foot in mouth: May 2007 Archives

ME!!!! With the esteemed Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times.

The details: Program was Soundcheck, on the NPR station in New York, WNYC, 93.9 on your FM dial.

The topic under discussion was gigantic: the future of ballet, no less. And because this was dance, which no one wants to hear about for long, we covered it in 15 minutes!


UPDATE post-show: Here's as close to a link as I can figure out how to do.


From Eva:

If Foot in Mouth readers have iTunes, they can download your segment of Soundcheck from the iTunes Store by doing a search for Soundcheck and clicking on that particular program. I subscribe to it (and a few other NPR/WNYC shows), but you don't have to subscribe to access individual programs. [Ed. note: you can also click here and then click on the arrow just below the heading "Final Bows and New Beginnings." It's still active. Or listen to the whole segment--the band that followed us, the Brooklyn-based The National, were pretty cool and even had the word "ballerina" in their opening tune!]

BTW, I thought you and Claudia spoke up well for ballet and dance in general, and I'm glad you managed to have fun despite the impossible brevity of the segment. Let's hope WNYC will make adequate room for more discussions like this.

From Apollinaire:

I can't speak for myself, but Claudia is amazing--in print and off! At the Times, she's making up for years of sloppy, bored reviewing of the downtown scene (that doesn't like to be called "downtown," but you know what I mean), and her reported idea pieces in the Sunday paper are always exceptional.

You know what I wish WNYC would do, Eva? Have a monthly or biweekly segment where critics would recommend shows, explaining their juice and gist. Part of what keeps dance audiences so small is that the few intrepid people who do take a gamble end up at some sucky performance and never ever want to go back--and why would they when they don't know it could be any better?


From Eva:
Claudia truly is amazing. I'm sure you read her review of Wally Cardona's new piece at Dance Theater Workshop. Such a graceful turn! Yes, she's a dance writer who makes me sit up and take notice.

May 29, 2007 11:57 PM | | Comments (1)

Two readers respond to the previous post, in which a few of us worry over why opera has more cultural cache than the dance that shares the same stages.


Natalia, from St. Louis, offers a midwestern perspective on why ballet and opera productions of the classics don't compare:

You wrote,

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, you just tolerate it (or not).


I think there's another issue lurking here. Along with the storylines and the choreographies, the classic ballets cling to other trappings, such as iconic costuming: the chorus in white tutus, the swan's feathery tutu, Prince Charming in tights and a tunic. If I went to see any of the story ballets here in St. Louis or in any other midsize city in the country, chances are, they would look substantially the same, with the choreography and music basically the same, too. The only distinguishing characteristic would be the dancers themselves. But if I'm sitting up in the cheap seats, I may not even be able to see the dancing that well.

On the other hand, every production of an opera is different (except, of course, when the companies buy each other's sets, but even then the staging and approach are often quite different). Leaving aside the fashion for giving operas weird new settings, if you went to 100 "traditional" productions of "The Magic Flute" you would see 100 wildly different spectacles: live plants and animals onstage, a forest painted on silk scrims, who knows what else. There are a thousand different ways to turn an otherwise non-descript singer into Papageno the birdman.

So you can't really say, "Oh, Aida? I've seen it before!" I know the top ballet companies do mix it up, but the regional ballet companies are probably bringing out the exact same sets and costumes they used seven years ago. Audiences may not have seen those particular dancers before, but since the companies aren't out selling dancers as distinct individuals, audiences would probably not be turned on by a production whose only distinction from the last time is changing out one nearly nameless dancer for another nearly nameless dancer. ~Natalia


Apollinaire responds: In New York and San Francisco, the ballet dancers are by no means nameless: fans not only know their names, they're on a first-name basis! (whether the dancers themselves know it or not.) That may be another difference between national companies such as American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, or San Francisco Ballet and regional companies, though I would think there would be a lot of local boosterism. No?



Modern dancer and reader Claire Willey, presently based in San Francisco, wonders how I could doubt that dance makes you a smarter person:

In your last post you said:

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 smarter and more worldly: It probably won't.


