foot in mouth: September 2007 Archives
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! :-D [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.
Tonya Plank (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl), Eva Yaa Asantewaa, and Counter Critic all attended the informal talk at Barnard College Monday night between dance writer Mindy Aloff and Times newish dance critic in chief Alastair Macaulay. (I didn't make it.)
Everyone was relieved to find he was not an ogre.
I coulda told you that!--in person he's a very sweet man (all my friends who are his friends say so, too). I don't think that was ever the issue.
And the bloggers do still have reservations. It's a little depressing, though, to think that if he had been ugly and blustery, say, they might have said it had gone to show .... Writing isn't talking; who you are in print is rarely an uncomplicated reflection of who you are in person.
In case, you've only tuned in lately to Foot in Mouth, we've been blabbering about Macaulay and what the hire says about the Times for a while. If you're curious, check out the archives.
Hi, Apollinaire. I've just written a comment to counter critic, who misrepresented an aspect of my remarks to Macaulay at the Barnard talk. And as I read what you've written here, I hope that readers will take a look at what I actually wrote on my blog. Macaulay's congenial personality was not all I had in mind. To focus on that--"Gee whiz! these bloggers all went gaga for Macaulay's niceness!"--undercuts both what I said during the event and what I wrote in my post. Please take a look. It's a little more complex and subtle than that. ~ Eva
Apollinaire: Hi, Eva. Yes, I was hoping people would check out what you--and Tonya and counter critic--said. And I didn't mean to misrepresent your argument, I was kind of teasing, plus needed to be brief, and I was struck by a solicitousness in your post--not a terrible thing at all.
...and of the blog mode of unremitting self-promotion, here's a feature I wrote on one of the works the esteemed Claudia La Rocco referenced in her Times article about the MTVization of concert dance.
The feature is on "Revolution," the rock 'n tap show opening at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan this Tuesday and running for two weeks.
I really liked the show's creators; they seemed really smart and thoughtful, with knowledge that was deep and broad, ranging from hoofer Jimmy Slyde to Metallica to Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation." Their aspirations seemed less slick-MTV than wild and raucous club and stadium rock. (I know, I know, those aren't the same, but they can be spirited similarly.)
Their M.O. is very contemporary, very postmodern, very iPod generation. They take from whatever they think will work and yet there's no disrespect in their magpie approach. (After all, Dylan is a magpie, too--lots of art proceeds from generation to generation that way.)
Also, have I reminded you enough about Elsewhere, the column down on the right with links to recent pieces of mine (mine! mine, mine!--this being a blog, where it seems you can never remind people too much about yourself)? The column only shows up when you're on Foot's main page. There's a new review down there.
Please also note, below, Foot regular Paul Parish has weighed in on the Pavarotti of dance question (and got lots of reader response, which I will post later in the coming week) and offers for San Francisco Bay Area readers a GO recommendation.
But first, look at this! In today's "TV Viewers Discover Dance, and the Debate Is Joined," the esteemed Claudia La Rocco of the Times reports on exactly our debate, citing such players as Rasta Thomas (go, Tonya!) and Danny Tidwell.
My favorite bit is the very end. Robert Greskovic, the dance critic for the Wall Street Journal, wasn't very impressed by Rasta Thomas' "Bad Boys" outing this summer at Jacob's Pillow, the first step in his grand scheme to attract the "So You Think You Can Dance" audience. And Thomas' response? "Who's Robert in comparison to the 16 million ...I'm trying to deliver [to]?"
The familiarity and disdain in that "Robert" is priceless.
Well, Rasta, here's back to you: We know we don't matter, we critics, cuz if we did we wouldn't be stuck writing about the likes of you and your "bad boys"! (Actually I didn't see them: I might have liked them more than their shopworn name. Still, we don't matter. Rasta doesn't have to say so for me to know that much.)
Okay, to Paul:
I know I sound like a broken record, BUT we don't have a Pavarotti because DANCE DOESN'T RECORD WELL -- i.e., it's not mass-producible, like a Pavarotti CD or video or PBS special, and so there's no dancer who'll be viscerally KNOWN to millions of people as Pavarotti was through radio, TV and CDs, and the newspaper headlines generated by his stadium concerts with the 3 Tenors.
The closest thing we've got is the very-compromised Michael Jackson, who's A) probably a child molester and B) unable to dance anymore, but C) WAS the best known, most astounding, most popular dancer of the last 25 years. But he'd have to rehabilitate himself big time -- bring back Osama bin Laden, or save us from a meteorite with his bare hands, before his endorsement would do us any good.
John Travolta might do. Might very well do, at least for people of a certain age.
Postscript, June 28, 2009: For more on the late Michael Jackson's contributions to dance, go here.
