Saturday 31 December 2016

Book Review: The Art of the Dancer, by Richard Austin

Anna Pavlova's performance of The Dying Swan. Possibly the only footage of her dancing in the public domain

This is not a return to reviewing. It’s been just over two months since I announced a sabbatical, and I intend to stick to it. This is a rediscovery of a review written many years ago of the book that, in a way, introduced me to the world of performing arts. More specifically, dance. I may not understand much about the technicalities of Indian or Western ballet even now, but thanks to Richard Austin’s delightful book, I felt like I had an insight into the life and art of those driven, talented women (and men) who use their bodies to express themselves and create visuals that enthrall us.

Profiling a great artiste is never easy. Very few biographies of the truly artistically gifted have come even close to doing justice to the brilliance of their subjects. The task undertaken by Richard Austin in “The Art of the Dancer”, of profiling six of the finest exponents of an art so visual as dance becomes, then, positively Herculean. Dance is an enthralling form of art, comprising beauty of form and technique, of harmony with the music and of dramatic expression. Encapsulating the grandeur of this moving, living art form in mere words is like trying to compress the water of the Nile in a wine-glass. Having said that, Richard Austin does an admirable job of trying. This slim book is a treasure-trove of nuggets of information and insights into the lives of six artistes who were, in the strongest sense of the word, stars. Writing in very elegant prose, Austin tries to shed some light on the obscure facets of the lives of the dancers, their relationships with parents, friends and lovers, their impoverished backgrounds, their early training and how all these aspects contributed to making them the great artistes they were.

The book is divided into six sections, each devoted to one of the dancers.

Marie Taglioni
The first dancer profiled is the French sensation Marie Taglioni (1804-1884). Austin writes an interesting account of her glorious dancing and very pedestrian nature, creating a fascinating story of a woman whose failings were as human as her dancing was divine. Driven hard by a father who lived vicariously through his brilliant daughter, Taglioni, like Mozart before her, found solace in her dance, a rare gift that raised the ordinary choreography of her father to sublime levels. The first dancer to have an admirer throw a bouquet of flowers at the stage, she’d go on to be the recipient of the most extravagant gifts, inspite of her less-than-prepossessing personal appearance. Raised from extreme poverty to immense wealth and then reduced to poverty again by the depredations of her father, Marie’s story is of a person who was constantly striving to overcome her limitations, and invariably did.

Marie Taglioni (lithograph)

Anna Pavlova
He then moves on to the incomparable Anna Pavlova (1881-1931). Austin does not try to describe her dancing, and with good reason – by all accounts, such an attempt would have been futile. To all with even a passing acquaintance with the ballet, she will always be The Dancer, a gift of the Gods who chose to shine on the stages of our world like a comet, leaving in her tail a tradition of dance that is echoed in the movements and aspirations of thousands of aspiring ballerinas in schools from San Francisco to St. Petersburg. 
Pavlova, from the poster for a performance
Austin rather chooses to describe the nature of this woman who was capricious in her ways but steadfast in her determination, jealous but appreciative of her rivals, who dreamt in equal measure of being a princess and of taking the joy of dance to as many people as possible. Anna Pavlova learned early that she brought joy into people’s lives, that when they watched her dance, they left their sorrows, their troubles behind, and lost themselves in the beauty and magic of her art. She spent the rest of her life taking that art around the world, dancing in packed bull-rings in Mexico, in the middle of bloody street-fighting in Cuba, in places as far from the nerve-center of classical dance as India and New Zealand. The Dancer’s life is beyond explanation or justification, she just IS, and Austin manages to do an admirable job of chronicling this fact.

Anna Pavlova as The Swan

Isadora Duncan
Pavlova’s non-classical contemporary, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) presents another dilemma to Austin – a stormy petrel, a non-conformist, a free-style dancer who won over the most discerning audiences of Russia and Europe, the communist (famously waving a red scarf and baring her breast on stage in Boston, proclaiming “This is red! So am I!”)  defied categorization as she defied tradition and the greatness of her art, unlike that of the other dancers in this book, has largely died with her. Does Austin quite get into the mind of the eccentric, egotistic genius that this Irish-American beauty was? Could anyone? But he serves up, in his chronicle of her life and her freakish death, a picture of the tempestuous Duncan, her foibles, her passionate nature and her endlessly destructive love-affairs.

Isadora Duncan, forever free

Olga Spessivtzeva as The Swan
Olga Spessivtzeva, (1895-1991), the classical ice-princess is beautifully depicted by Austin, as he draws parallels and contrasts between her pristine frigidity and Pavlova’s sensual warmth. Olga’s almost detached approach to her art, seeing the dance as an end in itself, rather than as a means of pleasing an audience, is brought out in Austin’s account of her endless hours spent practicing in the studio. Her final descent into madness and recovery is surprisingly glossed over in a few paragraphs, but this profile remains one of the most intriguing pictures of the mysterious woman with the unpronounceable name.

Olga Spessivtzeva as Giselle, a young girl driven mad by grief. Foreboding.
Tamara Karasivena as Giselle. Mercifully not foreboding.
Austin presents Tamara Karasivina (1885-1978) in probably the most positive light of all – possibly because she was the most well-balanced, almost ‘normal’ inasmuch as an artiste of that calibre can be termed ‘normal’. Karasivena was the best actress and surely the most versatile dancer of her time, a fact Austin brings out beautifully in his profile of her. Painting a portrait of a great artiste and beauty who was surprisingly untouched by the arrogance of the typical diva and lived a happy, fulfilled life  - a startling rarity, sadly.