I'm not sure I understand where this is coming from.

Dance is immediate and tied to the flesh, but it also tackles incredibly sophisticated topics (which is what I think the general public finds daunting).

Dance uses the body to say directly what is difficult or impossible to put into words-- the meaning of touch, the nature of time, the emotional struggle inherent in all relationships, the contradictory strength and fragility of the human body. What better way is there to explore the human condition than with the human body?

A wonderful example is William Forsythe's subtle exploration of the effects of war on the individual in "3 atmospheric studies." [ed. note: Paul writes about the work near the end of this Foot post on mob mentality, and here's my more ambivalent Newsday review.] If there is anything that will make us smarter and more worldly, this work would surely qualify.

Even the classic story ballets have surprising depth beneath their shiny fa├žade. Just think back to your earlier discussion of the crowd scenes in Matthew Bourne's "Swan Lake." (Paul Parish's "More on the scary, sexy power of Matthew Bourne's swans" in March.)

Of course, the average person does not know how to analyze a dance performance (as you or Paul does) and is often left feeling overwhelmed, bored, or confused. But here we come back to the role of the critic. If "The scary, sexy power of Matthew Bourne's swans" were printed in the Chronicle or the Times, don't you think more people would be interested in dance? The essay is exciting, touches on issues relevant to many people's lives (homosexuality, adolescence, violence), places Matthew Bourne in a larger historical context, and compares "Swan Lake" to well-known material (e.g., "Lord of the Flies").

If reviews always had such substance, then we would surely have a larger and more educated audience. So the question is, why don't more critics take the time to provide this kind of insight and analysis to the general public? Or is it a matter of what is chosen to be printed in the mainstream media?

This is something I've never really understood. ~Claire


Apollinaire responds:

Wow, Claire, what a wonderful description of the powers of dance:

To say directly what is difficult or impossible to put into words-- the meaning of touch, the nature of time, the emotional struggle inherent in all relationships, the contradictory strength and fragility of the human body.

I agree wholeheartedly. I was using "sophisticated" not to mean savvy or smart but to mean world-wise, and, to my mind, dance is wise about other things: huge, essential, primary things, as you point out.

While I agree with Natalia that a conservative impulse dominates ballet--especially, it seems, the farther you travel from the coasts--I don't think we should care whether it has cultural cache as long as it's in fact participating in the culture. (I don't think that's too fine a distinction. Natalia, for example, makes clear she's not hoping for hipness in versions of the classics, but simply productions that don't feel threadbare and bored with themselves.) An acquaintance of mine once asked whether I ever got free tickets to BAM. I said, Sure, what do you want to see? She wanted to see the other hipster boys and girls at BAM--any show would do. So when I say dance won't make you smarter, I'm teasing a little. I just mean it's not something you get to brag about. Its value is in the experience itself.

I'm so glad you've enjoyed the essays on Foot, Claire. An ironic note about Paul's post on Matthew Bourne's swans: Months ago, he was writing a magazine essay on those very swans and had gotten deep enough into it that he needed a second opinion--plus, it was too long, so he was curious to know what I thought could be cut. He had a paragraph about the swans along the lines of this one:

The "traditional" "Swan Lake" makes poetic fiction, displaced into a picturesque mode, out of fears grounded in growing pains -- the sudden longings to transcend, to belong, to be cared for; the sweaty nights when your legs hurt; the sudden awareness that hair was growing in places it never used to; the sense of power you got when you realized people were looking at you with lust-fascination in their eyes; the fear you felt when it was the wrong person looking at you like that; the fear when you realized you'd been caught looking at someone else that way and THEY despised you; the new fascination you had looking at your own body as secondary sex-characteristics begin to bloom; and the oscillation between wanting to publish and to cover up these powers.

I said, whatever you do, don't cut this paragraph (in its earlier incarnation). Lo and behold, in the back and forth of editing, it got cut. He wrote his essay here to expatiate on that deleted passage.