From Paul Parish:
Went down to Justin Herman Plaza this afternoon, the park across from the Ferry Building at the edge of the old port of San Francisco, and saw Chris Black's group Potrzebie do a sweet, goofy 40-minute piece about baseball called "Pastime." They danced it in a sunny little hollow with fancy apartments on one side and the bay on the other and tourists strolling the sidewalks.
The hollow was a little natural amphitheater, with tufty grass that lumped up and made the dancers' footing look kinda iffy (and created quite a sense of there being some there there). Not to worry, they're not on their feet all that much, since they're sliding into third base a whole lot, and besides they're modern dancers, so of course, they're on the ground a lot.
It's a delightful piece for nine dancers in intermural-ish uniforms, green-green grass stains and mud. Sometimes very Mad Magazine. Andrew Ward, who was a gymnast, stole third based like he knew how; he shared a duet with Felipe Barrueto-Cabello that had lots of loft in it. Periodically they'd huddle and suddenly lift a dancer, who'd strike an ESPN pose; everybody got a photo-op.
The 7th inning stretch was hilarious. Chris* had a daffy solo. Towards the end comes a sentimental song by Tony Bennett, and to that music there's a group dance that's remarkably lyrical, and a solo for Lou Gehrig that's poignant in the extreme -- knotty, gnarly, but in slow motion, like Tai Chi that gets stuck. I'm not sure who the dancer was who did that, but I THINK it was Kevin Clarke.
The piece is free, and they're doing it in a different park each week. (See below or Potrzebie website for details.)
*Chris Black choreographed the piece with dancers' input. She "came off the bench" to replace Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, who had an unlucky fall on a trampoline and broke a bone in her hand. Stuart was there, right arm in a cast, sitting on the grass with the rest of us as gulls and blackbirds clattered overhead and the shadows of the apartment buildings started to cover us.
Saturdays and Sundays, 1:05pm.
September 22 & 23: Precita Park (Precita Ave. and Harrison St. in the Mission)
September 29 & 30: Golden Gate Park Peacock Meadow (JFK drive near Fell St. entrance, between McLaren Lodge and the Conservatory of Flowers)
Lawn seating means kids, lawn chairs, coolers and blankets all welcome -- arrive early for the best seating!
Musical score will be broadcast via transistor radios -- if you've got your own, bring it!
[Ed. note, Wednesday: scroll down to where it says UPDATE for recent responses]
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.
I haven't been a big fan--until now. Whatever Janet Eilber, hired last year as artistic director, is doing to get the dancers to find the drama in the timing and the steps is working wonders. My sense is she's honoring their own hunches, and they naturally go for clarity and suggestion over cartoon.
Anyway, here's my Newsday review.
The New York run continues through next Sunday, September 23. Then the company does mainly one-night stands in Seattle, Tucson, Cleveland, and up and down the East coast through mid-November.
In New York, try to catch demi-goddess Katherine Crockett in "Night Journey"--one last chance next Thursday, September 20.
Miki Orihara in the Graham-Copland wonder "Appalachian Spring" next Friday, Sept. 21, and in "Sketches from 'Chronicle'" with Jennifer DePalo, an amazing grieving warmonger Medusa (or some improbable brew of characters), next Saturday, Sept. 22, would also be worth a trip.
Among the men, keep an eye out for newcomer David Martinez and relative newcomer Maurizio Nardi. Graham didn't think much of men--brutish babies, all!--so it's always a nice surprise when a dancer manages to restore their dignity--or juice.
Also, good news for those of you who didn't make it to opening night, with its piece d'occasion "Lamentation Variations"-- one variation apiece by contemporary choreographers Aszure Barton, Larry Keigwin, and Richard Move: one of the three variations will be performed each night.
I'm a Barton enthusiast, but her variation seems slight, taking too little from the enormous Graham legacy generally and from the 1930 solo "Lamentation" in particular. Keigwin and Move, on the other hand, created gems. Their variations both stand on their own and pay tribute to Graham and this specific 9-11 occasion.
In the Move, Katherine Crockett travels along a shaft of light, her body thrown back as if by force and one arm crooked over her face to shield it like a broken wing. Without using Graham's lexicon, Move shares her capacity to get a single part of the body to spark shifting associations.
Keigwin created a group work to a Chopin prelude (or is it a nocturne?) so familiar, it's amazing he can get it to speak. The five-minute dance is disturbing--unflinching. We start with vanity a la Dorian Gray--individuals examining their faces for signs of aging (in a department store window?), tapping their fingers out of restless boredom--then shift without warning to Ecclesiastes' kind: "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.... One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever."
It may not have much to do with Graham except in her masterfully sly way of driving a drama forward, but the Keigwin piece has everything to do with 9-11, how we can be vain and silly and it's still terrible that we die.
Legendary dance writer Francis Mason commissioned the variations. (He's the writer responsible for the indispensible tome "Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.") YAY for him!
