This evening we went to the Ballet for the first of the season's offerings. It was program I, and there was something (Prism) by Helgie Tomasson, the artistic director, and a new piece (Diving into the Lilacs) by Yuri Possokhov, formerly a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, and now a Choreographer in Residence with the company. It was, however, in the final piece of the evening, The Four Temperaments, by George Balanchine, that I realized that this was my most favorite ballet - one which I could watch over and over again, always reading something new.
What I like about this ballet, premiered in New York in November of 1946, is its unabashed modernism and angularity. When, in the first movement, "Theme", four female dancers enter from the corner with their legs extended and then bent with the thrust of their pelvis, I am in this ballet's thrall. Perhaps it is also the almost "Egyptian" arm movements, or the sheer athleticism of the movement that has me so delighted. Symmetry, angularity, stride, and above all form and simple movements frame this ballet for me.
As I watched the ballet this evening, it evoked for me a world that I once thought fresh and new, and probably still do - although we have moved on to other forms and styles. This world is a world of music by Paul Hindemith (whose "Theme with Four Variations" is used for the ballet), Hugo Distler, Igor Stravinsky, or Aaron Copland. That this musical world is passe to so many was made clear to me when the Lutheran Book of Worship was introduced in 1978, and critics dismissed its hymn settings as "hindemithian", i.e. strong and strident, not sweet and sentimental. My ex-wife Joanne Koerber Owen, a wonderful organist, won an organ competition in Chicago in 1969 by playing Distler's Trio Sonata, a lucid, transparent piece of organ music that clearly evidenced her stunning technique as opposed to the "war horses" chosen by the competition. Of current music, only Philip Glass and perhaps John Adams speak to me as these earlier composers do.
My good friend, Dr. Paul Groth, is of a similar mind, in some respects. Once, after he had purchased a new home in San Francisco, Anna, Arthur and I joined him, giving advice on what to hang, how to hang it, and where to hang it. Anna suggested a trio of pictures on a wall in the dining room. "I don't do triangles," Paul quickly commented, and I knew immediately where he was coming from - Barcelona and the German Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. Like the Hugo Distler Trio Sonata, this building is of a transparent craftsmanship. Edges are sharp and clean, decoration is limited to mass, color, and frame, joinings are not hidden under decoration or camouflage.
There are other pieces of architechture that come to my mind as I think about this dancing and this music. There is the pilgrimage church to Saint Anne, rebuilt by the German architect Rudolf Schwartz. Like others of his peers in Germany, Rudolf Schwartz took the war-ruined churches of Germany and endowed them with new visions of ecclesial expression, often anticipating the reforms that would only come with the winds of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Another pilgrimage church, again replaced due to the ravages of war is Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, which took the technology of plane building and applied it to a church.
It is a world that in some sense became dystopian, such as the adaptation of Corbu's architectural principles in a Saint Louis public housing project, which was destroyed some years later. These structures, this artwork, the ballet, the music, is none of it immediately self evident, existing on thrills and effect. It is subtle and quiet, elegant and stark.
Perhaps my preferences come from living in an Eero Saarinen environment during my college years, sitting on Charles Eames chairs and lounging on Knoll sofas. Perhaps it was the simplicity that came with an "innocent" America following the war, and a Europe that had to look somewhere new. It is a comfortable world to visit, for me, and I thank Mr. Balanchine for the trip.
Now onto Benedict XVI, and neo baroque!
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