Does it always happen that editors cut the best stuff? No, not at all. But I do think that what counts as dance reviewing in newspapers and magazines--and I include my own stuff in this charge--hasn't added much to the general public's sense of dance as an alive and evolving form that you wouldn't want to miss out on. I've been trying to grapple with why that is, here on Foot.

Natalia and Claire, thanks so much for writing in.

UPDATE:

This just in from composer Robert Jordahl:

I've composed two ballets, but, I've never enjoyed traditional (French ) ballet. The 19th century repertoire is so restricted.

Some modern composers like Copland and Bernstein have written fine ballets, but how often are they performed?

It will take a major effort to keep ballet from going the same way as Classical Music. I'd much rather watch Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Cyd Charisse dance--and to better music, too.

May 24, 2007 11:29 PM | | Comments (0)

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.


Eva:

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.



Apollinaire:

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.

May 19, 2007 11:00 AM | | Comments (1)

This just in from Eva:

Forget the Macaulay mauling [in the New York Times]! Go to the BAM Harvey and see Doug Varone and Dancers in "Dense Terrain"--a deeply layered, multidimensional piece of dance theater; indeed, so dense and visceral your skin will crawl and you'll fight for breath. And isn't that everything dance should be? Fantastic dancers. Interesting and ultimately touching score by Nathan Larson. Great lighting by Jane Cox. It all ends tonight. So hurry! --Eva Yaa Asantewaa


Apollinaire adds:

I had more mixed feelings, Eva, but am with you about the incredible dancers, the vibrant and suggestive music, and that the dance has something very powerful it wants to say.

I thought it got off to a bad start--was too committed to a mystery story that kept it from sufficiently exploring its idea about the people in our head, how they drive us mad and provide solace, etc. A revise might be in order.

But there's a richness here that would justify such an effort. And Varone's movement is, as usual, a deep pleasure to behold. So I second the GO emotion, especially as he might NOT revise--it's not likely he'll have the resources any time soon.


Eva responds:

I agree with your concern, Apollinaire, that

it got off to a bad start--was too committed to a mystery story that kept it from sufficiently exploring its idea about the people in our head, how they drive us mad and provide solace etc.

I don't think a revision is necessary, though.

In his post-performance discussion on Friday, Varone said he doesn't want to tell viewers what the piece means, and he'd like us to all find our own interpretation of it. Usually, I can appreciate that strategy. But it's a little odd in "Dense Terrain," since it is so very clearly about someone, a very particular someone. So when we look at Varone's movement strategies (so rashly rejected by Alastair Macaulay in the Times), maybe we're looking at the physical manifestation (or consequences) of Varone's reluctance to commit to a meaning.

But this choreographer can make resonant visual images like nobody's business--as you said, a pleasure. ~Eva

May 19, 2007 10:32 AM | | Comments (0)

So remember when I was complaining about New York City Ballet artistic director Peter Martins' "The Sleeping Beauty"--how he didn't make an adequate distinction between the eternal world of the fairies and the temporal world of the court? And how the prince could use some emotional beefing up, and the summarily deleted violin solo could do the job? ("Incredible music!" Balanchine called it, and borrowed it for his rising Christmas tree in "The Nutcracker.") And how story-ballet productions would really benefit from a theater director's expertise in advancing the story? Well, GUESS WHAT?

American Ballet Theatre's new production is doing ALL of those things. The violin solo is back in, to get the prince primed for a princess graced with valor, joy, sincerity, fervor and other fairy gifts; the distinction between the fairy world and the world of the court is a big priority, ABT director and choreographer Kevin McKenzie promises me; and they hired a theater guy to help out (Gelsey Kirkland's husband; she's credited with staging, too).

My guess is that this humongous ballet won't be entirely together until next year, but together enough to be worth watching. Besides, with Gillian Murphy as the good Lilac Fairy, Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora, Marcelo Gomes or Angel Corella as Prince Florimund, Herman Cornejo as the bluebird, and Kirkland herself as the evil fairy, Carabosse, how could you lose? (They're not all in the same cast, unfortunately. Now, that would be a dream ...)

