The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation
(Oxford University Press, 2020)
In 1935, while in exile, Walter Benjamin wrote his now classic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:
“Fiat ars—pereat mundus,” [“Let art be created—though the world perish”] says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l'art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. 1
Benjamin creates havoc with the already controversial phrase fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus [let justice be done, though the world perish], by citing art as the citadel. How does society experience its own demise as an aesthetic pleasure? In this essay, he articulates the idea of the “aestheticization of the political” (leading to fascism), and its obverse, “the politicization of the aesthetic” (allowing for a revolutionary art). These words continue to influence both scholarship and the arts, which now reference not only fascism and Futurism, but more generally, a strategy of thinking through the relationship between aesthetics and politics. When Benjamin first wrote the essay during the interwar years in Paris, he conceived of it as an effort “to determine the precise point in the present to which my historical construction will orient itself”—a critique of fascism’s victory in Germany and its threat to France.2
The pairing of Futurism with a reactionary politics began much earlier. In 1912, in the initial years of Futurism’s premiere onto the world stage, the art critic Roger Fry was not impressed by the quality of the work he saw: “tired convention” cloaked in the language of absolute originality, of which itself Fry was skeptical, and he cautioned against their “strangely Nihilistic creed.”3 After World War II, fascism’s wake of disaster shaped society’s consciousness; there was a reticence to celebrate an art that openly embraced such a politics.4
In 2010, the Guggenheim Museum held the exhibit Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918–1936, curated by the art historian Kenneth E. Silver. It followed his monumental book, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925. The book examines why after the radical art of Cubism in France there emerged a formal redirection in the arts that searched for qualities such as clarity, simplicity, objectivity, logic, grace, and purity. This turn, understood to be conservative, was inextricable from the politics of the time: its handmaiden, in that the art helped to create society’s social values—or perhaps rather what society desired, the artists chose to create. Chaos and Classicism continued this examination well into the post-World War I era, and encompassed the art of Italy and Germany also, to demonstrate how neoclassicism (the mining of the classical age or ages to create meaning for and re-envision the present) was not apolitical, but profoundly in concert with the political moment: one of nationalism, militarism, and totalitarianism—the fascist turn. In a review of the exhibition, a critic writes that we have long been disabused of the notion that art is “an expression of any culture’s better nature.” By the end of the exhibit, one is not seeing objects anymore, rather “scorch marks and bloodstains on the Guggenheim’s pristine walls.”5
In 2014, the Guggenheim presented Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe. If Chaos and Classicism, though outstanding, garnered the attention of few with its abundance of unfamiliar artists and dispiriting narrative, the Futurism exhibition was a blockbuster, applauded as epic and a tour de force. Yet some critics were discomfited by the fact that the exhibition sanitized Futurism’s long complicity with the fascist era: no bloodstains marred the walls.6 A waning historical consciousness around fascism no doubt helped. In stark contrast to the exhibit were the artist strikes taking place outside the museum to protest the exploitation of labor in the construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. On the national backdrop Ferguson exploded.
In The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation, the distinguished dance historian Mark Franko examines some of the questions surrounding these exhibitions, here through dance. In 2012, between these two exhibitions, Franko saw a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet at Lincoln Center. The Paris Opera was on an international tour to present the work of the French choreographic tradition: Serge Lifar, Roland Petit, and Maurice Béjart. Franko had never seen Lifar’s Suite en blanc (1943), a black-and-white abstract ballet. As the curtain rose on a severe set, Franko writes poignantly of a sense of foreboding, a chill settling down on the concert hall. He was stunned then to see not even a mention in the program about the context for its creation. Lifar choreographed this work during the depths of the German occupation in Paris. Goebbels had banned any type of narrative ballet and this was the first ballet to use ballet technique as its theme—the hallmark of the neoclassical ballet. George Balanchine’s renowned Symphony in C, created for the Paris Opera in 1947 during Lifar’s mandatory postwar exile from the company, is considered a response to Suite en blanc, Franko points out. In 2012, the Opera was celebrating Serge Lifar and Suite en blanc and offering them to the world as a source of institutional and national grandeur. Yet, their history was anything but simple or grand. This set Franko on a six-year research project to a network of archives in Paris (including the recently opened police archives on the occupation), Berlin, and Lausanne. His purpose was to collect and study heavily dispersed material in order to put to rest the question of Lifar’s collaborationism (the term denoting an ideological complicity) with the Nazis. Simultaneously, he historicizes the aesthetic category of the neoclassical in dance. Franko interweaves the micro-history of archival research with a textual exegesis around the discourse of neoclassicism, and a philosophical analysis of neoclassicism and its contingent concepts, including what he terms, corporeal fascism, and its successor concept of the baroque.
