The Pavarotti of dance? More readers respond! YAY! (and we respond to the responses)

Readers have liked this topic, which Eva got us rolling on a few weeks ago. Here, some really smart responses.
Blogger Maria, of Time to Dance, on our second go-round, in which we debate whether a “So You Think You Can Dance” (SYTYCD) contestant might serve as ambassador for the dance world or whether the show’s aims are too at odds with concert dance forms such as modern and ballet:
Wow… I am new to this blog and new to this whole discussion and am just blown away by it.
It’s funny how it started with “who is the Pavarotti of dance” and somehow got down to talking about the inferiority of social and entertainment dancing to concert dance. I don’t even know where to start…
The most telling quote from this whole debate is the following [from Apollinaire]:

That I’m even having this argument–that Balanchine is not the same as SYTYCD!–goes to show exactly how far “the fine arts,” as we blithely used to call them, have fallen. It used to be understood that these arts were valuable in themselves. No one had to make a case for them via some junky TV show.

Please point me to a time in history when EVERYONE recognized “fine art” (however you define that) for what it was. We are kidding ourselves if everyone in the history of time had the time, resources, and education to develop a deep appreciation for abstract expression at a higher level of thinking. Let’s not forget that ballet dancers were not always held in the same regard as they are today–that they are elegant, professional, even that classical ballet is traditional and stodgy. It’s my understanding they were once viewed by many as no better than prostitutes (correct me if I’m wrong… I didn’t do my research today but I remember reading this once… don’t want to offend any ballet dancers ;).
[Editor note: Yes, particularly in Paris, where male ballet patrons often extended their patronage to the little rats’ bedrooms. I’m not sure how or if the ballerinas were paid. Paul points out that it’s the mothers who were doing the negotiating. As for Russia, Pavlova was once asked by an Indianapolis Sun reporter why she would give up the illustrious position and job security she enjoyed in the Tsar’s company for this neverending tour, and she said, “How would you feel toward a country where it is possible for a Grand Duke to come backstage and order the maitre de ballet to line up the ballet corps for his inspection? Then, as he strolls down the line, he points with his cane, ‘There. That one! Put her in my carriage. I will take that one for tonight.’ “]
Many long-dead artists that we now regard as pivotal in the history of art were not that highly valued in their day (Van Gogh, for example).
Finally, I don’t understand why there has to be a struggle between TV dance and concert dance. Can’t we appreciate each thing for what it is and not see them at odds with each other? One doesn’t have to triumph over the other. People like what they like and will go to see what interests them. I enjoy SYTYCD for what it is–entertainment that interests me more than the other crap on TV– but that’s not going to lessen the number of concert performances I go to see.
Maria, thanks for writing; I totally agree that there needn’t be a contest between TV dance and ballet at the Met or modern dance at the Chocolate Factory on Long Island City: a person can like it all, have different things appeal to different parts of herself. As a generalist–I review anything that moves (or at least that Newsday will print, an important qualification, especially nowadays)–I’m always switching the light on and off in one room and then another of my brain, heart, body, etc. I was directing my comment at the notion that these TV shows might serve as a gateway to ballet or modern.
Okay, here are the responses to Foot contributor Paul Parish’s qualified nomination of Michael Jackson as our Pavarotti:
The Gloved One doesn’t really speak for dance, though. I hadn’t heard that Michael was all that interested in the field of dance itself or had extensive knowledge of it. We need someone who’s not only the face of dance (or the bod of dance) but who’s something of a proselytizer. I guess I didn’t really make that clear…?
Jackson’s legal troubles aside, I would hesitate to compare a pop artist’s popularity with that of someone like Pavarotti. The truth is, most hardcore opera fans considered Pavarotti past his prime by the time The Three Tenors was conceptualized. The entire concert was Opera Pops Classics Light, but maybe a few people did cross over to the land of the Met as a result. We assume the current popularity that the Met is experiencing is due to a seed planted 14 years ago by Pavarotti and company in Central Park. Perhaps. But there is more to the story than Pavarotti as ambassador of opera for the ages.
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. Nessun Dorma playing on the radio is not going to get someone to shell out $100 to see a three-hour show in a foreign language. The smart folks at the Met understand this and have spent their own money to create an audience.
1.) Pay-off the unions to get them off your back so you can explore HD broadcasting technology and sell DVDs.
2.) Advertise with good-looking singers and sex.
3.) People like free things: at the very least, live broadcasts on public screens expose your product to a wider audience than you would reach otherwise.
Here is the most important factor–the Met isn’t dumbing down by catering to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to gain a new audience. It is not becoming “American Idol” and it is not casting Britney Spears as Brunhilda. Now, why should dance be any different?
