Saturday, December 17, 2011

Maya Plisetskaya in Ravel's _Bolero_

Maya Plisetskaya (Russian, born 1925)
In the news, in the world at large, around me--even within me--I see too much in human nature that fills me with dismay and horror. The evils of ideology, religion, superstition, misogyny, racism, nationalism, greed, malice, hate, violence, pettiness, corruption, hypocrisy, ignorance, wilful stupidity, egoism, egotism, and mental and physical laziness run amok wherever I look, and seem at times to increase precipitously as if in a feedback loop. It seems sometimes that hope and trust are groundless things, as sure as quicksand, as evanescent as mist in the morning sun. Faith in humanity, and in our  institutions, seems a bitter folly.

And then I encounter something new, something so worthwhile, so positive, so transcendently wonderful that my faith and hope are renewed and I see again the joy that can be found in that sometime spark that flares briefly a few times in every generation. A great artist, scientist, philosopher, or engineer can illumine his or her time and justify the human condition in its entirety for a while.

I wish to share one such paradigm-shifting encounter with you. A new star is in my personal firmament.

Just a few days ago, thanks to the extraordinary resource that is YouTube, I saw for the first time this performance of a dance to Maurice Ravel's Bolero by the incomparable Soviet-era ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya:

When this performance was filmed, she was 50 years old. Yes. She was born in 1925, and this performance was televised in 1975. So, just to further blow your mind, here she is, performing the Dying Swan, at 61 years of age:

I have talked about Maurice Ravel's Bolero many times in class, devoting more than one class period to discussing the music and playing a recording of it, to illustrate structure in musical composition to enhance a discussion of the influence of musical structure on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. Those who were in my class at that time will hopefully remember it, and be able, without further comment by me here, to appreciate the wonder of the choreography by Maurice Bejart.

The idea behind the composition of Bolero is that Ravel challenges a traditional "rule" of composition: Don't present something in the same way more than three times. It is a sort of showpiece of virtuoso composing--Ravel is demonstrating that he has the compositional skill to restrict his composition to repetition without development, and yet maintain and intensify the listener's interest through the piece.

Ravel introduces a four-measure rhythmic theme on the snare drum that repeats unchanging through the whole piece, over and over without pausing or altering pattern. As the drum repeats the rhythmic pattern for the first time, the melodic theme is introduced by a flute over the repeating drum. When it finishes, the drum continues on in another iteration of the rhythmic theme, and the melodic theme is now repeated, but by a different instrument; and again; and again; each time a different instrument or combination of instruments. The music progresses in a sort of stepped ascent, increasing in loudness with each iteration of the melody, with the final, 18th, repetition being played by all the instruments together. The final repetition with the entire orchestra finishes on a dissonant chord, as if an architectural structure has been constructed higher and higher until it collapses under its own weight.

Bolero is a constant crescendo to the end, and is wonderfully layered. It gathers in intensity progressively, and the music builds in passion and energy until the paroxysm at the end. The choreographer understood this very well, and the choreography begins almost robotically, with a single arm visible, going through a range of movement rather like the scoop of a backhoe. The dancer is emotionless, her movements symmetric and mechanical, almost pantographic. Gradually, in mirror of the orchestra's gradual unveiling of orchestral color and power, more and more of the dancer's body is introduced, her mobility increases, and she becomes increasingly animated. She progresses from robot to ecstasy, from machine to passionate abandon.

Plisetskaya's interpretation of the role is luminous. I consider it one of the greatest performances, in any medium, by any performer, that I have ever seen. She is her own instrument, and she plays with technique, genius, and beauty. She is strong, intelligent, controlled, beautiful, and in the end, wild, passionate, and the restraint that so restricted her at the beginning is violently thrown away. Plisetskay truly groks both the music and the dance and is unerringly graceful. But the beauty and elegance and intelligence of her movements never flags. Plisetskaya is mesmerising and sublime.

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