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Favorite Things: Classicism and Romanticism

Photo: Joseph Gordon in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations (photo: Erin Baiano)

In 1970, George Balanchine added three new sections to his well-known one-act ballet showpiece Theme and Variations (1947). This spring New York City Ballet has been presenting Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 as part of its Balanchine offerings. In its first iteration, Theme and Variations was an extended pas de deux with the interventions of a full corps de ballet—women first, men joining in toward the end—a sort of compressed nineteenth-century classical ballet presented for its own qualities of relative abstraction but still performed in regalia against a royal background as if it were an historical divertissement. Like other Balanchine works, it was a new classic that nostalgically evoked nineteenth-century ballet while steering clear of plot.

In Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, however, Balanchine inserted three very different short male-female duets with surrounding female casts—Elégie, Valse Mélancholique, and Scherzo—as an extended prelude-as-triptych to the grand pas of Theme and Variations. These three preludes could not be more nostalgic, and hence romantic. Performed behind a scrim lending a lyrical vagueness to the stage with pastel and diaphanous costumes, women’s hair loose and flowing, all is dream-like as the dancers emerge from and just as quickly return to the shadows. The atmospherics are those of artist Marie Laurencin or possibly Christian Bérard. The Elégie (Sara Mearns and Ask La Cour) is about unrequited love or some kind of loss or undefined impossibility; Valse Mélancholique (Lauren King and Taylor Stanley) is equally tenuous but ends in apparent if momentary togetherness; Scherzo (Unity Phelan and Roman Mejia)—perhaps the most interesting of the three choreographically—is dance set adrift at high speed where the lovers play at hide and seek, as it were, and are increasingly propelled ahead by the music until they simply run away out of sight.

Theme and Variations coming at the end of all this is, on the other hand, hard-edged and danced beneath what feels in comparison to be a clinical spotlight. The contrast is arresting. It makes me think of T. E. Hulme’s definition of classicism: “The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description.”[i] The description the dancers perform in this ballet is that of classical technique itself.  It requires of the performer, to cite Hulme again, “the concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees.”[ii] For dance, we could modify this to: . . . of what one does. Hulme’s sense of classicism is useful here because, he adds: “[I]t has nothing to do with infinity, with mystery or with emotions.”[iii] Such mystery, however, is exactly the subject of the triptych prelude. Hence, by placing those dances before Theme and Variations Balanchine created an antithetical structure.

With Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 it is possible Balanchine is saying that the emotional strands of the first three duets have ultimately been woven into the final classical pas in which, however, they are also summed up, formalized, and subjected to a cold objectivity by being exposed mercilessly to the public gaze as virtuosic. There is, after all, a teleology implied in this choreographic structure in which what comes last is the apogee, and therefore the “best” or, at the least, to be viewed as the historical development and hence the outcome of what preceded it. This is also something of the case with Balanchine’s Jewels (1967) where Diamonds comes across as the transcendent and timeless summation of the more historically contingent Emeralds and Rubies. A similar triumph of the classical is even implied at the end of Balanchine’s contribution to Episodes (1959).

But, in Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 the triumph of classicism contains the possibility of an unhappy consciousness: the danger that classicism might bury romantic sentiment in ideal perfection, “stylized out of any common emotional reference” as Lincoln Kirstein described the dangers of ballet.[iv] Romanticism, Balanchine seems to say through his choice of sequential development in Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, is the hidden subtext for classicism. But, in Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 it is a potentially oppositional subtext. Here lies the question of neoclassicism in twentieth-century ballet, an ubiquitous term whose meaning is elusive. In Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 aspects of male-female relationships are presented as fragments or remnants of emotional experience subsequently packed into and reprocessed as classical ballet: What was intentionally tentative and indecisive now becomes fixed and determined. This amounts to a kind of willed amnesia or, at best, sublimation. The courtliness of the grand classical manner cannot accommodate the psychologically complex romantic self-consciousness.

Joseph Gordon made his debut in Theme and Variations opposite Megan Fairchild (May 23) and in doing so he also made a quantum leap into another dimension of his dancing. Gordon allowed us to see at once his technical aplomb in the classical requirements of the choreography plus his romantic expansiveness of feeling as a presence shining through the dancing. Gordon brought to this role an understated mysteriousness as well as a sense of authentic elegance combined with a powerfully if still entirely credible romantic intensity. He was able to combine classical objectivity with a sense of brooding. And, this was not only satisfying in itself to see, but also artistically the absolutely right choice for this restored work because it materialized the synthesis within what would have otherwise remained only a theses and antithesis. He showed us how the triptych prelude persists affectively as variations on the theme of romantic obsession in Theme and Variations. It has been remarkable to see Gordon emerge over these last few years as an artist and it makes one realize how essential the performer is not only in seeing a ballet, but also to our conceptual understanding of what is at stake in a ballet: here, bringing together classical objectivity with romantic subjectivity allows for the integrity of the 1970 ballet itself, which otherwise would appear incomplete. Gordon’s very movements infused technical objectivity with subjective fantasy. In this way, in the final part of the work, he united its two parts and worked against the hegemonic interpretation of classicism as the triumph over feeling.