Popular culture does integrate itself into high art. That is what masters of their craft do. Copland took American jazz idioms and Latin American dance rhythms and incorporated them into the classical genre, but his work was always composed for the concert audience. I am not familiar with the Rasta Thomas program, but have to wonder if his is the work of a master or no more than a SYTYCD rip off. The packaging certainly sounds like a dancing version of Il Divo, a group whose fan base I don’t imagine attends the Met with any regularity–a Josh Groban concert, possibly.
In the current American culture, we are not trained to appreciate high art. Schools have cut music and art programs in favor of No Child Left behind and new football uniforms. If your parents can’t afford to take you to a ballet or, more commonly, have no interest in the arts themselves, you grow up without any exposure to the art form. And so the cycle continues until no one is watching. If it weren’t for Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson’s documentary on Suzanne Farrell, “Elusive Muse,” aired on PBS in 1997, I would have never developed an interest in ballet and wouldn’t have found your blog ten years later by googling Balanchine. [Ed. note: a turning point in your life, I’m sure! ~))]
Before 1997, I was a trained classical clarinetist whose only exposure to dance was a bit of “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker.” My parents have no interest in the classical arts, so I had very little exposure growing up. Going back even further, I wouldn’t even be a clarinetist without a school band program that introduced me to music in the 4th grade. The importance of exposure and education in developing a consumer base can not be overestimated.
If the only dance the general public is exposed to is SYTYCD, how do we expect them to know that something like “Serenade” or “Agon” even exists–and how do we expect them to understand it, want to pay for it, and come back for seconds? At the end of the day, if classical dance wants to thrive it must reinvent how it markets itself. The institution has to get out of that 1960s consumer mentality and interact with the 21st century.
Oh, don’t say that about critics [that when you’re talking dance on the scale of “So You Think You Can Dance,” we don’t make an iota of difference]! You HAVE to matter — your articles and blogs are the only places where people are actually TALKING about dance! I just wish non-blogger critics would recognize some of the more intelligent discussions that take place on some of these blogs — such as the one we had that you’re referring to. I’m a goof, but you were so eloquent in what you said, as well as Eva, and Christopher Pelham, and even Ariel was rather funny the way she put things :) I feel like that conversation was actually pretty profound, so I wish Claudia would have cited it, especially if she was going to give a shout-out to The Winger (which didn’t cover SYTYCD).
My other criticism of the world of criticism is: can the Wall Street Journal please make at least some of their articles freely available on the internet, at least for a limited time, like the NY Times does? I see Robert Greskovic everywhere (he’s like the Where’s Waldo of the dance world — he manages to be at just about every performance in existence) and I never get to read his reviews because I can’t afford the subscription price. Ditto for Terry Teachout‘s articles in there. Argh!
Regarding Paul’s comment: I totally agree. The Blogging SYTYCD blog (sorry to go on about it; it’s really much better than some might think) recently cited an ArtsJournal interview with Danny Tidwell from 2003 where he talked about his role models being ballet dancers Jose Carreno, Carlos Acosta, and Desmond Richardson. I was so excited — both that his role models were some of my favorites and that the blog specifically quoted that part of the article, exposing its readers to such excellent dancers. Unfortunately, all the commenters picked up on was the interview, Danny’s life, and the parts describing Danny’s dancing, not even wondering who these other dancers might be to whom he so looks up.
At first it made me upset, thinking, gosh that show is just all about celebrity — forget dancing of ANY kind, it’s just celebrity. But then I thought, well, most of these people have never seen and are never going to get to see Jose and Carlos and Desmond, so what in the world would they care about such dancers for? They got to see Danny, so of course they’re going to latch onto him. The dance world MUST figure out better ways to record dance, and get it out there to a wider audience. Can’t some of the companies try what the opera has done and broadcast some ballets in movie theaters? There at least needs to be more on network TV. If everyone knows who Danny is, they can become equally familiar with the other great dancers out there as well. And I don’t think people NEED to have a competition; I think they’d be into performances as well — that’s what this SYTYCD tour is, anyway…
Eva : Tell Tonya that we should just borrow Robert Greskovic’s reviews from Alastair Macaulay! 😀 [Ed. note: Macaulay mentioned in his talk at Barnard that Greskovic regularly emailed him his reviews.]
Apollinaire: Hi, Tonya! I think Paul’s main point was that recorded dance just doesn’t translate to film the way recorded opera does to CD etc., so it’s hard for it to have the kind of reach music has–even if we could agree on who might do the reaching! But I’ll let him speak for himself (see below).
