One night the Devil, elegantly attired,
Betook himself to the Ballet —
To shining, sinuous bodies on display;
The art of dance he ardently admired;
The flaming passions that the moves portray
Seemed to him bewitchingly inspired;
How eloquent the stifled pain conveyed
By gestures as the tortured lovers tire,
Twisting in the footlights like two souls on fire.
One dancer, it is true, caught the Devil’s eye,
For Satan saw — despite his air of leisure —
Performance more as business than as pleasure;
Himself a bidder while competitors vie,
He weighed in full the goods’ artistic measure.
So, at a place and on a certain day,
Hell’s Impresario rose before his prey;
The Ultimate Showman rose prepared to answer
In ultimate terms the wishes of the dancer.
What did the dancer want?
Power and strength and speed;
Beauty for the ages and the hour;
The seamless elasticity of youth —
A mixture of duplicity and truth —
And an ever-sated need.
How could Mephistopheles combine
Demands as disparate as these
And, true to various traits, assign
Weights for the greatest and the least?
He mixed the body and the mind,
And in his synthesis designed
The face of man and soul of beast.
“Now,” said the Devil, “You play the part”
“Of Immortality in Art”;
“Dance to my tune, mortal no more.”
The dancer neighed and pawed the floor.
He had become, while Satan spoke,
Half-man, half-horse, meek and unchained;
He bent to Hell’s invisible yoke
The neck of the man he was before,
But gleams of the animal remained;
The heart of the beast rejoiced and strained,
Fervid, surging to the fore,
And where his human thighs had been,
The haunches swelled in alien skin.
Thus does mute discipline enhance
The bestiality of dance;
Those who are subjected gain
The horse’s grave and elegant stance —
The courser’s grace, the stallion’s glance,
Slim flank, sloe eye, sleek mane.
Beauty and élan advance;
Fear and servility restrain;
And fused in a degrading trance,
They win ovations and disdain.
NOTES for Students of English
One day in 1923, Nijinsky was brought by a friend to the Paris studio of Russian-born artist Leon Bakst. At that time, Bakst was working on a portrait of American writer Willa Cather. Nijinsky “was quiet, gentle, extremely courteous; but after he had been introduced and had kissed [Cather’s] hand, he went, after a little, and stood in a corner of the studio with his face to the wall. He believed himself to be a horse.”
— From Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis
Ballet dancers and horses are connected again in the following poem by English poet Robert Graves (1895-1985):
Fierce bodily control, constant routine,
Precision and a closely smothered rage
Alike at ballet-school and the manège:
These harden muscles, these bolster the heart
For glorious records of achievement
To glow in public memory apart.
Which disciplines (ballet and horsemanship)
Have proved no less reciprocally exclusive —
Note their strange differences in gait and carriage —
Than permissivity and Christian marriage.
From Collected Poems, 1975