MPT FEATURE

The Ballerina

Series 3 No. 5 - Transgressions

Note: Grass’s Die Ballerina was first published, in a limited edition, in 1963. Michael Hamburger had a copy from the author then. But it was some years before he translated it. A small part of that translation appeared in a book of graphics and texts, entitled Drawings and Words 1954-1977 (New York and London, 1983). Now we publish it entire. The ballerina in question is Grass’s first wife, Anna.

In a restaurant owner’s home I found some engravings that illustrate scenes in the manner of the commedia dell’arte, pantomimic performances, various kinds of stage magic.  One of these little pictures is my starting-point.

Tiny, neat engravings, piled up net-like in the depth of the room, in the open dark of the window, a high-legged, ruffled bed – as though a sleepless person had left it – in the background a narrow wardrobe, a book-shelf half-imagined, in the foreground, sketched out in a dressed in shirt, neck-cloth and trousers, the poet sits.  He leans back, lets the hand holding his pen droop, has seized the blank sheet with his left.  So, still incredulous, he catches sight of the ballerina.  In pointed shoes she stands on his table.  One can see the crossed ribbons over the ankles, then a rich, weightless skirt billows, the bust breathes beneath pearls and elliptic trimmings.  Slim from the waist upwards, she stretches with raised arms up to the last finger.

Under the slight pain in the delineation of her brows, she hardly smiles and looks at the examiner of the picture, as though dancing for him and not for the poet.  The calm contours of these postures suggest that a sequence of exquisite movements concludes in this way.  Perhaps, though, she will begin anew, will now fill the room almost cluttered with wardrobe, table, chair and ruffled bed with pirouettes again, too, or, in a fragile arabesque, like a delicate pair of scales, will intimate harmony.  But perhaps a leap, a slow one, a leap precise to the very end in its ascending line will carry her through the open window into the night sky, leaving behind the empty table.  He, paper and pen in his hands, will wish to arrest her, to hold what cannot be held; certainly not by a man grasping with his hands full.  So he will find his way back to the chair, will sit there for a long time, the hand holding the pen drooping, to the left the sheet suddenly seized, will search the table for the place where everything began, and will find a squiggle stupid as all squiggles are.  And then he will write, the poet, on that engraving.

We may smile as we examine this naïve little picture and with one finger trace and find those places that to us, too diagonally, look like the dusty porcelain ornaments in our grandmother’s glass show-cases.  We shall relegate the intimacy of this encounter between poet and Muse to the garden bower and not tolerate such uncalled-for offerings on our writing table top.  And yet it could be that nowadays, when we have exchanged garden dwarfs and contrived bucolics for plastic mugs, and the glass-fronted cabinet for a streamlined table, for questionable gain, the poet at his typewriter needs this particular event.  Even today no poem succeeds unless, helpfully, one of the Muses bends to it.

If the poet should be moved to describe the ballerina – her dance gave him incentive enough, the chastely cool room that had taken shape from her movements – he will step closer, will look into the background, will wish to demystify the scene.  He is like the stamp collector who holds up a tiny, long-desired square against the light to test it, to be certain about its perforation and watermark.  However well executed the miniature may be, the coloured queen’s crown and smile never influence his appraising eye.

Her Body, Her Properties

Every tenor, when his voice demands it, will grope behind him for the chair’s back – and always a chair or other graspable object will stand close to him – and with that grasping will give new power to his voice, the aria gaining by that support.  Not so the ballerina.  Not much is permitted to her.  Her body, this accretion of beauty turned outwards, close to a slightly hysterical weeping, remains her only property as soon as with minute pas de course she is released from the wings.  Lonely she traces her patterns and between the third and fourth pirouette attains that degree of forsakenness which even the most German of poetasters does not attain.  With every turn whatever, as long as it is lively enough, does she reach this point of exile?  Is it just as when little Lizzy turns in time with the waltz and shuts her eyes in bliss?  We shall see that with the pirouette, that screwed-up, artificial abstraction, the last possible turn seems to have been achieved, that here the art is demonstrated.  Art, because no longer nature, because here the paper rose –  we know it from shooting- booths – is beyond all vegetation and will never wilt.  And art again because compulsion, denial of the stupid, restricted limbs, petty filing down of an empty form, here and ever again leads to weightless beauty without a first or second name.

It is the wardrobe mistress, then, who reserves the right to call out a Vera or Tasha to this now perspiring twenty-seven-year-old creature, to see a body marked by hard labour that lisps and no longer has an appendix.  Now it becomes apparent how harmlessly and tritely the break between two gracefully strenuous peak performances can be spent.  The ballerina knits woollen socks for her little brother; the ballerina chatters brainlessly, the ballerina has recently got engaged, though it isn’t at all impossible that she will soon disengage herself.  The ballerina puts on a pair of glasses, she is a bit short-sighted and flicks through an illustrated magazine, till she’s found the crossword puzzle and solved half of it.  Now the ballerina weeps a little.  Her balance was not good today, she ‘wobbled the arabesque’ and in the third pirouette she ‘slipped off her points’ – and she must not do that.

