First Greek Dance Encounter, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 240-242:

Before long Dimitri and Costa were on their feet again, involved in an intricate dance very unlike the cheerful and bawdy stampings they had just improvised. The dancers were side by side, linked at a stiff arm’s length by a hand on each other’s shoulder, their unsmiling faces hanging forward chin on breast like those of hanged men. Nothing could be less carefree or orgiastic than the perverse mood of the steps, the premeditated hornpipe, then an abrupt halt. This was broken by movements as slight as the bending and straightening of the knee; the feet, flat on the ground with heels together, opened at an angle then closed and opened again. The right feet were then lifted and slowly swung backwards and forwards. A left-foot jump brought their torsos seesawing in a right angle to balance a simultaneous kick on the ground behind them with their right. Then the dancers swept forward for an accelerated pace or two, braked and halted with their right legs lifted, knees to heels sweeping parallel to the ground in slow scything movements, and falling again. Their hands smote beneath them in a double clap, then they were almost on their knees, hands on shoulders again, gliding off sideways, then rolling forward once more at their smooth and unnaturally timed pace. The softness, the hypnotic-seeming control and union, the abrupt surging, the recoveries and the arms falling loose for an identical pirouette before joining again, the fastidious shelving of stereotype – what on earth had all this sophistication to do with Balkan or peasant simplicity? Then there was the planned anticlimax, compensated by a drilled outburst when, in any other dance, all would have been decrescendo and subsidence. The sudden asperity and vigour and speed were muzzled and hushed in mid-swoop, like the flash of steel unsheathed halfway up the blade, then allowed to slide back with a soft subsiding click of hilt on scabbard. The subtle and complex beauty of this peculiar dancing in relation to all the dancing I had seen in recent months, and coming hotfoot on the straightforward bumpkin fun of the first performance, was as much of a surprise as would be finding unheralded in a collection of folk verse a long metaphysical poem in a highly elaborate metre and stuffed with conceits, tropes, assonances, internal rhymes and abstruse allusions. I think it was just as new to the shepherds as it was to me.

At the end of the dance, Dimitri joined us by the fire and swelled the accompaniment with his own voice and another gourd. The next dance, on which Costa now embarked solo, though akin to its forerunner, was even odder. There was the same delay and deliberation, the same hanging head with its cap on the side, a cigarette in the middle of the dancer’s mouth. He gazed at the ground with his eyes almost closed, rotating on the spot with his hands crossed in the small of his back; soon they rose above his head like a vulture’s wings opening, then soared in alternate sweeps before his lowered face with an occasional carefully placed crack of thumb and forefinger as the slow and complex steps evolved. The downward gaze, the absorption, the precise placing of the feet, the sudden twirl of the body, the sinking on alternate knees, the sweep of an outstretched leg in three quarters of a circle, with the arms all at once outflung in two radii as the dancer rose again in another slow circle, gathering pace till he spun for a few seconds at high speed and then slowed down in defiance of all the laws of momentum – these steps and passes and above all the downward scrutiny were as though the dancer were proving, on the fish scales and the goats’ droppings underfoot, some lost theorem about tangents and circles, or retracing the conclusions of Pythagoras about the square on the hypotenuse. Sometimes during these subsidences, he slapped the ground with one hand and shot into the air again. A leap, after a few grave and nearly static paces, would carry him effortlessly through the air to land motionless with knees bent and ankles crossed. He would rise from this crouched posture, his trunk flung forward like a pair of scissors closing, the smoke from his cigarette spiralling round him. These abrupt acrobatics and calculated flashes of strength were redoubled in effect by the measured smoothness and abstraction of the steps that bracketed them. This controlled acceleration and braking wove them all into a single and solemn choreographic line. Perhaps the most striking aspect of it was the tragic and doomed aura that surrounded the dance, the flaunting so quickly muffled, and the introvert and cerebral aloofness of the dancer, so cut off by indifference from the others in the cave that he might have been alone in another room, applying ritual devices to conundrums reluctant of yielding their answers, or exorcizing a private and incommunicable pain. The loneliness was absolute. The singing had stopped and nothing but the jangle of the wire strings accompanied him.

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Filed under Britain, Bulgaria, Greece, music, travel

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