The New York City Ballet began its winter season last week and, as a ballet fan, I tried, as I do each year, to come up with a Jewish story about it. Alas, I always come up short.
Sure, there are stories you could write about Jewish dancers and the occasional choreographer, and I’ve done my share. But let’s be honest, there is a conspicuous absence of serious Jewish content in ballet. And it’s interesting to consider why.
The first reason may be ballet’s history. Like classical music, ballet’s modern roots lie in European court culture. Except for the occasional Court Jew, Jews were barred from this exclusive circle.
Yet even as ballet evolved from the chambers of kings to concert halls, where the price of a ticket was the only bar to admission, the values ballet embodied seemed far removed from Jewish ones. Grace, chivalry, ethereal beauty — they are not what we tend to associate with Jewish culture.
Even when these characteristics are viewed in a less charitable, more ghoulish light — think of the current “Black Swan” film and its focus on the nihilistic drive for perfection — it is hard to relate them to the ghouls of Jewish cultural tradition.
To be sure, the argument has been made that “Black Swan” is the most Jewish presentation we’re ever going to get of ballet. (For the record, Jerome Robbins’ 1974 “The Dybbuk,” with music by Leonard Bernstein, and Antony Tudor’s 1942 Hebrew scripture-based “Pillar of Fire,” with the Jewish ballerina Nora Kaye dancing the role of Hagar and music by Arnold Schoenberg, both hit Jewish themes head on. But they are rarely performed and not part of the ballet canon.) Jews not only directed and star in it, but some argue that the film is a perfect reflection of contemporary Jewish womanhood, with its oppressively controlling mother and captious relationship between two dueling dancers.
Personally, I don’t see anything particularly Jewish about that. Hyper-competiveness and impossibly high standards are really what the film is about, and they are ugly facts of ballet life. Anyway, they are not what ballet values, only a consequence of what it values most.
When I go to the ballet these days, what strikes me most are its young choreographers. Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon in particular, both of whose works are being staged in the current New York City Ballet season, have rooted out much of ballet’s rigid formality.
Their dances have a palpable sense of intimacy, of decency, of genuine human feeling that, paradoxically, goes against ballet’s original transcendent impulse. More impressively, they’ve done it without discarding ballet’s essential vocabulary, from the precise pointe work to its fine equipoise.
Unlike Jennifer Homans, who has drawn fire for her bleak view of ballet’s future despite her otherwise excellent new history of ballet, “Apollo’s Angels,” I think ballet has a bright future. But I have given up hope that any significant Jewish language will enter ballet’s vocabulary.
Jews, of course, will — the Jewish Melissa Barak is another young choreographer worth watching. Yet the very fact that ballet has a strict vocabulary seems to make it impervious to outside cultures.
Choreographers certainly have incorporated bits of folk dances into ballet before, but these still strike viewers as decidedly un-balletic. In any event, I’m not sure the Jewish tradition has much physical language to contribute — other than what has already been siphoned off.
We may be quite a distance from the time when ballet seemed to demand a rejection of one’s Jewishness. Which, come to think of it, was not long ago. Jerome Robbins, who died in 1998 and was the son of a kosher butcher, once said that his affinity for ballet had “something to do with the ‘civilizationing’ of my Jewishness.”
So maybe it’s wiser not to ask whether Jews can make a significant cultural contribution to ballet. Better instead to ask if a Jewish viewer can see something in ballet that speaks specifically to his Jewishness.
It may be a futile project, I admit. After all what I see as essential to Jewish identity you may very well not. But insofar as Jewish values are, as I see them, only the unique cultural expression of what are fundamentally universal human values, then ballet actually has something to offer.
Those words I mentioned before — grace, chivalry, ethereal beauty — may still accurately describe many of the ballets we still watch. But they are culturally deceptive. Though they may resonate deeply with Christians, their essential meanings are not foreign to Jews.
Grace, after all, is really just another word for forgiveness; chivalry, a love for your neighbor; and ethereal beauty, the ineffable expression of the divine. If you see all that in ballet, then, as a Jew, it should be speaking to you.
Eric Herschthal covers art and culture for the paper.