The tenor may grope for the chair’s back, as long as he sings.  Lizzy may stagger a bit in the midst of the waltz and remark profoundly that everything is turning anyway.  No one will be angry with her about that.  Only when the ballerina ‘slips off her points’ the front stalls freeze, then it grows hot in the back stalls, the stage expands, day-bright and sober, programmes are folded, opened, and all the whispering denotes that the ballerina is all of twenty-seven, lisps and no longer has an appendix. 

Of Dancing Barefoot

The ballerina’s enemy and deadly serious opposite is the expressive dancer.  While the ballerina moves her body according to rigid rules and smiles in the act, as though indifference had been painted into the corners of her mouth, the expressive dancer dances with her difficult psyche and moves her limbs accordingly, as though her private knee, crooked at that, were reason enough to fascinate one eighth of the front stalls and the half-full back stalls for two hours.  The ballerina lives at her mother’s, does not smoke, eats yoghurt and bananas, feeds a little dog and before and after training feels tired, never anything but tired.

The expressive dancer is cultured.  She can recite the ‘lay of love and death’ by heart and has seen Cocteau’s Orphée five times.  In her furnished room hangs an African mask, a Paul Klee print and the photograph of a Malayan temple dancer.  She makes her own clothes and never carries her long, beautiful hair to the hairdresser’s.  Because the ballerina goes to bed early, her night life, apart from a few visits to the cinema, is regulated in a very innocent way.  The expressive dancer has a pianist boy friend.  Both live in constant fear of a baby, but long for a baby, she for a string of children, motherhood.  Now, to make up for that, with her hair loose – hence her avoidance of the hairdresser – in a sack-like garment she dances lullabies, expectations, releases – her most recent creation has the title Weeping Embryo.

The expressive dancer dances barefoot., that’s why she could be called a barefoot dancer.  The ballerina’s exercise is like a monotonous Prussian discipline.  Her tormented, constricted flesh hides behind white, red, even silver ballet shoes.  The ballerina’s feet can be described as ugly.  Scraped, open toes, enlarged bridges.  They seem to be the true sacrifice of all this validly exhibited beauty.  Down there all that collects which, above, is concealed by harmonious gestures and the bland smile.  The measure of these shoes goes back to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.  So we may take the desirable thirty-two fouettés to be a confession, and nothing, no barefoot dance, will be able to replace this confession, this penance.

Asceticism in Front of the Mirror

The ballerina, like a nun, lives exposed to every temptation, in a state of the strictest asceticism.  This analogy should not surprise you, since all the art come down to us has been the product of consistent restriction, never the immoderation of genius.  Even if at times breakouts into the impermissible made and make us think that all is permitted in art, always even the most mobile of minds invented rules for itself, fences, forbidden rooms.  So too our ballerina’s room is restricted, surveyable, and permits changes only within the area available to her.  The demands of the age will always require the ballerina to put on a new face, will hold exotic or pseudo-exotic masks in front of it.  She will join in that decorative little game, knowing that every fashion suits her.  The true revolution, though, will have to take place in her own palace.  

How similar it is in painting.  How meaningless seem all attempts to see fundamental discoveries in the invention of new materials, in exchanging oil painting for a process of lacquer sprayed on to aluminium.  Never will dilettantism, easily recognizable by its mannerisms, drive out the pertinacious flow of the skill that remains conservative even in its revolutions.

The ballerina turns mirrors into the least indulgent implement of asceticism.  Wide awake she trains in front of their surface.  Her dance is not the dance with closed eyes.  Mirrors to her are nothing more than a glass that throws everything back, with exaggerated clarity, merciless moralists she is commanded to believe.  What liberties a poet takes with mirrors.  What mystical, illegible postcards he drops into their baroque frames.  To him mirrors are an exit, entrance, he searches like a still ignorant kitten behind the pane and, at best, finds a broken little box there, filled with buttons that do not match, a bundle of old letters he never expected to find again, and a comb full of hairs.  Only at moments of irreversible transformation, when our bodies seem enriched or impoverished, do we stand in front of mirrors as she does, with eyes as awake.  Mirrors show girls their puberty, no pregnancy escapes them, no missing tooth – should laughter try to provoke them.  Perhaps a hairdresser,  a taxi driver, a tailor, a painter at his self-portrait, a prostitute who has furnished her little room with a number of these clarifying shards, have something in common with the ballerina.  It is the anxious gaze of the craftsman, of a person who works with his or her body, it is a gaze into the confession glass.

Applause and Curtains

Applause is the ballerina’s small cash.  She counts it very carefully, and if these coins, like other hard cash, could be kept in a stocking, she would save them up for later days, when there will be a shortage of hands, no one will be moved to clap, and clapping could hurt, because the man in charge of the curtain will have no more reason to make strokes on a little board, till this means: sixteen curtains tonight, two more than last night.

