Is there such a thing as “Englishness?” What would be at the heart of such a quality—habits and customs, the time reserved for a late-afternoon snack, the famously reserved sense of humor? I’m writing this from America, a country that can only define its people by their plurality and multifariousness, the “anything goes” mentality which frequently manifests itself as aberrant exceptionalism. But contemporary scholars and thinkers shun the idea that a national stock or stereotype even exists. Characterizing a country’s people reveals more about the observer’s bias and preconceptions than it does anything else. According to this line of thought, no, there is nothing essentially “English.” To believe otherwise would be to risk the sin of “essentialism,” that father of all hegemonies and their consequent injustices—patriarchy, racism, sexism, etc.—whose power structure depends on attributing intrinsic qualities to a certain group people, and delineating the qualities and the differences between them in order to justify the exploitation of one or more groups.
Where does that leave the style traditionally attributed to a national ballet company? Is the ahead-of-the-beat timing and frank physical expression of NYCB really indicative of an American mentality? According to Edwin Denby writing a half century ago, yes, it was. Governments used to fund their national companies’ tours abroad not out of any altruistic sense of duty to the arts, but because dancing was thought to express something of the national soul. In the ballet world, the lingua franca of dance, ballet dancers not only had to master the steps, they also had to add an accent to the standardized Latinate vocabulary. This inflection was supposed to be representative of their country’s manners and charms: the way they took their coffee or tea in the morning, the activity or passivity suggested in their language’s verb tenses, the flavors and perfumes of their wines.
It’s 2015. The post-national, post-patriotic globalized economy is a homogenized one in which everything is mixed. Foodies fetishize terroir only because it is so rare. Dancers leave one country, one company, for another, all the time. The “closed” companies—those that only hire from their national school—are the exception rather than the rule. In this context, a style which used to be considered a paragon of a people, an expression of their essence, is now more affect than style, something to be taken up for the sake of flair rather than anything intrinsic to the place one calls home.
During the Royal Ballet’s tour in New York—its first visit to the US in eleven years—there was a demonstrated effort to assert what the British ballet is supposed to be today. When asked by journalist Marina Harss whether or not there was an “English style” of ballet, artistic director Kevin O’Hare replied in the affirmative. “There are certain technical things, the intricacy of the footwork and the supple use of the upper body, and the way the head moves with or against the movement of the rest of the body,” he said. Then there was the roster of choreographers: all men, all from the UK (save for a token Nijinska, “Le beau gosse,” though this comedic number has a distinctly British rather than Polish sense of humor). The company boasts a large number of foreigners—from Argentina, Australia, Korea, Portugal, Cuba, Russia, Italy, the US—but they all dance seamlessly in the Royal Ballet School style, with a certain braided tension between the upper and lower body and a reserved yet expressive épaulement. The corps de ballet had a particularly striking uniformity of line, especially when it came to the port de bras—not a finger out of place.
The characteristics O’Hare identifies as his national style can be attributed to the Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer Frederick Ashton, the great classical visionary of the twentieth century. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion by the Ashton biographer and scholar David Vaughan, the Royal was the first to disown him and his treasure trove of a repertoire, shrugging off his influence for the racier, raunchier Kenneth MacMillan in 1970. Over the course of the past twenty years or so, much effort has been made to revive Ashton’s stake in the canon, though it’s interesting to note that the greatest of these efforts have taken place in the US and not in England. This falls in line with the divide between story or psychology-oriented dancing versus formal abstraction; for reasons too complicated to list here, the former has always flourished in Europe, while the latter (the tradition in which Ashton was rooted) gained traction in the US.
In this case the Royal Ballet presented Ashton’s “The Dream” (1964), a so-called “heritage piece” of the repertoire. This Shakespearean vision was decidedly more intricate than that of Balanchine’s, whose own take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had been presented just a week earlier on the same stage. Ashton puts everything under a cover of darkness, and does away with the triumphant orderliness of Balanchine’s non sequitur triple marriage finale. Here the moon was low and large; Titania hides in a knotty tree trunk cave rather than the pink fluffy chaise of NYCB’s production. Bottom bumbles about and gives us a few laughs, of course, but he’s allowed to play more of a central character; a whole number is dedicated to his waking up slowly out of Puck’s disenchantment, reaching for his fuzzy ears which have disappeared, trying one last time to go through the motions of his donkey reverie. As he stumbles off, hoofless, tailless, dreamless, we’re given an analogue of our own experience as theatergoers, our disbelief no longer suspended as we walk out into the bright lobby lights.
Next up was MacMillan’s “Song of the Earth” (1965), a strange allegory of death that was inspired, at least in part, by Kurt Jooss’s “The Green Table.” The whole dance serves as a woman’s anticipation of and then elegy for her dying lover. MacMillan made the work for the Stuttgart Ballet after the Royal told him that Mahler’s music was unsuitable as a dance accompaniment, and I happen to agree. Every musical molehill has been made into a mountain, every sustained note trebled one too many times. The melodic layers, dripping in sentiment, obscured the purity of the dancing. Because that was the surprise of it all: the dancing was pure. We tend to think of MacMillan as the sexy choreographer who liked to throw women about in his pas de deuxs. In this he demonstrated a beautiful clarity and simplicity of expression, the gestures slowed, distilled in the way a scene appears on the opposite riverbank when viewed through a window. This mythic sense faded into the overly archetypal, at times; Death postured and menaced, and MacMillan made awkwardly literal the German from the Chinese lyrics into rather gauche Orientalisms. But all in all, “Song of the Earth” gave a powerful representation of the first curdling awareness of mortality.
In the evening that followed the Royal put on a train wreck of divertissements, most of which were trying to stake their claim in edginess in all too predictable ways. The theme, as demonstrated by the male roles created by Calvin Richardson, Alastair Marriott, Liam Scarlett, and Christopher Wheeldon: men can feel. They can demonstrate the sufficient pathos needed in order to take on the “Dying Swan” solo; they have physio-existential angst which they express by gravity-defying sautés which end in heaps on the floor; in Scarlett’s “The Age of Anxiety,” they can even kiss each other. A narrative I’m all for, but not when it is used primarily for shock effect. If we were not given melodramatic solipsism, there was plenty of cold opportunism to go around, as in Wayne MacGregor’s “Infra,” in which the primary ecstasy took place in the revelation of the crotch, both male and female. Heavy torque was mistaken for good art. The Royal Ballet’s revival of Ashton’s legacy was made, in part, in order to claim that the tradition of the “British” style remains strong. Their choice in living choreographers would suggest otherwise.