Episode 34: Dance, Dance Revolution
VOICE 1: Mmmm. A group of naked people… running around… at a – it’s green, but it’s also blue… So I’m not sure if they are going around on the grass or in the sky or in the air? I dunno?
VOICE 2: Yeah, I would say it’s like, people dancing – how many, three? Four, five? Five naked people dancing, ring around the rosie, maybe.
VOICE 3: It looks like they’re on a nude beach. [laughs]
VOICE 2: Because of the water around them?
VOICE 3: Yeah.
VOICE 4: Yeah, dancing girls. But I think it’s more important how the colors and the form are working together.
VOICE 2: The one on the end, like, her back is arched, her arms are going up like a ballerina, like, their bodies are just going in different directions, so it gives you a sense that they’re moving.
VOICE 1: Uh, you can see that one line is not really closing? How do you say it? Yeah? But it’s still moving, so the bodies are in a sea, moving like, up and down. Yeah, that’s what I see.
TAMAR: Describe what your body is doing as you’re explaining this.
VOICE 1: [laughs] How I explain it, like…? [laughs] Yeah, that’s how I feel.
VOICE 5: They look like they’re not in balance, either. They look like they could tip over any moment.
VOICE 6: They’re in a position that cannot, uh –
VOICE 5: Be sustained.
VOICE 6: Uh huh. Yes.
VOICE 7: And this feels wobbly, it feels like you’re throwing a pot and you dented it, and it’s going all wonky. And it’s about to spin off the wheel.
VOICE 3: It looks like she about to fall! [laughs]
VOICE 8: She’s the only one in the painting that’s striving. She’s just, I can’t make it, I can’t complete the circle, and I’m never gonna get there. She’s not gonna make it. So there’s just that incompleteness or anxiety, I guess.
VOICE 9: It definitely has a kind of frenetic energy to it, and a, um, a sense that they can’t stop dancing. Um, so it’s sort of more like a feverish joy? There’s definitely, like, this angst about the fact that they’re moving so quickly, and they’re not on stable ground, the way that you kind of sort of get Spring Fever, you know? Get that kind of …hot. [laughs]
VOICE 7: They’re almost weightless, I mean you can definitely tell that they’re going clockwise, and it’s beautif – I mean, it sounds beautiful.
TAMAR: Do you hear anything?
VOICE 9: Well, I, I hear harmony. Like I hear chords, and like really angelic harmonies and I sort of… hear, like, their movement.
VOICE 10: I think that the details almost don’t matter. You know, for a few of the dancers, you can’t tell where one arm begins and there another starts. And, um, that doesn’t matter, it’s just the motion, it’s the idea that this circle is never going to stop. I kind of, like it feels like they’re always going to do this, and the one on the bottom is always going to be reaching for her friend, you know?
This is a story about a ballet, a painting, and an eight year old girl. And I’ll just come out and say that the eight year old girl was me. And you’re about to hear the scariest thing that I, at 8 years old, had ever heard.
[Audio of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring]
Right? It’s terrifying. This is The Rite of Spring, the modernist Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s epic ballet score, which debuted to rioting and acclaim at the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1913. And the reason I was listening to it when I was eight years old is not because my parents were trying to turn me into some kind of baby Einstein. It’s because I first heard this ballet while watching, half out of my mind with terror, animated dinosaurs kill each other in a Darwinian death match that, in retrospect, was totally inappropriate for kids.