My teaching schedule kept me away from opening night, but I did catch the performance of "Cave of the Heart," "Embattled Garden" and "Acts of Light."
Tadej Brdnik (in "Embattled Garden") and Maurizio Nardi (in "Acts of Light") are the ones I watch because they appear to be living the dance in the moment, Brdnik especially, where otherwise so much of it can look canned. They've tapped into a spring, and it makes whatever they're doing matter.
Apollinaire responds: Brave of you, Eva, to risk a program with so many later Graham works. I haven't seen the 1981 "Acts of Light," but in general I've found anything of Graham's post 1950 hard to take.
She's begun to canonize herself--that is, feels done for and ready to die--so she choreographs as if she only had the steps she'd always had and would simply have to recycle them for other purposes. It's hard to make work breath that's so intent on embalming itself.
Still, I agree about Nardi and Brdnik (though could the Italian please lend the Slovenian some vowels? You know, for American clods like me). Nardi as the wiley Stranger (a.k.a snake) in "Embattled Garden," the story of Adam and Eve and interloping snake (along with his girlfriend, Lillith, here a loose Spaniard), was perfect, and Brdnik in "Night Journey" revealed Oedipus as he ought to be seen--through Jocasta's eyes. He's a dumbfounded baby, in way over his head.
Eva responds: No bravery involved. With my personal and professional schedule this fall, it was either see that program or see no Graham at all. Lucky me, huh? But Brdnik and Nardi made the evening for me. I'm always grateful to see dancing that reaches me with or without a rewarding context.
[Ed. note: Eva mentioned her teaching above: In case you don't know, she's teaching dance writing at Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, and I'm sure it's a fantastic course. The fall session has begun, but there will likely be more in the near future. Here's a description of the current course. Anyone interested in participating in the future can email Richert Schnorr at email@example.com.]
Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa writes:
Hearing of Beverly Sills's death this summer, I wondered if the field of dance had or could have a world-renowned, charismatic figure who, in a similar way, might serve as a much-needed ambassador to the masses. The announcement of Luciano Pavarotti's death yesterday reminded me of those thoughts: a beloved figure, bridging the gap between aficionados and those who would not otherwise give the art of dance much attention, if any.
Do we have major, exciting figures who could use their personal appeal, accomplishments and dazzling celebrity to draw wider interest in dance? What do readers think?
Apollinaire responds: Hi, Eva! Well this reader's first thought was Baryshnikov. He crossed over--and didn't look back--not just to contemporary dance or to mainstream modern dance but to the most plainspoken sect of postmodernism, introducing it to whole opera houses. (I wonder if he ever converted them. He even seems to have grown tired of the spinach diet, turning to less puritanical fare lately.)
Eva responds: Baryshnikov was on my mind, too, but I think he's too quiet about the things he does for dance. It's still too limited. He's not quite the world ambassador....
Apollinaire: Yeah, quiet, and honest to a fault (if that's ever possible).
Eva: Judith Jamison is another choice, but she's focused on her company, which is what I think happens with dance--the inward focus, the keeping-body-and-soul-together thing. The late Gregory Hines had potential in this area, because his talents (and reception) transcended the dance field.
Apollinaire: I love this point--how "the inward focus, the keeping-body-and-soul-together thing" sets dancing and serving as a public figure at crosspurposes. As the Kirov ballerina Diana Vishneva told me last spring, her emotions and her dancing are so allied that she needs to conserve her feelings--not have them excited for the nonessential.
I can imagine a great dancer might not want to start world-ambassadoring until her career was over--though singing is pretty body and soul, too.
Okay, dear reader, who in the dance world would you nominate for the Pavarotti role? Who would be good at it and enjoy it, do you think?
UPDATE MONDAY: Interesting--and irritated--responses have come in. Keep them coming. Late this week, I'll post everything I will have received. Also, I will be getting back to "Mozart Dances'" strange and fulsome musicality--afterwards. (Sorry about the sparseness here. I have to give priority to my paying gigs--for obvious reasons.)
Way back in May, we here at Foot wandered from the question of why opera is winning the popularity contest over ballet to why music is more likely than dance to survive recording.
I asked readers if they'd seen any dance recordings that they felt survived the translation intact--or even improved on the live event.
For a whole two months, the only people to take a stab at the question were Griffin, Gray, and Tonya (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl). Then PBS's "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast of Mark Morris's "Mozart Dances" raised the topic again (or I did, anyway, with this feature on the broadcast of "Mozart Dances" and how to get live TV to do justice to live dance), and Counter Critic sent these insights my way:
A couple of years ago, I saw the film version of La La La Human Steps' "Amelia," shot in a square room where the wood floor swoops up skater park style to become the walls. There were intense close-ups on eyes and faces (you could see cheeks flinch with the body's greater movement) and fun camera tricks that would turn a dancer suddenly on her side as she slid down one of the walls. The soft wood and clear lighting were elegant and minimal. I loved it.
