Ballet is TOO sophisticated! Is NOT!

Two readers respond to the previous post, in which a few of us worry over why opera has more cultural cache than the dance that shares the same stages.
Natalia, from St. Louis, offers a midwestern perspective on why ballet and opera productions of the classics don’t compare:
You wrote,

In the ballets that take over the big stages during opera’s off season, on the other hand, the spectacle is the worst part: the spandex costumes, the hammy acting, the quasi-realistic picture-book sets. No one actually shows up for that stuff, you just tolerate it (or not).

I think there’s another issue lurking here. Along with the storylines and the choreographies, the classic ballets cling to other trappings, such as iconic costuming: the chorus in white tutus, the swan’s feathery tutu, Prince Charming in tights and a tunic. If I went to see any of the story ballets here in St. Louis or in any other midsize city in the country, chances are, they would look substantially the same, with the choreography and music basically the same, too. The only distinguishing characteristic would be the dancers themselves. But if I’m sitting up in the cheap seats, I may not even be able to see the dancing that well.
On the other hand, every production of an opera is different (except, of course, when the companies buy each other’s sets, but even then the staging and approach are often quite different). Leaving aside the fashion for giving operas weird new settings, if you went to 100 “traditional” productions of “The Magic Flute” you would see 100 wildly different spectacles: live plants and animals onstage, a forest painted on silk scrims, who knows what else. There are a thousand different ways to turn an otherwise non-descript singer into Papageno the birdman.
So you can’t really say, “Oh, Aida? I’ve seen it before!” I know the top ballet companies do mix it up, but the regional ballet companies are probably bringing out the exact same sets and costumes they used seven years ago. Audiences may not have seen those particular dancers before, but since the companies aren’t out selling dancers as distinct individuals, audiences would probably not be turned on by a production whose only distinction from the last time is changing out one nearly nameless dancer for another nearly nameless dancer. ~Natalia
Apollinaire responds: In New York and San Francisco, the ballet dancers are by no means nameless: fans not only know their names, they’re on a first-name basis! (whether the dancers themselves know it or not.) That may be another difference between national companies such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, or San Francisco Ballet and regional companies, though I would think there would be a lot of local boosterism. No?

Modern dancer and reader Claire Willey, presently based in San Francisco, wonders how I could doubt that dance makes you a smarter person:

In your last post you said:

Maybe the problem is the body. Dance is immediate, soft, tied to the unsophistication of the flesh. I confess: I like this about it. But it may explain why we don’t think it will make us smarter and more worldly: It probably won’t.

I’m not sure I understand where this is coming from.
Dance is immediate and tied to the flesh, but it also tackles incredibly sophisticated topics (which is what I think the general public finds daunting).
Dance uses the body to say directly what is difficult or impossible to put into words– the meaning of touch, the nature of time, the emotional struggle inherent in all relationships, the contradictory strength and fragility of the human body. What better way is there to explore the human condition than with the human body?
A wonderful example is William Forsythe’s subtle exploration of the effects of war on the individual in “3 atmospheric studies.” [ed. note: Paul writes about the work near the end of this Foot post on mob mentality, and here's my more ambivalent Newsday review.] If there is anything that will make us smarter and more worldly, this work would surely qualify.
Even the classic story ballets have surprising depth beneath their shiny fa├žade. Just think back to your earlier discussion of the crowd scenes in Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” (Paul Parish’s “More on the scary, sexy power of Matthew Bourne’s swans” in March.)
Of course, the average person does not know how to analyze a dance performance (as you or Paul does) and is often left feeling overwhelmed, bored, or confused. But here we come back to the role of the critic. If “The scary, sexy power of Matthew Bourne’s swans” were printed in the Chronicle or the Times, don’t you think more people would be interested in dance? The essay is exciting, touches on issues relevant to many people’s lives (homosexuality, adolescence, violence), places Matthew Bourne in a larger historical context, and compares “Swan Lake” to well-known material (e.g., “Lord of the Flies”).
If reviews always had such substance, then we would surely have a larger and more educated audience. So the question is, why don’t more critics take the time to provide this kind of insight and analysis to the general public? Or is it a matter of what is chosen to be printed in the mainstream media?
This is something I’ve never really understood. ~Claire
Apollinaire responds:
Wow, Claire, what a wonderful description of the powers of dance:

To say directly what is difficult or impossible to put into words– the meaning of touch, the nature of time, the emotional struggle inherent in all relationships, the contradictory strength and fragility of the human body.

I agree wholeheartedly. I was using “sophisticated” not to mean savvy or smart but to mean world-wise, and, to my mind, dance is wise about other things: huge, essential, primary things, as you point out.
While I agree with Natalia that a conservative impulse dominates ballet–especially, it seems, the farther you travel from the coasts–I don’t think we should care whether it has cultural cache as long as it’s in fact participating in the culture. (I don’t think that’s too fine a distinction. Natalia, for example, makes clear she’s not hoping for hipness in versions of the classics, but simply productions that don’t feel threadbare and bored with themselves.) An acquaintance of mine once asked whether I ever got free tickets to BAM. I said, Sure, what do you want to see? She wanted to see the other hipster boys and girls at BAM–any show would do. So when I say dance won’t make you smarter, I’m teasing a little. I just mean it’s not something you get to brag about. Its value is in the experience itself.
I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the essays on Foot, Claire. An ironic note about Paul’s post on Matthew Bourne’s swans: Months ago, he was writing a magazine essay on those very swans and had gotten deep enough into it that he needed a second opinion–plus, it was too long, so he was curious to know what I thought could be cut. He had a paragraph about the swans along the lines of this one:

The “traditional” “Swan Lake” makes poetic fiction, displaced into a picturesque mode, out of fears grounded in growing pains — the sudden longings to transcend, to belong, to be cared for; the sweaty nights when your legs hurt; the sudden awareness that hair was growing in places it never used to; the sense of power you got when you realized people were looking at you with lust-fascination in their eyes; the fear you felt when it was the wrong person looking at you like that; the fear when you realized you’d been caught looking at someone else that way and THEY despised you; the new fascination you had looking at your own body as secondary sex-characteristics begin to bloom; and the oscillation between wanting to publish and to cover up these powers.

I said, whatever you do, don’t cut this paragraph (in its earlier incarnation). Lo and behold, in the back and forth of editing, it got cut. He wrote his essay here to expatiate on that deleted passage.
Does it always happen that editors cut the best stuff? No, not at all. But I do think that what counts as dance reviewing in newspapers and magazines–and I include my own stuff in this charge–hasn’t added much to the general public’s sense of dance as an alive and evolving form that you wouldn’t want to miss out on. I’ve been trying to grapple with why that is, here on Foot.
Natalia and Claire, thanks so much for writing in.
UPDATE:
This just in from composer Robert Jordahl:
I’ve composed two ballets, but, I’ve never enjoyed traditional (French ) ballet. The 19th century repertoire is so restricted.
Some modern composers like Copland and Bernstein have written fine ballets, but how often are they performed?
It will take a major effort to keep ballet from going the same way as Classical Music. I’d much rather watch Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Cyd Charisse dance–and to better music, too.

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