This synthetic conception (in the Hegelian sense) of ballet captured in Gordon’s performance is reprised in two brief Lincoln Kirstein quotes. In his first essay on ballet, Kirstein noted how the gradual stylization of ballet over centuries achieved “a mechanical technique which allowed exact repetition.”[v] In a less public venue, Kirstein noted in his journal: “Have been going to parties, etc. and having a fine time – not so much in reality but always thinking of the better possibilities of the parties as a background. But what really interests me is the physical appearance of boys and girls dancing or talking or walking around together.”[vi] This last reflection is somewhat self-indulgent. But, Kirstein liked looking at people, and when it came to ballet he called them boys and girls. There is something very honest about this statement and, I think, important to our subjective investment in watching ballet where the facts of real people doing real things before us do have some purchase on the ultimate aesthetic experience. These two observations placed side by side—one a statement on classical technique, the other a personal vision of life and desire—could be considered as Kirstein’s way of conceiving (well before the fact) Balanchine’s rethinking of Theme and Variations in 1970 as a larger ballet.

Coincidentally, Kirstein's role in the New York City Ballet has lately been the object of some attention. Recent museum and gallery exhibitions this year celebrating Lincoln Kirstein bring him back into consciousness just as NYCB begins a new era of artisitc leadership. The larger show at MoMA, "Lincoln Kirstein's Modern," celebrates Kirstein's engagements with the Museum of Modern Art as an advisor and curator. The smaller show, "The Young and Evil," at the David Zwirner gallery highlighted Kirstein's artistic milieu with artists such as Pavel Tchelitchev, Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, and Jared French, all of whom were involved in Kirstein's ballet ventures. These artists, the gallery explains, "looked away from abstraction toward older sources and models—classical and archaic forms of figuration and Renaissance techniques." [vii]  The MoMA show with its excellent catalogue reveals Kirstein working agains the grain of modern art as MoMA conceived it. The MoMA show seems to reassert the aesthetically if not politically conservative nature of neoclassicism in twentieth-century art. Kirstein's acquisitions of South American painting for the Museum as well as his engagement with the Popular Front aesthetic during the 1930s preclude political conservatism usually associated with French neoclassicism of the interwar years. But, then, how is it that Kirstein through his support of Balanchine is the chamption of ballet modernism? The catalogue does not address this question. The Zwirner show, on the other hand, is an interesting complement to the MoMA show because it focuses on Kirstein's gay milieu and thus begs again the question of how conservative neoclassicism could actually have been. Clearly, we need more work on how neoclassicism was used for a radical sexual politics.[viii]  Resolutely heterosexual, Balanchine was not part of Kirstein's politics. But, this is again another aspect of the complexity of the Kirstein-Balanchine relationship, which had some points of confluence despite their differences.[ix]

It was perhaps the role of painter Pavel Tchelitchev to help coalesce the notion of a new classicism Kirstein and Balanchine could agree on. Kirstein wrote a great deal on the painter and so positioned him as a reference point of the new classicism, which Kirstein envisaged through a dual mandate: drawing and draughtsmanship.[x] Drawing, like sculpture historically, is the art of line exemplifying classicism’s goal of precise description. He discussed these aesthetic convictions in an essay about Tchelitchev entitled, “On Drawing”:

Line, flowing in a stream of consecutive points from the nerves of an artist’s finger-tips, conducts its own almost somnambulistic energy, dreamlike in its almost undeterred automatism, but by no means hypnotized. . . . The process mounts up to a complete assimilation of descriptive factors which can summarize a subject combining a multiplicity of shapes and aspects into one single moment . . . [xi]

Notice how the desiderata of dream and objectivity both emerge in Kirstein’s analysis of drawing. It is helpful in understanding how dancing, too, can be understood as a descriptive activity and how dancing’s ability to describe movement can be both objectively determined and infused with subjectivity in “one single moment.” Kirstein said that classical ballet is characterized by a “linear purity” but unfortunately he did not develop the comparison between dance and drawing.[xii] Yet, certain lines of “On Drawing” evoke dancing:

[A]ll overlapping contours suggest so much; the genuine form quivers beneath so many layers of possibility, wrapped in a halation of multiple choice, [sic] through which his outline must penetrate, and upon which he must impose his ultimate and irrevocable decision.[xiii]

Kirstein’s discussion of the action of the hand could just as well be that of the dancer’s body. With drawing, line infers volume; with dancing, volume infers line. “Caught in the seizure of its own self-induced crisis, the hand acts almost independently of the brain.”[xiv] Could this not also be said, substituting the body for the hand, of the inspired dancer?

