Dancer and the Dance

Susan Sontag

Lincoln Kirstein, the finest historian of the dance and one of its greatest ideologues, has observed that in the 19th century what the prestige of ballet really amounted to was the reputation of the dancer; and that even when there were great choreographers (notably Petipa) and great dance scores (from Adam, Delibes and Tchaikovsky), dance was still almost entirely identified for the large theatrical public with the personality and virtuosity of great dancers. That triumphant mutation in dance taste and in the composition of dance audiences which occurred just before World War One, in response to the authoritative intensity and exoticism of the Ballets Russes, did not challenge the old imbalance of attention – not even with the subsequent invention by Diaghilev of dance as an ambitious collaboration, in which major innovative artists outside the dance world were brought in to enhance this theatre of astonishment. The score might be by Stravinsky, the decor by Picasso, the costumes by Chanel, the libretto by Cocteau. But the blow of the sublime was delivered by a Nijinsky or a Karsavina – by the dancer. According to Kirstein, it was only with the advent of a choreographer so complete in his gifts as to change dance for ever, George Balanchine, that the primacy of the choreographer over the performer, of dance over the dancer, finally came to be understood.

Kirstein’s account of the more limited perspectives of dance publics before Balanchine is, of course, not incorrect. But I would point out that the exaltation of the performer over all else pervaded not only dance in the 19th (and early 20th) century but all the arts that have to be performed. Recalling the effusive identification of dance with the dancer – say, with Marie Taglioni and with Fanny Elssler – one should recall as well other audiences, other raptures. The concert audiences ravished by Lizst and Paganini were also identifying music with the virtuoso performer: the music was, as it were, the occasion. Those who swooned over La Malibran in the new Rossini or Donizetti thought of opera as the vehicle of the singer. (As for the look of opera, whether it was the staging, the decor, or the often incongruous physique of the singer – this hardly seemed worthy of discussion.) And the focus of attention has been modified in these arts, too. Even the most diva-besotted portion of the opera public of recent decades is prepared to slice work from performance and, within performance, vocal prowess and expressiveness from acting – making the distinctions fused by the inflatedly partisan rhetoric of extreme reactions (either ecstasy or the rudest condemnation) that surrounded opera performance, particularly early performances of a new work, in the 19th century. That the work is now routinely seen as transcending the performer, rather than the performer transcending the work, has come to be felt not just in dance, because of the advent of a supremely great choreographer, but in all the performing arts.

And yet, this being said, there seems to be something intrinsic to dance that warrants the kind of reverential attention paid in each generation to a very few dancers – something about what they do that is different from the achievements of surpassingly gifted, magnetic performers in other arts to whom we pay homage.

Dance cannot exist without dance design: choreography. But dance is the dancer.

The relation of dancer to choreographer is not just that of executant or performer to auteur – which, however creative, however inspired the performer, is still a subservient relation. Though a performer in this sense, too, the dancer is also more than a performer. There is a mystery of incarnation in dance that has no analogue in the other performing arts.

A great dancer is not just performing (a role) but being (a dancer). Someone can be the greatest Odette/Odile, the greatest Albrecht one has ever seen – as a singer can be the best (in anyone’s memory) Tosca or Boris or Carmen or Sieglinde or Don Giovanni; or an actor can be the finest Nora or Hamlet or Faust or Phaedra or Winnie. But beyond the already grandiose aim of giving the definitive performance of a work, a role, a score, there is a further, even higher standard which applies to dancers in a way I think does not apply to singers or actors or musicians. One can be not just the best performer of certain roles but the most complete exhibit of what it is to be a dancer. And this Baryshnikov is in our time.

In any performing art which is largely repertory – that is, the performance of works from the past (including the very recent past) – interest naturally flows to the contribution of the performer or executant. The work already exists. What is new, each time, is what this performer, these performers, bring to it in the way of new energies, changes in emphasis or interpretation. How they make it different, or better. Or worse. The relation of work to performer is a musical-structural one: theme and variations. A given play or opera or sonata or ballet is the theme: all readings of it will be, to some extent, variations.

But here as well, although the dancer does what all performers or executors of a work do, dance differs from the other performing arts. For the standard against which dancers measure themselves, their performances, is not simply that of the highest excellence – as with actors and singers and musicians. The standard is nothing less than perfection.

In my experience, no species of performing artist is as self-critical as a dancer. I have gone backstage many times to congratulate a friend or acquaintance who is an actor or a pianist or a singer on his or her superlative performance; invariably my praise is received without much demurral, with evident pleasure (my purpose, of course, is to give pleasure), and sometimes with relief. But each time I’ve congratulated a friend or acquaintance who is a dancer on a superb performance – and I include Baryshnikov – I’ve heard first a disconsolate litany of mistakes that were made: a beat was missed, a foot not pointed in the right way, there was a near-slippage in some intricate partnering manoeuvre. Never mind that perhaps not only I but everyone else failed to observe these mistakes. They were made. The dancer knew. Therefore the performance was not really good. Not good enough.

In no other art can one find a comparable gap between what the world thinks of a star and what the star thinks about himself or herself; between the adulation that pours in from outside and the relentless dissatisfaction that goads one from within. The degree and severity of dancers’ self-criticism is not simply a case of performers’ raw nerves (virtually all great performing artists are worriers, skilled at self-criticism), of artistic conscience – a déformation professionelle. It is, rather, integral to the dancer’s formation professionelle. Part of being a dancer is this sometimes cruelly self-punishing objectivity about oneself, about one’s shortcomings, as viewed from the perspective of an ideal observer, one more exacting than any real spectator could ever be: the god Dance.

