Review: NYC Ballet – Symphonic Dances etc.

The New York City Ballet was in town this week – one hesitates to call wandering down from New York to DC a tour, exactly – with a pair of mixed repertory programs featuring 20th and 21st century choreography.  I went to see the second program, the 21st century set.

Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninoff/Martins)

The lead piece was a ballet by Peter Martins set to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and the main reason I chose to see this program – I am familiar with the piece but had not seen anyone dance it before although several choreographers have arranged it.  Including it on this program meant cheating a little on dates – Martins’ work was created in 1994.  It is a traditional ballet in what might be called the “abstract classical” style of pieces like Balanchine’s Jewels.

Overall it is a well-done piece and the company performed it admirably.  The only false note in the choreography is the use of the grand largo statement of the theme at the end of the first movement – a dramatically contrasting moment in the music, wasted by the choreographer on an incongruously active and unremarkably blocked set of jumps for the male principal.  Otherwise the dancing fits the music remarkably well.

Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ratmansky)

Set to Mussorgsky’s famous piano piece, this ballet by Alexei Ratmansky is a less restrained, more modern work.  Premiered a mere six months ago, it is likely still a work in progress if I have learned anything at all about choreographers in the last four years.  However, in its current incarnation, it seems to be flawed.

The choreography is an odd mix of movements of purely traditional ballet, elements which seem to parody the formality of classic ballet, and movements almost entirely modern.  The piece has little unity – which might admittedly be said of the music, but even the unifying “Promenade” variations from Mussorgsky’s score are treated too differently.

It is, in short, something of a mess.  It is possible I would have enjoyed it more if I knew more about ballet or were less familiar with the music: certain movements seemed to be in homage or parody to other well-known ballets.  For instance there was, I thought the “Baba Yaga” reminiscent of some parts of Firebird, though I have only seen that once and do not have the best memory of it.  This defense-by-reference is about the only possibly redeeming factor, though it was of course danced superbly.

Also the costumes and set were designed by Vogons.

“This Bitter Earth” (Washington arr. Richter/Wheeldon)

A movement excerpted from a longer work in five movements, this was a quiet pas de deux, well done and well-danced but relating oddly to the music.  Richter took Dinah Washington’s song and recorded it – broken up and spaced out – over a quiet minimalist string lament; Washington’s strong voice sits jarringly against the accompaniment.  Wheeldon seems to have elected the go with the quiet strings and ignore the overlaid song in his choreography: the dancing is beautiful but the overall effect rather weird.  I am curious how it sits in the context of the larger work, Five Moments, Three Repeats.

Everywhere We Go (Stevens, with Atkinson/Peck)

This piece was commissioned by the company and premiered last Spring.  It features an original score by Sufjan Stevens, orchestrated in collaboration with Michael Atkinson.  I last remember hearing of Stevens when I was in college,  where I found his songs mediocre, not to say annoying, and his fandom somewhat baffling.  I was therefore prepared to be annoyed or at least long-suffering, and was hugely surprised to find this purely orchestral score absolutely delightful, a series of movements clearly modern and yet leaning heavily on the classical tradition of orchestral music, with none of the obnoxious sophomoric attempts at profundity by calling annoying noises music and deliberately avoiding melody one runs across far too often among modern “classical” composers – but I digress.  The score was, as I said, wonderful.

The choreography matches it well, largely centered in traditional ballet but incorporating a number of modern elements.  The set – or more properly backdrop and lighting – seem to suggest works of Escher or other geometrical artists; the costumes seem to invoke a vaguely ’50s aura.  The ballet is energetic and the dancing captivating, highlighted by the lead ballerina – here Sterling Hyltin, a (relatively) tall blonde (incidentally from Texas: this seems important somehow but I would not begin to have an answer why).

Of all the pieces performed on the program, this was the most exciting and I think the best; certainly the one I would most like to see again.  The program as a whole was solid, with a strong opening and fantastic conclusion, but weak in the middle.

Some Considerations on Moral Freedom

I do not have very well formed views – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I find my confidence in my opinions growing less – on some of the details of the increasingly pertinent questions of tolerance and the various claims of religious certainty versus new social orders.  The following snippets are some of the things I consider part of the problem, but you will find little in the way of solutions or even definite requirements below.  Take with several grains of salt.

On Religious Exemptions

One of the difficulties I have in discussing cases like the recent passage of the Indiana RFRA is that I do not, at least in the abstract, have any particular use for laws suggesting someone can “beg off” on a plea of religion.  In this abstract case, I assume that no just law will imperil a religion which I – with some trepidation – am going to call “plausible”.  The peril of such abstractions, of course, is that the arbiters of just law and plausible religion are left vague.

We can approximate both by the expressed will of the populace, or the enacted governance of the state, or both – but when these contradict each other or themselves, the situation is rather muddled.  But still: in the abstract, the correct action of the religious person with regards to a morally objectionable law is to follow his morals – and accept the penalty.  Ideally, such open acceptance of legal power coupled with defiance of injustice would result in legal changes – though those changes are often a long time coming.  Centuries, even.

On Rule by Courts

Much of the current difficulty, to my mind, stems from the fact that the reach of the law has been extended into many corners where it has nothing particularly useful to say or do.  Worse, many prominent figures tend to treat the government as essentially not merely as a protection for society, or even as the protector of participants in social changes, but as a protagonist in those changes – and the government has largely, particularly in the case of the court systems – been only too happy to pick up this aggrandized mantle.

