Pale Blue Bars and Gold Chains

There is no filmic record of the Ballet Russes’ 1925 production of Balanchine’s ballet Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale), the famed itinerant company’s director, Sergei Diaghilev, being a hostile disbeliever in the ability of film to do justice to movement. What does remain, however, are some of Matisse’s drawings for the costumes and set, the Stravinsky score, various contemporary journalistic reportage, and a scattering of personal correspondence. It was from these fragments that Sriwhana Spong worked to create Lethe-wards (2010) a dual film projection composed of newly choreographed sequences from the ballet.

In Spong’s work there are two ballets, two dances, two simultaneous character studies: a pas de deux that transforms and extends the earlier ballet. In the Ballet Russes version, the Emperor character spent the whole routine lying on his deathbed, whereas in Lethe-wards the Emperor and the Nightingale both dance, the one alongside the other, yet with the one never quite reaching the other; and thus both seem to remain separate, divided between projections, time periods, species and mediums (one is rendered digitally and the other on old and deteriorated 35mm film stock).

Balanchine based Le Chant du rossignol on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, a tale in which a fisherman hears the song of a magical nightingale and finds, to his great joy, that he can now forget all his earthly woes. A dying Emperor, hearing of this wondrous bird, asks that it be brought to him to sing and it duly relieves him of all pain and affliction. The bird and the Emperor’s relationship, in Spong’s interpretation, is a January-December involvement, an allegory of summoning, like incense curling up from a Balinese shrine where fruit may be offered among marigolds arranged in concentric circles and cigarettes strung on strings.

Or, if drawn together even closer, this man and this bird summon the spirit of the Russian dancer Nijinsky. Celebrated for his powerful invocations of half-animal/half-man figures, a leaping chimera with “the tendons of a bird,” 1  Nijinsky was powered by an ability to forget and remember at the same time. Both body and shadow, a shape-shifter, he was renowned for the way he could dissolve into a role, enacting interpretive transformations that somehow figured the past as drawn into the production of the present, and without appearing as soil:

  1. THE PERFECT SHOULD NOT HAVE GROWN. – (…) The artist knows that his work is only fully effective if it arouses the belief in an improvisation, in a marvellous instantaneousness of origin, and thus he assists this illusion and introduces into art those elements of inspired unrest, or blindly groping disorder, or listening, dreaming at the beginning of creation as a means of deception, in order so to influence the soul of the spectator or hearer in that it may believe in the sudden appearance of the perfect. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, 1878. 2 )

To have Nietzsche dance across the page here is to draw a parallel between his aphoristic turns and those of high-risk phases in dance and music. Establishing a tone and a style that is unequivocal, yet reaches beyond what is felt to be easily achievable, Nietzsche reveals that in giving oneself over to the “deceptive” origin of every flow (“AT THE WATERFALL”) there is no time to perform acts of calculation or reason. We are parts of what he referred to as “the wheel of the world” – a mechanism productive of a human assumption that free will exists and is thus expressible. 3 

When Spong was a child her mother had cut from a book and placed in an oval frame a photograph of Margot Fonteyn dancing the role of Ondine, a water-sprite. A little site spell, perhaps, for her child to perform Swan Lake one day, this image of the prima ballerina, en pointe with both arms raised, prompted Spong to take up ballet lessons in earnest. 4  As she trained, learning by increments that from discipline comes perfect freedom, she also collected and pored over ballet picture books, immersing herself in the photographic record (and its sub-text) of an art form that has been described as “twentieth century sorcery.” 5 

There were two books in particular that caught Spong’s imagination, both by writer and photographer Keith Money. One surveyed the life of Fonteyn, and the other focussed on the ballet partnership between Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in the 1960s. Stilled, the shapes of the dancers in the photographs move now but in the imagination, where line and form can be studied, their beauty acting on us incrementally, its arrows slowed. 6 There is something in the temporally disturbed, blown-out texture of photographs of ballet performances from this era that is very compelling, and arose, like a spell gone wrong, out of a particular set of technical challenges.

To photograph a principal dancer on stage is very difficult given the way that they are brightly spot-lit, the corps and scenery dim behind them. And at this time film stock was at its limits – even forced it was only just able to register an image with the shutter speeds and exposures necessary for dancers in motion. The results bear a graininess that makes them reminiscent of photography from an earlier time, with an atmosphere – spectral, fleeting, incomplete, shadowy – that makes it impossible not to see that photography has little to do with visual reality.

