When asked why he chose the odd number of 17 dancers for the first movement of Serenade, George Balanchine replied, “That was how many girls showed up for rehearsal.” Mr. B’s genius for improvisation gets full play in the wonderful if ancient American Masters installment dedicated to him. For a ballet junkie, particularly one far from any regular infusion in the freezing (at least today) midwest, the DVD is a heady treat, and served to kick off my weekend nicely.
It’s easy when reading or hearing Balanchine Mythology to cast him as a dark and mysterious dance overlord, who fell in love with and married ballerina after ballerina, discarding the previous one for the next long-legged beauty. Watching him work with his dancers, in interviews, and playing with his cat, it’s impossible to not be completely charmed; he’s Puck, not Oberon. One of the episode’s highlights is showing him next to the dour Stravinsky; Mr. B looks as if he can barely restrain himself from popping a balloon next to Igor’s tortured face just to get a rise out of the old grouch.
The two were kindred spirits, both believing that music and dance are not expressive or interpretive; both forms just are, and therein lies their power to transport. Balanchine states that he does not see himself as a creator; God creates the movements and he just puts them in order. Watching them, you’re simply wrapped in beauty, as if each dance is a long piece of silk spiraling around you. Depth is not the point. It’s the closest thing I can imagine to experiencing the reported ecstasy of the whirling dervish, or a similar mystical trance state.
I’m sure there are those who will find my mentioning Christopher Nolan in the same post somewhat blasphemous, but I write fresh from seeing Inception. I have no idea why I waited so long; I love Nolan’s films, not The Dark Knight as much as The Prestige and Memento. Inception received some carping for not having much substance. That’s hardly the point. Nolan is about layer upon layer, with each peeling away to reveal a lustrous new skin, only to have it replaced by another more complex. You can’t try to make sense of his movies; you just have to tumble down the rabbit hole with him.
I was surprised to find myself having to stifle sobs in two scenes; like all his movies, the nucleus is irretrievable loss. He’s a cinematic magician on the order of a modern-day Abel Gance, working with his team to perfectly and indelibly animate his Escheresque narratives with a core of sad resilience, tempering it all with necessary injections, but not overdoses, of gallows humor. (The Joker’s line in Dark Knight, delivered perfectly by Heath Ledger in nurse drag, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”, has to be one of the greatest in all of filmdom.) The movie is likely to go unawarded in favor of some Aaron Sorkin or David Zwick crowdpleaser, but Nolan can laugh not just on the way to the bank but to going down in history as one of the great directors of the early 21st century. He’s a true original in a pre-fab demographic-driven era, without a sentimental bone in his body. Looking forward to more.