We can regret that Kirstein did not write more about drawing in relation to movement and writing, a theme present for instance, in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology and in many facets of William Forsythe’s work.[xv] Kirstein’s writing on dance tended to be either historical or instructive to the audience. Finally, it is a shame he did not allow himself to theorize on dance as he did on art.

The dialectic of Balanchine and Kirstein, which Kirstein also saw at work in Tchelitchev, is that of classicism and romanticism. In the final analysis, drawing trumps draughtsmanship: “The intensity in an artist’s revelation,” wrote Kirstein of Tchelitchev, “determines the conviction of his cursive or broken penmanship, handled in his idiosyncratic method, as individual as finger-print or hand-writing.”[xvi] To actually be classical, Kirstein goes on to say, is to be mannerist. "Mannerism is the imitation of models, of formulae, of rendering at second-hand, Mannerism always tends toward the decorative [. . .] In the most princely drawings line is rendered impersonally, without manner, directly, as if we, spectator or critic, were viewing the sight independent of the seer, yet through his eyes and by his hand, fixed on visions inside his private crystal ball, full of shifting mirage, which an artist arrests at any crucial stage, when imagination [. . .] fairly bursts into poetric notion." [xvii] In this crescendo to his essay, the visionary artist brings drawing to a level well beyond draughtsmanship or the sheer ability to replicate in "a mechanical technique which allowed exact repetition," which was a stated characteristic of classical ballet. What we might have wished to have from Kirstein was a poetics of dance as drawing. But his meditation, such as it is, seems to inflect classicism toward the romantic.

Please click here to see Elégie with Sean Lavery and Karin von Aroldingen in an earlier production, showing a different set and no scrim.

MARK FRANKO is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance, Temple University. He was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book on neoclassicism in French dance. 


[i] T. E. Hulme, “Romanticism and Classicism,” in Speculations. Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art  (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), 132.

[ii] Ibid., 133.

[iii] Ibidem.

[iv] Lincoln Kirstein, “The Diaghilev Period,” in By With To and From. A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, edited by Nicholas Jenkins (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), 106.

[v] Ibidem.

[vi] Entry of October 23, 1930. Lincoln Kirstin Diaries 1930-1931 (Oct. 14, 1930-Feb. 21 or 31, 1931. Lincoln Kirstein Papers, (S) *MGAMD 123, box 3 folder 15, pp. 9-10 (typescript)

[vii] Printed material of the David Zwirner gallery.

[viii] For example, Benjamin H.D. Buchlow cites modernism’s turn to figuration in the classicizing of visual representation as a political conservatism that paved the way for fascism and Stalinism. Benjamin H. D. Buchlow, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression. Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” in Art After Modernism. Rethinking Representation, edited by Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1980), 107-136. Kenneth E. Silver, Esprit de Corps is the standard account of the turn to classicism in modern French visual art in reaction to the devastation of World War I. See Kenneth E. Silver's Esprit de Corps. The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). The historiography of neoclassicism begins in France in the 1920s and, of course, Balanchine working with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was part of this scene. But, its development in the United States with Kirstein is another matter.

[ix] In her contribution to the MoMA catalogue, Lynn Garafola stresses their differences. See her “Lincoln Kirstein: Man of the People,” in Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, edited by Samantha Friedman and Jodi Hauptman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2019), 28-35. I am currently preparing a book on the genealogy of neoclassicism in ballet. The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Dance and the German Occupation is forthcoming at Oxford University Press.

[x] Balanchine shared Kirstein’s enthusiasm for Tchelitchev who in 1937 designed his production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice and in 1942 created a backdrop for Apollon Musagète. Kirstein convinced MoMA to purchase Tchelitchev’s canvas Hide and Seek (1942).

[xi] Lincoln Kirstein, “On Drawing,” in Pavel Tchelitchew Drawings, edited by Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1970), 9.

[xii] See Kirstein’s “Ballet Alphabet. A Primer for Laymen (1939)” in Ballet: Bias and Belief .Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writings of Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Dance Horizons, 1983), 311.

[xiii] Kirstein, “On Drawing,” 8.

[xiv] Kirstein, “On Drawing,” 10.

[xv] See Mark Franko, “Figurae: Retranslating the Encounter between Peter Welz, William Forsythe, and Francis Bacon,” in Choreographing Discourses: A Mark Franko Reader (London: Routledge, 2019), 96-102.

[xvi] Kirstein, “On Drawing,” 10.

[xvii] Ibidem.





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