In performance, the soloists appear as though illuminated from inside, set against dark backgrounds of rich, limitless shadow. This stark contrast makes them like Velasquez portraits, or reminiscent of certain figured subjects in Manet paintings; for example, the principal figure in The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867) at the moment of being shot is bright against a darker setting, as if flared by a primitive camera’s magnesium flash. Here painting – joining with photography by engaging in the abstraction of its flattened picture plane – is groping for a future relieved of any popularly-conceived responsibility to conduct reportage.

Flung into relief, the image as photographic event is perceivable only as thought or writing’s other. Here we are in contact, if not with the infinite, at least with a radical plurality, staring into a liquid space, excited, lit up like a comet. Our brain chemistry responds to the novelty of images by releasing endorphins – the body’s natural opiates – into our systems, bringing with them sensations of contentment, joy, luxury, and a certain expansive stillness. Images, photographic dawns, are made by the registration of light flung onto sensitive film in much the same way that light burns into our retinas flaring our waiting feelings.

When photography is stylised, abstracted, its deviation from the way we think things actually look whispers of a document’s dual drive toward both authenticity and artifice. A simple interpretation of the document is that it is mimetic, but a more complex one suggests that documentary images, as John-Pierre Rehm puts it in ‘The Plays of the Witnesses’, “contain opacity and thickness and that they themselves are objects of study, document among documents, links in the process of interpretation offered to the political freedom of the spectator.” 7  The scopic regime at play here is not an authoritative chain of command from reality, via lens and film, to an honest representation. Likewise, the photography of ballet can stand as a complex, shifting allegory of the very art form it expresses: an oral-physical tradition in which the work is carried from dancer to dancer, altered each time, in the creation of an eternal leaping present. Flight (of body, image, and logic) is followed by a fall to earth, but the fall is light and the energy always surplus to the trajectory. There is no escaping this idea once its image potential has been seen, even if it attacks the comfort we find in turning living moments into cerebral statuary via languages based in a sense of property and fixedness:

  1. LANGUAGE AS A PRESUMPTIVE SCIENCE. – The importance of language for the development of culture lies in the fact that, in language, man has placed a world of his own beside the other, a position which he deemed so fixed that he might there from lift the rest of the world off its hinges, and make himself master of it. In as much as man has believed in the ideas and names of things as aeternae veritates for a great length of time, he has acquired that pride by which he has raised himself above the animal; he really thought that in language he possessed a knowledge of the world. (…) Much later – only now – it is dawning upon men that they have propagated a tremendous error on their belief in language. Fortunately it is now too late to reverse the development of reason, which is founded upon that belief. (Neitzsche, ibid. 8 )

The dance photography books that Spong pored over came from a time in which ballet’s tradition was at its apex and about to fall. In its own version of crisis, ballet wants to recover the gestures that became corrupted, but can we fathom, accept, or remove ourselves from the demise? Our shared tics and methods of model-making, our common project of hopeful spells, abstractions and diagrams, are all signs that we would prefer to remain in resistant denial of something about our transindividual embodiment which we cannot face but keep trying to control. The world wobbled as we reached the moon, the way we were compelled to travel up to that huge gaping circle, symbolic, perhaps, of capitalism becoming high. The reification process that Marx warned us about – regarding or treating certain abstractions as if they had concrete or material existence – is taking away the human ability to be in the moment in an easy, profound way. In its place are new priorities based in a drive to establish products, commodities, pieces of information easily consumed, owned, traded and understood. Ballet is enacted to music, but it is, at essence, mute gesture and, in the silent movement of dancers, we can see the struggling contemporary subject’s hampered attempts to levitate.

