Love and the Body in Ballet

The statue of Eros, the Greek god of love, poised gracefully above Piccadilly Circus

“With most ballets, as with jokes, it’s less the substance than the way you tell them.”
Ismene Brown[1]

Sylvia, like many ballets, is a love story. It tells the story of Sylvia, who mocks the god of love, falls for Aminta and comes to rely on the god of love for a happy ending. The story, put so simply, is hardly original or captivating. Yet I was captivated when I saw it performed, which set me thinking: why? Why is it that I, a literature student, am not concerned with the narrative? Clearly ballet holds an appeal in its way of telling that renders even cliché love stories somehow bewitching.

Love and art seem to be inseparable; it permeates music, painting and performance. In Sylvia this not only takes the abstract form of the god of love, but is something we as an audience seem to demand from the dancers. Judith Mackrell expressed her disappointment with Sylvia as “in the grand and sexy imagery of the final pas de deux we are too aware of the mechanics, and the difficulty of the partnering.”[2] The chemistry between them, the way the story is enacted through the pas de deux, it all holds currency, our request that they make us believe in love, in Eros.

As Jessica Otey says, “Eros is a force and counterforce to art, both a blessing and a threat to the artist.”[3] The same is true of the theme of love. Intensity of feeling seems to demand an outlet and the passion and wonder and heartbreak of love is full of that creative drive. Yet that is also its problem; it drives many and many can see their own experience in the artistic output of others. It poses the problem of how to make the words or the images or the movements seem genuine.

In a small Italian town called Sassi de Matera, reading body language is part of daily life. The movements of the body are seen to be a way of reading people, of reaching the genuine beneath the act. While this is “certainly a universal human activity, each culture makes the act of interpretation meaningful by reference to local ideas about the body, the character, and the self.”[4]

For example, in Sassi, erect posture “is often equated […] with feminine virtue and self-possession” while “a rigid back and neck suggest artificiality and an inflated self-image.” 4 Do I feel when I watch a ballet that I can read into the dancers’ movements not only what they are trying to show, but also what they give away unknowingly? Does this somehow make ballet seem more honest than words?

John Mowitt wrote that “dance taps out the fleeting but impassable frontier between an inside and an outside”.5 Perhaps; perhaps dancers are vehicles for the stories of others, conveying those stories through movements to us, to society. But I think the answer is altogether more simple and harder to express in words. I do not think the honesty we get from movement is about the story at all. I think it is the honesty that we never believe the story, we are never asked to believe that the love portrayed is real. We are simply asked to watch, to let the movements captivate our interest in the body, in the costume, in the stage.

[1] Ismene Brown, “Sylvia, Royal Ballet”, theartsdesk.com http://www.theartsdesk.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=2514:sylvia-royal-ballet&Itemid=27

[2] Judith Mackrell, “The Royal Ballet: Sylvia” – review, The Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/nov/08/the-royal-ballet-sylvia-review

[3] Jessica Otey, “D’Annunzio, Eros and the Modern Artist: Tragedy and Tragic Criticism Reconsidered” MLN, Vol. 125, No. 1, January 2010, p.172

[4] Harriss M. Berger and Giovanna Del Negro, “Character Divination and Kinetic Sculpture in the Central Italian Passeggiata (Ritual Promenade): Interpretive Frameworks and Expressive Practices from a Body-Centered Perspective”, Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 114, No. 451, 2001, pp. 9–10

[5] John Mowitt, “spins”, Postmodern Culture, Vol 18, No 2, January 2008

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