Why does opera get the crowds and ballet doesn’t? Part Two

Last week, Tonya Plank (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl) wanted to know why people clamor for opera, but not so much for ballet. She wrote:

Everything at the opera seems to sell out months and months and MONTHS in advance! I haven’t been able to get an affordable ticket to ANYTHING!

Which leads me to: why is the opera so much more popular than ballet? I feel that all kinds of people — young, old, people of every race and ethnicity and gender–will take a chance on opera, even when it’s out of the ordinary for them, even when they know the experience isn’t going to be like a big, action-packed Hollywood movie. They feel it is something that sophisticated and cultured people do, and so they will go. Yet those same people don’t feel that way about the ballet.

Why is that? Is it because opera has a longer history, because Met director Peter Gelb is doing something more than directors at the big ballet companies to promote opera to younger people, because of some kind of crazy ingrained homophobia? Do you have any ideas??

Here, far and near, are some ideas.
No ideas, only sympathy. I have some of the most aesthetically sophisticated and creative friends, and most of them do not attend dance. And whenever I tell someone new that I write about dance, there’s usually this pause or a kind of “eh?” as if the person did not quite hear me, because the idea of dance and someone writing about dance is way out of their experience or even conception. It continues to baffle me.
Dancer Claire Willey (a perfect stranger! See, perfect strangers, you can participate, too!):
I have a couple of ideas why the “average person” will go to an opera, but not a ballet.
I go to numerous dance performances (mostly modern), and when I take a friend who is new to dance I often hear the same complaint: “I don’t understand…”
An opera tells a story, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes unbelievable, but always recognizably narrative. Many times there are beautiful sets, luscious costumes, a dramatic setting, and stirring passions. I think that if the music were presented without all these theatrical trappings, the audience would dwindle.
As a dancer, I am captivated by composition, line, and technique, and I love “pure” movement. But I find that these joys are inaccessible to most of my non-dance friends, who tend to prefer visual spectacle and film-like performances.
Claire, I think you’ve put your finger on opera’s larger appeal: the spectacle. It’s such a complete theatrical experience that you can be tone deaf and rhythm dumb, and still have fun. Swordfights for the toney crowd, Tonya! 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, they just tolerate it (or not).
As theater, opera is more reliably excellent because of who’s involved: at the Met this season, the directors have included Mark Morris, celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and Julie “Lion King” Taymor. People will come out for these guys, whatever their feelings about the opera at hand.
Of course, dance doesn’t have directors–so you couldn’t use them as a draw even if you wanted to. It has stagers, who go by the choreographic book, and choreographers, who stray as far from antecedents as they want. Opera directors exist in an intermediary zone, honoring the music but often radically reimagining the setting. When ballets undergo radical revisions, the music, the setting and story often don’t change much, but, weirdly, the steps do. So, any director would have to also be a choreographer or supplement her.
That’s what American Ballet Theatre’s new production of “The Sleeping Beauty” is doing. They’ve got a team: choreographer Kevin McKenzie, former ballerina and coach extraordinaire Gelsey Kirkland, and theater director Michael Chernov in a dance equivalent of opera’s director, choreographer, and conductor. An exciting new trend in ballet? We’ll see. (Not immediately, however: It will take more than one production to know how well the approach works.)
Ballet may not have opera’s resources (perhaps, as Tonya points out, because it’s a relatively young art), but if ballet companies were willing to take risks on younger directors and designers, they would succeed in luring those people who want art, not hokeyness, in their extra-choreographic effects–the audience that rushes to Peter Gelb’s Met and Gerard Mortier’s City Opera, paying triple the price of a night at the ballet. Companies that do story ballets may think they’re in a bind–that in order to attract parents and their kids, the interpretations must be tame. But I think they’re underestimating children’s (and parents’) adaptability. When I taught English, I once subjected my sixth graders to the Cocteau film “Orpheus” for a unit on Greek mythology. The kids complained bitterly–that it was in black and white, and subtitled–for about three minutes, then watched in awed silence to the end.
Perhaps another reason people avoid ballet is they suspect it’s a nostalgia trip to adolescence. And there is something teenage about the emotions evoked by the classic story ballets, the dance equivalent in style and grandeur of opera. There’s the undying love, the treachery, the betrayal–all those black and white states of mind you eventually realize will ruin your life if you don’t start distrusting them. But opera is no less deranged.
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 more sophisticated and worldly, and it probably won’t.
Or maybe concert dance is too adulterated. If it were purely emotional, cerebral, visual, or sensual, maybe then it would have a popular following. “Dancing with the Stars” is all sex and celebrity–and look at the millions it attracts! The work on the opera stages, by contrast, mixes distillation with immediacy, emotion with physical sensation. A delicious puzzle.
Dance works like poetry and yet doesn’t transfer easily to language. So it defeats the pleasures of description in those poetic souls who would likely enjoy it most. (Which makes dance writers masochists, I guess–and may explain, Eva, why your friends blink when you say you write about dance.) It also resists any hope for a simple structure. In dance, sound becomes space; space, time; harmonies, the movement of limbs.
Opera doesn’t do that trick. The music may arise from the body, but the body doesn’t describe the music. So maybe this paradox–that dance seems simple but is complex–keeps audiences at bay.

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  1. Robert Jordahl says

    I stopped going to ballets years ago- I composed two, but couldn’t help but notice most of what I saw were reruns of 19th century repertory. Please, no more regional performances of ” Nutcracker “!

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