So when the piece came to BAM, I was eager to see it, not realizing there might be aesthetic differences in the rendering of the two. To my dismay, the stage version was dark, lit sparsely by overhead spotlights, and the dancers often moved in the dark areas of the stage. The visceral intimacy the film produced was severed. I sat--I believe in the balcony--watching the dance get lost in so much space.
I know translating a dance into film and filming a live performance are not the same thing, but their challenges are somewhat shared.
There are choreographers out there that have inherently cinematic ideas about dance. I'm not sure Morris is one of them. Perhaps another live broadcast with a more sensitive director might be able to show us an alternative.
Hey, Counter Critic, thanks for writing. Really interesting!
First, about the telecast of "Mozart Dances," I think the camera work on the dance is really elegant and attentive to its nuances. I love the dissolves at the circular center of the dance--the second, adagio movement of the second of the three dances--when the men hold hands and wind under each other's arms in communal swirls. And I love that the cameras move to the edges of the stage for the third dance, with all its solos, and exits and entrances (which are so beautiful, so ephemeral.) To the credit of director Kirk Browning, the dance didn't blow me away any less on camera.
Still, it risked losing me again and again. The number of times the camera forsakes the dancing for shots of pianists Emanuel Ax and Yoko Nozaki in the pit is infuriating. Once or twice would have been good, just to let us know there were eminences below--in case, for example, we were deaf--but over and over again? Terrible.
The pianists may be producing sublime music, but they're nothing to look at. The dance is the thing to see. Every time the camera zooms in on Ax squinting at the score, it pulls us out of the dance and offers a souvenir in its place, a framing boast of how deluxe this event is. It's like being handed a postcard of the Grand Canyon when you're standing right in front of it: vulgar (in the guise of tony) and perverse.
As for dances like "Amelia" that are not a simulacrum of a performance but something in themselves, designed specifically for the camera, my favorite example so far is Mats Ek's film of his "Sleeping Beauty." Son of the renowned Bergman actor Anders Ek, Ek Jr. understands that the camera can reshape the space to enhance the story.
His revamp of "Beauty" begins at the girl's conception: the joyous lovemaking that results in her birth. (Isn't that a lovely idea--that beauty emerges out of the joy two people create together?) To show us how excited the lovers are to have each other, Ek starts with the queen (Gunilla Hammar) alone inside a bare room. She races along its perimeter, sweeping her hands along the walls as if it were she who were in the womb--tracing its contours before it was breached. We're inside the room with her.
She leans into the wall as if to catch its heartbeat, and the camera stands right at the divide between inside and out, so we see her sweetheart (George Elkin) leaning into the wall from the outside.
Ek couldn't have created the same effect in the theater because we'd see both sides of the wall all along. We wouldn't suddenly be surprised by their leaning their heads together, one on one side of this membrane and the other on the other.
But even when the camera is serving simply as a documenting device, certain givens of dance come through more clearly onscreen. Several years ago, I was watching some ancient tape I'd borrowed from the library of Great Moments from the Kirov Ballet when I arrived at the part where a very young Baryshnikov (he looks about 16) does an impossible variation from "Don Quixote"--perfectly.
He follows pirouettes a la seconde by pirouettes in the same direction (en dehors) in attitude back without ever getting to put his foot down to give a little push for momentum, poor boy!
To translate: with his leg like a plank out to the side, he whips around in double and triple turns, then with only a bend of his standing leg to help, crooks the onetime plank leg to the back and whips around some more. Then the plank move again. Repeat, without rinsing, a dozen times.
It was amazing that Baryshnikov could get the momentum to keep revolving. His trick, I realized, was to strenuously pull the foot of his attitude leg to the back so his body would follow--like a tail wagging its dog.
Once I realized that, a grand epiphany arrived (about 20 years late, but oh, well): one of the dramas of virtuosic dancing is the way the dancing turns you into a mechanism, then back into a person--the alternation and tension between those two poles. Every time Baryshnikov had his leg in second, he was a person, every time his leg was winding his body around, he became a mechanism, a turning top--back and forth miraculously.
I don't think I would ever have had that thought at a live performance. The screen's muting of Baryshnikov's humanity made it possible.
Reader Jennifer Smith of Wisconsin writes:
You may be interested to know about a program Wisconsin Public Television did in the last few years called "Dances for Television."
Here's a brief description:
The program features site-specific dances filmed on location in and around Dane County. Each vignette is created in and of the landscape, and speaks to metaphors of the senses, relationships and the changing of the seasons.
The dances were choreographed by Li Chiao-Ping with the specific intent of creating dance for the television camera.
Apollinaire responds: Thank you for writing, Jennifer. The work sounds really interesting.
Next week: A riff on Counter Critic's brilliant take on Mark Morris's musicality for "Mozart Dances."
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