Ballet is a pleasure to watch, but some of its subtleties may be lost on the average viewer. Here, a dance critic tries to explain them.
“The greatest ballets reward endless looking,” writes longtime New Criterion dance critic Jacobs (Landscape with Moving Figures: A Decade on Dance, 2006, etc.) in this attempt to clarify ballet’s techniques. She covers all the basic movements and accoutrements, from the five basic positions to the “mysterious magnetism” of pointe shoes to the various types of arabesque, the position she calls the “logo for classical dance.” The author also introduces seminal works of ballet, among them Giselle, with its themes of “privilege [and] the blasé abuses committed by those of class and landed wealth”; Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky, “ballet’s greatest composer”; and the game-changing, Nijinsky-choreographed The Rite of Spring, which sparked an infamous riot at its premiere, features Stravinsky’s “mesmerizingly brutal” music and was “an epic rejection of everything its audience held dear.” In her enthusiasm, Jacobs occasionally lets descriptions get away from her—e.g., “allegro is spring warblers singing in the canopy, or bats pinging and winging at dusk. There is something of the soufflé about allegro—it should always be rising”—and some sections feel as if they were written for someone with no knowledge of the arts. One wonders how many readers will need a definition of a synopsis or that Leo Tolstoy was a “literary giant.” Still, the author ably explains the technical aspects of ballet, as when she explains that turnout’s “symmetrical torque in the hips engages energy and concentrates it” and in her beautiful description of pas de deux: “a form of close-up, the theatrical equivalent of the camera’s lavish gaze.”
“They’re doing choreography,” Danny Kaye sang in White Christmas. As Jacobs demonstrates, however, ballet is so much more.