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On attending the ballet the very same day war broke out in Ukraine

On attending the ballet the very same day war broke out in Ukraine
Dancers perform during a dress rehearsal for the Monte Carlo Ballet's "Romeo and Juliet" at London Coliseum on April 22, 2015 in London, England. Image: Ian Gavan / Getty Images

I went to the ballet the same Thursday that war broke out in Ukraine. It’s crazy to me that a major humanitarian crisis should, like the ballet, like the movies or a dinner party, have a date, that war should adhere to the polite conventionalism of a calendar.

I am the spectator of the orchestra – from Kafka’s diaries

As though you could say, ‘Sorry, can’t do war on Thursday; I’ve got tickets to Romeo and Juliet.’ Of course, you can’t: war breaks out, it isn’t scheduled in. It is by nature of its ‘breaking out’ always bad timing. So, what aspect of war is supposed to be contained in something as trivial, as banal, as crudely reductive as a ‘24th of February’? 

Sergei Prokofiev, the composer who wrote the now popular Romeo and Juliet ballet, was subject to another kind of untimeliness in his life. Even his death was bad timing: he died in Moscow on the same day as Stalin — within the hour in fact. And during his life, working in the shadow of Shostakovich and Stravinsky, censored and banned by Stalin’s politburo, it seems to me he was either too radical too early or too conventional too late; and finally, even his death was eclipsed by his tormentor.

But what is considered untimely in its day might still possess a lasting contemporaneity. 

For example, a romance that ends with the espousal of ‘bad timing’ is always harder to come to terms with. It’s those relationships which leave an opening for the time to come right, and for reunification to occur at some vague point in the future, which hangs over the heartbroken individual. The untimeliness of this kind of affair is experienced as something rare, almost outside of time. 

Perhaps this is the reason for the lasting legacy of enigmatic people like Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, and perhaps Prokofiev too. And maybe this theory has something to do with the wonderful floating sensation I experienced as I made my way, only a little drunk, and only a little untimely, to Holborn, London, for the ballet.

On 24 February at The Royal Opera House, passing the coat check and waiting in the queue, I am handed a programme for the evening: Romeo and Juliet it says in big gold lettering. “Choreography by the late Kenneth McMillan, starring Francesca Hayward as Juliet and her real-life partner, Cesar Corrales in the role of Romeo.” The text appears below a photo of Hayward, her body italicised. Behind her, supporting this unnatural pose is an impassioned Corrales.

Earlier, on CNN, I saw images of children shivering in their pyjamas in a makeshift bomb shelter. A few hours later I am caught in the maelstrom of evening gowns and heavy earrings, watching men in tweed jackets and thick spectacles nod to each other in the foyer. The contrast seems barbaric, but one of the few advantages of our modern sensibility is the ease with which we carry these hypocrisies without a blemish to our self-perception. Adept at erecting borders, the modern subject is capable, if need be, of keeping entire realities apart. 

Kiev, Kharkiv, Kherson, in a couple weeks will be rendered sad half-cities, eyeless and ruined, but in London on 24 February, The Royal Opera House is dazzling. While Russian tanks crawl across the border — or at least this is how I imagine it — an usher, small and stooped, with white cotton gloves, asks for my ticket and performs a stately gesture in the direction of my seat. “— Mind your step now, Sir.” I apologise as I climb over the knees of other audience members and sit beside an eccentric wielding an enormous pair of binoculars.

In the amphitheatre, I am greeted by the warm scent of leisure, of people with alcohol on their breath, of washed hair and perfume, and a rich updraft of flatulence. There is a confusion of sounds, the noise of conversation, men and women leaning over their chairs to chat, the clearing of throats, the orchestra tuning their instruments. I take in the voluptuous gold trim of the curtain, and gold figs and vines cast in stucco relief on the ceiling; I take in the red fabric of the seats and carpets, and the red reflected in the rising bubbles of the champagne, and the hearty blush of so many merry cheeks.