This, of course, was in Disney’s 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia, and if you’ve never had the pleasure (and I do mean that seriously), Fantasia was only the third feature-length film Disney made, where animators were given free rein to animate famous works of classical music. Most people remember the whimsical hippos in tutus and Mickey losing control of the brooms with buckets, but not me. The score to The Rite of Spring was animated to tell the narrative of the origin of life on the planet, from the big bang to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and all I remember was the fear, and the exhilaration of the fear—the risk I would be taking by turning on the VCR in our basement, alone, and then hiding the video under the couch cushions when I couldn’t take it anymore. And it wasn’t just the battling dinosaurs that freaked me out – and I needn’t remind you that the early 90s wasn’t a great time to be scared of dinosaurs, thank you Steven Spielberg – but dinosaurs are so obviously scary, I could at least cover my eyes. What truly hit my panic button was what came before: the passage of time, the awakening of life on earth, billions of years of evolution passing in seconds. How quickly time passed, how many times my own lifetime would have been reduced to a quick blink. It was purely inconceivable, how insignificant I was compared to the lifetime of the planet, how indifferent the planet itself was to the life it sustained. It awakened a primal, existential anxiety that I, at 8 years old, had never really stopped to think about before. And it settled into my soul. It’s not just knowing about the nuts and bolts of death, but about starting to slowly understand what it means, this concept of time existing without you. It’s at once impossible and unbearable, that time itself could be so indifferent. I mean, the Fantasia sequence ends with the dinosaurs going extinct, T Rex included, in a death march under the blazing sun, with shifting tectonic plates swallowing their bones.
All of this, you have to realize, is set to this:
[09:54] [Audio of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring intensifies]
…a score of grunting, cacophonous, bitonal dissonance, like instruments smashed into a 10-car pileup. I mean, how could you not want to hide it all under the couch cushion?
So you can understand why, when this all ended, and the threat of getting attacked by dinosaurs had been neutralized, you know, because they were all dead thanks to nature, I was left more traumatized than ever. In some ways, it’s actually intensified as I’ve gotten older. Which tells me, with small consolation, that at least I was scared of the right thing.
So. If The Rite of Spring set out to scare the living daylights out of me, then mission accomplished. But its actual mission was a little more textured, even if the outcome was the same. Stravinsky wasn’t involved in the Fantasia adaption – he apparently wasn’t a huge fan of it – and he did not set out to scare 8-year-olds with this ballet, at least not overtly. It was actually conceived out of deep nostalgia for Stravinsky’s own childhood in a small town in Russia. Even the origin of that eerie bassoon melody at the top is actually pretty benign, influenced by the Lithuanian folk song that Stravinsky listened to as a child. The entire ballet, in fact, was meant to be a celebration of his homeland. The score was meant to evoke what he called “pagan Russia” and the mystery and power of “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” And as you dive deeper into Stravinsky’s musical genius, you begin to realize that the story he wanted to tell doesn’t need scary dinosaurs to be affecting. Instead, maybe he just wanted to take on what had existentially frightened him as a kid. There is a clear and deliberate element of violence and anxiety layered into these lurching symphonic textures – while the ballet has no real plot to speak of, it does still climax with a chosen maiden sacrificially dancing herself to death to ensure the propagation of springtime. That’s where it gets its name. It’s unsettling, but not in a T-Rex wringing the neck of a Stegosaurus kind of way. Instead, it’s an allegorical, pagan surrender of the passage of seasons, honoring the extremes of the natural world, what we experience but can’t understand. It accepts nature’s power and indifference and nonetheless offers up its gratitude. It’s meant to tap into something deeply rooted, and, as I said, primal: this feeling of nature’s power, this feeling of our own powerlessness, thrilling and terrifying all at once. It’s an ode to the earth beneath our feet, the eroticism that agitates our souls, everything overwhelming that we can’t control in our own human nature that is borne from the natural world. And it’s also exactly what European modernist painters at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, exhausted with industrialization and yearning for this thrill, this romance of an ostensibly simpler time, painters like Henri Matisse, wanted to capture.
