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1, 2-11: But First, a Bullfight
The Eisenstein Connection: Que Viva Kirstein!
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium
in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein's
"Thunder Over Mexico." The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later
co-found New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was
objecting because he knew this film, a much-truncated extract from
over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the
legendary Russian filmmaker's plan for "Que Viva Mexico!," his panoramic
history of Mexican civilization.
sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his
colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as
the three watched and commented upon thirty of these reels. In an
article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in "By,
With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader," edited by Nicholas
Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, "If anything should happen to "Que
Viva Mexico!" between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob
it of Eisenstein's final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering
dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which
Caesar's fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show
us what Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their
loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart
of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction."
By early 1932,
Eisenstein's backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where
he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt--as Jenkins
tells it-"to retain control of his film." Amidst the wreckage, some
smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master's intentions.
This is what had broken Kirstein's heart. He would have been heartened,
then, to be at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous
four-hour showing of raw "Que Viva Mexico!" footage, assembled 45
years ago by the Museum of Modern Arts' Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer.
(The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who
with his wife had brought together the film's original backers.)
I should pause
here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me--i.e., the
non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys
and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in
the dance auxiliary identify with people like Sergei Diaghilev,
producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart,
the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was
drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I'm a dancer
but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have
a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and
support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only
used the leading cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he
also started his own art magazine, "The World of Art," just before
the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein's interest in visual art,
and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until
my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein's closeness
to the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium
I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred
or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous
"Harlem snake dancer"). While there, I learned that Anthology would
be showing the 'Que Viva' footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize
Eisenstein's intentions for the epic.
So I hied myself
to this treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East
Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important
to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn't figure on was
that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.
Much of the
first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one--hey, I've
been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement.
One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is
subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian
men retrace Christ's arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors
within their ranks walking on their haunches; that's right, hunched.
The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm
here. Like "Serenade"--the first ballet Balanchine created in America--there
is also a story, with rites. And canon!
with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades
and carried offstage. The prologue of "Que Viva Mexico!", at least
what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying
the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.
But the heart
of what I saw last night--and the most dancey material--deals with
bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.
First we are
shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull;
a bull gores a picador's horse. The matadors (? I get the human
sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles
(these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other),
which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them.
Then we are treated to many takes each of various aspects of the
bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull's eye perspective,
as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull's head,
seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as
is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously
older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned
The most purely
balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or
butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein "planned
to give...special attention," perhaps "for its resemblance to ballet."
One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his
cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side.
He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards
as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal--who
also dances. It's total ballet. (Eisenstein's plan was to have Dmitri
Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can
imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this
Indeed, in a
very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this
film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn't necessarily
expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein
has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer
involved in dance, it's Kirstein's very catholicity of passionate
pursuits that appeals to me. But I don't think it's too much of
an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his
colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of
the reasons Kirstein found "Que Viva Mexico!" "an absorbing experience"
was Eisenstein's capturing of how movement expresses culture. This
same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince
Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet--for American culture
to be expressed through movement as well.
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