The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts

The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts

by John Haskell

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Overview

A dark-hued, hybrid novel by a writer who “delivers our culture back to us, made entirely new” (A. M. Homes)

In The Complete Ballet, John Haskell choreographs an intricate and irresistible pas de deux in which fiction and criticism come together to create a new kind of story. Fueled by the dramatic retelling of five romantic ballets, and interwoven with a contemporary story about a man whose daunting gambling debt pushes him to the edge of his own abyss, it is both a pulpy entertainment and a meditation on the physicality—and psychology—of dance.

The unnamed narrator finds himself inexorably drawn back to the pre–cell phone world of Technicolor Los Angeles, to a time when the tragedies of his life were about to collide. Working as a part-time masseur in Hollywood, he attends an underground poker game with his friend Cosmo, a strip-club entrepreneur. What happens there hurtles the narrator down the road and into the room where the novel’s violent and surreal showdown leaves him a different person.

As the narrator revisits his past, he simultaneously inhabits and reconstructs the mythic stories of ballet, assessing along the way the lives and obsessions of Nijinsky and Balanchine, Pavlova and Fonteyn, Joseph Cornell and the story’s presiding spirit, the film director John Cassavetes. This compulsively readable fiction is ultimately a profound and haunting consideration of the nature of art and identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977870
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 09/19/2017
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Haskell is the author of the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock and the novels American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin. His stories and essays have appeared on the radio, in anthologies, and in many magazines. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

ACT ONE

La Sylphide

The story of my ballet begins in a large house. It has wooden beams, a stone fireplace, and in front of the fireplace a man, slumped in a wingback chair, is sleeping. He's young, about to be married, still living with his mother, and we can't know for sure but he's probably dreaming, not about his future wife but about another woman, in this case a girl, a young girl, a thin, young ballerina playing the role of a sylph.

When I say the story of my ballet I'm referring to what they call Romantic ballet. And I say begins because at a certain point ballet changed. What it was, a court dance, became what it is, a way of moving in the world and thinking about the world and it started around 1832. That's when Marie Taglioni first performed the ballet La Sylphide. She was the Sylph, and the Sylph was a kind of angel, and because angels can hover above the ground that's what she did. Arnold Haskell, the ballet critic, said of Taglioni that she walked among the tree tops, meaning that when she rose up on the points of her toes she seemed to be blown about, like a feather. And I mean literally blown about like a feather. As James exhales, she's blown away from him, and when he inhales she's pulled toward him, drawn by his breath and by her curiosity, about love and desire and about sexuality, her own sexuality, which is why she's come to the house of this ... and yes, James is handsome. He's physically perfect. His strong, erect torso, and the muscles of his calves and hamstrings, stretching the leotard under his kilt, are attracting the Sylph, his stalker, or really she's more like a bee hovering around his sleeping body, her own body covered in layers of thin, white fabric.

The story of my ballet started years ago when my daughter was about three years old. She saw a production of The Nutcracker, and because she wanted to be like the girl in the story I began reading her the story, and then other ballet stories, and the books we had described the lives of the characters she loved, Odette and Giselle and although they suffered, and usually died in the end, my daughter started imitating them. She called herself Aurora or Clara, and wearing Halloween butterfly wings she danced around the house in a way she thought a sylph would dance. Her infatuation with ballerinas got me interested not just in ballerinas but in the roles they played, in their lives and lovers and here I am, years later, thinking about the father of the original Sylph. Filippo Taglioni was the choreographer of La Sylphide, the one who taught Marie the footwork that made her famous, the footwork she dedicated her life to. It's the footwork we now think of when we think of classical ballet but for the audiences who first saw her dancing en pointe it must have been a revelation. Here was someone, without ropes or harnesses, leaving the gravitational constraint of the earth, rising up to what they believed was up there, which was heaven. They didn't see the years of subjugation, the hours spent molding the muscles of her legs and feet, the bruises, the pain, the laces of her slippers tied so tight the blood stopped flowing. What people saw when they saw her was a vision, part girl and part creature, an ethereal creature who, flying across the stage, balancing literally on the tips of her toes, reflected their ideas of what an ideal person could be. All ballet is about idealization, and in Romantic ballet the bodies of the dancers don't just dance. By taking on the attributes of actual people they become actual human beings, and every human has a story, and we live in our story, and by following the choreography of that story, step by step, our lives are created.