For some time now, 20th-century neoclassicism has been studied seriously in art history and music; Franko’s study is the first such project in dance. This is astonishing given neoclassicism’s dominance in contemporary dance, as well as the legacy of Balanchine. Lifar and Balanchine were contemporaries. In 1930, dance critics first applied the term neoclassical to Lifar’s choreographic style. It wasn’t until 1947, that the term was used for Balanchine’s work. Today, the claim is that Balanchine invented 20th-century neoclassicism in 1928 with Apollon Musagète, in which Lifar originated the role of Apollo. The neoclassical is crucial to a knowledge of the art form in the 20th and 21st centuries. To understand the history of the concept, Lifar is vital. The book will undoubtedly pave the way for future scholarship on dance neoclassicism. Its importance lies also in its comparativist possibilities with the other art forms: it completes and complicates the picture of neoclassicism in the modernist arts. If in music and the visual arts, neoclassicism is perceived as a betrayal of modernism, in ballet it forms the initial claim to modernism through the echo of a classical past. Notwithstanding Futurism, was modernism read for so long as the shock of the new, because the university and cultural institutions were intent on preserving modernism as unstained by the mark of fascism?
If even a decade ago, the threat of fascism seemed far away, we cannot say this now. Capitalism and fascism appear as a double-headed Hydra: fascism recurs as part of the machinery of capitalism itself.7 What then is the relationship of the arts to the rise of fascism? What are the aesthetic terms with which fascism is paired? In dance, Franko demonstrates how neoclassicism articulates more than a shared moment with fascism: their histories are intertwined. Ballet as an art form seems to pride itself in its autonomy from the world. The incongruity will certainly prickle some, especially those for whom such a narrative serves.
In The Fascist Turn, Franko examines dance on the political stage as he locates the twinned categories of neoclassicism and fascism through the figure of Serge Lifar and the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1875, at the inauguration of its new theater, the Palais Garnier, the radiance of the Paris Opera symbolized the nation’s power for all the world to see. It was Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, however, that introduced ballet to the world as a modern art form. As the Ballets Russes eclipsed dance at the Opera in the early 20th century, Lifar was brought in as both a star dancer and choreographer to restore the Opera ballet’s former glory. Neoclassicism was the discourse that would apprehend the modern.
While most dance scholars argue that neoclassicism was a stylistic debate about early modern European classicism, Franko historicizes the category as a competition between nations: a conflict between 17th-century French and 18th-century German dance. Neoclassicism emerged not only as a response to the catastrophe of World War I: its history started earlier with the Dreyfus Affair and the controversy over national identity, as well as with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Neoclassicism, like modernism itself, responded to the experience of modernization and modernity and created an historical consciousness, here though patently nationalist. The call for a classical renewal of order, simplicity, clarity, excellence, and purity was a way to differentiate France from a “decadent” or “barbaric” Germany: culture was once again being used as a tool to stage national and racial preeminence. If Cubism was outward looking, radical, and opened borders, neoclassical painting was inward, conservative, and shut borders down. In music, classicism denounced the Romanticism of Wagner. In dance, between 1905 and 1918, a number of ballets premiered at the Paris Opera that recalled 17th-century court culture and 18th-century French dance. The apotheosis of this fashion was the Ballets Russes’s London revival in 1921 of Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty (1890). The French choreographer had created the fairytale ballet for the Imperial Russian Ballet. It is considered the avatar of 20th-century ballet’s love affair with its own classical (17th-century) past.
