Where’s our Pavarotti? Readers respond (UPDATED WEDNESDAY NIGHT)

[Ed. note, Wednesday: scroll down to where it says UPDATE for recent responses]
Remember Eva‘s call out to readers for a Pavarotti of dance? Well, readers responded (thank you!)– and we have responded back (of course!).
EC G.: Y’all, please. If you think Judith Jamison is even CLOSE to being a household name (in the way, that is, that Pavarotti certainly was), then you need to share what you’re smoking.
Eva: Nah, nah, EC! Put down whatever you’re smoking. Judith Jamison might not be a Pavarotti, but when it comes to dance, there are few companies that have the worldwide reach and acclaim of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As head of this troupe, she’s got a powerful bully pulpit. It’s not about Jamison as a performer, because those days are gone. We’re thinking more about what she could say as a beloved artist whose beautiful dancing has moved people all over the planet, how she could represent for this field. But really, the issue is, why doesn’t dance have someone who a) has the stature to fill that kind of role and b) has the interest and will to do it?
Christopher Pelham: I’m not an opera fan, but opera has several hundred years’ worth of hits to market. I don’t see how contemporary dance can have an ambassador until there’s more dance to market.
Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Ailey were huge, but they were mostly turning audiences onto their own work, I believe. How many great dance videos are there? How many local companies are restaging the best of the aforementioned choreographers (or of Bill T. Jones or Pina Bausch or Cunningham or Taylor, etc.)? Modern dance when it’s good is electrifying, life-changing, but there’s so much less of it than there is of perhaps any other art form.
It’s not going to catch fire and cause a sensation all over the world until dancemakers, the best dancemakers, start making dance work in a duplicable form, either for video or film or the internet or by licensing works to be staged by different companies all over or by creating such startling site-specific works that the world news media is all over it. Or something! That’s my two cents.
Eva: Is it really a matter of quantity, Christopher? There’s dance of all kinds all over the globe, and some of it is ancient in origin. I wasn’t only talking about contemporary dance, but dance as a whole.
Your other point, though, is very interesting–about dance artists turning audiences on to their own work. That’s getting closer to what I think might be the hindrance–a kind of insular and self-preserving strain in the field of dance. You have to have a larger kind of vision and reach out, way out, to take on the role I’m talking about.
Ariel: Why ??? Pavarotti served no one but himself. From the Three Tenors crap to the end, it was all hype for the stupid.
Don’t drag down dance to the level of opera.
Tonya Plank (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl): What about Rasta Thomas for the younger generation? He’s smart and hip and cute, and he crosses many genres with his dancing. (He just needs to learn ballroom :) )
But, really, a writer or blogger or someone needs to make connections between him, ‘poppy’ dance, of which he is a part (he has connections to “So You Think You Can Dance” via Danny Tidwell, Travis Wall and Mia Michaels) and more ‘arty’ dance like ballet, of which he is also, obviously, a part.
Rasta is the closest thing I think we have to a contemporary Baryshnikov. But I think a contemporary Beverly Sills would be a blogger, since the internet is the way people interact and learn these days. Bloggers can connect the dots between “So You Think You Can Dance” and Rasta and ballet–can bring dance to life for the average person; they just need to get paid for it somehow, like Sills did…
Eva: Rasta Thomas is a wonderful, great-looking, sexy dancer, but I hadn’t heard that he had an interest in speaking up for dance in the way I’m suggesting–or at least becoming a symbol of dance for the masses of people who normally don’t grock dance.
And, bless your heart, dance bloggers would be happy to be paid for blogging. But I have yet to find a blogger that can move the masses the way a stunning dancer can, and if that dancer can speak out for dance and capture the imagination of new audiences? What I’m talking about is not going to happen on a blog. And I say that with every confidence as a blogger! LOL! ~Eva
Apollinaire: I don’t know diddly about the Three Tenors, but I do want to second Ariel’s (grouchy!) concern that “popularize” shouldn’t be a euphemism for gut. If getting audiences to transfer their passions from “So You Think You Can Dance” to ballet means ballet loses its artistic merit, then forget it, I say.
As far as I can tell–and I admit I haven’t kept the TV on long enough to tell much–ballet of any value has about as much to do with “So You Think” as Olympic swimming has to do with strutting down the beachfront in Miami. It’s not that there aren’t skills involved in the Miami stroll. You have to perfect your tan and “work on” your body–then learn how to sway and swivel. Likewise, there’s a craft in throwing your head back a million times on SYTYCD. But it serves a completely different purpose from, say, Balanchine’s “Serenade.”
SYTYCD reinforces conventional codes about being a boy, a girl, “passionate,” etc. “In pop culture,” wrote Claudia La Rocco in the Times a couple of weeks ago, “we want the scripted experience; it’s why we love hearing the songs we know best in concerts.”
With Balanchine or Cunningham or Graham or Astaire, on the other hand, you’re waiting for something–via a rigorous aesthetic code–that will startle you out of what you know. You may be experiencing deep pleasure, but you also want to be challenged, not coddled. I just can’t find those dots you talk about connecting, dear Tonya.
