Finding the Meaning

So: to continue about La Sylphide from my last post…… A few years ago, I produced something called the D.C. Contemporary Ballet Festival. We took over the Takoma Theater for a week. I partnered with Mason/Rhynes Productions to pull it off. Cheles (and Gesel, and Liz, and I) really worked to fix up what was a run-down space with little tech.

I was really proud of what we did. Eight choreographers. Three classes, two shows. But no-one came to the classes, and only a few hundred came to the shows. I lost money on the event, and when I didn’t get any of the grants the next year, didn’t do it again.

I wrote a program note for the festival attempting to define contemporary ballet. What is ‘contemporary ballet’ anyway? I benefited from a conversation I had with Jonathan Jordan trying to figure out what the difference is between ballet and modern dance. (Congratulations to Jonathan, who earlier this week won the MetroDCDance Award for Best Performance.)

Jonathan posited that:

Modern dance tends toward the expression of the personal, while ballet tends toward the presentation of the universal, the archetypal.

While I can’t eat that one whole, I do think there’s something there.

The storyline of Sylphide is: there’s this Scottish dude who becomes enthralled with this otherworldly woman. She’s not actually a woman, though. She’s a sylph. She has wings. So, dude leaves his fiance, and tries to settle down with the sylph. (We’ve all been there, right?) But she keeps flying away. Dude meets a witch, who promises to help him secure his love. The witch says: just put this scarf around her, and she’s yours. So he does, and her wings fall off, and she dies, and dude ends up watching his ex-fiance marry his best friend. Curtain.

Here’s a clip of Nureyev in Sylphide:

The lessons there are real, the emotions real. The storyline is stupid. Myths allow us just enough remove to be entertained while we learn. Myth – not story – is one realm in which dance can thrive.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.