Franko’s key argument is that the opposition between France and Germany is mediated by Russia. To write the history of modern French ballet (or neoclassicism), Franko charts a transnational story. Against the backdrop of a nationalist debate, its conception cannot be understood without the history of the Imperial Russian Ballet: the story goes that Petipa saved French ballet in Russia during its decline in France; and in the 1930s, Lifar, while at the Paris Opera, returned it to France intact. (The transnational reach of the story also extends itself with the promise of American ballet and the coming of Balanchine.) Balletic neoclassicism in France emerges from a critical discourse that is for the most part Russian, with the expatriate dance critics André Levinson, Yulia Slonimskaya Sazonova, and later André Schaïkevitch. Ironically, Russians were the ones creating the conception of a French national art form, at its grandest level. Lifar, who embodied the Paris Opera Ballet, was himself born in Kiev under the Russian Empire. A peculiar discourse arose around Lifar: critics interpreted his statuesque body (not his choreography) as an ideal work of art. This placed his neoclassicism as a dancer within the realm of 18th-century German ideas about Greek classicism through Winckelmann. His choreographic use of narrative ballet situated him in the lineage of the itinerant 18th-century choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre, who worked more in Germany and Italy than in France.
Dance neoclassicism has a heterogeneous historical past, which Franko classifies into three distinct areas: ballet, folkloric dance, and the historical archive. Ballet located its classicism in the 17th century, which identified the origin of ballet as emerging from the institutional development of the academies, supported by the monarchy and synonymous with official culture. It was adept at erasing its Italian origins to become completely “French.” Like most everything, ballet too developed historically in fits and starts; yet modern French ballet is founded on a myth of its pure national origins. This version of the past created a hegemonic sense of tradition; it sanctioned the present by offering a narrative of authenticity and continuity. Ballet neoclassicism mined classicism, tradition, and nationalism, each a manifestation of the political neoclassicism from which fascism emerged in the interwar years, one that was tied to 17th-century French absolutism. Folkloric dance advances as a foil to neoclassical ballet’s conception of modernism. With the rise of ethnography and folkloric studies in the 1930s, folkloric practices were read to have counter-hegemonic potential. In the interwar years, folkloric dance assumed a socialist and anti-totalitarian stance; it did not form a national identity undergirded by racial superiority, rather it allied itself with class struggle. In contrast, modern ballet’s myth—a pragmatic misreading—burnished a national identity and elite art form. As Franko writes, it is “the institutional continuity of ballet—the fact that ballet companies have official, frequently national histories—that serves to establish the sovereign credentials of neoclassical ballet, the credentials that ally ballet modernism with the political sovereignty of monarchy.” In so doing, it creates an unparalleled history for the Paris Opera Ballet—“a powerful institution in many ways indistinguishable from the state itself.”
Formally, what is neoclassicism in dance? Franko argues that while neoclassicism restores an earlier period, it is not a style, “but a question of technical principles shorn of all stylistic accretions”; the movement principles form the basis of a dancer’s training—and the dance itself. It is a turn away from subject matter. Already in 1911, Akim Volynsky theorized ballet as a modern art that would transcend its own medium as a theatrical representation. Franko writes, “Apologists of ballet neoclassicism could henceforth imagine that a return to the principles of dance as it was practiced in the seventeenth century and before it became encrusted with theatrical conventions was, in fact, the raw material of ballet modernism. These technical principles of ballet are referred to as a pure origin of movement freed from any ancillary theatrical purpose.” The idea of formalism’s negation of theatricality specifies a questioning of narrative and the pursuit of immanent meaning. Volynsky associated formal abstraction with the spiritual. This was not only in dance, but prevalent in the visual arts, as well.
