Why opera gets the crowds that ballet can only covet, revisited (with added call out to readers from Apollinaire, at end)

In typical Foot fashion–peripatetically–Paul Parish brings us back to the disparity between the popularity of opera and ballet, discussed about a month ago here and here and here.
Here’s Paul:
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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  1. griffin says

    Due to my recent schedule, the last live dance performance I attended was Boston Ballet’s Balanchine program in May. 2 of the 3 works performed are also available on Nonesuch – “Ballo della Regina” and “Four Temperaments.” On that evening, I felt there was more energy conveyed in my 30-year-old Dance in America recordings than on the Wang Center stage. Perhaps Paul Parish would conclude this comparison doesn’t speak well of Boston Ballet.
    As a ballet patron and classical musician, does recording replace live performance? Yes and no. As a Balanchine fanatic I feel a lot of what made Balanchine great has gotten lost in years of restaging his ballets without his supervision. Or maybe it is better to take the analogy of a tailor having made this one suit for a specific individual, then having to readjust the suit over the years on different bodies. After the tailor dies, so does the original vision of the suit – new tailors may have different ideas of how that suit should be fit on a new body.
    Archival video footage of Balanchine’s ballets are so important to understanding them. As someone who is only 30, I never had the opportunity to see Farrell live. And perhaps I cannot understand her dance genius as fully as those who saw her live. What I can say is that her power translates to me on film – her musicality, her timing, her off-balance technique – and I can say I have never seen her like on a live stage in my lifetime.
    Is film of Farrell better than live Farrell? No. Is it better than no Farrell at all? YES! Is Farrell on film dancing “Diamonds,” “Tzigane” or “Chaconne” better than most performances I’ve seen at the State Theater or elsewhere? YES! Is watching Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell performing the “Agon” pas de duex on B&W film more illuminating than watching it live on the State Theater stage 40 years later? YES! And watching the progression of “Agon” being passed down from Adams to Allegra Kent to Farrell (with both Mitchell and Peter Martins) gives us a window into Balanchine’s process. We, the audience, can better understand Balanchine by examing the film history of his ballets. Why did he set “Agon” on Diana Adams? Why did he allow Kent and Farrell to dance this ballet? What qualities did these three dancers bring to Balanchine ballets? How are these qualities reflected in his choreography? These are issues the Balanchine Trust does not understand – or else they would make all this archival CBC film available for purchase.
    Dance on film has power in 2-D form – although the relevence may depend on the subject matter. Based on my post, perhaps I should say Balanchine on film has relevence, power and is of great importance to understanding his ballets.
    Cutting back on dance exposure on TV, film and with the KGBalanchine Trust banning YouTube footage of his ballets – why should the public attend an art form they have little exposure to?
    Exposure leads to understanding! PBS now caters to Doo-Wop Boomers while rarely showing symphony and ballet performances. I am not a fan of opera – although PBS is mostly broadcasting this art form. However, we can use the example set by the MET with their HD broadcasts and the availability of opera on DVD. It’s not that dance doesn’t translate as well as opera on film, it’s just that there is not that much GOOD DANCING available on DVD. I won’t even mention the horrible transfer quality of the Balanchine Dance in America footage to DVD.
    Apollinaire responds:
    Griffin, very interesting. A few quick thoughts: I agree that when the dancer and choreography are great, we’ll take anything we can get, and dream the rest. It is enough to start that process. I’ll bet Paul would agree. We’ve often exchanged notes on recordings.
    Plus, you said the archival footage gives you a deeper understanding of Balanchine, but I’m wondering, are you also having an experience? Maybe once a person is hooked on a choreographer, that distinction is moot: one’s understanding feeds the experience, even in the moment. Often with Balanchine, a thought about how he is working brings me more fully into his universe (and it IS a universe, isn’t it? That big and complete.)
    Finally, I agree that if the Balanchine Trust is pulling excerpts off Youtube, they are fools: YouTube is free advertising–and people will pursue further some miracle they catch a glimpse of there. Wouldn’t it be wild if people started to incorporate bits of Balanchine into their “Aunt Jackie” or “Chicken Noodle Soup” routines–or the ballet equivalent? There’s already a “Merce Sabbath” up. (here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzS1y5KGXeU)
    There may be intellectual property laws, but art really doesn’t work according to those laws. The cool thing about YouTube is it’s really amenable to art-making–that process of influence, infiltration and dissemination.
    Thanks so much for writing, Griffin

  2. says

    “Liking either ballet or opera is like liking brandy ….”
    Cited as quotable metaphors-analogies in Metaphor-Analogy Archive”.
    Thank you.
    Apollinaire responds: No, thank you!

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