Sunday, July 26, 2015

Didelot, Dunya, and Dionysius

In the center of my left cheek there is a faint crease, the mark of an old scar, which was formed when I was four years old. Some fancy had seized me, which had caused me to don a red plastic cube as a hat, and to begin twirling in the living room. I became drunken and giddy in my own spinning world, until I lost control, and the plastic cube slipped over my eyes. My left cheek soon found itself on a collision course with the sharp wooden corner of one of a pair of speakers that stood at attention on two sides of the room. Much blood and scolding ensued. Subsequently, I was discouraged from twirling around at home. 

Maya Plisetskaya, Romeo and Juliet, 1961

What impetus lurks behind the creation of an artist? Is it the result of a pure mastery of various techniques, a leap of faith, the trajectory of a soul in flight, or some combination thereof? What inscrutable forces simmer beneath the surface of a cultural phenomenon, such as the history of ballet?
Charles Didelot, a Frenchman, is considered the "father" of Russian ballet. He arrived in Russia in 1801, after studying under Noverre, and brought with him to the Imperial Ballet the idea of creating a theatrical concept of ballet.

The first meeting of Charles Didelot and Avdotia Istomina

The first meeting of the future ballerina Avdotia (Evdokia) Istomina and Charles Didelot took place in 1805, when Dunya was only 6 years old. The diminutive, dark-haired orphan was apparently dropped off at the St. Petersburg ballet school by a certain mysterious army flautist, who believed she had talent. Dance became Istomina's father and mother, her food, drink and shelter. Dancing and Didelot launched her into the eye of the public. At age nine, she made her debut, appearing onstage, astride an enormous swan, in the ballet, Flore et Zéphire, as a member of the corps. A few years later, she would prance onstage as a soloist in the role of Flora en pointe: the first ballerina in Russia to do so.

(A portion of a re-enactment of Flore et Zéphire by Yuri Soloviev and Natalia Makarova--alas, without a swan.)

According to the choreographer Lyubov Ryuganova, Charles Didelot was fond of conducting experiments on his students, and his young pupil Dunyasha became a favorite subject. He studied the origins of dance in ancient documents and legends. Once, in some half-forgotten archive, he found a manuscript on Dionysian rites. He brought it one evening after sunset to Istomina, on a tray, together with a glass of wine and a bunch of grapes. After a short explanation, the girl agreed to participate in her teacher's ritual. She sat at the table with him, drank the wine, and began to read the manuscript slowly, not entirely comprehending what she was reading.

Silence filled the room. Then, Dunya began tapping the table, as if in synchronization with a drumbeat heard by her alone. She beat the table faster and faster, until she sprang to her feet. She grasped the cluster of grapes, and tossed them one by one onto the floor, then trampled them with her bare feet. She ran to and fro, laughing, crying, and leaping madly, as if possessed by the twin forces of creation and destruction.

Whenever Istomina appeared on stage in one of Didelot's theatrical dance-spectacles, she delighted and surprised audiences by her technical skill and her ability to serve as the embodiment of a myth, to convey a story without words.


In this short life-time I have spent more time studying the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite than I have the rites of Dionysius.

But lately, I have been sensing the small hand of Dunyasha tugging at mine. "Let's dance," she begs. "I am too tired," I shrug apologetically. When I go out and sit on the stump in my garden, musing, head in hand, I hear the trees whispering: "Dance," they seem to murmur.

Will I be able to muster up the courage to join in the circle of maenads whose holy presence is haunting me? Or do I merely need to let go of what we would normally describe as reality?

Perhaps I am not so tired, after all.

Dance (Mark Chagall)

"We pray that we may come unto this Darkness which is beyond light, and without seeing and without knowing, to see and to know That which is above vision and above knowledge,"

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

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