Exquisite Self-Control and Abandonment in ‘The Complete Ballet’

This is an intricate, stunningly choreographed dance -- parts memoir and criticism -- through life, love, and loss within the context of classical ballet.

The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts
John Haskell
Sep 2017

The greatest risk taking place in this interesting, difficult, ultimately rewarding book comes from its very premise. Is it a hybrid essay-novel? How much does a reader need to know about the themes in ballet to fully understand the logic behind building a quintet of observations about life and love and the sometimes devastating effects of allowing obsessions to take control?

Enter the world of The Complete Ballet: A Fictional Essay in Five Acts with patience and a willingness to take several paths to the same finish line. It’s a stubborn puzzle that dances around the stage in a choreography weaving close readings of the five ballets in question, commentary drawing in films like Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), and tangentially highlighting a narrative (starting from first through the last Act) from an unnamed hero about life in and around Los Angeles. It’s the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles where bookies are killed, darkness is always a threat, and lost dreams hover just out of reach like the noonday sun behind a haze of pollution.

The only real way to fully appreciate this text is through surrendering to Haskell’s masterly manipulation of form and content. There are no real separated divisions. All styles blend and soak into each other. The five ballets covered are La Sylphide, Giselle, La Bayadère, Swan Lake, and Petrushka. What are their common themes? Haskell starts by commenting on Marie Taglioni, who in 1832 originated the lead role in La Sylphide:

“She was the Sylph, and the Sylph was a kind of angel, and because Angels can hover above the ground that’s what she did… when she rose up on the points of her toes she seemed to be blown about, like a feather.”

Haskell reflects on the story of his own ballet, how he first saw the form through the eyes of his daughter as she watched The Nutcracker. For Haskell it was this combination of the warm innocence seen in his daughter as she embraces this art, and the suggested nakedness of a ballerina he remembered seeing when he was a teenaged boy that pushed him deeper into the powerful dream of ballet. He refers back to Taglioni and the tacit acknowledgement she made of her own sexuality by displaying to the audience the actions of her feet and ankles.

It’s this clear, meditative quality of Haskell’s observations about ballet that make The Complete Ballet both frustrating in its opaque nature and thrilling in its reflective confidence. For Haskell, ballet is “…about the tension between, or the union of, control and abandon.” He is less interested about writing a dance guidebook than in “…trying to find for myself a version of life that expresses itself like dancing.” Certainly the difficulty in writing about dancing is clear here, and that is probably why this text works so well, weaving in and out of the main stage view as it does. It’s reminiscent of the quote often attributed to Frank Zappa that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. Haskell understands that the best way to embrace the “completeness” of ballet (however that’s defined) is to suggest it. The strength of The Complete Ballet comes from the reader’s willingness to put the pieces together, and it’s a task that proves easier to do as the book progresses.

The premise is developed in this opening act. Our hero’s marriage falls apart and he moves to Los Angeles for a new life as a massage therapist, a masseur, “…but really I wasn’t anything.” He considers the idea that we all have vestiges of wings on our bodies, reminders of the birds we once were. Birds and angels fly, but humans are grounded and we spend our lives trying to choreograph the illusion of gliding just above the ground. “Just as you can only love a limited number of people,” he writes, “there are only a limited number of people you can be in your lifetime.” It’s this shape-shifting insistence we have as humans, as dancers trying our best not to collide with each other, that seems to be at the core of The Complete Ballet, and Haskell does a beautiful job suggesting the risky nature of this life.

The longer passages in this book where Haskell does indeed take a deep dive into the featured ballets may seem like a diversion to some readers, and they are a little alienating, but patience here will be rewarded. Haskell understands the connection between the natural world and the frequent supernatural elements of ballet:

“They call on the earth and the sky, and what they’re trying to do is alter the course of events. And you do that by making choices. You move to a new city, make friends with a stranger. Events in your life are altered by the choices you make and the witches take that one step further. They’re altering the choices other people make.”

In Act II, Giselle, Haskell reflects on his past, on the marriage that failed. He was older than his wife but that was meaningless. “Desire doesn’t really care about the object of desire, it cares about itself.” The peasant girl Giselle dies of a broken heart upon discovering her lover is betrothed to somebody else. She’s resurrected by a group that dance men to their death. Her ex-lover is targeted for death, but Gisele’s love for him (still strong) saves his life. Haskell draws in the John Cassavetes 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence, starring Peter Falk and Gene Rowlands. She is mad, insane, but the film clearly suggests this madness is not purely organic. There are outside forces involved. Haskell connects the film’s Los Angeles setting to his own familiarity, and he refers to a dinner scene where Rowland’s character Molly asks her father for support:

“Her father hesitates, then literally stands, pushes back his chair, and what do you want me to do, he says. And we know what she wants him to do, and we would do it, and when he refuses to do it there’s nothing left but go crazy.”

Haskell notes that the key to Romantic Ballet is less about the people than it is the actions that happen to the people. They are means to an end, and it’s a similar technique he uses in The Complete Ballet. This is certainly a risky proposition if he wants to earn an audience, but it works. There’s tragedy, death, lost love in real life that would be perfectly suitable for a ballet. He wants his life to be like a dance, and there is a beautiful passage in Act II where he reflects on that desire:

“…the road I’m on now, metaphorically, is the same road I’ve always been on… The world is visible outside the windshield… I can feel the world out there but without feeling. Just numbness. And there’s something seductive about numbness.”

In Act III, La Bayadère, Haskell draws in the aforementioned masterpiece, The Red Shoes, a fictionalized portrait of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and a young ballerina who falls under his spell. The film was apparently supposed to be about an affair between Vaslav Nijinsky and the man who brought him to the dance world, but any variation tells the same story. The Red Shoes was about the magical title objects and how they’re both a source of attraction and a means of death for our lead ballerina.

For Swan Lake, on the other hand, subject of Act IV, the focus was on getting older, surviving, adapting in a world where the toys of childhood are put away. There are reflections on George Balanchine, another legendary ballet figure, and his role as a teacher, a nurturer, controller, visionary. “Balanchine got a muse and they got a chance to dance, and to inspire dance, and after a while, after the inspiring quality of each dancer gradually faded, he would find a new dancer.” In a way, Haskell seems to be arguing, Balanchine was the best lead Swan Lake could have ever had. As he grew older, the age of his wives stayed the same. There is tragedy, of course, “…but also there’s joy, the joy of release, of finally releasing the false self and becoming another self…” In that respect, Haskell seems to be arguing, rests the strongest lure of ballet in form, theme, and structure.

By Act V, Petrushka, the primary narrative in The Complete Ballet is resolved. The troubled Los Angeles noir motif comes to an end, resolves as expected with murder, and the reader comes to understand that everything was probably fated. For Haskell, the tragedy of Petrushka was one we all shared. The ballet’s title character dies at the end (not a spoiler so much as an inevitability) “… but by dying he’s freed himself from the person who controlled him, or the idea that did, and punished him, and although he’s never been loved, he knows what love is.” This is perhaps the key to The Complete Ballet. We move carefully through the various choreographed stages of life, touch others only by agreement, eventually die, and perhaps we find ourselves re-born in another form. It’s a difficult text that will draw the reader into the history of the ballets in question. While it might not necessarily provide the final word on each ballet, it will certainly serve as a fitting testimony to the form’s allure and eternal power to be interpreted, no matter the final results.

RATING 9 / 10