And this brings us to the root of this episode’s investigation. We all are compelled to study what scares us, which means that when I decided I wanted to learn more about The Rite of Spring, I noticed that it was paired up, with uncanny regularity, to Matisse’s The Dance from 1910. You’ve most likely seen it before: it’s a painting of a pared down, spinning-out, pulling-apart ring-around-the-rosy of bodies heaving and stomping on a green hilltop against a blue horizon. And just to be clear, there are two of these paintings: the one that features considerably more unfinished dancers with pale pink skin, which is located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is actually a preliminary sketch for the final product, where the dancers have orange skin and more defined physiology, and is located at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The main difference between the two, according to Matisse, is energy. Once he finished the second, his critique of the first was that it was “trancelike.” And we’ll return to why this matters so much, but first, let’s get back to the whole pairing the painting with the ballet thing. It’s not so hard to understand why people do this. I mean, take this written description of the ballet’s original choreography: “[it’s] the sacred circle dance of renewal…the legs and feet held parallel, with knees slightly bent…the accompanying movement a gentle, pulsing, sidestepping motion, found in many folk style dances, a shuntlike skip…with one leg drawn up in parallel alignment in front of the body, like a hook, with the knee and foot flexed.” I mean, pull up an image of The Dance and listen again to those words. It doesn’t take a genius to want to pair them together. And it’s everywhere if you look for it – the internet is chock full of one colloquially illustrating the other. But if you, like I, don’t feel like that was rigorous enough evidence of anything meaningful, it’s cool, I actually went for you to the music library at Tufts University to check out the full score, just for fun. And on the cover, in full blazing technicolor, were Matisse’s undulating orange dancers. Clearly the universe is telling us something.
But the purpose of this episode is not to determine with any degree of certainty if this painting is directly connected to the ballet, or if it’s all just a coincidence. Because there isn’t, and…it isn’t. A coincidence, that is. And I’ll say at the outset that there’s no concrete proof that the two were in any way created in tandem – let’s just disabuse ourselves of that right now. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t created in parallel, by a French artist and a Russian ballet company, peeking over the fence at each other’s styles, and working in a specific period of the early 20th century that privileged our most primal instincts, that wanted to express the unbridled pagan dynamism of our most inner selves with emotional immediacy and succinct, plastic technique. And this period was known as Primitivism.
So, okay, Primitivism. We tackled this movement full-on in episode 9, when we looked at Kirchner and German Expressionism. Primitivism, obviously, is an ugly word, not in the least because it means largely what you would think it would mean in today’s terms: Westerners fetishizing non-Western art, which of course encapsulates everything from African to Iberian to Oceanic, replete with a kind of Eurocentric attitude not unlike Cher in the movie Clueless confusing El Salvador and Mexico yet getting offended if anyone thinks she lives below Sunset. But it’s worth, for a moment, taking off our post-colonial hats and considering why this art was so seductive to Westerners during this period of modernity, and how genuine their appreciation was for art that seemed so unlike their own. If you’re living in industrialized Paris, you’re stuck in a world of corsets, social mores, soot. Progress becomes synonymous with an overwhelming sense of speed and anxiety. So instead of being thrust forward, many Modernist artists chose to retreat. To get back to basics, so to speak, to return to a pre-industrialized, pre-Christian world, full of decadent pagan sexuality and nude, lumbering bodies, rendered in a deliberately naïve style with thick, crude outlines evocative of woodcuts and blunt, carved statues. We see examples of this primitivist style from the 1890s to the 1910s, from Paul Gauguin to the German Expressionists. But for our purposes now, let’s narrow focus in on Matisse, Fauvism, and the time he went to Russia.