The more likely untapped audience for concert dance, it seems to me, are not those whose idea of dance is limited to SYTYCD cliche but those whose idea of art is wide and deep; they just need to consider dance. SYTYCD sure isn’t going to get them to.
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. Now, it’s the most we can hope for that someone–La Rocco in the Times or Sarah Kaufman in a recent article in the Washington Post decrying the replacement of PBS’ Dance in America with SYTYCD–will happen to notice that “poppy” and “arty” don’t refer to different styles, but to wholly different aims.
I’m certainly not wishing that we time travel back to when you didn’t have to argue the merits of classical music but you did for rock–there’s art in every genre. But the genre in the case of SYTYCD is social dance, and the versions on that TV show are too pumped up and flattened out to be worth much.
Tonya (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl) responds: First of all, by blogging I was referring to Sills’s role on PBS interviewing people and bringing audiences to opera that way. My point was that no one watches PBS anymore, unfortunately — and unless PBS spices up its programming, I’m afraid that’s going to stay that way. People connect through the internet nowdays.
Second, how can you judge something you admit yourself you haven’t even watched? FYI, Ted from “Blogging So You Think You Can Dance,” has linked to me several times, recommending to his VAST readership, via my blog, that they go see the Michalek “Slow Dancing” films and watch the PBS special on Nureyev. Believe it or not, whatever kind of dancing SYTYCD may or may not showcase — and I feel we can only all discuss that when we’ve all watched it — the show’s viewers are not all morons.
Apollinaire: People don’t have to be morons to watch moronic dance! I’m only saying that there’s nothing in the program that’s going to further engage people’s artistic sensibilities. And of course I’ve watched it–on several occasions. I just haven’t had the stomach to study it.
Yes, I agree, PBS is not the model for good arts television: the framing of the show is unbelievably fusty, even when the camerawork of the dance itself is glorious or good enough.
Tonya: I feel that the show HAS engaged people’s artistic sensibilities, though, even if a lot of the choreography isn’t that challenging (and it can definitely do better in that department — I don’t know anyone who doesn’t agree with that!)
People on the “Television Without Pity Forum” (and people commenting on my blog, too) have been talking about Danny’s [Tidwell, formerly of American Ballet Theatre] beautiful line, his extension, being moved by the way he moves, etc. — things people appreciate with ballet, and these are people who are having their first exposure to concert dance.
Many, many people on the blogs and forums have complained about all the silly choreography on the show. People want to be challenged, they don’t want to be coddled. And, that Blogging SYTYCD is recommending that people check out the Michalek films and watch the Nureyev special, it seems clear viewers are hungry for more.
Maybe I’m just naive and it’s all really about celebrity (because some of it surely is), but I do think with the superior quality of many of the dancers on the show this season, people are starting to get exposure to dance as an art and are developing an aesthetic for viewing it. They just need a better range of choreographers!
Apollinaire: Hi, Tonya! I agree with you wholeheartedly that people want to be challenged, and that they will take to the best work they’re offered. I guess my feeling about Tidwell is that the show muted his distinction rather than bringing it out. And, if the judges had had their way, it would have been thoroughly effaced. Their criticism of his not being committed enough–I can’t remember their exact words, but something like that– betrayed complete unwillingness to entertain another aesthetic approach, such as ballet’s noble restraint.
Still, a lot of people committed to dance onstage agree with you that SYTYCD helps the dance cause.
UPDATE WEDNESDAY NIGHT:
From Eva: One thing I’ll add, Apollinaire–even at the risk of annoying some of your readers–is that after hearing Judith Jamison’s rousing acceptance speech at the Bessies Monday night, I wish she’d take it on the road. She’d have people lining up, stretched around the block, to see dance! “It’s all about LOVE” indeed! :-)
And readers respond to our responses:
Christopher Pelham: OK, I will grant you that there is dance all over the world, if perhaps not in every last town, and lots of more commercial/social dance on TV (If you include commercials, music videos, etc). But there is not lots of high-quality challenging dance art everywhere (except the internet). Not to disparage social dance (there can be a lot going on sometimes I know), but sometimes those forms may well truly astound and excite us with what they can do with the body only to deaden our mind with their intention to titillate, to arouse, to one-up, to show off — not to open up the mind to a new way of knowing, if you will. Sometimes that kind of dance is fun and sometimes it’s oppressive.
So I think there is a great divide of intent between the concert dance world and the social/entertainment dance world. It’s true, there is some crossover (witness all the girls inspired to pursue concert jazz and modern by “Flashdance”), but the fragmentation is understandable.
What’s more important to advocate–living in your body or living an engaged, questioning, artistically exploratory life in and through your body? Plus, is dance worth promoting just because dance is great or because dance can also be art?
Ariel: “So You Think You Can Dance” is nothing but chewing-gum dancing for the masses, a lot of pyrotechnical moves to amaze but not touch the inner being. Pauline Koner in “The Farewell” or Limon in “The Moor’s Pavane” touched one to the core. These were giants, the rest mostly jumping jacks.

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