For instance, the weight of court overreach has in fact reached a point such that many people will assert, completely sincerely, that in Indiana the “marriage” of two persons of the same sex is legal.  As it happens, it is not only not specifically legal but is specifically illegal: the law is quite clear and has not, that I can discover, been repealed.  It is true that a Federal District Court ruled the law Constitutionally unenforceable and the Federal Supreme Court declined to take up the appeal.  While many find this word final, a brief examination of history would reveal that court rulings are hardly the conclusive stroke in legal interpretation; and this is especially true of legal rulings made while an issue is under strenuous social debate.

A ruling may create a precedent, but opposing rulings are something like the opposite of uncommon.  RFRA or not, the logical recourse of our hypothetical discriminatory baker would be to tell the couple in question that he can’t – never mind won’t – because they’re trying to do something illegal.  Mind you, I doubt this legal defense would be found particularly compelling by the same brilliant minds who are currently dictating to representative bodies from the judicial bench.  But if everyone were prepared to appeal to the law, rather than protesting violations of (somewhat nebulous) religious liberties, we would at least be playing on the right – pardon the pun – court, regardless of the trustworthiness of the referees.

Legal vs. Social Equality

As far as I am aware, in some states the Indiana case – of a law, rashly “struck down” by a court punching above its pay grade, but still on the books – does not apply.  So we fall back on an even simpler question: what prevents a merchant, even in such a state, from simply saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t provide that service?”  The reason, as has been beaten to death by purveyors of the current intellectuospeak, is that this is “discrimination”.

This is, if not entirely absurd, at least insufficient as a critique.  “Discrimination” can also – though the use is becoming a bit archaic through over-indulgence by the politically talkative – refer simply to good judgment.  And if we are talking about judging things rightly, it is hardly a stunning revelation to point out that two men are not a man and a woman.

Even admitting that the law, for its own purposes, is content to see relationships between the two pairs in equal lights, it is perfectly obvious that the two are not possibly societally identical.  I do not mean simply socially, though I suspect that – on the evidence of many societies which found homosexuality perfectly normal – that is also the case.  I mean that the two relationships cannot possibly serve the same functions – particularly as the latter heterosexual pair can procreate, which the first cannot.  It is therefore not fair to consider social distinctions – and decisions made on the basis of those distinctions – to be necessarily unreasonable.  That unreasonable distinctions and discriminations can still be made I freely admit.  But to make axiomatic the contention that any distinction is inherently unjust is untenable.

The Clinton Legacy

For the purposes of historical comparison, it is perhaps unfortunate that former President Bill Clinton was not from Missouri.  It is striking that – apart from welfare and medical reforms – the legal legacy of Clinton’s presidency ought to be tied up closely with the triad of RFRA, DADT, and DOMA.  If we take these – admittedly slightly artificially – together, we see an attempt at compromise in dealing with changing social views.  And yet, the compromise didn’t really stick.  One side has made some social gains, and has been noticeably more successful politically, to the point that the latter two no longer have effect and the reach and wisdom of the first – and its state imitators – is seriously questioned.

Indulge Me a Minute as a Prophet of Doom

But the divide has hardly gone away.  In my more pessimistic moods, I have been known to predict an upcoming second American civil war.  I believe my predicted time-span is down to around 25 years at the outside, though I’ve lost the company which debates politics and society incessantly and thus makes remembering my predictions easy.  At any even, the social divide seems in many places too strong to be resolved without force, whether that is merely further increasing government coercion or actual war.

An alarming scenario is one in which the much-abused right wing does come – perhaps through foreign war or terrorism – to popular power, with a state apparatus has been so far expanded as to make it possible to “crack down” in ways that make dubious IRS practices, casually broken presidential promises, and Reidian grand-standing look innocent.  Worse still, if one takes inventory of weapons and military service, is it too far-fetched to imagine – if continually more bizarre policies continue to be enacted unchecked – a reactionary rebellion or coup, with the upshot an American era of Marius and Sulla? We can all hope I’m wrong.  Even sanctioned religious or moral persecution – though I doubt it would ever quite be labeled such in an American setting – seems less damaging to the social fabric.  But given the vitriolic rhetoric on both sides, I find myself very worried at times.  And if the backlash does threaten the “other side” with unjust retributions, I can only hope I prove at least as forward in offering my criticisms then.

In Conclusion

Both among those who hail legal protections and recognitions of homosexual “classes” (and tend to champion other changes in social and legal morality), and those who critique such changes on religious, moral or social grounds, there is little thought given to what “social change” really entails.  Almost no effort is put towards creating social tolerance, either by those who wish the policy was closer to “don’t ask, don’t exist” or – I am tempted to say even less so – on the part of those pressing for further legal “victories”.The rhetoric of culture “war”, in an era when war is perceived in terms of brutish guerrilla barbarism or shock-and-awe overwhelming force (or both) seems to overwhelm the real challenge of living together – and deciding what faults can be tolerated among people who have to deal with each other from day to day.  Even though the phrase is falling from popularity, the mentality of victory-or-death seems all too common, with cases and causes – such as this most recent in Indiana – being defended or attacked more for their perceived backers’ biases, and their scaremongered worse-case scenarios, than on their merits.