To really understand Henri Matisse, you need to really understand Fauvism, which means you need to really understand color. Color was the bread and butter, knife and plate for the Fauvists. They were defined by the impulsive brushwork borrowed from the Impressionists, and the emotional, explosive, and primal use of color pioneered by the post-Impressionists. And though they only exhibited for a short time – 1904-1908 – their ability to bridge the expressive artists who influenced them, and the Expressionism that they then influenced, rippled through the rest of the century. It’s not a far leap from Van Gogh to Fauvism to Expressionism: here were artists who painted as they felt, who didn’t just observe a landscape or a figure, they experienced it, as we see with Andre Derain’s Mountains at Collioure or Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, both from 1905. We see bold, high-keyed, often discordant colors that mean to grab your eyeballs and pull you in to their imagined dreamscapes of color and emotion – when asked what that woman in a hat, who was Matisse’s wife, was actually wearing, Matisse replied, “black, of course.” Even the name, Fauvists, is French for “wild beasts,” and it’s easy to imagine the thrilling rush you’d experience if you were trapped in a pen with one of them. And Matisse in particular experimented with Fauvism as though attempting to capture a Garden of Eden before the fall: a world where human beings are unconstrained by corsets, by shame, by the chilly critical distance a society evokes by living in time, in history, in a world built upon the strictures of its past and looking towards the progress promised by the future. All this rush rush on that existential continuum, he seems to be saying, dismissively. I mean, why can’t we ever just be? Why not live in the now, experience the immediate calm of a world without memory or expectation, a world that is ahistorical, atemporal, where we can literally just lie around in primordial, post-coital stasis? What would a world like that look like?
I’ll tell you what it looks like: Matisse’s The Joy of Life from 1905-06, which is far less frenetic than other Fauvist works, but no less vivid. Here, we see a world of simplified forms, trees and figures, without any excess of detail to agitate the eye. And though no single facet of the painting is complete – bodies morph into bodies, trees become foliage become sky – you never lose the overall wholeness, that sensation of relaxed, languid calm. It takes more than a long weekend to achieve the feeling evoked by this painting, is what I’m saying. And if you look closely into the background, you’ll see a circle of dancers, clear precursors to The Dance, but lacking any of the energy that Matisse believed to make the later painting worthwhile. Heck comparatively, these Joy of Life dancers almost look like they’re standing still. There’s 6 of them, a nice, even number, perfectly balanced and harmonious. They add joy, perhaps, but not any real sense of dynamic oomph. And this calm being-in-the-moment is what the “primitive” offered European painters: a validation that the west had lost the ability to tap into our primal needs, and that non-Western aesthetics gave them back the tools to achieve this sweet atemporal bliss promised by a life lived according only to instinct.
But of course, there’s a flip side to this. A life lived by instinct is inherently ruled by the amygdala, which controls our fight or flight responses, and that shuddering shot of adrenaline, is, of course, the complete opposite of rational critical thought. As Primitivism matured into its adolescence, it became more and more obvious that the natural inverse to primal happiness was primal fear, that irrationality triggers panic, that sexual desire quickly morphs into sexual anxiety. A key example of this turn, from an aesthetic perspective, is found in Picasso’s iconic painting, Desmoiselles D’Avignon from 1907. Here, the immediacy turns from languid to brutal as these five prostitutes, some wearing African masks, stare you down with gazes sharp enough to draw blood. This painting has long been described as the predecessor to Cubism, but I would strongly argue that we’re looking at peak Primitivism here, when that cute puppy you always meant to train realizes it has fangs. Cubism is at its core an intellectual exercise, and this painting is not. This painting is devastating. It’s a depiction of our worst sexual anxieties realized, an exercise in tension and tedium, in the transactional flatness of sexuality offered and eroticism denied. And you have to think that this turn that Primitivism was taking had influence Matisse when he painted The Dance in 1910, just three years later.
And first a little bit of background on this painting: in 1906, Matisse was first introduced to the Russian collector Serge Shchukin, who would come to be one of his most important patrons – by 1913, he owned 36 of his paintings. In 1909, Shchukin commissioned the Dance for his home. And in the years that Matisse was cultivating this relationship, he spent a good chunk of time in Russia, positively delighted by the icons of Russian folk art he was encountering. Russia was having a “primitivist” moment of its own, which we already know Stravinsky was experiencing as he nostalgically wrote the ballet score. Russian artists and collectors presented Matisse with these folk and outsider artworks during his visits. The Idols of Ancient Russia from 1910, a painting by Nicholas Roerich, who would later be the Rite of Spring’s set designer, articulates the Russian interest in their own past, how compelled Russian artists were to paint them. And Matisse, meanwhile, the enchanted recipient of this Russian aesthetic pride, was apparently so exhilarated by their art that he apparently couldn’t even sleep at night. “In these icons,” he wrote, “the soul of the artists who painted them opens out like a mystical flower. And from them we ought to learn how to understand primitivist art. All French artists,” he concludes, “should come to learn in Russia.” And in this post-Demoiselles world, engaged in a rivalry of sorts with Picasso and following his own passionate, “authentic” encounter with the Russian icons that he believed to be the core of Primitivism, Matisse tackled those dancers from The Joy of Life again. But this time they were different. Their circle is distorted, they’re five odd figures instead of the nice, even six, which strains their reach for one another. They’re deliberately off-kilter and unbalanced. They simultaneously cleave the earth with their stomps and levitate above it, and embrace the crude, the unfinished, in favor of a dynamic sense of primal wholeness.
