Choreographic Analyses of The Moor's Pavane: The Unbearable Lightness

A Ballet by Jose Limon

Music by Henry Purcell
Music arranged by Simon Sadoff (from Abdelazer, The Gordion Knot Untied, and the pavane from Pavane and Chaconne for Strings)
Choreography by Jose Limon

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who formulated the idea of the "eternal return"--that if everything recurred endlessly as we once experienced it, we would have the opportunity to consider all of our choices and select a path in light of that foreknowledge. Our actions would then have some weight, he said, because they would exist eternally, over and over. As it is, however, we are blind--we must navigate each day like an actor with no rehearsal, walking on cold. Thus our actions are of no consequence--just fleeting improvisations, which live once and then dissolve into time forever, without substance or effect. Because our actions are so "light" fate buffets us like dead leaves in autumn. The four characters in The Moor's Pavane epitomize this state--from their first movements, their tragic end is set. Each step they dance is irrevocable, each choice inescapable.

Their names are immaterial; they represent archetypes, not individuals. They are Nobility in purple robes, Deceit in a gold tunic, Seduction in crimson, and Innocence in a nimbus of white lace. Similarly, their movements do not tell a certain story that took place at a particular time--their story is a universal human equation, into which any variables could be inserted without changing the outcome.

The weight of this burden is evident from the first intense chord of music, as Nobility and Deceit slowly, slowly raise their legs to attitúde, palms flattened as though repelling each other, staring like snakes, ready to strike. Instantly, we see the conflict in the movement and the stance--they are literally and directly opposed.

Nobility moves with grandeur, as though the body onstage is the mere tip of an iceberg and nine tenths of his formidable mass is concealed below the surface. But, in the tradition of Greek tragedy, his own nature is his downfall, and over the course of the piece Deceit poisons him with his own dignity. He becomes regal and deliberate to the point of paralysis, and as Deceit whispers in his ear he seems to move as though pushing through air denser than water. His muscles strain against themselves intensely, but he cannot resist fate.

In contrast, Innocence barely touches the ground. Her arms seem to have no joints, and she flutters about like a silken scarf in the breeze--not because she can somehow resist the inexorable, but because she is ignorant of it. Her naiveté will not save her, but makes her destruction all the more heart wrenching, because it seems so undeserved. Again, her own nature will betray her--her caring touch is too weak, her smile too unguarded, her sincerity too predictable. Her steps are free from the weighty considerations that enmesh Nobility--when she touches him it seems like natural affection, not calculated or premeditated. In a different ballet, she could be his salvation--her spontaneity freeing him from his great burden. In another story, her smile could unlock his heart.

But Seduction smiles as well, to Nobility's great agony, and her solo is lust incarnated in movement. At one point she arches backwards completely, and as her head dips out of view we see her as he must--decapitated, a body having no face or mind or spirit, and no presence save a sheen of sweat on her exposed chest. As she rises slowly back up, the movement is motivated from her pubic bone. Her heaviness is not the repose of Nobility, it is her cunning and her attraction. Like an animal in heat, she emphasizes the weight of every inch of skin against her dress, and the mass and rhythm of her thighs rising and falling to the music. Her muscles are not locked against each other, they are hot and flaccid--luscious as ripe grapes dangling on the vine, begging to be plucked and eaten.

Deceit has the soul of a jackal and a face that seems permanently twisted into a smile of unrestrained malice. He glides like the serpent in Eden, whispering into their ears, flattering and venomous--and when they touch he caresses Nobility's body as though stroking his very ego, sowing the seeds of doubt and nurturing them until they have taken deep root. His signature pose is to contract into a mockery of a court jester's bow, eyes lowered, wrists bent like a gargoyle. He is never alone on stage, but moves from one person to the next like a parasite who cannot exist without a host--but with the confidence of someone who knows they will win.

At the climax of the piece, Innocence lays prone before Nobility, hands at her sides. As the entire orchestra throbs, he raises one fist after the other above his head and drives them down into her, as though nailing her thin body to a cross. Having destroyed himself along with her, he turns his back to the audience--unable to look, or unwilling to be seen.

This is the conflict inside the Moor: his physical movements are heavy, because his actions are so light. Each choice flits by him only once, and the moments rush past with no mass or permanence--dead before they even lived. The weight of his despair is the unbearable lightness of a life without substance--without the chance to examine what might have been. In some other ballet, the Moor lives happily ever after, but he is allowed to dance just this one.

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