Every serious dancer is driven by notions of perfection – perfect expressiveness, perfect technique. What this means in practice is not that anyone is perfect, but that performance standards are always being raised.

The notion of progress in the arts has few defenders now. If Balanchine was the greatest choreographer who ever lived (an unverifiable proposition firmly held by many balletomanes, myself among them), it is surely not because he came after Noverre and Petipa and Fokine, because he was the last (or the most recent) of the breed. But there does seem to be something like linear progress in the performance of dance – unlike the other performing arts largely devoted to repertory, such as opera. (Was Callas greater than Rosa Ponselle or Claudia Muzio? The question does not make sense.) There seems no doubt that the general level of dancing in unison in companies like the Kirov and the New York City Ballet (who have probably the two best corps de ballet in the world) and the prowess and power and expressiveness of the leading dancers in today’s great ballet companies (the two just mentioned, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre – among others) are far higher than the level of the most admired dancing of the past. All dance writers agree that, a few immortal soloists apart, the dancing in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was technically quite limited by today’s standards.

Raising the level is the function of the champion: a considerable number of people found they could run the four-minute mile once Roger Bannister had done it. As in sport or athletics, the achievement by a virtuoso dancer raises the achievable standard for everybody else. And this is what Baryshnikov, more than any other dancer of our time, has done – not only by what he can do with his body (he has, among other feats, jumped higher than anyone else, and has landed lower), but what he can show, in the maturity and range of his expressiveness.

Dance demands a degree of service greater than in any other performing art, or sport. While the daily life of every dancer is a fulltime struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (which are inevitable), dance itself is the enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammelled, effortless, masterful and at every moment fully mastered. The dancer’s performance smile is not so much a smile as simply a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing – for there is some discomfort, and often pain, in every major stint of performing. This is an important difference between the dancer and the athlete, who have much in common (ordeal, contest, brevity of career). In sport, the signs of effort are not concealed: on the contrary, making effort visible is part of the display. The public expects to see, and is moved by, the spectacle of the athlete visibly pushing himself or herself beyond the limits of endurance. The films of championship tennis matches or of the Tour de France or any comprehensive documentary about athletic competition (a splendid example: Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad) always reveal the athlete’s strain and stress. (Indeed, the extent to which Leni Riefenstahl, in her famous film on the 1936 Olympic Games, chose not to show the athletes in this light is one of the indices that her film is really about politics – the aestheticising of politics in totally ordered mass spectacle and in imperturbable solo performance – and not about sport as such.) That is why news of an athlete’s injuries are a matter of general knowledge and legitimate curiosity on the part of the public, while news of dancers’ injuries is not, and tends to be suppressed.

It is often said that dance is the creation of illusion: for example, the illusion of a weightless body. (This might be thought of as the furthest extension of a phantasm of a body without fatigue.) But it would be more accurate to call it the staging of a transfiguration. Dance enacts being both completely in the body and transcending the body. It is, or seems to be, finally, a higher order of attention, where physical and mental attention become the same.

Supremely great dancers like Baryshnikov (among woman dancers, I would think first of Suzanne Farrell) project a state of total focus, total concentration, which is not simply – as for an actor or a singer or a musician – the necessary prerequisite for producing a great performance. It is the performance, the very centre of it.

Merce Cunningham and Lincoln Kirstein have both offered as a definition of dance: a spiritual activity in physical form. No art lends itself so aptly as dance does to metaphors borrowed from the spiritual life. (Grace, Elevation ...) Which means, too, that all discussions of the dance, and of great dancers, including this one, fit dance into some larger rhetoric about human possibility.

One practice is to pair off the greatest dancers as representing two ideal alternatives. The most astute dance writer of the 19th century, Théophile Gautier, so contrasted the reigning dancers of his era, Elssler and Taglioni. Elssler was pagan, earthy; Taglioni was spiritual, transcendent. And critics a decade ago, when absorbing the arrival of a second male Kirov refugee of genius in our midst, tended to compare Nureyev and Baryshnikov in the same way. Nureyev was Dionysian, Baryshnikov was Apollonian. Such symmetries are inevitably misleading, and this particular one does an injustice to Nureyev, who was a supremely gifted and expressive dancer and, in the early years, an ideal partner (with Fonteyn), as well as to Baryshnikov. For although Baryshnikov has perhaps never in his career been an ideal partner, it has to be said – without any disrespect to the grandeur of Nureyev’s dancing and to his heroic tenacities – that the younger dancer proved to be a genius of another magnitude.

Of a magnitude without parallel. Guided by his generosity, his intellectual curiosity, and his unprecedented malleability as a dancer, Baryshnikov has given himself to more different kinds of dancing than any other great dancer in history. He has danced Russian ballet, Bournonville, the British recensions (Ashton, Tudor, MacMillan), Balanchine, Roland Petit, and a range of Americana from jazz dancing (a duo with Judith Jamison, choreographed by Alvin Ailey) to Robbins, Tharp and Karole Armitage. He may, on occasion, have been abused or misused by his choreographers. But ultimately it is not possible to abuse him. Even when the role is not right, he is always more than the role. He is, almost literally, a transcendent dancer. Which is what dance strives to be about.