Which brings us back to the ballet, whose choreography, score, set design, and entire ethos I’ve basically just described. And I’ll say it again: Matisse’s dancers embrace the crude, the unfinished, in favor of a dynamic sense of primal wholeness. And in the same way that Matisse and the Fauvists were tossing aside realistic human proportions in order to capture emotional expression and aesthetic wholeness, so too did Vaslav Nijinsky, the hotshot young choreographer of the Ballet Russes, the Russian ballet company based in Paris, and the original choreographer of The Rite of Spring.
[29:38] [Audio from the performance of The Rite of Spring]
Nijinsky used The Rite of Spring to experiment with this primitivist aesthetic, to bring what was so hot from the visual art world into the dance world. And he realized his iconoclastic vision by tossing aside classical dance methodology in favor of sculptural, blunt lines of movement that were modeled after the very same pagan statues that had so thrilled Matisse and his fellow Fauvists. And, you have to realize, this ballet wasn’t intended to be heard without also being seen. What you’re listening to now is the sound of Nijinksy’s original choreography, which was painstakingly pieced together and revived by the Joffrey Ballet Company in 1987, and which you can watch in full on YouTube – there’s a link on my website. And you can imagine, based on what you’re hearing, what it looks like. These are not the delicate little pitter-patter raindrops of feet we’re used to hearing when we watch classical ballet. It’s the complete opposite. The center of gravity has shifted from the fingers to the core. Every pose is fiercely struck. Everything is an attack. Arms that had always been gracefully extended forward are now twisted back. These are dancers who, like Picasso’s prostitutes, could draw blood so quickly you didn’t even notice.
And visually, it’s incredible to hold up images of these dancers side-by-side with, for example, the Fauvist Andre Derain’s The Dance: this is where you can really see how influenced both are by those Russian sculptures. Both are defined by sharp lines and precise attacks, holding a pose of eternal reverence or melancholy that clear enough to be understood, shall we say, for the cheap seats in the back. After all, this is the purpose of religious iconography, to be legible. And Nijinksky basically turned his dancers into living, leaping icons. He freed them from classical ballet only to calcify their postures, which lurch from a restricted base, and turn all the outward grace of traditional ballet inward.
And those stomps. As you can hear, instead of the “conquest of the air” that that had defined classical ballet, Nijinsky emphasized the other side of gravity – what goes up must come back down. His dance is characterized by stomps, by vast explosive leaps and the subsequent contact with the stage. It was in fact these stomps that particularly brutalized the audience in its infamous 1913 premier – one chief complaint was that they couldn’t even hear the music over the pounding. And you can imagine how tough it must have been for his dancers. Their challenge wasn’t just virtuosity so much plain physical endurance. It was agony of sustaining the postures, frustrating keeping count to Stravinsky’s freaky time signatures. There are documented complains of their headaches and bruised feet from the force of stomping and jumping without the added boost from a traditional plié, and you can only imagine how envious they must have been of Matisse’s swirling figures. After all, they didn’t have to actually comply with the laws of gravity when they were asked to do the exact same thing.