Karasivena and Njinsky

Dame Alicia Markova
The final portrait is of Alicia Markova, (1910-2004) the first great modern ballerina, a child prodigy who was the toast of London at the age of 10 and continued to enthrall audiences for another thirty years. Alicia was different from the other dancers…an enigma of a different sort. Technically flawless from a very early age, she took some time to realize her self-expression as a dancer, to infuse her own spirit into her performances. Austin presents an interesting story of a subdued, docile nature that lived and blossomed into its own under the lights of the stage.

Dame Alicia Markova

The Art of the Dancer is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the classical dance forms, but I would also like to recommend it to the casual reader and for those who wish to improve their own writing style. The book serves as a master-class in the use of prose to describe motion, showing in a rather poor light the attempts made by more celebrated writers of fiction.

In any case, for a generation that, like myself, has been brought up on physical education drills masquerading as dance, a peek into the lives of the true geniuses of the art can only be beneficial. It makes one long for something better, something more than what life in the mundane world has to offer. And that can only be a good thing.

I normally link to the buying page of books I review. Perhaps a commentary on what we have become as a society and in our relation to art, this book is no longer available on any major portal. Come to think of it, I found it myself only by merest happenstance. Still, if you do find it, hold on to it. It looks like this:

Prized possession. You may look, but you can't touch.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars story - A tribute to the 'many'.

Generally speaking, I avoid writing about franchise movies. Since my response is conditioned by my level of investment in the franchise itself, so there is that whole bias thing. The X-Men movies, for instance, have their pros and cons when compared to the comic book series, but I don’t think I’m the best person to comment on their merit as movies precisely because I’m so familiar with the characters. (Regardless of what a certain IQ-deficient person who challenged my knowledge of the franchise might think)

Watching X-Men: Apocalypse, for instance, was a lot of fun, because despite its many, many flaws, it had a few ‘crowning moments of awesome’. Also, the reviews had been so terrible that I went in expecting something worse than X3 : The Last Stand, and simply by not being as bad as that revolting piece of trash, X-Men: Apocalypse redeemed itself.

Star Wars though, is a whole different story. The original trilogy, childish in parts, is still a whole lot of fun. The prequels are much less enjoyable, though Revenge of the Sith had its moments. And The Force Awakens though certainly thoroughly watchable, still gave off a strong sense of being a cynical exploitation of the fandom rather than an attempt to weave a new mythology.

Where does Rogue One: (so helpfully called) A Star Wars story fit into this scale?

I’m happy to say – a cut above.

Though steeped in Star Wars symbolism and nostalgia, Rogue One stands on its own. And more than any other movie in the franchise, it is unabashed about the costs of war. No children’s fable, this. The ‘good guys’ do bad things. At least one of the bad guys has his redeeming moments. And in the midst of epic space battles, the human element is never forgotten. It is still a story of the people fighting the war, not a bunch of nameless mooks. Of courage and hope, or ordinary people – not Jedi, not Sith, not super-talented heroes. It is this, perhaps, that really makes Rogue One touch a chord that other franchise movies may not – it is about the ordinary people who make victory possible, who bring hope to a hopeless cause.

In the last of the original movie trilogies, Mon Mothma tells Han and Luke that ‘Many Bothans died to bring us this information.’ Rogue One is not about the exact same event, but it gives a face to the ‘many’.  None of them is a Jedi.

And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Rogue One - Movie Poster

Saturday 17 December 2016

One-Line reviews by those who had clearly not read the books - Part VI

This is the sixth Part in a series we are doing of one-line reviews of Books - where the reviewer has clearly not actually read the Book itself. This is, let it be noted, an exercise in humour, and no author sentiments, cats, or country musicians are intended to be harmed.

The previous Part of this series, along with a detailed introductory note, can be found here:

All entries are by me except where indicated.

51. The White Tiger is Aravind Adiga’s ghost-written attempt to capture Donald Trump’s life and times as an advocate of white supremacy. [Ravi Kumar]

52. Swamy and Friends is RK Narayanan’s account of Subramanian Swamy’s daring exposes. [Karthik Lakshminarayan]

53. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is the biography of a young voyeur named Tom, who had the bad habit of peeping into people’s bedrooms and yelling ‘Saw yer!’ [Gabrielle Beauvoir]

54. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck is a sci-fi classic written from a Martian perspective about the attractiveness of the Third Rock from the Sun {Gabrielle Beauvoir]

55. The Illiad by Homer is the hypochondriac’s definitive guide to all the illnesses required for taking a day off from work [Gabrielle Beauvoir]

56. Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is a riveting account of how the Burj Dubai was constructed. [Ravi Kumar]

57. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is a biography of the vegan electro-pop musician named Moby and his horrible behavior that earned him the nickname ‘dick’. [Gabrielle Beauvoir]

58. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga is the script of a Fair and Lovely advertisement. [Suresh C]

59. To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s treatise advocating violence as a means to deal with critics [Suresh C]

60. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James is that lady’s contribution to the catalogue of Asian Paints [Suresh C]