is moved more by what it invisibly perceives.

Still I almost hate the art for its romance. Its careful postures; its stunning emotional display. These artist-athletes are also actors, and the best bind their whole selves to the part – as if each subtle step and jeté could strike the soul like lightning. And indeed it can, which serves part of my resentment. (The resentment of one all too easily enraptured, the academic who will not admit the breathless weakness of a mind overcome by beauty.) The rest of my resistance is fueled by the inescapably modern derision of stricture and form, of posing. Ballet is full of precise poses, and this leaves an artificial aftertaste. This a false perception. I search myself and understand that ballet is no more posed than any art at all, and it is only a gaze wearied by CGI violence that renders me almost incapable of comprehending ballet’s chiaroscuro display of stillness and movement.

I admit, for all my rising interest, that ballet escapes me. I do not love it as the balletomane do, those devoted experts who know the language as if it were their own. All the passion and display is a foreign vocabulary for me, and I stutter the words in a bare repetition of sound. I appreciate the art as from the outside looking in, fighting a ragged attention span that cannot long endure a three hour ballet. In fact, I have never yet had the courage to see a full ballet, as I am already stretched tortuously thin by mere videos of performances. It overwhelms me with all I do not grasp.

And still – and still – I delight to imagine an art only really ever caught on a stage, the inevitable evanescence of a performance. This makes it more human, and all the more unbearably mortal for the gifted human beings onstage – those who, impossibly, speak everything to us without a word, with only music and movement to bear them aloft.

Image from the July 11th NY Times article on the performance of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Met.

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