Because really, from an aesthetic perspective, it is exact same thing. And not just because Nijinsky incorporated the same circular side-step folk-dance in honor of Russian primitivism in general, and Stravinsky’s nostalgic childhood memories in particular. But because both the choreography and the painting are entirely comfortable using the human body for its primal energy, rather than its anatomical accuracy. To truly experience human nature, they both seem to be saying, means to flout the expectation that what you’re seeing could ever actually exist in nature. And this is where I want to return to this idea of wholeness. To the whole that equals more than the sum of its parts, which both Matisse and Nijinsky referred to as “plastic.” In art, plasticity is the idea of getting rid of any erroneous detail, of pairing down visuals to their most essential lines. This inevitably comes at the expense of all the detail that fleshes out an image, but, as Matisse famously said, “exactitude is not truth.” Famous to me… My mom had this up in her studio when I was a kid. But he’s saying that what you may lose in accuracy, you gain in the depiction of a larger idea. When asked how a painting of his could be finished when he had only completed three of his figure’s fingers, he replied “I couldn’t put in the other two without throwing the whole out of the drawing – it would destroy to composition and the unity of my ideal.” Similarly, Nijinsky, heavily influenced by the barefoot, instinctual movements of Isadora Duncan, experimented with what he called danse plastique, which was characterized by taut, minimal movements – again, nothing erroneous – that became “a kinetic metaphor for primitive wholeness”, according to the New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella. Gone were the classical curlicues of traditional ballet in favor of the body’s direct, intractable attack. And you can even see this aesthetic plasticity in The Rite of Spring’s sets, which, as I said earlier, were designed by Nicholas Roerich, who was the foremost expert in Russian folk art at the time. The sets bear an uncanny resemblance to the background of The Dance. Both use the same planes, horizontal bands of ground and sky, bisected by hills composed of undulating line. Both are meant to recede behind the potent dynamism they support. And both are powerful examples of the energy teeming beneath the surface of the earth.
And this is when we think back to Stravinsky’s description of a Russian spring, “that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” The cracking of the earth, the sense of roiling, syncopated dynamism, the overwhelming presence of nature, its power, our powerlessness, that we are meant to hear in every note of Stravinsky’s score. I’m telling you, this music. It’s haunting, and it’s savage, and it’s brutally seductive. Melodies stay consonant for just long enough to lower our defenses, and then bam, we’re obliterated by stomps, just when we’re the most vulnerable to them.And yet we continue to listen. We continue to be vulnerable. And that’s all we can really do. We’re human beings squatting on an indifferent earth, living blinks of lifetimes – I mean, we don’t have a choice. So we give ourselves over to it – Matisse, Stravinsky, me, you. It’s better than just being scared all the time. We get so excited by Russian icons that we can’t sleep at night. We attempt to create something so new it causes a riot. We bruise our dancers’ feet in an attempt to articulate it. And when we can’t take it anymore, we shove all the anxiety of the planet under a couch cushion, comforted by the assurance that at least we’re all scared of the right thing.
This episode was originally given as a public talk at Harvard University’s Sound Education, and it you missed this incredible conference this year, I’ll obviously see you there next year. Special thanks to Zachary Davis, Judith Wechsler, and the intrepid museum-goers and songwriters at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more information, past episodes, all the images and from this episode, gifs of the ballet, go to the lonely palette.com. You can also follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, and on Instagram @the lonely palette, like us on Facebook, leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts, and support us on Patreon.
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The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of idea-driven podcasts. And we have some big news! We had our first Hub & Spoke graduation, as Barry Lam’s High-Phi Nation has recently been picked up by Slate, and we seriously couldn’t be prouder. But you’ve still got lots of other Hub & Spoke shows to choose from – one in particular that might blow your socks off is the most recent episode of Ministry of Ideas, where Zach and company dive into the origins of modernity and the myth we tell ourselves about religion and race.It’s a brilliant episode, and, I guarantee, the only podcast you’ll hear that talks about the trajectory from Plato to Playboy. Check them out at ministryofideas.org, or wherever you get your podcasts.