Some conundrums posed by the Opera de Paris ballet

My intellectual life has been lived in a series of mono-thematic obsessions.

The evolutionary psychology thing -- it unfolded between 1999 and 2001 in the wake of the lecture of the foundational Toby and Comides article -- was typical of the phenomenon: for two years I read intensely on the subject (somewhere between 12oo and 1500 pages a week), audited college courses, followed news-feeds, participated in online discussions, thought about it intensely on long afternoon walks, corresponded with researchers, wrote about it copiously in my journal, and generally ate, thought, spoke and... dreamt principally E-P.

There had been other such periods in my life before: Chinese classics, for one; Zen; bread-baking; ornithology; logical foundations of mathematics; South Indian curries; Chola bronzes; Mahler; Bartok; chess. And there have been others since: Italian painting, baroque opera, Balinese dance, kathakali, Indian textiles, Chinese porcelains.


Sometime in the middle of last August, my most recent intellectual obsession played itself out. I closed the notebooks and the sketchbooks, filed away the photos and news-clippings, put away the books.

That subject was done.

And then came the present period -- of -- repose, should I say? -- of silence; a period of waiting; a period of actually looking -- but not strenuously -- looking but without seeming to (most of all to myself) to look. Co nagle, to po diable, we say in Polish -- the devil take all things urgent.

Finding an intellectual obsession is a bit like falling in love: one falls in love best when he makes an effort not to look at women and to occupy himself with something altogether else. (Evolutionary psychology, for example). Then they come and take us by surprise, out of the blind spot, as it were. Because we are not looking.

I have not yet found it -- the next obsession -- or rather, I should say, it has not yet found me -- but some things are brewing, I can tell. And one of them is -- surely -- the ballet of Paris.


Partly with the help of Mezzo -- I cannot believe you Americans, with your 7 million channels, do not get this gem -- and partly compliments of fnac.fr and amazon.fr, I have been watching


and this;

and more for which no fitting footage is to be found online; Sylvia -- try to see the scene in which Orion seduces Sylvia, an astounding piece of absolutely beautiful sleaze -- if you can imagine such a thing -- Nicholas La Riche's rendition makes the attraction of Russian oligarch-types understandable (if not necessary); or the scene entitled Aminta returns to the forest -- a kind of treatise on the defeat of middle age ("wiek męski, wiek klęski"); and La Dame aux Camelias; and Jeune homme et la mort; and Le songe de Medee -- all of them absolutely superb, fantastic manly ballet, with not a shred of sissy pussycat anywhere.

(The selections from these ballets which are available on you-tube tend to the pussycat -- the beautiful rather than the exciting -- for some reason; which makes for an interesting conundrum in itself).

The pleasure of dance is not entirely new to me: I have spent four seasons watching Balinese ballet and this stuff comes close to it in its oddness, weirdness, abstraction -- even if the figural language is apparently different. (And, for crying out-loud, is not the kathakali dancer's skirt basically a tutu?) (Besides, the stuff the jardiniers get up to in Le Parc is classic ketchak).


Watching it, my intellect is stirred to want to understand:

1. how comes it that the French have danced these four hundred years -- through war and revolution, kings beheaded and republics overthrown -- without, as it were, skipping a beat? Danish and British and Russian ballet have come and gone, have had their great days and declined into irrelevance -- but the French keep on dancing: to dance is to be French (and vice-versa). (A partner in a rhumba once amazed me with her light-footed grace; oh, she explained, I am French -- by which she meant as a matter of course 8 or 12 years of compulsory ballet).

2. how comes it that an institution like the Opera de Paris can produce year after year four or five productions of absolutely first class ground breaking ballet; and has done so now for two centuries, without losing its way (like all national cultural institutions normally do) or blowing up (like all other ballet troupes invariably do)? and without slipping into the petrifying, mindless replay of the tried and true (like Japan's Noh)? I want to see a management self-help book on this topic: surely, it deserves one.

3. how comes it that state sponsorship does not kill its aesthetic standards, the way it seems invariably to do in the anglo-saxon world? ("who's to say that x is better than y?", they say, demagogically, in America, with the result that the state ends up sponsoring oodles of utter and complete crap -- the inevitable result of the bureaucrats' natural inclination to triangulate). But not in France; not, at any rate, at the Opera de Paris. The state pays through its teeth for it, but it gets value for money like no one else on the planet does.

4. how comes it that in modern ballet it is the Americans that make such a meaningful and important and beautiful contribution -- the Jerome Robbinses, the John Neumeiers, the Carolyn Carlsons -- while in every other field -- from literature to painting to classical music -- they seem to have brought to European art nothing but crass, crude and ugly vulgarity?

Starting from scratch -- brave new world and all -- means in art, all too often, barbarity.

But -- somehow -- not in dance?


(Conundrums, said once a great philosopher, meaning questions without answers, is what makes up philosophy. It is when you have figured out how to go about answering them that you have shifted from philosophy to science; from the unknowable to the approachable, if only asymptotically).


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