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Teasing apart the artistic elements


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#1 Treefrog

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 07:45 AM

I might have asked this before, but I can't remember. (No; I was thinking of this thread on watching ballet, which is still useful but not quite the same question.)

Suppose one really enjoys a performance. How can one tell if one enjoyed the individual artistry of a particular dancer, the artistic interplay among dancers, the way the dancers were coached, or the choreography itself? Is it possible to separate out these elements?

I know I've heard reviews like, "I really enjoyed X's dancing, even though I don't care for Y's choreography." And I can imagine the reverse: "The choreography was breathtaking, although X's execution detracted from its promise."

As a novice viewer, how can I determine which of these elements is pleasing, which is not?

#2 grace

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 08:27 AM

tough one treefrog! i'll be interested to read some answers here... ;)

#3 Calliope

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 08:35 AM

I think repetition helps you determine what it is you like
But sometimes not thinking about it so much gives you more appreciation
It's why art is such an individual intepretation.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 08:41 AM

It's definitely possible to separate out the elements, and using the same analysis that one would bring to a book or a painting. (I loved the book. Is it a good book? Is the writing -- imagery, style, use of the language -- fine? Is it a good plot? Does the setting advance/enhance the plot? Did I like the book most because I liked the main characters? Did I think it was good because it was a page turner, but it's not really literature? etc.)

None of this is necessary in either viewing or reading, of course (as Calliope noted), but it is possible.

I think the way to do it is to separate out these elements in your mind afterwards -- that will raise questions. And then, when you watch, be conscious of the process of watching. What are you seeing? Literally. Where are you looking? At the set? At the dancers? At THAT dancer? (And where on the dancer? Head, torso, feet, whole body?) Could you describe the choreography afterwards? If not, next time, try to focus on the choreography. What are they doing? What does it look like -- does it look like anything else you've seen?

This will drive you crazy until it become second nature, and, truth to tell, you will miss some performances, in a way. Whenever you look at the leaves, you miss the pleasure of the forest. But if you just look and see "huh, forest. I've seen a forest before" (not saying YOU say that, treefrog) you miss the wildflowers at the base of the trees, the trees, the birds on the trees, the fact that there are, gosh, 55 different kinds of trees per acre, and the way the needles make a carpet underneath.

#5 Treefrog

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 10:12 AM

I think the trees/forest metaphor is amusing, given my alias!

For my own purposes, I am perfectly content to enjoy the forest. If I sit back and heave a contented sigh at the end of the evening, that's pretty good. I don't need to explain to myself what I liked.

But suppose I want to rush out and tell my friend why she really ought to plunk down $60 to see tomorrow's performance? Or that I want to post a review? I know that when I read reviews, I like it when the poster provides details. What was so breathtaking? What was jarring? Paint me a picture!

I'll admit, part of my discomfort here comes from my scientific training. In science, every statement must be subtantiated. Classically, scientists aren't even supposed to have opinions, just cold inferences deduced logically from the evidence. Art isn't at all like that. (duh!) :rolleyes:

#6 Hans

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 10:35 AM

Strictly speaking, in journalistic terms, there is a difference between a "review" in which one simply writes down what one saw, audience reactions, &c, and a "critique" in which one actually analyzes a performance. Anyone can write a review, but you need to be educated about the art form to write a critique.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 11:11 AM

Treefrog, if you were really content just to enjoy the forest as FOREST, you wouldn't ask the question :cool: I think there are also different levels of appreciation/critiquing -- and a lot of this is about "being right" and its opposite, the fear of "being wrong." If one accepts that, aside from misidenitying a dancer, or saying that "Swan Lake" was choreographed in 1923, there is no "being wrong," it helps. It is useful to find out what one likes, and why. Why do you and a friend who agree on 9 out of 10 things about life in general look at the same dancer and have two completely different reactions? How can you site there, transported, caught up in the atmosphere of a ballet, while the fellow across the aisle is snoring? Why do I think that last night was the nadir, the pits, the absolute worst possible performance of a ballet, when I read in the paper the next day, "Never before has Ballet been dance with such divine delicacy?"

If your friend asks, so how was it? By this time s/he knows how to take your reviews, in the same way that you know whether or not to "beliieve" a particular critic -- this one hates story ballets, this one only likes modern choreography, this one seems to have a thing about Dancer Y. Etc.

