Sunday, September 30, 2007

John Carey and the Mindlessness of Ballet

John Carey says a very odd thing in his review of a biography of Rudolph Nureyev - 'Ballet is mindless compared to other arts - as mindless as, say, football - and this restricts what can be written about it.' It's odd because I don't know what he means by 'mindless'. A great deal of mind goes into football and an incredible amount, some of it quite lucid, can be written about it. Much more mind would seem to go into ballet and much more can be written, most of it very lucid, about it. Perhaps he means ballet provides a more visceral hit than most arts. But that isn't true either. All art has to be, to some extent, visceral to work at all. Perhaps he means ballet is very abstract. But some is and some isn't and, anyway, abstraction is easily written about. I give up. Can somebody tell me what Carey is on about? I only run into him about once every two years so a direct question is unlikely in the near future.


  1. He was thinking of musicals. Easy mistake to make when you're as busy as he is.

  2. I think he is demonstrating his own personal bias toward novelists. Although I haven't read it myself friends told me the answer he gives to the title of his recent book What good are the arts ? is not much unless you read a lot. If that is a fair assessment of his arguement I don't think it says a lot for his own mind.

  3. Susan B., ton amie,September 30, 2007 3:10 pm

    I think Carey means that ballet, like painting and music, is a wordless form, yet we must use words to describe it. Words are great for describing literature -- other words -- but fail when encountering something outside of language. At any rate, I think that's what he means, because so much of what we call 'mind' is word-based. It's why no one can remember anything that happened before they were two or three: Without language, memories are inchoate.

    But, to Nureyev. What an unpleasant person. I did see him once, and it was another example of my failure to acquire high culture (I have also failed with opera, as I mentioned on the Pavarotti posts). A good friend of mine from grad school *loved* ballet and often took me to the ABT in NYC to see stuff. Despite the fact that my last name sounds almost exactly like the word "ballet," I was a philistine.

    Karen, however, didn't give up on me. If only I could see the greatest dancers, the greatest ballets, I would be converted. So we went to see Nureyev in "Swan Lake." Big problem. Nureyev was old by this time but in his narcissism, he insisted on playing the young male lead. It was terrible. Embarrassing. Physically he could not do the harder stuff. Even Karen was horrified and all I could hear was the heavy thumps of these faux-swans as they hit the stage floor.

    In the end, the only ballet dancer that has ever really interested me is one who died ten years before I was born: Vaslav Nijinsky. The poor man went mad, but he gave us a great insight into the mind of a gifted artist-- his Diary is an incredible work. I recommend it to all.

  4. Why would one ever expect John Carey not to be full of shit?

  5. I think 'mindless' is an unfortunate choice of word; probably careless, possibly meant to provoke this kind of reaction.

    Doesn't he just mean that ballet is one of the few forms of art which are performed by the body alone? Like football, it seems to be more about the body acting out of instincts and habits than acts of mind. Footballers, when asked how they scored a great goal, usually answer ‘I saw the ball and hit it’ or ‘I just stuck my laces through it’. They usually fail to score that great goal because they’ve been given too long to think about it.

  6. I have followed Carey's criticism for years and he has always struck me as being deeply knowledgeable and objective, not given to rash, ill-thought-out analysis. His beautifully balanced biography 'John Donne: Life, Mind and Art' remains one of my favourite books. But this review suggests that the day he penned it he was in a particularly foul mood, or was utterly revolted by the book's subject, or, sadly, he was demonstrating that he is losing some of the qualities that made him such a fine critic.

    I know little, bordering on nothing, about ballet, but whether Carey likes it or not, it's an art form loved by millions, and irrespective of any 'mindlessness' it is an important part of their lives. Surely, then, Nureyev becomes an important figure and it is far, far more his 'life' than the mechanics of his art that matters where this biography is concerned. I would therefore read the book to learn about the man and the world he inhabited rather than about ballet itself.

    Carey's reference to the 'mindlessness' of football is astonishingly stupid, but is Carey simply displaying his intellectual arrogance and sense of elitism, a man who associates football purely with the aimless booting about of a bag of wind, the worst aspects of Rooneyism and the obsession with money ? For anyone who stood transfixed by the glories of Best, Cruyff, Pele, Maradona and others, and felt truly uplifted by their astonishing, (dare I say it) balletic poise, their glorious technique, their reading of a game, their heart and spirit, their demonstration of truly graceful art, will groan in despair at Carey's ludicrous comparison.

    Is this a case of the 'disabusing blog' at work ? Is this another Effie ? A critic who has been pulling the wool for years, enjoying an undeserved reputation, and who is now revealed as a critic unworthy of the name ? No, of course not, but it does make me wonder if Carey is not quite what he was.

  7. Sorry Bryan,what I actually meant is that BALLING is mindless...

  8. I would bet that this comment has everything to do with general Western perceptions that the body is "dumb" compared to the mind. I don't need to edify all the examples of this timeless parsing of the body between its lower four-fifths and the head. So dance is often perceived as a "dumb" art because the subject tends to be "the body," which most people regard as vulgar. This is also evident in our disregard of the total body when we consider the idea of "genius." We assume it only a cerebral activity, rather than a total genetic makeup. I wrote some thoughts on this in an essay for a performance I gave last week. You can check it out here:

  9. I am a professional in the contemporary dance world, so I do not deem myself worthy of commenting on the credentials of the novel it’s self.

    But there is a point that many critics seem to over-look while reviewing dance work, and especially when ballet and contemporary works are unfortunately compared.

    This happens fairly often and to those of us who have dedicated years of our life training in such an art-form, it is rather offensive.

    John Carey may or may not have meant what I personally read the statement to be. I often see the work of English National Ballet compared to the likes of Hofesh Schecter, Pina Bausch and other such more abstract artists. It is the 20th century; I believe there is a big enough gap to separate the two art forms. A great deal of depth and though goes into the movement, training, staging, costume, lights and all aspects of the dance world when we think of contemporary. Ballet is a form so constricted by its own elite reputation and “form” that any amount of growth within its boundaries is minimal. It seems to me the same productions are put on year after year with little effort put into originality or change. It really is the ring-wing of the dance world.

    The point I am try to make is yes, I believe little thought goes into the world of ballet. Whether it is watching it which involves very little engagement from the audience, moves are repeated endlessly in a shallow world of fairy tales. Choreography often has little imagination predictable symmetry, entrances and exits and a cringe worthy sense of acting or story telling. Even the dancers within their training, and believe me I am not taking away anything from ballet training, it is one of the hardest forms of dance in the world to perfect. But the students are not trained as artists, they are trained to do what their told, however some may have the facility within their own bodies to do what they are told more easily.

    This creates competitiveness, which in turns created unsafe practice which can lead to anorexia and more serious issues. I have heard some horrible stories of people who used to be involved in the ballet world and have come out un-able to dance and neither have the in depth education to continue their career in other aspects of the dance world.

    Compared to its contemporary counterparts, very little thought goes into ballet in my opinion. From the training to on stage, it is an "art form" that carries little depth in a contemporary society.