LAST EDITED ON 07-10-01 AT 07:43 PM (GMT)
In the United States, there has been a wave of interest in poetry after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. It prompted the poet Billy Collins to say: "In times of crisis it's interesting that people don't go to the novel, or say "We should all go out to a movie", or "Ballet would help us".
While Collins makes an interesting point, it is overdone. Anyone who saw Dante Sonata when it was performed recently by Birmingham Royal Ballet, will appreciate how much it moved those audiences who saw it in the Britain of 1941. The work of Sadler's Wells Ballet was seen as important to maintaining national morale during the Second World War, and it is telling that the first major act of cultural policy at the war's end was the establishment of the company in a permanent home at Covent Garden. This week Mikhail Baryshnikov, asked about the relevance of dance in the wake of September 11th., replied: "Any art form in these terrible times is a moral relief. In most totalitarian times in Russia, you couldn't buy a ticket to the theatre. Dance is the perfect vehicle. It uplifts the spirits of people."
I agree with that. And I agree with Susie's view of ballet as engaging mind and soul as well as the body. Last year I started going to ballet classes for the first time. Years ago I had gone to contemporary dance classes, but this time the experience was completely different.
I come from a very Catholic background, and at one point studied for the priesthood. In ballet class I found a spirituality (I think that is the word) that reminded me very much of the cadences of church liturgy. The orderly progression from the barre to port de bras to work in the centre had a very focusing effect - and a transformative one. The sheer poetry of port de bras was inescapable. It moved me in my marrow.
I had similar reactions when I watched Irek Mukhamedov preparing in studio for his recent Gala. The ebb and flow of rehearsal absorbed me in the same way as would listening to monks in choir singing the hours of the office. Ballet does express something profoundly beautiful about humankind - a reaching out, an aspiration to be more than we are. Dancers' utter dedication to perfecting a sequence reminded me of Samuel Beckett's advice - "Fail, fail again, fail better".
Since I found ballet.co this spring, I've been very aware of the number of people for whom ballet offers a substitute for religious experience. While it could never be quite that for me, I do understand the impulse - and am intrigued by why it is that a growing interest in ballet has made increasing inroads on my own life. (Several other ballet.coers have told me of a similar sense of absorption). And it isn't as if I don't have a rich personal life, and lots of other interests. But ballet has a persuasive power at a very deep level; precisely because, as Susie says, it offers such a potent reminder of "the potential of humanity for aspiration, balance, clarity of thought, openness and generosity".
Several years ago the Royal Ballet performed a Twyla Tharp work, Mr Worldlywise. It wasn't a critical success, but I do remember it for a wonderfully frenetic duet by Irek Mukhamedov and Teddy Kumakawa in the opening minutes of Act 1. I quote from the precis of Act 2:
"Mr Worldywise wakes in a land he does not know. It is the universe of Mistress Truth-on-Toe and her company. He observes their movements with astonishment. Here is a realm of order and proportion and community and grace, in which activity never conquers dignity, and work is not an affair of vanity. Mr Worldlywise has before him the example of undispersed souls, and he looks and learns. Suddenly Mistress Truth-on-Toe invites him to join their company. Hoping he may be worthy of a place among them, he accepts her invitation and finds his place. It is away from the centre".
I remembered Mr Worldlywise when I read Susie's piece. Whatever the critics said, the ballet was (at worse) a very honourable failure. It resonates with me still for its expression of the transformative and healing power of ballet in a very broken world.