Money recently described the threat posed to ballet under a new insistence on athleticism and flexibility that denigrated its line and poetry: “The theatrics of Ballet can be immensely complex, and it is disturbing to someone of my generation to observe the empirical drift towards gymnastics in basic ballet technique, because at a stroke this denies the immense Euclidean subtleties of line which, while it may be entirely unspoken in our hectic age, is nevertheless still inherently understood by ‘ordinary people’, almost through sheer osmosis. There is a natural understanding of geometric principles; of the conclusive certainty of an exact right-angle, or of its exact half; of a curve that, were it to travel through the universe, it would ultimately return to its point of departure. None of this is chance; it is set in the spheres. For dancers to start exercising hip joints to the point that can accommodate ultra extension, is to say, ‘I will no longer be an entirely natural body, I will be Circus.’” 9 

Recently Spong has collaged images from ballet books from this heyday, cutting out geometric voids – circles and triangles – having already cut circular holes directly into the film stock to make her 2008 film Beetlejuice. These shapes stand somehow as reminders, or prompts, if one was not already aware, that there are other dimensions, other worlds in play beyond the visual; and that these holey, emotional dimensions are in play in what is conventionally thought of as merely a way to record visual facts. These extra-geometric dimensions in the images seem to hiss that there are mysterious forces in operation here, other powers.

It is for such reasons that it is important to consider adherence to tradition as not being necessarily conservative, in the sense that this is restraining – Spong has said that it is the particular discipline-based, structural aspects of ballet that she has found the most compelling. Once the basic movements of ballet are grasped through repeated exercise, there is, she says, an incredible sense of freedom, one unlike anything else she has experienced. She has wondered if this is something to do with ballet’s persistent relation to music in that it is an attempt to achieve a state of groundlessness.

Groundless is a term employed in Buddhist meditation practice as a way to perceive and accept reality as flowing and formless. By dissolving any rigidity of self, or sense of self, into a larger flow – as opposed to trying to find and cling to firm ground – Buddhists believe human suffering may be eased. Once an expectation of refuge is dispensed with, or unlearned, one is free to tap into something infinite and joyous, and the egoless self may flower. Once a fundamental sense of self is dispensed with, and focus harnessed, spectacular things are possible; and this is pictured eloquently in disciplined forms of movement.

Money talked about choreography as “seeking to push the human body a few degrees beyond normal, but only to an exact point, beyond which it would become unclear in its message.” 10  The key, he said, was to stop before pushing too far into parody, hovering crucially on a boundary, exploring a perilous border. Some sort of leap toward the otherworldly seems to be necessary, but only insofar as a limit remains: in rehearsals for Spong’s films, Timothy Gordon, her teacher (having returned to lessons at thirty) and her films’ choreographer, told her that where the skeleton goes, the muscles will follow. There has to be a trust that the groundless self will know what to do with its virtual limits.

There is something in this reminiscent of a ritual practised by spiritualist mediums to protect themselves from polluting energies in preparation for channelling: one imagines placing in the spine a bar of pale blue light, and envisions a gold chain ascending from the crown of the head to the heavens and another plunging from the base of the body deep into the earth. This opens a channel for a particular kind of energy that accumulates in the organism, brightening it, but also requires a full dispersal of the self along the limitless extent of the chains.

One of the original Matisse costumes for La Chant du rossignol featured large triangular forms, and it was this one that Spong chose to re-create for the first film work she made based on this ballet, Costume for a Mourner (2010). It is almost as if this costume is some sort of diagram describing the process by which energies may be summoned and how the dancer (Benny Ord) melts into something larger and more powerful. Spong has said that it isn’t the movement from A to B that a dancer effects that interest her so much as how the body gets there.

One of the reasons Spong was drawn to the Song of the Nightingale ballet was that, in his designs for sets and costumes, Matisse was playing out two different tendencies in his own practice: abstraction and orientalism. Spong has talked of these as things that cannot really meet, given that the former attempts a formal description of the world while the later represents the construction of a fictional, even spiritual, other. The non-meeting of these two aspects within this ballet can be seen as a conflict between aspects of the avant-garde’s wholesale departure in art from the obligation of the image or gesture to be mimetic and a reimagining of art’s ethico-political affect.

The orientalist phenomenon in art and literature has very little to do with the cultural East. Rather, its function or subject, is the fantasy life of the West. The East is a non-existent, imaginary other, standing for a reversal of ordinary life – sexual freedom over repression, female lasciviousness over male order, irrationality over reason, delirium over straightness, evil over good, death over life, opium over pain – and blossoms as a trope within imperialist mind-sets and colonial regimes.

A certain sadistic quality that is often an undertow of orientalist narratives apparently peaked as the West became resentful of its fantasy world collapsing in the face of too much capitalist reality. Perhaps this is why a retreat into certain forms of abstraction is necessary, a methodology characterised as cerebral, and something, contentiously, pertaining more to the psyche of the male, this taste for unreality. The vying between orientalism and abstraction in Matisse’s mise-en-scène might then be seen to pit male against female, or present how they are to be understood in this pas de deux.