Though I don't discuss the violin solo or too many of the specifics of the production, here's a feature I did for Newsday on the ballet and how the astounding Kirov ballerina Diana Vishneva thinks of Aurora. Vishneva guests with ABT in the classics each spring.

[Two months later.... a more sober reflection on the ABT "Sleeping Beauty"]

May 18, 2007 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)

Editor's note: I received this thought-provoking comment-- about how Mark Morris' "Orfeo" at the Met had sold out--from my co-blogger Swan Lake Samba Girl (AKA Tonya Plank) more than a week ago. It has inspired lots of thoughts --and I kept waiting to have a moment to respond. But I haven't had a moment, so here's Tonya, and next week, I'll add something--and you will, too, perhaps? (What I've been up to: a heavy month at Newsday.)


Tonya:

Argh, I wanted to see this SO badly, but can't afford $375 for one seat, and all the cheaper tickets have long been sold out. 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 another issue: why is the opera so much more popular than dance? I feel that all kinds of people -- young old, people of every race and ethnicity and gender--will take a chance on opera, even if it is out of the ordinary for them, even if 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 for those reasons -- to feel they are getting a sense of something cultural. Yet those same people don't feel that way about the ballet.

To go to the ballet they need to be convinced that there will be tons of action-packed sword fights to hold their attention, plus beautiful dancers and men who are not "girly." On one hand, I love that I can always get affordable last-minute ballet tickets; on the other, it's, argh, SO very aggravating trying to convince "the average person" (particularly a man) to go with me to the ballet when the same person seems to have no problem spending an evening at the opera or an afternoon at an art museum.

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??

May 16, 2007 10:00 AM | | Comments (0)

This just in from Eva:

A dancer friend of mine tells me she thinks Keo Woolford (of the autobiographical one-man show, "I Land") is a John Leguizamo wannabe. I can see some of that, but the brilliantly talented Woolford has far more charm and opens a window onto an experience and perspective that is less familiar to us. My friend and I agree on one thing: It would be great to see more of his dancing.

The 90-minute piece, directed by Roberta Uno, runs through Sunday at The Culture Project. It traces the ups and downs of Woolford's youth in Hawaii and touches on his development as a student and performer of the ancient, authentic hula--a sacred dance of dignity and focused power.

Woolford's acting is a full-bodied affair--storytelling amplified by body language and gesture: nonstop movement, really--including choreography by Robert Cazimero (hula) and Rokafella (hip hop). It spans the range of human emotions, and when it is funny, it is very funny indeed.

Let's hope that Woolford will return to New York soon. In the meantime, if you'd like to try to catch this show, click on The Culture Project or Ma-Yi Theatre. --Eva Yaa Asantewaa

May 11, 2007 8:08 AM | | Comments (0)

Even far up in the gallery would be worth it--Morris and team have used the height of the Met so that you will be less far away than usual, at least!

Here's my Newsday review.

To readers who have come via my friend Terry Teachout, welcome! As I write on dance and don't know diddly about opera, I relied on him to help me figure out how to prepare for this review. He was a wonderful, gracious guide.

Terry writes,

Orfeo is an absorbing visual experience--but I never got close enough to it, emotionally speaking, to feel anything but admiration.

I felt much the same in the midst of it. But the production settled powerfully in me afterwards. Hence, the more positive review.

May 7, 2007 4:38 AM | | Comments (0)

In the ongoing discussion (aka beating of breasts) about what counts as a valid review, this just in from a choreographer:

Critiques are palatable when they feel like they are coming from a place of expertise, passion, and discernment.


Isn't that lovely?

A good starting point, I think, even if "expertise," "passion," and "discernment" mean slightly different things to each of us--and we want them in different proportions.

May 1, 2007 1:47 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by foot in mouth in May 2007.

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