The lights dim and the commotion subsides. The man beside me raises his binoculars and cranes his head forward to reach what is apparently a vastly superior vantage point. The violins begin slowly: a light, lifting melody, which goes lilting over the audience like a sunrise over an ocean moving in wonderful colours, where dark heads of kelp bob on the surface, their long, hidden curtains trailing to the seabed. I’m reminded of South Africa, of Kommetjie, my family, the close mist of mornings, the rotating beam of the lighthouse, the distant freak of the guinea fowl. And the curtain is drawn back, lighting up our faces, revealing bright Veronese streets, in which a marketplace is slowly waking. 

***

Beautiful long-legged men, Capulets and Montagues, strut in tights and tunics, dance and flirt with women in motley dresses carrying laden fruit baskets. The women swirl effortlessly through their arms and around their bodies like water. A darting melody, staccato and birdlike, quickens the tempo but is as quickly hardened by trumpets, military, patriotic. 

A beggar is included in the procession — in rags, crutched and grim, she begs, is jilted and hobbles off stage in time to the music: reality is mannered here, tamed and kept apace. Now the young men cock and quarrel, and now they tease and mock each other, and this gives way to climatic sword-fighting. All around the vibrant stage rapiers clash. Some fell their victims, others are skipped over or parried with panache. The Duke appears to restore order, his wordless rage is sublimated by the music in a series of crescendos, which build and cascade into discordant blasts of accusation. Shamefaced, the men turn away. 

While the orchestra continues the Duke’s theme, the several Montagues and Capulets left dead on the ground are dragged into a pile in the centre of the stage. This is arranged slowly and almost clumsily as if by a child who is unhindered by propriety, drawing an offensive picture while we look on with growing embarrassment. If anything, this scene is a transitional one, of little importance. But for whatever reason, it affects me. The sense of impropriety lingers and it’s through this lens that I view the rest of the ballet.

(It’s as if, and let’s imagine this together, above the proscenium arch of the stage, a short and ugly angel has suddenly been lifted. Perhaps this has been achieved through the use of a trapdoor or a mechanical device of some kind, allowing the angel to perch above the ballet taking place below. 

The angel is peculiar, made up of many bodies, but it’s difficult to tell in the dim light of the opera house. Some parts, for example its right arm, which is amputated above the elbow, or rather broken off, resemble more a sandstone sculpture ruined by centuries than any human flesh. Other parts, though they are undoubtedly human, are mangled and serpentine in shape. The angel has no legs as such, but a long tail or member, misshapen and curled, which undulates almost like smoke, but nonetheless supports the weight of its scoliotic torso. It’s not certain whether its head (if we can call it a head) is turned in profile so that only one large eye is visible, or whether it has only a single eye, heavy-lidded and half-closed as though suffering some constant pain. There is something about the face of this angel, something about its mangled body and its eye, which is almost familiar to me, though it is like nothing I’ve ever seen.)

I want to turn away, but I find myself still focused on the Frankenstein heap on the stage. It’s a composite of bodies, made up of the lolling head of one, the limp arm of another. 

Names of cities and events fallen into history, which produced similar scenes, similar death piles, rise from my memory like tragic submarines; this one, in front of me on the stage, like all the others, is assimilated into the stock and trade of violence, a whole index of war, tragedy, death and calamity, which now promotes my imagination to substitute the dancers’ tights and bright tunics for bulky camouflage uniforms, to reduce the renaissance set to toppled masonry and rubble.

***

This substitution that I automatically perform, of Montagues and Capulets in a pile for victims of war, is complex because it is driven by a desire to be in solidarity with those suffering in Ukraine. Being aware of the process, however, I am confronted by the paucity of the effort. How can I ever be in solidarity? It’s a term which surely necessitates a unity between me and the sufferers, but I share nothing with them in this gilded theatre. More importantly, to claim this unity, to say ‘I am in solidarity’, means I have also claimed a knowledge of others’ suffering. All I really know is exactly the opposite, that their experience lies precisely outside of my ken; this substitution of dancers for Ukrainian soldiers — this creating of metaphors and allegories, finding patterns in things — is not enough. I find its ministry not only predictable but bureaucratic. All I can claim is an awareness of this impulse to meaning and narrative, at the very least I can pay attention to the gap between myself and others, I can tarry with the negative, trace its circumference. 

An analogy of this would be the way certain impressionist painters would flatten perspective and collapse the distinction between foreground and background. It’s not physical distance that is collapsed for me rather an understanding of myself in relation to others, a kind of epistemological collapse. 