Lethe-wards is shot through with images of forgetfulness – the nightingale itself is nepenthe, a painkiller, and the title a reference to the mythical Greek river through which souls must pass and be cleansed of memory to enter the underworld. The avant-gardes have made a cult of delirium (Fonteyn was said to specialise in it 11 ) and a gorgeous by-product of this was the chance to process the effect of the speedball of forgetting and remembering at the same time. In dance, this can be sensed in how, at the moment of performance, any connection to the past is lost in its present rush.

Spong has been asked at times if her work is in part an act of self-exoticising, particularly in relation to her shrine works like 7 Days (2007), and in the film Candlestick Park (2006). But this perspective, this focus on the exotic as something either authentic or not, seems to cheapen the way she makes herself into a dream, speaking of the tidal loss and recall of the oneiric image as it is worn on the self’s archipelagic shore, or miming how the cloth of a costume thins as one moves within it.

When Spong collages hands from ballet books, she is cutting out figures of reaching, but towards what, exactly, is not made clear. If we hold to the conventional idea that people are separate isolated entities, then the hands indicate the limits of that person, extending out towards things already ungraspable – the past, the other, the imaginary, the original, the not-now, the intangible. In this light, Spong’s collages belong to an artist inhabitant of the antipodes – geographically far-flung, a native post-modernist endlessly seeking contact with alien signals and code.

In Lethe-wards, hands reach for each other, unable to touch beyond the frame of the films, nor between their different media, registers and apparent time periods. But there is a palpable sense that they are not touching nothing, and that the connection they seek can actually be made, or is being made already – that they are part of the same flow, as everything is. The hands cut out from ballet photographs also explain, wordlessly, that the truly singular is that which seeks out the multiple, the only realm in which it will be continuously renewed; and that happiness comes from understanding the interconnectedness of all things.

Diaghilev may have thought that film does not do justice to the ballet, but film, in itself, exhibits movement that explains gently, in the words of Spong, that “there are no full stops to the body, just lines that go on.” Such an understanding makes photographs of tele-images of people whom we feel a connection with entirely understandable – a powerful or beautiful image can reach out and we can reach back. For this reason, there is something utterly compelling for Spong about images of the figure skater Johnny Weir performing as a white swan wearing one red glove (which he refers to as Camille). Even the three-year-old I watched the 2010 Winter Olympics with knew that the most charismatic and poetic figure in the figure-skating competition was Weir – “Where is the man with the black hands?” he kept asking. We had watched the skater, dressed entirely in black, his gloved hands gracefully demonstrating yet disowning the limits of his physical space as he moved about the white surface, fluidly like a bird might, enjoying currents and a sense of his own buoyancy. Leaving geometric patterns cut into the ice behind him, his warm black shape optically flung forward in relation to the cold white background, a lifeline between us.

On YouTube I watched clips of one of Weirs’ fiercest competitors, the very heterosexual Russian Evgeni Plushenko, skating a qualitatively assessed tribute to Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune. Nijinksy’s dance was itself based on Mallarmé’s eponymous poem and the Debussy music it inspired, all three considered watershed moments in the development of the modernist avant-garde. In the clips, on ice, the back-arching quiver denoting final onanistic orgasm in the original dance was morphed into a skater’s climax of blurred spinning, some sort of frictionless holy ecstasy.

New forms of viewing media encourage arresting details from footage to reach beyond themselves to other instances – Rihanna’s black pointe shoes in the video for Umbrella gesture to Weir skating Lady Gaga’s Poker Face; Johnny Weir and fellow skater Stephane Lambiel practising a male pas de deux on ice beckon to photographs of Nureyev and Gable dancing together, embracing, in the 1964 Kenneth MacMillan ballet, Images of Love. Indeed, the internet encourages us to accept the potential for associations between material, and we are left with an accelerated sense that we are, as Mallarmé suggested in L’Après-midi d’un faune, just subtle branches of the true wood.

Read with ballet and classical music in mind, Mallarmé’s poem possesses the exquisite logic of a meta-work. It both is and contains the ripening seed of an idea about interpretation being a process of transformation and growth. The poem begins with a young faun waking from delicious afternoon sleep, his dream fading as he becomes more and more awake. He tries to hold onto its details, its nymphs, their embraces, but they are elusive – he cannot recall them as they were, but as he tries, his libido rushing, the fragments transform themselves into a new music which falls from his panpipes like waterless rain:

These nymphs I would perpetuate.