As a dance historian, Franko shows how the category of the neoclassical as a formalism is deeply implicated with the political: with overtones of Raymond Williams or Adorno, aesthetic form is itself an historical and social phenomenon. Franko’s varied genres of the neoclassical demonstrate how aesthetic form carries a history of a people—or a sovereign. The historical narrative for a nation, whether written or experienced as an historical consciousness, is one that vies for power with resistant narratives: what and whom to contain or exclude. The history of an art form is no different. The language of pure medium then, that at times Franko uses, engages a mid-century theoretical framework of modernist formalism that prioritizes the separation of the art forms, and denies its political and historical nature. While Franko doesn’t himself engage in a formalist analysis of any of the ballets, he does reference philosopher Michael David Levin’s work on Balanchine. Written in the 1970s, Levin’s essay on Balanchine has become the standard way of analyzing modernist formalism in ballet.8 It draws on the work of Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg on modernist abstraction in the visual arts. Greenberg’s earlier theory was patently anti-fascist and when Levin was writing the dangers of fascism were still poignant. Most likely, this is why Levin never uses the term neoclassicism in the essay, and opts instead for the untainted modernist formalism. Reading the essay today shows the changing questions and concerns in the arts and scholarship. The insistence on the unique formal specificities of the modernist arts appeared at a certain moment in criticism and history. With the emergence of a postmodern disenchantment with beauty and form, Fried’s theory specifically fought to maintain modernism’s authority—contingent upon formal autonomy. It is widely accepted today that modernist form reflects a profound historical and material problem: modernist art takes as its very being (its formal, inner structures) the crisis in everyday life defined by an era of capitalism, imperialism, and sense perception altered by technology. How does neoclassicism fit? Levin’s paradigm only works for the neoclassical abstract ballets, and the purity of the art forms (the medium is the message) has become stale. Today, when we are again in a moment of political upheaval and aesthetic uncertainty, we need to draw upon a contemporary theoretical framework, which connects the arts to the political and historical and thinks through fascism for a formal analysis of neoclassical dance—one that also illuminates our present. Perhaps a Rancière for whom form is not postmodern anathema, but enables a radical politics, or a Jean-Luc Nancy for whom the plurality of the art forms signifies not separation, but “being singular plural”—a sublime unity? This question will haunt future work on neoclassical dance.
Can neoclassicism defy the logic of power? Can it be subversive? In 1930s Paris, the discourse on neoclassical dance was interwoven with the language of freedom. Yet, it is not freedom from oppression or injustice, but rather, “the idea that in classical ballet dance frees itself from the human situation tout court and enters into an ideal world where any movement is possible.” Benjamin explores modernism through the Baudelairean flâneur and the emphasis on freedom as the possibility of a lived experience—an account of resistance. Historically, Franko locates interwar neoclassicism in exclusion and unfreedom. The idea of freedom shadows the narrative, and the question of resistance is meaningful. Franko articulates the idea of an “alternative neoclassicism” through the Ballets Russes’s Parade (1917). The ballet has been called Cubist, radical, and experimental. To register the esprit nouveau that shone at its premiere, Apollinaire coined the term surrealism. Here, we can also consider modernism’s different classificatory systems and the division between high modernism and the historical avant-garde, with its divergent aim of merging art with a radical politics. Even if the European surrealists failed, which Sartre was sure they did, at least they tried.9 Yet works of art linger in our imagination. The idealization is perhaps a remedy for our disappointment in an historical world—and the hope of creating another more just.
