The Writer's Guide to the Ballet

Ashley Wurzbacher

Feb 28, 2014

On Thursday evening I attended The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the Houston Ballet's performance of three short contemporary ballets by Stanton Welch, its Artistic Director. I try to attend everything the Houston Ballet does (though I generally skip child-friendly performances like The Nutcracker in favor of more abstract, modern pieces).

My favorites are those that are lyrical and non-narrative, that aren't too bouncy or happy, and that have either a slightly mournful or a sensual quality—or both—about them, like Welch's Maninyas, my favorite of the three pieces I saw on Thursday. Maninyas is a lyrical series of pas de deux and pas de trois that opens with each dancer emerging slowly from behind a billowing silk sheet and that captures, abstractly, the ways in which the self is "unveiled" through relationships with others. To me, there's nothing more beautiful than a pas de deux, in which the boundaries of the body and the self are blurred--it's combination, empathy, the merging of interdependent self and other, two bodies into a single form. It's at once sex and self-control, rigidity and fluidity. (Watch a clip of one of the pas de deux from Maninyas below):

Why should a writer care about a fine pas de deux? More broadly, why should a writer attend the ballet? Aside from the obvious reasons--that as artists ourselves we respect and can sympathize with others' devotion to their art, that we understand that the arts cannot flourish without patronage and support, that it's good citizenship to participate in the cultural scene of the city in which we live, and, most simply of all, that we appreciate pretty things--I'd argue that it can also benefit our writing, or at least the terms in which we think about our writing and what it can, or should, do.

Numerous writers and theorists, especially feminist, have explored the connections between writing and the body. In feminist theorist Hélène Cixous's theory of l'ecriture feminine, or feminine writing, the body is positioned as the key to women's ability to forge their own literary tradition, one in which voice, rhythm, and transcendent identification with the other—rather than differentiation from the other—are privileged. She writes, "We have turned away from our bodies. Shamefully we have been taught to be unaware of them, to lash them with stupid modesty."

Cixous urges writers, particularly women, to write through their bodies, to achieve in their writing a rhythm that is akin to the rhythms of the body: "Woman must write her body, must make up the unimpeded tongue that bursts partitions, classes, and rhetorics, orders and codes." Our common discourse on writing, too, invites us to consider the links between text and body. We speak of one's oeuvre as a body of work; we speak of body paragraphs and of the "organic," "natural" order in which they should appear in order to most effectively facilitate meaning.

If we think of text as body, and we are aware of the ways in which the body can become art through dance, then we can consider the movements of dance—dancers' seemingly-intuitive but in fact deliberate and carefully-choreographed understanding of how to respond to the pull and release of rhythms and cadences, when to pause, freeze, stiffen, let loose—as analogous to the rhythms of language. And if our words and texts are bodies, if they come fromour bodies, it makes sense for us to think very deeply about how to use what Cixous calls "suspenses and silences"—pauses, white space, punctuation that guides and instructs the reader in how to read our sentences, that serves (or can) almost as musical notation, establishing pacing and rhythm—to produce prose or poetry that flows as the body flows through dance.

For me, the ballet is also a reminder of the power of defamiliarization as an artistic device: the body is defamiliarized through dance. In his well-known essay "Art as Technique," Victor Shklovsky coins and explains the concept of defamiliarization, through which we are asked to view things as if for the first time; ordinary objects or concepts are phrased or depicted in such a way that they appear to us fresh and strange, and as such, they invite us to reconsider our own minds, our ways of seeing, and our place in the world. Shklovsky writes,

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Figures of speech aim to defamiliarize; metaphor renders the familiar unfamiliar by asking us to make surprising associations between objects or concepts. We strive to create images that intrigue the reader by offering them a vision of the world that is slightly skewed, that give us a picture of the commonplace made new and strange.

Dance does the same with the body: Nothing is closer or more familiar to us than our own bodies, which we cannot escape. And we're accustomed to these bodies being burdensome, ever-unsatisfactory encumbrances that are either too big or too small, that run into things and can't be managed as we would like. So to consider the body as art feels deliciously unfamiliar, indulgent, hopeful.

Even though the bodies performing are not our own, they're still bodies, they're still human, and that they manage to be art surprises and thrills and moves us. I leave the ballet, each time I go, with a renewed sense of the beauty of the world, and of the human capacity for beauty--our capacity to create it, to see it, to feel it, enjoy it, be it. I leave thinking that maybe we're not such slobs after all; maybe there's hope for us; maybe, if I'm lucky, I can even go home and write something.

I drive home in silence so there is nothing to disrupt the rhythm of those bodies still moving and flowing in my mind, and that I hope to transfer, later, if I'm lucky, into words and cadences on a page. If I still haven't convinced you to patronize your local ballet, check out the video below: a short clip of a pas de deux from Murmuration, which the Houston Ballet performed last spring, and which remains my favorite piece I've seen from them:

You can still catch The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra at 7:30 pm on March 14 and 15, or at 2:00 pm on March 9 and 16. Get tickets here. And if you can't make it this time around, try to catch Modern Masters, a mixed repertory program, in late May, or Swan Lake in June. And if you can't make those (!), the 2014-2015 season offers lots to appeal to writers; it will feature several interpretations of Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew).