Music is an independent, primary art; the dance is not. In view of their division of labor, the dance is entirely dependent on music. With the emotional assistance of music, it expresses an abstract meaning; without music, it becomes meaningless gymnastics. It is music, the voice of man’s consciousness, that integrates the dance to man and to art. Music sets the terms; the task of the dance is to follow, as closely, obediently and expressly as possible. The tighter the integration of a given dance to its music – in rhythm, in mood, in style, in theme – the greater its esthetic value.
A clash between dance and music is worse than a clash between actor and play; it is an obliteration of the entire performance. It permits neither the music nor the dance to be integrated into an esthetic entity in the viewer’s mind – and it becomes a series of jumbled motions superimposed on a series of jumbled sounds.
Observe that the modern anti-art trend takes precisely this form in the field of the dance. (I am not speaking of the so-called modern dance, which is neither modern nor dance.) Ballet, for instance, is being “modernized” by being danced to inappropriate, undanceable music, which is used as a mere accompaniment, like the tinkling piano in the days of the silent movies, only less synchronized with the action. Add to it the vast infusion of pantomime, which is not an art, but a childish game (it is not acting, but expository signaling), and you get a form of self-affronting compromise more abject than anything seen in politics. I submit in evidence Marguerite and Armand as presented by the Royal Ballet. (Even the pratfalls or the walking-heels-first of the so-called modern dance seem innocent by comparison: their perpetrators have nothing to betray or to disfigure.
Dancers are performing artists; music is the primary work they perform – with the help of an important intermediary: the choreographer. His creative task is similar to that of the stage director, but carries a more demanding responsibility: a stage director translates a primary work, a play, into physical action – a choreographer has to translate a primary work, a composition of sounds, into another medium, into a composition of movements, and create a structured, integrated work: a dance.
This task is so difficult and its esthetically qualified practitioners so rare that the dance has always been slow in its development and extremely vulnerable. Today, it is all but extinct.
Music and/or literature are the base of the performing arts and of the large-scale combinations of all the arts, such as opera or motion pictures. The base, in this context, means that primary art which provides the metaphysical element and enables the performance to become a concretization of an abstract view of man.
Without this base, a performance may be entertaining, in such fields as vaudeville or the circus, but it has nothing to do with art. The performance of an aerialist, for instance, demands an enormous physical skill – greater, perhaps, and harder to acquire than the skill demanded of a ballet dancer – but what it offers is merely an exhibition of that skill, with no further meaning, i.e., a concrete, not a concretization of anything.
In operas and operettas, the esthetic base is music, with the libretto serving only to provide an appropriate emotional context or opportunity for the musical score, and an integrating line for the total performance. (In this respect, there are very few good librettos.) In motions pictures or televisions, literature is the ruler and term-setter, with music serving only as an incidental, background accompaniment. Screen and television plays are subcategories of the drama, and in the dramatic arts “the play is the thing.” The play is that which makes it art; the play provides the end, to which all the rest is the means.
In all the arts that involve more than one performer, a crucially important artist is the director. (In music, his counterpart is the conductor.) The director is the link between the performing and the primary arts. He is a performer in relation to the primary work, in the sense that his task is the means to the end set by the work – he is a primary artist in relation to the cast, the set designer, the cameraman, etc., in the sense that they are the means to his end, which is the translation of the work into physical action as a meaningful, stylized, integrated whole. In the dramatic arts, the director is the esthetic integrator.
This task requires a first-hand understanding of all the arts, combined with an unusual power of abstract thought and of creative imagination. Great directors are extremely rare. An average director alternates between the twin pitfalls of abdication and usurpation. Either he rides on the talents of others and merely puts the actors through random motions signifying nothing, which results in a hodgepodge of clashing intentions – or he hogs the show, putting everyone through senseless tricks unrelated to or obliterating the play (if any), on the inverted premise that the play is the means to the end of exhibiting his skill, thus placing himself in the category of circus acrobats, except that he is much less skillful and much less entertaining.
As an example of film direction at its best, I shall mention Fritz Lang, particularly in his earlier works; his silent film Siegfried is as close to a great work of art as the films have yet come. Though other directors seem to grasp it occasionally, Lang is the only one who has fully understood the fact that visual art is an intrinsic part of films in a much deeper sense than the mere collection of sets and camera angles – that a “motion picture” is literally that, and has to be a stylized visual composition in motion.
It has been said that if one stopped the projection of Siegfried and cut out a film frame at random, it would be as perfect in composition as a great painting. Every action, gesture and movement in this film is calculated to achieve that effect. Every inch of the film is stylized, i.e., condensed to those stark, bare essentials which convey the nature and spirit of the story, of its events, of its locale. The entire picture was filmed indoors, including the magnificent legendary forests whose every branch was man-made (but does not look so on the screen). While Lang was making Siegfried, it is reported, a sign hung on the wall of his office: “Nothing in this film is accidental.” This is the motto of great art. Very few artists, in any field, have ever been able to live up to it. Fritz Lang did.
There are certain flaws in Siegfried, particularly the nature of the story which is a tragic, “malevolent universe” legend – but this is a metaphysical, not an esthetic, issue. From the aspect of a director’s creative task, this film is an example of the kind of visual stylization that makes the difference between a work of art and a glorified newsreel.
Potentially, motion pictures are a great art, but that potential has not as yet been actualized, except in single instances and random moments. An art that requires the synchronization of so many esthetic elements and so many different talents cannot develop in a period of philosophical-cultural disintegration such as the present. Its development requires the creative cooperation of men who are united, not necessarily by their formal philosophical convictions, but by their fundamental view of man, i.e., by their sense of life.
Whatever the variety and the vast potential of the performing arts, one must always remember that they are a consequence and an extension of the primary arts – and that the primary arts give them the abstract meaning without which no human product or activity can be classified as art.