Saturday, November 22, 2008

Confucius should have been a danseur...

I'm sure Confucius would have loved ballet. I've been dancing for about nine months now and I'm constantly struck with the similarities between classical ballet and Confucianism. It strikes me more and more as I get better at dancing. Let me explain.

When I started doing ballet, I was not dancing. I was moving in prescribed manners. I was learning technique which was giving me the building blocks of dancing, but simply doing movements as they are dictated to you does not make you a dancer. So that's how dancing starts. It's sort of like an incredibly complex game of Simon Says wherein one tries to perfectly imitate the teacher in order to instill muscle memory you can draw upon later when you're actually dancing.

This is paralleled in Confucianism by the Li, or the set of rituals which dictate what one should do in any given social situation. Confucius tells his so something to the effect of, "If you don't learn the Li, how will you know where to stand?" The Li is the social equivalent of ballet technique, instilling you with the knowledge of how to navigate your way across the dance floor of life. The similarities become more interesting when you take the analogy up a notch, I think.

As I have taken more classes and striven harder to become the best danseur (or male dancer) I can be, I have realized that there is this magical moment that occurs from time to time when no longer am I doing the prescribed movements. I'm dancing! I know the moves well enough to begin to manipulate them in very discreet and subtle ways in order to express my emotions, convey meaning. Degages, plies, and pirouettes don't exist for their own sake; rather, they become a self-verifying language that exists between dancers. To those who understand the language, they can watch another dancer and have a deeper understanding of that dancer's personality, emotions, and feelings at the time.

Back to the Li. The Li exists for exactly the same purposes. We start learning the Li in order to fit into social situations. The Li is not virtuous in itself, but exists as a means to convey virtue; for when one becomes acquainted enough with the Li, it becomes a language in the same way as classical ballet technique. Performing rituals at certain times in a certain way helps those around you who understand the language of Li to understand what you are trying to convey better. When you break a ritual knowingly, you are conveying a deep statement to those who take ritual seriously.

I think it's very cool. Dancing for me has become a means to convey my emotions, but also to help people realize their own personalities by watching me (or, more likely, a more experienced and talented dancer). When you hear a beautiful song, read a touching poem, or watch a perfectly performed ballet and it resonates deep within you, what is really happening is that the perfection of what you just experienced is awakening some deep sense of truth within you, allowing you to realize a deeper sense of authenticity and humanity. Ultimately, fine arts like music, poetry, and ballet exist as vessels for realizing ourselves and others, much like the Li of Confucius. I think he would have liked ballet very much.

For those of you who think ballet is staunch and boring, I've posted an link to an amazing performance of the Romeo and Juliet bedroom scene as performed by Alessandra Ferri (who is an amazing dancer known for her passion and amazing feet) and Angel Corella, currently my favorite danseur. This scene is a perfect example of how something as basic as human movement can be used skillfully to convey deeper truths and help us recognize something about ourselves.


Anonymous said...

I've never thought of ballet as boring, but I do worry about what it does to women's feet when they dance en pointe. I went to see Edward Villela dance when I was in college - it was pretty impressive.

Mark said...

Citizen - Must have been awesome! Barishnikov came to my now hometown once. Too bad I wasn't born yet.
I was thinking about how fun it would be to write a paper about the patriarchy of ballet because only women are en pointe, but now that I'm in the ballet world a bit I don't think it's as terrible as I once thought. Not that being en pointe isn't destructive, but the bodily harm is egalitarian. No dancer, male or female, is left in tact when it's all said and done. And yet I still find it incredibly appealing...I suppose I'm a masochist.