Special Edition: Poetry and the Dance
Question: What do the careers of Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore, Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones), James Merrill, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara have in common, apart from the fact that they all wrote poetry in English?
Answer: All of them wrote at least one poem about the ballet, not as a metaphor but as a self-contained art. Many of their ballet poems, in fact, are about particular ballets or named dancers.
Question: What do Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson, and Jay Rogoff have in common?
Answer: All of them were or are known as poets and also as working dance critics.
Question: What do Théophile Gautier, Jean Cocteau, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline have in common, apart from the fact that they wrote in French?
Answer: All of them wrote libretti or scenarios for ballets. Gautier’s brainchild was the 1841 ballet Giselle. Cocteau, who served Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes (1909-1929), wrote ballet scenarios after Diaghilev’s death as well—most famously for the 1946 Roland Petit ballet Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, which Cocteau also conceived. Céline, a balletomane, wrote several scenarios that he hoped would be adopted by a ballet company in the U.S.S.R., to which he traveled in 1936 to try to get his ideas produced. For some reason, none of them seemed to attract the Soviets’ attention. And, yet, who could possibly resist Céline’s ballet scenario “Scandal in the Deep,” a bit of which goes:
“There he is, Captain Krog, with his spike in his hand. . .with his men. . .on the ice floe. . .massacring a thousand baby seals surprised in their little games. . .the blood of innocent seals runs everywhere on the ice. . .on the men. . .splattering Captain Krog. . .Captain Krog and his men dance with delight!. . .The Dance of the Massacre!” (Thomas and Carol Christensen, trans., Ballets without Music, without Dancers, without Anything, Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 1999.)
Question: In terms of the New York City Ballet, what did the poets W.H. Auden and Lincoln Kirstein have in common?
Answer: They both wrote program notes for the company. (Read those ballet programs! You never know who the anonymous authors actually are.)
Question: Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Arthur Rimbaud, Edith Sitwell, and Gertrude Stein were some of his choreographic inspirations. Name the choreographer.
Answer: Frederick Ashton.
Question: What poet’s work provided the title of the Martha Graham-Aaron Copland masterpiece of modern dance, the 1944 Appalachian Spring?
Answer: Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.”
Question: The title of Paul Taylor’s 1990 dance Of Bright & Blue Birds & the Gala Sun comes from the work of what poet?
Answer: Wallace Stevens’s poem of the same title.
Question: What soloist from the original, 1948 group of dancers for the New York City Ballet—where her culminating assignment a decade later was to serve as a member of the original cast of the landmark Balanchine-Stravinsky Agon—and who subsequently performed as a member of the original company of Jerome Robbins’s Ballets: U.S.A., went on to become a full professor of literature at the City College of New York and an esteemed scholar of Wallace Stevens?
Answer: Barbara Milberg Fisher (author of Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous, University Press of Virginia, 1990, and In Balanchine’s Company: A Dancer’s Memoir, Wesleyan University Press, 2006)
Question: What poem contains the following stanza and who was the poet?
“Can you dance a question mark? / Can you dance an exclamation point? / Can you dance a couple of commas? / And bring it to a finish with a period?”
Answer: “Lines Written for Gene Kelly To Dance To” by Carl Sandburg.
Question: In 1893, the Symbolist poet and occasional dance critic Stéphane Mallarmé wrote in an essay on the American modern dancer Loïe Fuller that her programs using many yards of silk and complicated lighting constituted “the theatrical form of poetry par excellence.” However, a poem by Mallarmé himself became the wellspring for a much more renowned dance artist, by way of the composer Claude Debussy. Name the ballet and its choreographer.
Answer: Debussy’s 1894 symphonic poem for orchestra, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a musical response to Mallarmé’s poem L’après-midi d’un faune (“Afternoon of a Faun”), served as the score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 ballet, L’après-midi d’un faune, made for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In Nijinsky’s rendering, the Faun (performed originally by the choreographer) appears to pleasure himself on a scarf dropped by a nymph who evades his advances.
Question: Resolve the contradiction between the following passages:
“[Mallarmé] believed that his own music was sufficient, and that with even the best intentions in the world, it was a veritable crime as far as poetry was concerned [for Debussy] to juxtapose poetry and music, even if it were the finest music there is.” (Paul Valéry, “Stéphane Mallarmé, Leonardo Poe Mallarmé, 1933; trans. James R. Lawler, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)
“I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé.” (Letter included in the 1940 Debussy biography by Maurice Dumesnil)
Answer: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Category: George Balanchine
Question: In the Igor Stravinsky score for the 1928 Balanchine ballet Apollon Musagète, today known as Apollo, which 17th-century French poet’s treatise, L’Art poétique—as the dance scholar Lynn Garafola has written—“sparked Stravinsky’s conception” and called for poets to practice which poetic meter, built by Stravinsky into the variation for Calliope?
Answer: Nicolas Boileau, Alexandrines.
Question: Name three ballets or ballets within other musical works in which Balanchine included the figure of a poet, immortal or mortal, anonymous or named.