Parade is a jubilant demonstration of what modernism offers with design by Picasso, music by Erik Satie, scenario by Jean Cocteau, and choreography by Léonide Massine. Cocteau wanted to shock, to surpass even Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). Parade engages a Parisian tableau of the street festival and working-class entertainment. Cocteau searched for a true French simplicity that used the popular; he uses folkloric themes, finding the soul of France not in the soil, but in a contemporaneous urban vernacular. Parade foresaw the change in the conceptualization of folklore, which would come to include the present and extend “from the rural to the urban milieu, from the peasant to the worker.” As a distinct realm of the neoclassical, Franko recuperates the idea of folkloric dance, through an urban vernacular, as having radical potential; he reads it as a “creative mode of social being in the present and one even of action” under the Popular Front. Rather than being stuck in the past, he analyzes folkloric dance as a vibrant modernist form transcending boundaries of history and class to constitute a popular movement fully part of contemporary culture. Folkloric dance offers a different perspective on the past, the national collective, and modernism than neoclassical ballet. Cocteau harnessed this energy.
In a book concerning collaborationism, Franko’s perspective on Cocteau is thought provoking. In And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Alan Riding reveals how intensely complicated the issue of resistance or collaboration was for artists living under the German occupation.10 The gray areas were vast and Cocteau inhabited that liminal space. Franko reads Cocteau as an iconoclastic figure who reverses norms of high and low, popular and elite, a key figure who spoke for the neoclassical turn in French culture, one which was not doctrinaire or academic, but resistant, and who incorporated a queer modernism that also subverted conservative perspectives. Franko’s understanding of the thorny reality for artists at this moment underscores all the more his argument about Lifar’s involvement with the Nazis.
Throughout the book, Franko searches for counter-hegemonic methods to contrast the conservative discourse around neoclassicism. It coalesces in the historical archives. Access to archives dramatically reimagined how ballet was understood when neoclassicism was first being theorized. Musicologist Henry Prunières was able to write about 17th-century ballets that did not match the nationalist narrative. They lent themselves to an iconoclastic reading of ballet history. Through the archives, Franko constructs the framework for his endeavor to document Lifar’s relationship with the Nazi authorities during the occupation. In the dance world, including dance scholarship and criticism, a taboo seems to prohibit mentioning Lifar’s collaborationism. The standard argument is that Lifar was apolitical and he saved the Paris Opera from requisition by the Germans. Franko’s research does not unearth such a triumphalist narrative. The Opera was never in danger, rather they were to be used as a showcase for collaboration. Significantly, the archives without any uncertainty show Lifar’s collaboration and ideological complicity with the Nazis. In 1938, Lifar published La danse: Les grands courants de la danse académique, in which he attempts to chronicle an Aryan basis for modern ballet. His views dovetailed with French literary fascism and the French nationalists, who used a racist language to defend a pure France. Yet, Lifar was not French and under the occupation his ambitions seemed to be more self-centered than nationalist: “The archival evidence shows that Lifar was politically astute, calculating, and manipulative, although not especially good at covering his tracks.” Regarding Lifar during the occupation, Ian Buruma writes, “Successful authoritarian regimes rely less on terror than on exploiting human vices, such as greed and vanity. In this respect, the German seduction of the French intelligentsia was certainly a qualified success.”11
“By collaborating with the Nazi authorities under the Occupation of Paris,” writes Franko, “Lifar brought the Paris Opera into its golden age.” A cult of personality emerged around Lifar during this time. As a bright star, with an electric presence on stage, he was sought by both the French and German elite. Lifar fashioned himself also as an intellectual; recently though, it has emerged that he employed the learned Pushkin scholar, Modeste Hoffman, to ghostwrite his works. Before the occupation, during the 1930s, primary documents reveal there was doubt about Lifar’s ability to gloriously display the Opera. His choreography throughout the interwar years was scathingly criticized. His ballets were not hailed as innovative, but seen as derivative of Diaghilev. There were critics, however, who realized what was at stake for the Paris Opera in both the narratives of neoclassicism and Lifar and they manipulated the discourse.
