In my last post I discussed how the histories of winemaking and ballet have neatly dovetailed for centuries. But wine and ballet mixed together? Not the best match, as anyone who remembers Leslie Browne’s intoxicated attempt to dance in the corps of Giselle in the 1977 dance film The Turning Point can attest. Browne’s drunken turn as a Wili is hilarious and reminds me of the Mistake Waltz in Jerome Robbins’s The Concert. I love how blissful the oblivious Browne appears as she bends the wrong way and ruins the choreography. That, however, is something that would only happen in campy movies. Since dancing ballet is a task that requires one’s full faculties, alcoholic impairment is verboten to dancers. And though there are drunk characters in many story ballets, they are generally stock figures who don’t perform real ballet steps and serve as a contrast to the nobility and grace of a prince/hero. The inebriated Goons in Balanchine’s Prodigal
The summer is officially over and the New York City Ballet is back to work. Yet, as I rehearsed Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations this afternoon my wine-tasting vacation to the Piedmont region of Italy felt closer than expected—for we were practicing the “grape dance.” Ironically, back in August my oeno-inclined summer reading kept reminding me of ballet! Odd as it may seem, Paul Lukacs’s Inventing Wine (a comprehensive history of the beverage starting in antiquity) has more than a few similarities to Jennifer Homans’s excellent history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels. Although wine predates ballet by many millennia—Homans sets the birth of ballet in the year 1533, Lukacs estimates that winemaking comes about sometime in the Neolithic period, about 8000 to 4000 BCE—dance has been linked with wine since the very beginning. The Greeks felt that dancing and winemaking were civilizing activities responsible for the formation of society. Wine and dance were also intertwined with religion in the ancient world, as dancing and drinking were conduits to communion with the gods (particularly Dionysus/Bacchus—the god of wine who kept an entourage of wild dancing women called maenads). In my research on Glass Pieces I discovered that the dithyramb Jerome Robbins quotes frequently in the Akhnaten section of the ballet was an ancient dance meant only for the drunk. Apparently, one could not lead the dance unless “smitten with wine.” Another old Greek saying went something like, “when you drink water, it isn’t a dithyramb.” Unfortunately, perhaps, we at the NYCB perform the Glass Pieces dithyramb dead sober.
But even after ballet was created in the mid-sixteenth century, wine and dance did not part ways. Fine wine at the time became dependent upon the patronage and palates of kings and nobles (like the House of Savoy or the Marchesa di Barolo in the part of the world I visited this summer) just as ballet, born of royal courts, relied upon the whims and predilections of particular monarchs throughout its development (Catherine de Medici, Louis XIV). Both ballet and wine have had odd