In the same way that Monet’s stubby brushstrokes draw attention to his painting as painting, so too the over-the-top nature of the ballet, its indulgence in costume, in romance and extravagance, unimpeded by aesthetic scruples, that draws heightened attention to the performance itself. And this, in my eyes, is more honest than an attempt to ‘make it new’.  See, it’s not that the pile of dead men is realistic. It’s that it isn’t. In other words, the ‘dressing’ or dressage [training] of the ballet’s stylisation causes this breakdown. The effect however is not that I am disillusioned with the ballet, quite the contrary, it is my idea of reality, of supposedly ‘un-styled’ things, that I grow suspicious of. How could I be presumptuous enough to know these things that do not reveal themselves? how could I claim to be “in solidarity” to be “one-with,” when my knowledge formed entirely of representations sometimes as fantastical as this ballet? So, I experience this actors’ pile, this body of bodies, as the pathetic sum-total of my knowledge of the suffering of others.  

***

On the stage below, I watch the pas de deux of the Balcony scene. Juliet moulds around Romeo. Held in mid-air by him, she forms a pose, taut, the shape of a bow or a harpy, as though flight were a still performance; she moves like a mobile in a child’s room; her muscles are packed like feathers; her feet are the heads of strange birds. She is not caught because she was always held, but the posture of a capture is what Romeo enacts. This is much larger and slower than reality, more real than reality. He expands her, contracts her like an accordion or a sea creature, or like a kite. 

Next to me, my neighbour with his military-grade binoculars follows Juliet’s movement across the stage and I wonder if he sees Francesca Hayward, Juliet, or the phantom of someone from his past who animates her limbs. And I wonder if I were to stare down the reverse side of the binoculars if his eyes would appear very small and far away. Somehow this makes me question whether watching this ballet is so different to watching the news, which makes things feel very far away too. 


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I think of my phone and how if I were to take it out now, the small hand-sized rectangle of light would illuminate my face like an apple blossom in the dark of the amphitheatre. Through this device, through news reports, I gain a ‘knowledge’ of war, of the suffering it causes, but this is always framed, enclosed, reduced to a Lilliputian scale, like looking through the wrong side of a telescope. When Ukrainians are virtual and thumb-sized their realities can hardly threaten my own. As Baudrillard said of the Gulf War, “it is their virtual death that is at issue, not their real death.” How can we achieve an authentic solidarity when those we hope to unite ourselves with are always only apparitions? 

Meanwhile, Romeo crumbles like buildings, holds the corner of Juliet’s dress as if it’s her. Undone, unwound, witless in the stage lights, he becomes the dress, becomes no one. It’s something like a dialogue between solid and liquid, a vine growing and dying around a tree. Erotic, yes, but too mannered for sex.  Juliet, with pointed little steps goes tip toeing, glowing, gliding, delicate, alone, only to return urgently in two leaps and curl like tentacles around her love object. She swarms him in a shoal of girlish joy only to veer away again in a sudden moment. An exchange of intimate lines and curves, supplications, denials, conquests, but all play, all in the lap of mutual belonging. To pretend to abstain, to run looking back with a smile, to feel with fingers every corner; to make room, to widen and expand and occupy the full possibility of pleasure in possession.

– you are mine, little toy soldier, and you are mine.

***

Now that some time has passed since the evening of the ballet, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience.  Firstly, I was under the initial impression that the music I was hearing that night was written by a Russian composer, which contributed, no doubt, to my feeling of impropriety. Going to a Russian ballet seemed far more dubious to me than going to see, for example, a Ukrainian ballet. There was a mad kind of Ukrainian commodification going on at the time while anything with a Russian name or even a faint Russian flavour was boycotted.   

But in the period that followed this performance I have come to learn that Prokofiev was in fact born, not only in what we now call Ukraine, but in the Donbas region. The same area in which the present conflict began. This might be only a superficial discovery, Prokofiev undoubtedly thought of himself as Russian, but it has made me reevaluate that evening in Holborn.

