Rereading Nietzsche’s work may not always bring one closer to understanding the crux of his thesis. One can easily be swept up by Nietzsche’s beautifully poetic writing, leading a reader astray in trying to understand the crux of his thesis. In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche explores the idea of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. He claims them to be opposite “artistic energies which burst forth from nature herself, without the mediation of the human artist” (Nietzsche 38). He connects them specifically to the world of dreams and to an intoxicated reality. Apollo was the God of the Sun and Dionysus the God of the forces of intoxication – basically, wine – and God of Dreams. In examining Jerome Bel’s Veronique Doisneau, a one-woman performance, the Dionysian elements of ballet are torn apart. In Bel’s piece there is a need to deconstruct the elements in ballet associated with the Dionysian, in order to create a shift towards the Apollonian.
In the grand Opera National de Paris, Veronique Doisneau, a corps de ballet dancer of the Paris Opera, enters an empty stage. She carries with her a long white skirt and a small bottle of water. Looking out to the audience she says:
“Good evening. My name is Veronique Doisneau. I am married and I have two children, six and twelve years old. I am forty-two and I will retire in eight days. Tonight is my last performance at the Paris Opera.”
Expecting to witness a ballet performance, I remember thinking that it was nice that given this is her last show, she was given the opportunity to talk to the audience and inform them that this would be her last show. When Doisneau placed her water bottle and skirt down onto the floor of the stage to perform a piece she loves, she took her position on stage and began to hum as she moved. This is when it struck me that her presence on stage, her monologue or conversation with the audience, is what the performance is all about. I had imagined a group of ballet dancers dressed immaculately in white tutus, polished shoes and their hair neatly tied in a bun. Ballet resonates of the Dionysian, and yet here was Doisneau speaking to the audience, breathing heavily after dancing and sitting down to drink water. Bel’s piece was trying to break the wall that is often built around ballet. There is this sense of being prim and proper, and a sense of disconnect between the audience and the performer when it comes to ballet. Nietzsche writes that in the Dionysian world it is “in song and in dance [where] man expresses himself as a member of a higher community” (Nietzsche 37). Doisneau even makes reference to the fact that, “in the hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet, I am a ‘Subject’”. Within a Greek tragedy, the performer is seen as a demi-god. However this power dynamic is played with in Bel’s piece as Doisneau speaks to the audience, breaking the sense of disparity between the audience and herself as a performer. Spatially, she is seen as separate given that she is on stage, however she finds ways to reach out to the audience verbally as visually. She not only shares the amount of money she makes and the fact that she is a mother with two young children, but she has also stepped onto the stage with no make-up, hair messily tied back, and clothes that would be more befitting for practice sessions instead of a formal performance.
The Apollonian is centered on individuating oneself; being able to step back and engage in self-reflection. Tragedy occurs though when there is a conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Nietszche discusses how “Greek tragedy in its earliest form had for its sole theme the sufferings of Dionysus and that for a long time the only stage hero was Dionysus himself” (Nietzsche 73). In Bel’s piece, suffering as a theme is explored with a high level of intricacy. Doisneau speaks of the labour involved in dancing ballet. The audience is provided a sense of this when she performs and her panting is heard. There is a monotonous tone to the way Doisneau speaks and phrases her words. Her monotony by no means indicates she does not love what she does, but it may be seen as a testament to the poise one must maintain in ballet. Doisneau is able to convey through speech and dance the incredible labour of the performer and her pleasure in this masochism of ballet. Even when she is still one can see years of experience running through her body. Doisneau’s performance leans towards the Apollonian as she presents the labourious reality behind ballet. Rather than through storytelling, the breaking of the Dionysian in order to revolve around the Apollonian is seen through the ways she breaks ‘the fourth wall’. At one point for example, poised to begin dancing, she turns her head to request that the volume of the music be raised. This acknowledges the presence of other individuals in the performance, such as the technicians and the audience themselves, rather than resting on the illusion that the performer is sole and everything happens almost magically.
Bel and Doisneau do not intend on criticizing ballet. They are presenting an Apollonian performance that allows for the ballet as an art form to be explored; to allow performer to talk about themselves and their work, and engage in some way with the audience. The dancer verbally and physically is given their voice. At the end of her performance, Doisneau appears as though she is about to demonstrate another short piece. However, she relaxes her muscles after a while, and appears pensive. She chooses not to dance and instead to stay still. She does not allow the music to dictate when she must dance, but allows individual choice to be a part of what she does on a stage.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy, and The Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kauffman. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.
“Veronique Doisneau 1.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Apr. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIuWY5PInFs>.