During the interwar years, the Opera needed to demonstrate they were vitally modern. Neoclassicism initiated ballet modernism. Yet Lifar did not embody the characteristics of neoclassicism. His choreography was for the most part narrative based and expressive, and Lifar as a dancer excelled at 18th-century action ballet grounded in pantomime and a gestural language. With a sleight of hand, the Russian dance critics circumvented this problem; they sidestepped the Russo-French theory of neoclassicism as uniquely formalist and sought a classicism situated in the 18th-century German aesthetics of Hegel and Winckelmann. They built a discourse around Lifar’s statuesque body, likening him to classical Greek sculpture, which could be explicated through German idealism. Here, the connection of ballet to freedom also develops with the shift from a monarchical to a bourgeois conception of an autonomous self and choreography. Today, 20th-century neoclassical ballet still manifests the Lifarian conflict of 17th-century French and 18th-century German dance.
The Russo-French theorists of neoclassicism did not relate their ideas on dance, freedom, and the sacred with the political moment of fascism. This is the next logical step. Similar to literary fascism, a choreographic fascism existed in French ballet that was inextricable from its political expression. Franko terms it a corporeal fascism because like the discourse on neoclassicism it revolved around the image of Lifar’s body, here as a work of art. Drawing upon theories by Georges Bataille and Carl Schmitt on corporeality and fascism, Franko demonstrates how Lifar embodied both French and German concepts of the body and power. Corporeal fascism speaks to the polarities of a fascist logic, which sought the fusion of antithetical extremes: emanating from Charles Maurras’s proto-fascist aesthetics and politics, “the perfect fusion of force and form.”12 Yet, “the failure to achieve the ‘perfect fusion’ of form and force is more significant than any fusion.” Lifar personified the polarity machine of fascism: masculine and feminine; formalist and narrative ballet; the duality of his critical persona—20th-century neoclassicism, which was a combination of 17th-century French, specifically a monarchical tradition, with 18th-century German idealism and the emphasis on individual autonomy; and Apollonian and Dionysian. At the base of the question of corporeal fascism and the polarity machine is the question of tragedy. Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysius merge to birth tragedy. Lifar represents an unresolved tension. A fascist work cannot encompass tragedy. This is a far cry from Picasso’s Guernica (1937). T. J. Clark argues the painting expresses human vulnerability and a shared tragic fate.13 Adorno is adamant that formally Guernica indicts the Nazis.14
After German cultural policy banned narrative ballet, Lifar composed Suite en blanc, an abstract ballet set to Édouard Lalo’s ballet score Namouna. “Each study,” Lifar said, “is a choreographic sketch independent of the other, but linked by the same neo-classical style.”15 For the 2012 Lincoln Center concert, three prominent dance critics reviewed the ballet, including Franko, whose review was the most favorable in that he believes Suite en blanc needs to be performed.16 The other two critics skewered it. Alastair Macaulay writes, “Lifar’s vision of classicism is formalism as mere façade: stylish and empty at the same time.” In contrast to Balanchine’s Symphony in C and Petipa’s “Kingdom of the Shades” scene in La Bayadère, Lifar’s “universe looks hollow.” Why, responding Franko, does the ballet appear hollow? Simply, it aestheticizes politics. “The logical result of fascism,” writes Benjamin, “is the introduction of aesthetics into politics.” If Macaulay describes the ballet as an artwork that fails, Franko reads it as an historical document. It is a fascist ballet.
In 1945, after the liberation, Lifar was indicted as a Nazi collaborator by the Comité national d’epuration. Yet, a recent documentary about Lifar unfolds like a hagiography. And scholars, critics, and the Paris Opera continue to elevate the artist and his work, even when the work is found lacking. The question is why? Why the intent on redeeming Lifar? With Franko’s archival study, the facts are indisputable: no one can say now that Lifar was apolitical or the world of ballet was separate from the political reality around them. Questions about the canon, and both canon and institution building, as well as what constitutes a classic work of art, will surely emerge. We must not forget or erase history, but how to remember? Does live performance circulate differently than an historical document? Does Suite en blanc appear for most, especially in those hallowed concert halls, as a work of art (one of the highest achievements of humanity—for Simone Weil, the “mirror of grace”) and not as an artifact of 20th-century fascism?17 One wonders how The Fascist Turn will complicate Lifar’s inclusion in ballet’s canon.