Certain facts of Prokofiev’s life, then unknown to me, now stand out significantly. For example, two decades before Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev wrote his first ballet, commissioned by the impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev. On hearing the completed suite, Diaghilev criticised it for not being ‘Russian’ enough, and encouraged Prokofiev to make more nationalistic music, which indeed he went on to do. And I wonder if this biographical fact — being born in what the Tsars called the “new Russia”,  its inhabitants “little Russians”, what is now Ukraine — had any effect on Prokofiev’s sense of national identity and his artistic identity. After all, the name Prokofiev gave to this first ballet was the Scythian Suite, after those ancient nomadic people who were among the first inhabitants of the region of eastern Ukraine. 

Secondly, Prokofiev’s original ending to his Romeo and Juliet, written in 1935, altered Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy, giving it a happy ending, in which Romeo is stopped by the friar before killing himself. Soon the whole cast enters and performs a jolly romp before the lovers leave happily and the curtain drops. This was one of the many experimental aspects of the original ballet. It would have likely kept the ending had the Bolshoi theatre not been taken over by Soviet party officials. Joshua Barone, writing for the New York Times in 2018 about the events surrounding the ballet, summarises them as such: “Platon Kerzhentsev, chairman of the newly formed Committee on Arts Affairs, took charge of the Bolshoi and called for a state assessment of the repertory. “Romeo” was postponed, and Mutnikh [the previous director of the Bolshoi] was arrested as part of Stalin’s Great Purge, in which more than a million people were detained and at least 600,000 were executed. Among the victims were Piotrovsky [the dramaturge working on “Romeo”] and Dinamov [a critic and Shakespearean scholar who approved of its controversial ending].”

Piotrovsky was arrested and shot in captivity by the state police. In Prokofiev’s own apartment building, neighbours were disappearing, and he would have been fearing for his own life. Romeo and Juliet was considered ‘tainted’ and only premiered four years later with heavy alterations including the reinstatement of the tragic ending. 

***

Years before the Purges already, Prokofiev’s early piano works written in his youth, his Études, Sarcasms, and his first piano concertos, show extensive use of discordance and experimentation, which mark a rebellious personality often butting heads with the more conservative teachers and audience. “The devil take all this futurist music. We want to hear something pleasant!” was a remark heard at an early performance. I expect it was this rebellious modernising tendency that party officials would have found offensive, and which eventually led to the censorship and banning of his music.

The notes I heard that night in Holborn, travelled a long distance to reach me then. Their shortest journey was the one taken from the orchestral pit to the amphitheatre where the man with the binoculars and I heard them. Before the notes escaped through the violin’s f-holes, they were amplified in the instrument’s resonating chamber; each note began as a simple vibration, a tight copper wound string set in motion by a well-rosined bow, which travelled through the brass bar concealed within the body of the instrument. 

In another sense, the notes come from still further away. Imagine the calloused fingers of the violinist, tasting of bitter metal, which shift like valves mechanically on the fingerboard. They carry the melodies as signals from a complex system of nerves: through the hand, the wrist, through the arm, the brachial plexus, the spinal cord, the brain. These notes are translated and transmitted, a long passage, which in my simple mind I can only gesture to as the biological miracle of cognition: from the eyes through the optical fibres to the occipital lobe where they are processed and sent out again to navigate this soundless geography of information.

And still, the notes have come from even further. Before the photic radiation of crotchets and quavers were enjoyed by the eyes of the violinist on 24 February, the yellowed page of the scorebook on which these black symbols were printed, the fine knitted fibres of the page, which drank so wilfully the ink imposed on them, has a history to be considered, too. And likewise, the notes must have been printed at some point for the first time. I’d imagine this would have happened sometime in the latter half of 1939, in preparation for the premier of the ballet in Leningrad several months later. I can’t help but imagine that, while the mechanical parts of a press somewhere in Russia were printing these notes on a page for the first time, Hitler’s war machine was slouching towards Poland. 