I understand what you're saying about scientific verification, and I agree. But there are differences in art, too. One very useful lesson I learned as an undergraduate was from a political science professor who said, when we were all being good little relativists and saying, "well, how can you judge him? It's all a matter of opinion?": "There are things that are matters of fact, and things that are matters of opinion." I think any observations can fit into a scientific model, any theory (or art or science) is only as good as the data. And so if one has only seen the Death Valley Ballet dance "Swan Lake" and thinks it's a 10, one may chance one's view when one sees the "Kirov." Now there are two samples, and one can compare.

#8 Calliope

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 11:26 AM

I was fortunate enough to have a very smart teacher in high school, who used to make us buy the NY Times and the NY Post bring them to class and find the same story, whether it was the NY Mets, some world event or a movie review. And she's make us compare the two. I never knew a baseball game with a set outcome (final score) could have such vastly different "reviews"
She was my first introduction to "critics"

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 12:25 PM

That was a smart teacher, and a valuable lesson, but I think many people draw a simplistic conclusion from that experience. Namely, if A and B disagree and both are "critics" then the whole idea of criticism is stupid. (Obviously, I have a particular perspective on this question :cool: ) Whether it's arts or politics, one learns to tell which writers know what they're talking about, or are grinding an ax, or may disagree with you but have a sound perspective. Of course two reports of a baseball game can differ -- which team does the writer secretly (or not so secretly) prefer? Does the editor want to emphasize strategy, or the exciting, crowd-pleasing highlights?

#10 Treefrog

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 12:42 PM

Alexandra, you are right, I'm really not content with forest as forest. ;)

You said:

I think there are also different levels of appreciation/critiquing -- and a lot of this is about "being right" and its opposite, the fear of "being wrong." If one accepts that, aside from misidenitying a dancer, or saying that "Swan Lake" was choreographed in 1923, there is no "being wrong," it helps. It is useful to find out what one likes, and why.


Precisely! It's the "why" part with which I always struggle.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 12:47 PM

It's the most interesting, though, if one permits one's own thoughts to be considered interesting :D I think, too, if we know our own Why, it helps in understanding that everyone else has a Why of his/her own. I do think that repetition -- and time -- are the only ways that that comes through. (Although I encountered nearly all the dancers in my Pantheon during my first season; I was very lucky to come to ballet when I did.)

I hope others will join in in this discussion. Do you have measuring sticks? How do you make judgments? Sticking to the forest analogy, do you care that there are different kinds of trees? Or that a tree is different from a bush? (And that some of those mushrooms are poisonous :cool: ? ) And if so, how did you go about making those distinctions?

#12 BW

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 01:29 PM

I do think exposure to many ballet performances is awfully important to learning to see the differences between "forests"... Alexandra's comparison about the Death Valley/Kirov versions of "Swan Lake" is a perfect one... and this can even be brought down to the nonprofessional level. For those who've attended different ballet school performances - especially if one is the parent of a young dancer - one can practically swoon with delight and awe at a local performance and think "Wow! These kids are phenomenally good! Look at Lulu pirouette!" but, then, if one gets around to other more competitive programs one may have a rude awakening. :D Of course, one is better off doing this. :cool:

I'm relatively new to ballet. Only started attending regularly about 4 years ago - you know subscribing to Spring and Winter programs - interspersed here and there with visiting companies. Yet, even though I hadn't been a regular ballet goer 5 years ago - I knew the difference between really good and pretty bad, even back then. :rolleyes: :( We spent a year living in West Virginia and when Nutcracker season rolled around we were invited to see Charleston Ballet's performance at the capitol. We, former New Yorker Staters, were very excited and nervous that the performance would get "sold out" very quickly. My friend assured me not to worry and said "This isn't New York..." Boy, was she right. My then 7 year old daughter and I looked at each other during the program and almost cried. We hadn't even seen the NYCB's version...just the one done out at SUNY Purchase with guest performers, etc. This was the beginning of severe cultural withdrawal which led to a return to the NY metropolis.

The quote Treefrog's latest post highlights is key. I think that you, Alexandra, must have taught a wonderful course. The fear factor for neophyte's who want to expound in a written or verbal form - especially around the educated - is a major handicap. I think this thread may turn out to be quite helpful. And yes, Cabriole - you did have yourself a good teacher, didn't you?