Also, apropos of the original question– whether, to quote Eva, “the field of dance had or could have a world-renowned, charismatic figure who might serve as a much-needed ambassador… to draw wider interest to dance”– the esteemed Claudia La Rocco’s recent article in the Times, “Bigger Choreographic Reputations Don’t Always Need Bigger Stages,” serves as an excellent reminder that while dance could always use bigger audiences, because money and a more vibrant place in the culture follow, a larger arena to present the work often diminishes the art itself.
The article discusses pieces by Tere O’Connor, Luciana Achugar et. al. in which an intimate space is integral to the dance. The choreographers are working, says Achugar, “against the supersizing mindset.”
Still, whenever a field receives widespread recognition, it helps even those adamantly on the margins. Think about ballet’s halcyon days and how they were simultaneous with the NEA touring program, which sent a lot of postmodern dance troupes around the country. The fact that there was a powerful mainstream gave the underground more reason for being.
To put it in more pragmatic terms, I can’t imagine any choreographer objecting to a 10-week run instead of the usual measly couple of weeks–with the audience on any given night small, but more people seeing the work in the end.
Paul to Tonya, et. al.:
Dance on TV is fine with me. I owe a lot to “American Bandstand,” which was daily research for me when I was in high school. Twenty years before my first ballet class, I studied the bop, the Twist, the mashed potato, pony, Watusi in front of the TV; I stuck out my lower lip, rolled my shoulders, bobbed my head, whipped my spine as near as I could to the way the girls in the background danced on that show: where two not-very-pretty girls who were really fine dancers would dance together perhaps because no boy asked them to, but maybe because they liked the way each other danced, and they were going to dance whether a boy said to or not. I loved their style and their defiance. Thank you, Dick Clark. (I totally totally mean this.)
I’ve got no problem with SYTYCD or that other show — in fact, I DO think that ballroom comes through better on TV than ballet does, because A) it’s a spectator sport (the audience knows the moves and the rules), B) you can sense the weight shifts and the thrust, and C) it uses the superficial muscles that ballet keeps quiet, so it engenders a warmer kinesthetic response. I thought Emmett the football player was a GOOD dancer — he had some great shoulder moves, and he owned them, not to mention neat footwork (like John Wayne, for a big guy he can take tiny, very precise steps), and he made great contact with both his partner and with the audience. Ballroom dance is a genre that Balanchine himself respected — “Vienna Waltzes” has lots of it (including a raunchy little polka), and he used Charleston, shag, and Lindy-hop moves throughout his career at least as far back as “Concerto Barocco” in some of his most exalted ballets. Lindy was the social dance that his dancers did in their spare time….
“Commercial” and “popular” have lots of overlap — and lots of separation. The pop TV dance shows are very Vegas-y in their hoopla, but lots of the participants manage to look human in the midst of the crassness — and that’s the appeal, isn’t it?
I still think that the “waning interest in dance (or in ‘the high arts’)” argument is an excuse to cut expenses. It works like this: “shareholder interest” is held up as the reason newspapers need double-digit profits, and the only way to get those is A) to maximize ad revenues and minimize the space actually devoted to non-commercial messages, and B) get as many people as possible OFF the payroll. So, they squeeze or drop coverage of those who don’t advertise. And let go of writers who know the ropes. And they restrict space, so there’s no room to introduce artists who aren’t already celebrities, or explain what the aesthetic might be if it’s not obvious. And give what space remains to features about online gambling and the use of dance in special education classes — “will it help?” They then point to the resulting lack of buzz, and smaller box office receipts, and the way it’s getting harder to pitch a story to an editor who’ll then have to pitch it in story conference, as confirmation of “waning interest.” It’s just the new capitalism — the owners do NOT care what we think and would rather have us NOT know what’s going on. Of course, there’ll still be stories about what celebrities wore on opening nights and which billionaire was pulled off of which board.
Last, I do wish the Wall Street Journal would make Robert Greskovic’s reviews available — he really cares, he weighs his words carefully, his knowledge runs deep — but I don’t think the WSJ’s ad-revenue intake is structured anything like the Times’s. The free online Times has opened itself back up after taking their most popular writers off onto a pay-only format, but it must be because their advertisers want it that way. Thing is, the WSJ is a better paper, for their readers insist on being told the real deal without the bloat.
Paul, I love the way you’ve rerouted the usual course of blame. It usually goes (and, believe me, if you’ve been writing for general interest newspapers, you hear this all the time), dance is intrinsically unappealing and as a writer it’s your job to make up the difference. That’s a hard place to start from.

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