La Sylphide is set in Scotland, the land of fairies and spirits, and because James is Scottish, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume he believes in the reality of sylphs. But he doesn't. Like a lot of people he only believes what he already knows, and when he encounters an actual sylph, the white tulle cascading out from her waist, he assumes she's a dream. Because the wings attached to her back, the gossamer wings, allow her to fly, and she does fly, something humans can't do, she must be a dream. His dream, because she's hovering around his chair. And being a dream, although he can feel the heat of her body passing up through the hairs of his nostrils, it takes a while before he believes it. Plus there's the fact that no one else can see her. His old friend Gurn, his only friend, is snoring away by the fire, and even if he wasn't sleeping he wouldn't see her because sylphs can be invisible to those they're not flirting with, and although flirting isn't the right word, the girl is interested in James.

I don't remember the first ballet I ever saw but I remember the ballerina. She was only slightly older than I was, and what I remember wasn't her dress or her dancing but her nakedness. I was about fourteen, and innocent, and because her costume was meant to suggest her nakedness, it did. Even now when I watch the videos of dancers from the Kirov or the Royal Ballet, I can sometimes imagine them without their costumes, just bodies moving, and I can begin to imagine what people saw when they saw Taglioni for the first time. Before her, ballerinas danced in gowns, like wedding gowns, but Taglioni, because she wanted people to see what her feet and her ankles were doing, raised the hems of the dresses she wore. And in 1832, to expose your ankles was saying, in effect, look at my body, and what does my body inspire? She was tacitly acknowledging the sexual aspect of her personality, and she could let that sexuality emerge because of the ethereality of the character she was playing. Ethereal is defined as being delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world, and because she embodied the purity and asexuality of a nymph or a sprite or a spirit, she could get away with more revealing costumes.

In La Sylphide, as in any Romantic ballet, a woman, or a fantasy of a woman, is the star of the show. Her dilemma, usually, is that she's going to die, or is dead, and the question arises: Is love still possible? And how do you get to a place where love is possible? When the Sylph alights, coming down off her toes and kneeling over James, asleep in his chair, her innocence is being tested. Innocence originally meant not injuring, and she knows it's dangerous, stretching the confines of what her life has been so far but she's tempted. She can feel the desire to reach across the arm of the chair and touch his ribs, and below them his soft belly, rising and falling, and she's tempted because it's new to her, and also because it's forbidden. She looks across the room to Gurn, snoring away under his wiry red beard, and we assume he's asleep. James is also asleep, and she leans over him, feeling his warm breath and the warmth of his body radiating into her skin and the pores of her skin, and she's not rubbing against him but she imagines what rubbing would be. And it's not a typical temptation because he's not the one who's tempting her. It's her own desire, pulling her closer to him, to an experience of life and the desire of life, and that's when she places her two lips, which had been hovering over him, on his two lips, and by opening her lips she opens his lips and that's the kiss, when James wakes up, he remembers.

But was it real? Immediately James rouses his friend, wanting to know if what he felt, or saw, or thinks he saw, or was I dreaming? But Gurn doesn't know what James might have seen because he was dreaming his own dream, not about a sylph but about Effie, the young woman James is going to marry. So he doesn't say anything. Partly he's guilty for dreaming about his friend's fiancée, and partly he's jealous that she's not his fiancée. And James isn't listening anyway. He's having trouble explaining the kiss because he's still trying to register the kiss. Like a dream in which you have to pee, and then waking up, you find you really do have to pee. Which means the dream is not necessarily not real. James is feeling the kiss and feeling the dream of the kiss, and the dream and the actual kiss start to merge, like two tangential ideas that, when they come together exert a force that works its way from the nerves in his lips, up into his brain, and from there it works its way down his body, like a current, where it pools in his pelvis. When he asks his friend about the vision he thinks he saw, about a girl leaning over him and touching him, Gurn looks up from whatever he was pretending to distract himself with. In ballet, everything is either danced or acted out in gesture, and when Gurn acts out his answer James is unsatisfied. Some creature made contact with him, a girl, and he looks toward the fireplace where she seems to have disappeared, and you didn't see it? I definitely saw ... and he doesn't know what he saw, and Gurn reminds him that he's about to get married, that it's normal to have some pre marital anxiety and he needs to get it together, it meaning his emotions, which are wild, and getting it together means control, which in his case means denial.

