'Classical ballet has a stable technique more or less familiar to everyone," philosopher Francis Sparshott has written, with enviable certainty. But he also adds, without missing a beat, that even when people don't understand ballet, "they will not feel that they have a right to their ignorance." That is the same sentiment articulated by a less formal philosopher: Carol the receptionist on the old "Bob Newhart Show." She once refused to take free tickets to "Swan Lake" with the heartfelt apology: "I just don't know enough about ballet to appreciate it."
Ah, the intimidation factor of an art form descended from kings and queens--or from those who just look like them. Would Carol love ballet if she knew more about it? Possibly. And just where do you begin to explain it all? You'd have to start at least as far back as Louis XIV--his dancing career, his founding of the first ballet academy, his weight gain, and the subsequent start of a professional class of dancers who can never gain weight. But how much history do you need to understand today's ballet?
These and other questions led American dance critic Robert Greskovic to write "Ballet 101" and subtitle it, in an impossibly optimistic fashion, "A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet." He starts even further back than Louis XIV, but he doesn't stay there long. The title's resemblance to all those old-fashioned hit-and-miss college survey courses is appropriate: Greskovic zips from ancient Greek dance to the ever-popular 19th century--which gave us today's most familiar ballets--in the first 28 pages. That leaves nearly 600 pages to make an attempt to hit all the high spots, cruising through ballet's major capitals--Paris, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, London, New York--then highlighting the ways ballet spread to other places; the choreographers, dancers and impresarios who changed the art form; and some of the details of training and staging ballets.
Like the complex story of any art form, ballet history is best approached in more thematic and detailed writings. Trying to do it all, for instance, Greskovic occasionally resorts to laundry lists of famous names, and doesn't include the sprinkling of anecdotes and references to world events that usually keeps a dance history class awake. His summary of ballet history isn't incorrect, so much as it is limited--and, unfortunately, fraught with sentences that tumble all over themselves in ways that don't make the material any easier to comprehend.
Nor does his enigmatic chapter-naming scheme make it easy to figure out where to find what. Mainly, there are mini-chapters, with titles that often don't match the subject matter ("At the Ballet" is about not being there but watching videos), or titles that mislead you about ballet terminology (Primo Ballerinos?). More useful is a glossary, where you can read a bit about tights, tutus and turnout, as well as finding explanations of French terms.
Perhaps Greskovic's most ambitious project is his "walk-through" of 14 commercially available video-taped versions of popular ballets--from the usual fairy tales to more contemporary work. (There is also a useful videography at the end.)
Using the 1989 Bolshoi "Sleeping Beauty," for instance, he tells you what all those fairies are dancing about and how their steps reflect their themes. And for Twyla Tharp's "Push Comes to Shove," set on American Ballet Theatre, Greskovic points out what formal steps Mikhail Baryshnikov is tossing off and gamely tries to capture the "noodling" gestures in words.
Overall, the book suffers severely from the fact that it has no photos--reading about a particular arabesque means so much more when you can see it too. But if you have your own video aids--or when you're about to see a particular ballet--Greskovic can help you decipher mime, recognize leitmotifs and learn a few ways of describing what you see. Because he's a critic, he offers interpretations, too, and these are often suggestive starting points for the neophyte.
But there are limitations built into Greskovic's perspective. He tours ballet as an unabashed "expert," not hesitating to pronounce on various "truths," such as the fact that male leading dancers must be "tall and comely," even if "benighted members of the audience" sometimes root for the short guy. In this way, he inadvertently insults Baryshnikov, a relatively short guy himself. Baryshnikov wrote the foreword to "Ballet 101," and manages to introduce the allure of ballet more poetically than Greskovic can in the rest of the book.
Greskovic does fulfill what Baryshnikova promises in that he lets the reader in on "all the things that ballet fans talk about at intermission." It's useful to know that cantilena is a quality of melodious, unbroken momentum, or that a dancer's "line," is "a sublime inner connection of all the physical aspects that make up the dancer's physique."
When it comes to recognizing the scope of the ballet world, however, Greskovic is shortsighted. He rarely cites any experts other than himself, so you don't get the benefit of a range of perspectives. Tellingly, he rejects as "carping" any new scholarship or commentary from the burgeoning field he blithely refers to as "so-called dance studies." So-called? Dance studies is where ballet gets a chance to be understood as more than a beloved antique art form often perceived as elitist.
Cultural theorists know, for instance, that ballet is an ethnic dance form (even though it's a surprise to some that Euro-Americans have ethnicity), that Balanchine's neoclassicism was indebted to his love of African aesthetics, and that men have to be able to swoon and women to lift if ballet is going to move on from stereotyped notions of masculinity and femininity. As many dance writers have done before him, Greskovic prefers to ignore ever-present sociopolitics and present the ballet world as a closed system to which he is your guide.
A conventional compendium such as "Ballet 101" can tell us valuable bits about the building blocks of ballet. It just can't suggest, evidently, why male dancers in the U.S. don't like to receive flowers onstage--Greskovic says he just has no "reasonable explanation." Gee, why would that be. That's a topic for another day--and another writer.
* "Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet," by Robert Greskovic, Hyperion, New York, $16.95.