My parents have had subscription tickets to the New York City Ballet for over thirty years, dating back to when the company performed at The City Center. They moved up and up as better seats became available and settled in the exact two center seats of the eighth row. Until the recent renovation, courtesy of David Koch, one ticket read “enter from left,” the other “enter from right.”
My parents’ favorite dancer was Suzanne Farrell, the preeminent ballerina of the New York City Ballet throughout the 1970’s, and in 1982 when I was born they named me Rebecca Suzanne Schiffman (Becky-Sue, to some.)
As far back as I can remember I often accompanied one of my parents to the ballet if the other had to work late. It was always a treat but I do not remember exactly why. I almost always had trouble keeping my eyes open. One perk was those sucking candies that come in the round tin and which as far as I knew were only available at Lincoln Center.
As I got older my parents would donate their tickets to me and a date more and more often. Eventually, they felt they had seen every ballet so many times that they passed their seats on to me, provided I invited them to some of their favorites. (Dad: Symphony in C, The Four Temperaments, Mom: Agon)
So, much like a child learns to speak their parents’ language by constant exposure, at some point, probably during college, I miraculously “got” ballet. I knew which dancers and which ballets I loved and had an idea of why I loved them. I remember when I developed the ability to judge movies. The first movie I disliked was “Betsy’s Wedding.” But, perhaps because I was older, the ability to love or dislike ballet was a revelation I could consciously enjoy, and it felt like a language I could suddenly understand.
I immediately made a decision to avoid reading any ballet reviews, criticism, or theory. I did not want to cloud my way of looking at ballet the same way my philosophy of life was clouded when in middle school, after I had made some nihilistic comment, my parents suggested I read Nietzsche.
I have still not read anything about ballet to this day, knowing I would try my hand at it sooner or later. I have been nervous to dip my toe in for several years, having no idea if what I want to say is completely obvious or totally off the mark. But several factors, including having seen one of my favorite ballets, “Jewels,” yesterday, and being home on this Friday night watching back to back episodes of Dateline, make now feel like the right time to start.
Being a most-of-the-time relativist and always a little insecure about my expertise I have never felt comfortable asserting value judgments. Whenever I hear someone announce their opinion as fact, even though they might later argue that it is assumed I realize they are giving their opinion, if they do not include an explicit version of “in my humble opinion,” then they come off to me as a pompous asshole.
I found a way I like to read and write about art in “The Renaissance” (1873) by Walter Pater, which was required reading in one of my classes with David Weir at Cooper Union, and which was the first book on art I remember not boring me or turning me off. With Pater’s then-revolutionary subjective approach to art criticism, the critic includes his/her personal predispositions toward the art about which they are writing and any other relevant information, generously offering the reader insight into what colors that critic’s perception. The reader may then subtract whatever he/she feels is appropriate in order to obtain a clearer understanding of the art for him/herself. I find this personal style of writing about art more honest, humble, and entertaining, providing more room for anecdotes and tangents than the cut-and-dry review or academic analysis. And, I do like any excuse to share some personal information.
My subscription season just ended, but I will be back soon with some thoughts on ballet in general, Thursday night’s performance of “Jewels,” audience behavior and more.
(Friday, June 3)
Suzanne Farrell, my middle namesake: