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On a Ballet by Sir Kenneth MacMillan

Fall 2013 - Vol. 55, No. 4


This poem appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


              —Houston Ballet, September 2011

It’s Mahler’s masterpiece, Song of the Earth,
transformed into ballet. The soul of dance
does not respond, alas. Is there a dearth
of music suitable for feet? Mere chance,

as at a raffle, might provide a page
that’s better fitted for Terpsichore.
Try Liszt, Chopin, Albéniz, even Cage.
What’s more, this work’s a clashing potpourri,

comprising ancient Chinese poems, wrought
in German, sung (two voices, quite drowned out
by cymbals, tam-tam, drum, bass horns—all fraught
with powers of cacophony). Aesthetic doubt

persists: strange choreography, worse style.
Thus “Von der Schönheit” is an ugly scene,                   
with awkward poses. One can’t reconcile
intention with such form. What does it mean?
Nor shall I mention scenery and dress.
That Death should play a role in this, I grant.
Its herald should dance well, though; happiness,
while fleeting, shine. Here, nothing else but scant

display of dancers’ skill, stiff movements, grim
impressions, scowls. “Warum? Warum?” Indeed!
Expecting noble gestures and a hymn
to life, we’ve got contortions.—I concede

great art may spring from disappointment, grief,
but not the dismal swamp. It’s all a waste.
The ending brings a palpable relief.
Thus modernism’s spirit is disgraced.