In the end, the story of history, power, and the arts that Franko writes of does not stay in the past but fully illuminates our present, and inquires into the future we wish to build. The questions are urgent. As a society, do we still believe in the criticism or condemnation of anti-Semitism and fascism? Do scholars and cultural institutions have an ethical and cultural responsibility to uphold objective facts and not erase their historical and contemporary meaning? What is the relationship between the arts and a liberal democratic society that respects universal human, civil, and political rights?
The book opens exciting paths for further scholarship, not only into Balanchine and other neoclassical choreographers, but also concerning neoclassicism’s paradoxical relation to the idea of freedom, the baroque as a category of both origin and succession, and the predicament of tragedy then and now, in what Clark has gestured to as our post-tragic world. Franko emphasizes the molding of a nationalist self-consciousness at the crux of neoclassicism. With France’s long history of imperialism, and as one of two dominant colonial powers at the time, is there a place for the reckoning of empire—the question of an imperial consciousness? At the same moment as the rise of neoclassical ballet, the Orientalist ballets of the Ballets Russes were delighting and shocking their Parisian audiences. What are the lines of separation or overlap? How does imperial France help to create the idea of Frenchness that political and cultural neoclassicism were promoting?
The issues are not only historical or political. Without doubt neoclassical technique is the hegemonic form in ballet today. How do we understand neoclassicism as an aesthetic category without denying its history? In ballet and contemporary dance there is a tangible presence of new work that reveals our political and historical moment. There is nothing novel about using beauty, Bach, or neoclassicism in ballet. Eliot Feld’s Organon (2001) encompasses all of these elements in a magisterial, sacred way. As the New York City Ballet dancers (60 in all—an immensity) enter the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, it becomes cathedral-like, hushed by awe. The choreographic echoes of both Nijinska and Nijinsky are visible and reverent. The emphasis on formalism, beauty, and the sacred does not denote conservative values, but the performance (an aliveness) of shared meaning and radical hope, one which has more in common philosophically with the Black aesthetic and Ulysses Dove’s Vespers (1986), or for that matter Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring , than with the conceptual underpinnings of a contemporaneous ballet like Anjelin Preljocaj’s Rite of Spring (2001), that uses neoclassical technique, but its nihilistic violence and rape deny the value of shared meaning that reaches for the just or the sacred. Perhaps this is why Feld’s Organon was for the most part panned by the critics: it was before its time.
Contemporary dance’s signature postmodernism with its formlessness, irreverence, irony, and skepticism, flourished not even a moment ago. (But then such stark classifications are easily riddled by something like Steve Paxton’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations [1986–92], which engages Glenn Gould’s Bach, technology, and improvisation and is bereft neither of beauty nor meaning. There is value, however, to such categorizations as they give us a perspective into different historical communities, contemporaneous or not.) Dance’s embrace now of what it once understood as conservative—form, beauty, and the sacred, without the irreverence or irony, is thought provoking, if even a bit disconcerting. What does the shift signify? Contemplating the resurgence of a conservative aesthetic form in painting at the beginning of the Thatcher and Reagan era, the critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh writes:
The question for us now is to what extent the rediscovery and recapitulation of these modes of figurative representation in present-day European painting reflect and dismantle the ideological impact of growing authoritarianism; or to what extent they simply indulge and reap the benefits of this increasingly apparent political practice; or, worse yet, to what extent they cynically generate a cultural climate of authoritarianism to familiarize us with the political realities to come.18
Ballet is facing a fateful time; it is being rocked to its foundation by #MeToo and questions of race. Slowly, it is changing. Wayne McGregor, the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, builds a company on stage that looks so much more like the multicultural society we inhabit, than the homogeneous, white world that has come to symbolize ballet. McGregor actively pushes back on the ahistorical and transcendent language of neoclassicism saying he doesn’t believe ballet is an abstract dance form (the medium is the message), but always tells us something about the human condition.19
Significantly, there is new work today we could classify as neoclassicism that recognizes Franko’s division between an academic, conservative neoclassicism and a radical one that uses vernacular or non-hegemonic movement and can be a powerful critique of power, the state, and the mob—an alternative neoclassicism.