But why not follow these notes even deeper into the past, through their different emanations from as far back as Spring of 1935, when Prokofiev began writing the ballet, the one with the happy ending. And behind the hand-written scribbles of these rough working drafts, could we detect the magnolia of that Springtime, the bluetit and the goldfinch at the window, the young leaves appearing on the trees like floating Chinese lanterns, and the slow fall of the apple blossoms. Could we detect latent and sublimated in the score, the personal life of Sergei Prokofiev himself, his hopes, desires, fears, hauntings and disappointments? Memories of his childhood, perhaps of his father; of his mother who was “a tall woman with beautiful, clever eyes,” who gave him his earliest piano lessons and wrote down his first composition when he was only five years old, who had died nearly a decade earlier? Did he think of his childhood perhaps, of her playing Beethoven Sonatas four rooms down from his as his infant eyes drooped, and he fell asleep? 

Due to the banning of his work and the professional excommunication that came with it, Prokofiev’s last years seem desperate. He was in severe debt; his work was perpetually turned down despite his attempts to appease Power with his compositions. Then Prokofiev died and his body was left in the house for three days due to the impenetrable crowds of Stalin’s mourners outside. When the coffin finally left the house, back roads were taken by the small gathering of family and friends to avoid the throng of the dictator’s procession.  Only thirty or so people, Shostakovich among them, attended his funeral where no music was played and no flowers were present. Every composer played at Stalin’s funeral, every flower in Moscow was in service to that end. In a music journal of the time Prokofiev was mentioned briefly on page 116 while pages 1-115 were in commemoration of Stalin. And yet, it is Prokofiev who, despite this untimeliness, or perhaps because of it, has achieved a contemporaneity, which is also in a sense an obscurity, something held back and unresolved.

***

The Ukrainian-born composer would refer to the need to “Prokofievize” a newly composed work, to rewrite it, to deconstruct the previous emanation. I don’t think this is unique to Prokofiev, this theory of revision, it seems like a necessary step for all creative work. I like to think of it as layering selves to achieve something only oneself could not, it’s like having a team of co-writers. 

The Prokofiev of 1935 who is inspired by Spring to write a happy ending, is not the same self who revises Romeo and Juliet in 1939, neither is Europe the same Europe, nor Russia the same Russia. His concerns four years later would not have been the same. So there develops what we might call a kind of timelessness, a feeling of something existing across time or outside of it. Ideas and emotions cross hatch and bond together like the fibres of the paper turned with a flick of the wrist by the conductor, and the music is let go, allowed to breathe across decades, from the composer to the audience, who listen, as I listened on 24 February, and imbue it with their own soul and completed. 

The word ‘fantasy’ has a Greek ancestor, phainesthai, a verb meaning ‘appear’ or ‘seem’, and in late Greek, ‘to imagine’ or even ‘to have visions’. From this word we also have the word ‘phenomenon’ (that which appears); as well as ‘phantom’ (illusion or unreality). All three words share a contradiction between seeming/imagining, and truth/a bringing to light — the light of knowledge and literally relating to phōs, ‘light’. The theatre then, I remember thinking to myself as I looked at my neighbour with his binoculars, is a kind of machine: a fantasy apparatus or a phantom apparatus producing spectacles of light. The impressive seating arrangements and the elevated stage where beautiful figures are revealed, brilliantly costumed and accompanied by an orchestra. Here, where people in need of meaning sit together in darkness and gaze open-mouthed into a realm of brightness and perfection.

When the curtains closed the audience applauded loudly with relief. Beside me, the eccentric neighbour, his hands occupied with his device, gave a rather old-fashioned, “here, here!” The second iteration of that preposition was lost in a rattle of phlegm. I stood up with everyone to exit the auditorium. On my way out I tried to catch a glimpse, through the throng of people, of the usher and his white gloves. But I was carried along by the movement of the exiting crowd too swiftly to see anything except the long hair, shoulder blades, and the straight backs of jackets immediately around me. The noise of the crowd was like a silence. And I imagined the jackets and dresses making their way to bars, into hum-coloured cabs, to homes in which the lights would be switched on, the babysitter paid, the earrings removed and laid on the dresser, the make-up removed, the pyjamas climbed into smelling of lavender scented detergent. I thought about how wonderful and soft the fabric of the usher’s gloves had looked. How white and immaculate he had kept them and how like wings they had seemed when he had waved me along. DM/ ML

In case you missed it, also read Memories in ‘Limbo’: Brett Murray’s bronzes sculpt ghosts from my childhood

Memories in ‘Limbo’: Brett Murray’s bronzes sculpt ghosts from my childhood

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