Why opera gets the crowds that ballet can only covet, revisited (with added call out to readers from Apollinaire, at end)
Liking either ballet or opera is like liking brandy -- all you need is to taste it once and you'll say, where's this been all my life?
The main difference is recording. Very little of the physical excitement of hearing opera is lost when you listen to a really good recording. You can follow a great singer around every dramatic bend as the voice swells and diminishes. But with dance, 90 percent of the things you care about most are lost in all but the very best recordings.
This is particularly true of ballet, where so much of the drama of the dancing is its magical achievement of weightlessness. The transfer to 2-D makes the miracle of moving in that pulled-up manner seem to be no big deal, since 2-D is weightless already. (It's usually cleverly disguised in Hollywood by lots of impact -- chases, collisions, etc. -- which reintroduces the idea of weight, though only the idea; Fred and Ginger let you HEAR the weight in the tapping, which makes them exciting in a way no other dancers on screen ever are.)
With modern dance, the weight IS a big deal, but that too is mostly lost on screen--this time, it's not too easily weightless, as in screen ballet, but weirdly weightless, wrongly weightless.
Anyway, you could hear "Una furtiva lagrima" (which Scott Wells just did a sweet balance beam dance to here in San Francisco) while driving your car (sorry New Yorkers, I realize y'all don't do that), but you can't see Kyra Nichols hardly anywhere, and even then it's not like REALLY SEEING HER LIVE and watching her float like magic--in 3-D and real time and in the same room with you.
I've been thinking about this for years, and I still don't entirely know why dance recording doesn't really work. It's just an observable fact, like the fact that I've got fruit flies in my kitchen right now--and I don't even have any fruit out.
Still, the consequences follow like the night, the day: Musicians get paid a great deal more, because of the residuals that come from recordings, and their unions can strike much tougher deals than those of dancers. Many dance companies can't afford to use live music, because the cost of paying the musicians is so high, and most of all, the "average person" is statistically unlikely to have had a tip-top experience seeing a ballet, while statistically she WILL have had a mesmerizing experience listening to opera.
Apollinaire responds: This is really interesting, Paul, though, about your opening brandy comparison, I haven't found that people who will later take to dance like brandy do so immediately. More often, they begin by being interested enough to go again, but they don't feel they have to go. In my experience, it takes four or five times for a person to get hooked, if she's going to get hooked.
Also, I agree on the weightless problem of celluloid and digital dance. Still, I have seen videos that blew my mind--it's hard to imagine being more wowed, but I guess I might have been, live. For example: former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella in Balanchine's "Rubies" and "Tarantella."
What translated--what came across even on screen--was his phrasing, how he didn't POP! but unfolded his phrases in typical Balanchinean fashion, a single fabric with the gold strands so thoroughly inside the weave that it felt like a special treasure to find them. I also love watching Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine's "Diamonds" and "Chaconne" -- both on Nonesuch "Dance in America" DVDs--and perhaps for the same reason, that her drama derives so much from rhythm that it translates to screen: you can make the switch from sound to sight even without a kinesthetic experience.
Here's a courtly excerpt from Merce Cunningham's "Septet" (1964) that I think works on celluloid for the same reason. (God, it's beautiful--as if Matisse's paintings of entwined dancers actually danced.)
Okay, dear readers, your turn. As the dog days of summer approach, with live dance reduced to a slow trickle (in New York, the dog days have already arrived! with a heavy, muggy thunk), tell me:
Which are your favorite dance videos or DVDs? Are you only remembering how great it was or are you having a full experience in the moment? What compensates for the weightlessness? Or maybe the fact of its being video is integral to the experience--impossible to imagine any other way? Do tell.
The comments function on Foot DOES work, by the way, though there's some problem in it confirming that the comment was received. (I often get post-comment emails from the correspondent wondering if it went through.)
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