The ballerina shows the same thoroughness and meticulousness with which we count the cuckoo’s calls on a Sunday walk through the city park, when it’s a matter of deducing the number of possible curtains from the duration and density of the applause.  She counts and wishes to tempt the front and back stalls with her precise and graceful acknowledgements, as we tempt the cuckoo that calls out the number of our years.  Then, after the last curtain, the ballerina collapses like a house of cards suddenly exposed to the wind.  Each of her limbs, otherwise so poised, slides into anything goes.  The order on her face, on this plate full of cosmetic delicacies, relaxes.  Her eyes are not up to a single glance, over-taxed they lose their grip and widen alarmingly.  Her mouth likewise.  Always ready to burst into hysteria, now a smile, meant kindly, becomes so great an exertion for it that a cramp threatens its corners.  What’s it for, this constant wrinkling of the forehead, this raising of the eyebrows?  Every constituent of the performance put on with so much effort and accomplishment now leaves its place.  The ballerina seems completely out of hand.

The Little Point

She raises a slightly limp arm.  At the top the hand materializes, a useless, many-limbed continuation.  All this with no meaning, fit only for looking at, not even a greeting or an invitation to come closer.  Half-way to being an ornament, it serves only to show what’s there, that an arm bends there and divides the background, that in the direction of the little finger there is a little point which all beauty obeys – and so does the ballerina.  Never does it occur to her that the arm could be bent differently, bent so as to convey only power, desperation or, disagreeably crooked, a mere accident.  Never she would direct her finger to any point but this one, which is meaningless as a goldfinch and yet so spacious, so insatiable that all our ballast could get lost in it.  For if we were to say to our ballerina, ‘Oh, why don’t you dance the atom bomb for us!’, she would turn seven pirouettes and them come to a halt, smiling.  And if someone came along asking for traffic problems or reunification to be danced, at once she’d show him that combination of aesthetic figures at whose end an arabesque achieves reunification and solves the traffic problem, by indicating the little point.

All these demonstrations are accompanied by the ‘Turkish March’ or an extract from the Nutcracker Suite, it makes no difference, the ballerina isn’t necessarily what one calls musical.  She lets the pianist announce, explain, count out the rhythms and entrusts herself with exemplary credulity to the ballet master, so that he can determine the number and sequence of the postures, turns, relevés, and control her whole performance. 

It can be the ‘Radetzky March’, too, whose inescapable beat accompanies her course across the stage with baffling irrelevance, if only at the end, with the last note and drumbeat, the finger indicates that little point again, for that is right and proper.

Nature and Art

Back once more to the little picture.  The ballerina, in stiff, easily creased material, was dancing on the table.  The open window intimated that entrance and exit demanded no door.  Easily the room, table and window can be transformed into stage, podium, wings.  The poet, a little narrow-chested on the engraving, is also transmuted, turns into a leaping, dancing troubadour.  In a pas de deux the story finds its continuation.  Love, separation, temptation, jealousy and death.  This plot is simple, a mere pretext for showing the ballerina in her difficult existence, dancing on points.  In the most elaborate décor it is the fulfilment of what daily exercise to the sound of an out-of-tune piano prescribes for the body and the body alone.

Who forces the ballerina, this sensitive creature almost a little insipid in her every-day life, so take her pleasure at the bars and, under supervision of an elderly, often rather cynical ballet mistress, to train year after year?  Is it only ambition, only a craving for success?  –  Reluctantly she enters the training room, looks for her place.  Reluctantly she goes through the first motions.  And then it takes hold of her.  Suddenly this battle against the body fascinates her, much as a deadly serious march-past in slow time fascinates a declared pacifist.  If it’s a stale joke to send off the poet with the too well-meant advice always to write quite naturally, how much more unbearable for the delicate eye would be the dancer who, at the prompting of whatever urge, dared to skip across the stage naturally, that is, without any decency, ebullient and lush as the vegetation in a jungle or mere hothouse.

It has become second nature to us not to devour a piece of mutton in its raw, still bloody state.  No, we roast, boil or steam it, always add some spice to it, call it done and palatable at the end, eat it well-manneredly with knife and fork, a napkin on our laps or around our necks.  So the other arts ought at last to be honoured in the same way as the culinary art and – if now and then voices are raised and call the classical ballet dead – we should declare admiringly that until now this art, even more than the culinary or than painting, deserves to be called the most unnatural and therefore the most formally perfect of all the arts.

Not until it has proved possible to crystallize formalities as strong as those dance movements from all experiments – and only experiments have been shown so far – formulas that like the ballet exclude anything fortuitous, will the ballerina take her last bow.

Perhaps then the man or woman-sized, wholly artificial puppet will appear.  In his little treatise on the puppet theatre Kleist pointed that way, Kokoschka allowed an insensitive girl of that kind to make dresses, in Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet boldly designed figurines took the first important step.  Perhaps the two will be reconciled and enter into a marriage, the marionette and the ballerina.  –

Browse our features about translation

MPT is the Fifth International, anyone who wants to change the world and see it changed should join.John Berger

Go Digital

Subscribe to the digital edition of MPT for access to all back issues and to the Exactly app.» View free trial issue

Next issue…

Spring 2017

Spring 2017

No 4 / 2014

Submissions related to the open call are accepted at submissions@mptm... » Read more » Submit to MPT

Back to top
Supported by Arts Council England

Copyright © Modern Poetry in Translation and contributors
Website design ashbydesign
Developed by Code Frontiers
Powered by Storemill