Answer (choose any three): Apollo (or Apollon Musagète, 1928, Stravinsky score, Ballets Russes), Orphée aux Enfers (Comic opera in three acts and nine scenes, 1931, Jacques Offenbach, Les Ballets Russes de Georges Balanchine), Les Amours du Poète (Comedy with music in five acts: Act III song “Le Pauvre Pierre,” 1932, Robert Schumann, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo), Waltzes of Beethoven (1933, Les Ballets 1933), The Bat (1936, Jacques Offenbach, American Ballet Ensemble), Orpheus and Eurydice (Opera in two acts and four scenes, 1936, Christoph Willibald Gluck, American Ballet Ensemble), The Song of Norway (Operetta in two acts and seven scenes, 1944, Edvard Grieg, dancers from the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), The Night Shadow (later retitled La Somnambula; 1946; Vittorio Rieti, based on themes in operas by Vincenzo Bellini; Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), Orpheus (Ballet in three scenes, 1948, Stravinsky, Ballet Society), Orpheus und Eurydike (Opera in three acts and five scenes, 1963, C.W. Gluck, Ballett der Hamburgischen Staatsoper. N.B.: The “Chaconne” of this production served as the basis for the 1976 ballet Chaconne at the New York City Ballet), Don Quixote (Ballet in three acts, 1965, Nicholas Nabokov, New York City Ballet). (From George Balanchine’s catalog raisonné, www.balanchine.org )
Question: Who answered as follows off the top of his head in response to a question during a 1983 interview with Richard Philp for Dance Magazine?
“Recently I was reading a collection of poems and felt a sudden shift, which at first I couldn’t identify. In a very modest, unemphatic way a simple “it” had been slipped in which had the effect of changing the whole sense of the four lines before and the three or four lines which followed. In just one sentence everything had been changed as a result of the placement of one two-letter word. You enjoyed the feel of that, sensed the correctness. The same is true of the shifts in Balanchine’s dances. As subtle as they may be, they are essential to the life and meaning of his work. Few choreographers have known how to do that.”
Answer: Edwin Denby (from “Balanchine’s Poetics,” Dance Writings, ed. Robert Cornfield and William MacKay, first pub. 1986 by Alfred A. Knopf, reprinted by The University Press of Florida)
Poetry and the Movies: Daily Double
Question: What is the greatest feature film ever made about a poet? Give the title of the film and the name of the poet who served as its subject.
Answer: The Color of Pomegranates, 1966, dir. by Georgian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov, about the 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, who wrote exclusively in the Georgian language. (Paradjanov [1924-1990] employed an extravagantly imagistic and magical style of filmmaking, sometimes compared to Pasolini’s, which went against the official style of “Soviet Realism.” When he was sentenced to five years at hard labor in the gulag during the 1970s, leading filmmakers of France and Spain lent their voices to the worldwide outcry of protest. However, in a 1988 interview with Ron Holloway, Parajanov credited his early release to the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon and Aragon’s wife, Elsa Triolet; the novelist John Updike; and the English actor Herbert Marshall. “Sergei Parajanov Speaks Up,” Kinema: a journal for film and audiovisual media, 1995.)
Question: What is the second greatest feature film ever made about a poet?
Answer: Bright Star, 2009, dir. and written by Jane Campion, about John Keats. (Campion’s screenplay was inspired by Andrew Motion’s 1999 Keats biography.)
THREE FUN PROJECTS FOR POETS
In Ezra Pound’s 1934 ABC of Reading, Pound cautions: “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” In a posting on Twitter, analyze why the poet didn’t take his own advice when it came to The Cantos.
When George Balanchine was the company choreographer for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, in the mid-1940s, he told Frederic Franklin—the dancer on whom Mr. B. built the part of The Poet in his Ballet Russe work The Night Shadow—that Franklin should do two things: “Read War and Peace and The Sermon on the Mount.” In an Op-Ed article for The New York Times, explain why this advice might come in handy for President Obama during future negotiations with Vladimir Putin.
The phrase “Black Swan” has been applied to: a) the character Odile, the evil enchanter’s daughter in the ballet Swan Lake; b) the pas de deux that Odile dances with clueless Seigfried in Swan Lake’s third act; c) a commonly implied element in philosophical discussions on the fallibility of inductive inferences, as in the comparison of the statements “All ravens are black” with “All swans are white”; c) the metaphor in “the black swan theory,” advanced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, to explain why the largest, most unpredictable, and most powerful events in history, economics, and just about everything else always wing in from left field just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water; d) the exquisite and mysterious title poem in an early collection by James Merrill; e) a much-lauded and Oscar-nominated 2010 feature film, by Darren Aronofsky, about a ballerina going beserkers, which will be remembered by ballerinas not only for the special effect that put the head of the actress Natalie Portman onto the dancing body of American Ballet Theatre soloist Sarah Lane but also, even more, for the fact that the director didn’t mention the effect or Lane’s name in public until after the Oscars were decided; f) the Cygnus Atratus, native to Australia, and, prior to the 17th century, believed by Europeans to be imaginary. Write a Ghazal that incorporates all these references for a readership who, to understand the poem, requires no more than a sixth-grade education and will be reading it while texting the Molly Bloom chapter of Ulysses.