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December 11, 2007

Of Nutcrackers and Linebackers

Joe Nickell

It's that time of year again, when every ballet school in America trots its young students on stage for their production of "The Nutcracker." For that reason, it's also the time of year when journalists like myself struggle for anything new to say about this old chestnut.

A couple of years ago, I took a stab, after attending a performance here in Missoula, MT. I figured it'd be a good opportunity to talk about some of the cultural issues surrounding the choice of a ballet over a ballgame. As much as anything, it's a salvo aimed at those who unwisely believe that the things that are meaningful to them are somehow more important than the things that are meaningful to others.

I happened to come across that column today while looking back in our newspaper's archives for something else entirely, and thought I'd share.

The 'savage ballet'
Football and other sports mimic art more than some care to admit
By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian

Last Friday, I watched a team of young people cap a season of intense practice with a remarkable performance. It was a spectacle of physical artistry: They leapt, they spun, they flipped and flung. Girls in extremely short skirts gleefully vaulted around, while muscular guys in extremely tight pants demonstrated acrobatic skills and deft moves that drew spontaneous cheers from the crowd.

Meantime, someplace else, the University of Montana lost its national championship football game.

For the rest of this article, please click through to the Missoulian archive.

Posted by Joe Nickell at December 11, 2007 2:36 PM


What a lovely piece, Joe. Thanks for sharing this.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at December 11, 2007 7:50 PM

This story may be too good to be true, but it's said that Knute Rockne, while revolutionizing football as coach at Notre Dame during the 1920s, was inspired to invent the backfield shift during an evening at the ballet....and that he had his players take dance lessons to develop the timing and agility needed to execute said gridiron maneuvers. So maybe the twain do meet, although basketball is clearly the more balletic sport. No 350-pounders with beer guts on the court, except maybe Shaq. As far as relative merits of arts vs. sports as a pastime....we should consider ourselves ahead of the game with any human endeavor not devoted to stupid cruelty and intentional harm. Sometimes those things occur on a football field, sometimes not. Same goes for backstages and rehearsal studios. Morally and ethically, I can't see a difference (which is why the ancient greeks gave high laurels for both theater and sports). It's a matter of taste. If the Nutcracker was enchanting and the kids had a good time, Joe's evening was well spent; besides, you can record most big games on TV, not so with arts, unfortunately (although orchestras and the opera are playing catch-up). Sports provide the same fantasy as much popular art: clearcut winners and losers, strong effort and ingenious planning rewarded, etc. Good conquers evil in popular art, and it's easy to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad. Sophisticated art usually has too many grey areas to be very popular; relatively few people want to face the notion that life is essentially unfathomable. As opposed to sports, where the rules are the rules, barring corruption or incompetence on the part of the referees, and the outcomes are pretty clear.
Oh yeah, I recently had a column in the sports section ruminating on connections between Bernard Malamud's novel, "The Natural," Robert Redford and Barry Levinson's bowdlerized Hollywood version, and baseball's steroids scandal. I got at least twice as many letters from readers as I've ever gotten for an arts or pop music piece. I wonder if arts aficionados tend to be too self-styled cool or too reticent to spout off the way sports fans do. If so, the arts need to do something to change that.

Joe Nickell responds: I love the description of your column; sounds like a great take on a topic that has mostly been talked to death. You know, one of my personal pet peeves is arts writers and lovers who claim a high pedestal in our culture and talk down to everyone else; those folks always seem to have a particularly low opinion of sports fans. I have endured countless soliloquies from arts elitists who insist that the language and metaphor of sport have no place in discussions of the arts; there was one lecturer at the NEA arts journalism institute on classical music who went so far as to say that the insinuation of sports language into arts writing was basically a sign of endtimes for arts writing. Gimme a break.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at December 12, 2007 1:10 AM

Thanks for this reflection from Missoula. It prompted me to recall that Dmitri Shostakovich, at 23, composed a ballet (The Golden Age) depicting a Soviet football (soccer) team's travel to the West. Shostakovich was a fanatical fan of a local St. Petersburg (Leningrad) team and is quoted as having said: "Football is the ballet of the masses" (http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog/?p=313).

Joe Nickell responds: Wow, John, thanks for that reference. I knew the ballet by name only (I'm a fairly huge Shostakovich fan; so is my son, apparently), but I didn't know what the ballet was about. Not that I put too much stock in these things, but someone once pointed out to me that Shostakovich was a Libra by western astrology; a Monkey by eastern. I'm the same combo. So maybe it makes sense that he and I would share this supposedly disparate love for ballet and ballgames....

Posted by: John Turnbull at December 12, 2007 9:35 AM

Remember the Dallas Cowboys running back Herschel Walker? Remember John Madden's all-Madden team? Well, Herschel took ballet lessons, so John Madden decided not to put him on his all-Madden team. I think Herschel took ballet lessons for the same reasons mentioned by Jennifer in her post.

Posted by: Jesus Pantel at December 18, 2007 9:21 AM

Joe: Greetings from a fellow NAJP fellow. Enjoyed your post on the Nutcracker and sports. I did something similar last year, with a story called "the Guys' Guide to the Nutcracker," that played up the athleticism of ballet (and the prospect of seeing fetching foreign young ladies in revealing clothes).

But the link between sports and arts goes deeper, I think. It something I might address somewhere, assuming the paper gives me the room (the once-arts friendly tulsa world is getting subsumed by readers' poll troll, it seems). People have a connection to certain things because they can imagine themselves performing these feats. Most kids dream of being rock stars, and even the tone-deaf can "air-guitar" with the best of them. Even those whose idea of exercise in yawning can imagine they can execute a football play, hit the ball perfectly between fielders, sink the shot from the top of the key -- or at least coach those who can do these things to do them properly (see: all the portly pontificators at any gathering, pointing out all the faults that cost some team a victory). But the fine arts -- classical music, opera, ballet, sculpture, etc. -- are activities most people cannot envision themselves doing. And therefore they have no personal connection -- or interest or curiosity -- about them.

Or maybe I just haven't had enough coffee this morning.....

all the best,
jim watts

Posted by: james watts at January 3, 2008 11:55 AM