At the end of the cataclysmic summer of 2020, at Lincoln Center (where Franko saw Lifar’s Suite en blanc), New York City Ballet’s Taylor Stanley danced outside, in front of the fountain, by himself. To Satie’s Gnossiennes and choreography by Kyle Abraham, the dance, Ces noms que nous portons (These Names We Carry), starts with, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” It begins with Ferguson and Michael Brown. We as an audience can recite all the names we know like a catechism. From that first movement of hands up, we then get a glimpse of Nijinsky’s faun. A hybrid ballet. A history ballet. If the Paris Opera Ballet never contextualized Suite en blanc for a NYC audience, this is not the case for Abraham and Stanley’s work. As it unfolds in our present time, we know all too well what it means. Stanley’s silhouette against the night sky echoes the night images of protests from around the nation. It is a tribute to Black America and to those who were killed, through an art form that often forgets Black America. It is a neoclassical ballet that uses Black dance forms. It is hybrid and American, and it stays with us. It is about history—one that carries hopes for the future. In a world that feels at war, the ballet offers the politicization of the aesthetic, a radical way to challenge the present.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), 122.
Quoted in Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 76.
Roger Fry, “The Futurists,” in A Roger Fry Reader, ed. Christopher Reed (1912; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 144.
I am grateful to Ara Merjian for correspondence on the question of Futurism and its exhibition history.
Holland Cotter, “When the Artists Voted for the Politics of Order,” The New York Times, October 10, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/11/arts/design/11chaos.html
See Ara H. Merjian, “Italian Futurism,” in Artforum, May 2014, https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201405/italian-futurism-46331
See Harry Harootunian, “A Fascism for Our Time,” The Massachusetts Review, January 6, 2021. https://www.massreview.org/node/9428
David Michael Levin, “Balanchine’s Formalism,” Salmagundi, no. 33-34 (1976): 216-36.
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” trans. John MacCombie, The Massachusetts Review 6, no. 1 (1965): 13-52.
Alan Riding, And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (NYC: Vintage Press, 2011).
Ian Burama, “Who Did Not Collaborate?,” The New York Review of Books, February 24, 2011, 18.
David Carroll, French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 12—quoted in Franko, 108.
T. J. Clark, “Picasso and Tragedy,” London Review of Books 39, no. 16 (2017).
Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” in Aesthetics and Politics, Adorno et al., trans. Frances McDonagh (London: Verso, 1977), 189-90.
Lifar, quoted in Mark Franko, Review of Suite en blanc, OpEdgy Arts and Performance, August 3, 2012, http://www.jampole.com/OpEdgy/?p=110
Franko, Review; Alastair Macaulay, “Right Bank Meets West Side,” The New York Times, July 12, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/13/arts/dance/the-paris-opera-ballet-at-the-david-h-koch-theater.html?searchResultPosition=4; and Marina Harss, Review of the Paris Opera Ballet, DanceTabs, July 13, 2012, https://dancetabs.com/2012/07/paris-opera-ballet-suite-en-blanc-larlesienne-bolero-new-york/
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (London: Routledge, 2002), 150.
Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October 16, (1981): 40.
Wayne McGregor, Royal Opera House, May 2, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbolliyWaF0&ab_channel=RoyalOperaHouse