So clear

Their light carnation, that it floats in the air

Heavy with tufted slumbers.

Was it a dream I loved?

My doubt, a heap of ancient night, is finishing

In many a subtle branch, which, left the true

Wood itself, proves, alas! that all alone I gave

Myself for triumph the ideal sin of roses.

Let me reflect…

Spong’s friend Benny Ord (who also performs the Emperor role in Lethe-wards) tells me that one of his ballet teachers had once been a pupil of Balanchine. She would take in a deep breath, state that she was “channelling Mr B,” and then give them direction based on her summoning of this spirit. I imagine her, eyelids heavy, relaying what Balanchine had reportedly hissed at prima ballerina Susan Farrell as she left the wing for the stage: “Before is over – the performance is now!”

Money has pointed out that the intense verbal interactions he experienced when immersed in ballet studios was of the he-said-she-said aural tradition of the young. Because dancers are almost exclusively youths (Fonteyn being an exception – “I can only think of what I must do” 12  – still performing into her fifties), ballet’s adolescent space is its strength, and for different reasons than one might expect. The young are genetic celebrities, their mammalian systems of attraction supposedly based on fertility alone, but there is something more compelling and alluring in the formless nature of the young that makes extreme focus, and the brightening of the organism it brings with it, possible:

ART AS RAISER OF THE DEAD. – Art also fulfils the task of preservation and even of brightening up extinguished and faded memories; when it accomplishes this task it weaves a rope round the ages and causes their spirits to return. It is, certainly, only a phantom-life that results therefrom, as out of graves, or like the return in dreams of our beloved dead, but for some moments, at least, the old sensation lives again and the heart beats to an almost forgotten time. Hence, for the sake of the general usefulness of art, the artist himself must be excused if he does not stand in the front rank of the enlightenment and progressive civilisation of humanity; all his life long he has remained a child or youth, and has stood still at the point where he was overcome by his artistic impulse; the feelings of the first years of life, however, are acknowledged to be nearer to those of earlier times than to those of the present century. Unconsciously it becomes his mission to make mankind more childlike; this is his glory and his limitation. 13  (Nietzsche, ibid.)

The way young dancers watch and melt into the dance in front of their bodies strikes me as having something to do with affirming existence – as when one is smoking, one can see one’s breath – even when it is lost to the erasure that is courted by participation in this self-effacing pursuit. They may be transcending earthly concern, aided by a shift sideways in the light of the world, but they are paying themselves attention at the same time, even when it is the self which is hallucinated in such moments. Ballet seems arrested at this point – at first inspiration, in adolescence, the dancer at last has possession of the amazing thing that is an adult body. At this age, in this space, it is possible to draw power from that unimpeded, unburdened, unfatigued, uncomprehending focus.

  1. Keith Money, The Dancer from the Dance, London: Fair Prospect Imprint, 2008, p.25.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2009, p.106.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Press, 1984, pp.43-4, 67-8 / §39, 96.
  4. Spong went on to do a dance called ‘Sea-shell’ dressed as a water-sprite in competitions.
  5. Keith Money, Fonteyn and Nureyev: The Great Years, Harvill, London and New York: HarperCollins, 1994, p.7.
  6. “THE SLOW ARROW OF BEAUTY. – The noblest kind of beauty is that which does not transport us suddenly, which does not make stormy and intoxicating impressions (such as easily arouses disgust), but that which slowly filters into our minds, which we take away with us almost unnoticed and which we encounter again in our dreams; but which, however, after having long lain modestly on our hearts, takes entire possession of us, fills our eyes with tears and our hearts with longing. What is it that we long for at the sight of beauty? We long to be beautiful. We fancy it must bring much happiness with it. But that is a mistake.” Nietzsche, op. cit., p.108.
  7. In Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, The Green Room: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1, Berlin: Sterberg and Annandale-on-Hudson: Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, p.18.
  8. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, Amherst, op. cit., pp.106-7.
  9. Money, op.cit., p.23.
  10. Ibid., p.21.
  11. Ibid., p.261.
  12. Keith Money, Margot Fonteyn: the Making of a Legend, London: Collins, 1973, p.309.
  13. Nietzsche, op. cit., p.107.