Ballet, at some level, is about the tension between, or the union of, control and abandon. Dance originated as a way to speak with the gods, to celebrate and plead, and to act out the Dionysian urge to abandon our bodies to some greater force. And the history of dance has been a history of taming that force, of joining the orgiastic impulse with an impulse that would give it structure. Control is part of it, and molding the body into an idealized version of who we want to be is also part of it. Which is why the Sylph appears to be part of this world, but also part of another world, a mythic world. It's why she straddles not only the binary notions of human and non human but also of man and woman. She's not quite one or the other because, first of all, she's not fully formed. She's virginal, with the androgynous attributes of someone who's been poisoned or cursed or enchanted to remain always a virgin, always in search of love but never able to consummate that love. And the men who fall in love with her are not completely normal either. James, normally, would be thinking about his fiancée, excited and nervous, but it's hard to focus on her right now because his attention has turned to the air, to a creature, asexual and therefore super sexual, imaginary and therefore perfect, who has kissed him. And because he's a dancer, and because dancers are attuned to the irrationality that resides in the body, and because the nature of dance is to follow the dictates of the body, the dichotomy of real and imaginary becomes elastic.

Today we do not know how the great Taglioni danced — from the prints and lithographs we can only recognize the incorporeal effect she produced on her contemporaries — but her art is not dead. Some little girl in London, Paris, or Milan dances differently because Taglioni once existed. She will carry part of Taglioni in her, as only an exciting memory, but a memory that is creative, that has made and still is making dancers who will possess something of her poetry, even some of her technique, and especially the will to serve.

— ARNOLD HASKELL

Unlike Haskell, I'm not interested in writing a guide to dance. I'm trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing, like the moving body thinking itself into existence. Not being a dancer I don't understand all the intricacies of a bourrée or pas de chat, and partly because I don't, when I watch a ballet, or a video of a ballet, what I see in the story is a version of life that's enough like mine but different, not necessarily better but yes, in a way, more beautiful and meaningful and we all have desires. Like any myth a great ballet expresses both my desires and the afflictions that follow. Like anyone, Effie and Gurn and James, and even the mother wants the world to be different. Which means they want themselves to be different. And this affliction, in the story, seems plausible. It wasn't uncommon, in that particular Scottish village, for a son to live with his mother. And the mother, interested in her future daughter-in-law, has been upstairs with Effie, hemming dresses and lacing up slippers, and when Effie walks down the stairs she's glowing. James doesn't notice, but Gurn does. When Effie steps off the final step he bows to her, a little awkwardly because, never having been in love he doesn't know how to act. But he tries. He presents her with a basket, not of flowers, but he's been hunting, and the basket he offers her has a bird inside. Effie looks in the basket, and although it's weird to give someone a bird, a dead bird, in the version by the Bolshoi Ballet, Effie kindly accepts his awkwardness. She's more interested in the man she's about to marry, and when she turns, reaching out with her hands, signaling her desire for attention, because James is distracted by thoughts of the Sylph he can only manage a distracted smile. And I suppose it's because she's preoccupied with marriage preparations but she doesn't notice, when he takes her hands, that his attention is only a pretense of attention. Hi, honey, he seems to say, and by giving her an affectionate hug he convinces her that his love is undiminished. He says he loves her, and he wants to love her, and Gurn is seething but what can he do?

(Continues…)



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