P.S. I do think the points made about trying to concentrate on the different aspects of the ballet forest and its details are really helpful - even though it will initially make the ballet experience somewhat disjointed. Although I'm still interested in trying - I also do like to sit back and "sigh" with happiness, too. :)

P.P.S. In the Anything Goes forum, I just read a kind of review...and although it is in part meant to be somewhat humorous, I found it rang true for me on many levels:From the Washington Post Yes, I laughed but she did catch something else in this article - for me anyway...at it wasn't just Swedish fish. ;)

#13 su-lian

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Posted 23 April 2003 - 03:42 PM

Treefrog, that is a very good question. I have been wondering myself for quite a while. You probably don't need advice by a teenager, who most certainly doesn't know as much as you, but I have a history teacher (yes, sorry, we're back on teachers) who doesn't understand why I don't get higher marks than what I get (but it's not a catastrophy either) in history because I'm good in science. She says it's exactly the same principle: why does this happen? how does it happen?...but I find it much more difficult in history, I feel like answering "yes, but we don't know what goes on in their minds, so we can't tell why" and things like that, but I don't, of course. I suppose here, it is a bit the same thing (isn't history an "art" subject in english speaknig countries?), and I think that you are a bit like me. You know what you are supposed to do, but can't do it. It's even more frustrating.
Back to ballet: before, I used to just watch and enjoy, without asking myself any questions, and I was mainly watching the dancers' technique (at the very beginning, nearly at the extent that I couldn't see anything else), then I started looking at 'the forest', but not seeing anything else but a forest, and I just felt as if it was pointless. So now, I try looking at 'the leaves...', but still find it difficult. When some ballet comes on TV, I watch it as many times as possible (at some point, I used to even get up at 3am to watch one!). Then, I can first look at the forest, and if something catches my eye, I try to pay more attention to it the next time to see what it was exactly that caught my eye. And each time I watch it, I try looking more and more at details, but when I've already looked enough at them, go back to enjoy what it looks like as 'a forest'. (And once you know well the choreography, and you've seen it danced by different people, you can tell if it's the choreography or the way the dancers did it that you liked or not, but that, you already know)
About the why: (I haven't applied it yet, because I just thought of it, so I don't know if it would work) probably asking yourself if it reminds you of something else you know, if it corresponds to what you like in other things (eg: liveliness in Don Quichotte or romanticism in La Sylphide...) would help, but I'm really no expert in answering the "WHY" question, so I'll let others answer (and I've already written too much about nothing).

#14 grace

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Posted 27 April 2003 - 06:21 PM

some very interesting posts here. :) in response to:

...part of my discomfort here comes from my scientific training. In science, every statement must be subtantiated.

i can tell you that when i began reviewing i was told this by my editor, on legal grounds - that you must be able to substantiate everything you write.

now, of course, this 'rule' or guideline has a different meaning, when applied to the parts of a review which are OPINION, as distinct from FACTS (as alexandra mentions above). however, opinions CAN be substantiated too - that's the whole point. you can't just say 'this is crap' (even in polite language!) - you must say 'this is not as good as it might be BECAUSE.... 'etc. (or similar... - i'm sure you get my drift...)

i too like the forest and the trees analogy (or is this a metaphor? - i always get those two confused...)

however, i would caution you that sometimes you get a lot more pleasure looking at the forest...analysis can rob art of joy.

at the same time, it may well be a pleasure, AFTER the fact - maybe the next day - to read a 'reminder' of your pleasure, and be helped to understand more about your experience, through insightful commentary of knowledgeable others...

"a dollar each way".... ;)

i too am impressed by that teacher cabriole mentions. :)

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 27 April 2003 - 07:25 PM

When I taught aesthetics, I had my students keep notebooks, and this might be something that some of you might want to try.

I had them write down, on day one, what their aesthetic was. What they liked -- not examples, but principles. "I like modern dance." "I hate story ballets." "Structure is important to me." "I cannot tolerate sloppy technique," etc. I also asked them that if this were their last night on earth and they were in a city that had 1000 theaters, showing anything they could possibly imagine in dance, past or present, what would they choose to see. (One of my favorite students gave a terrific answer: "If this is my last nigiht on earth and I know it, then I will want to see something that reaffirms my humanity." He's a choreographer now, and his dances affirm his humanity.)

Then they kept notes on what they read throughout the course, and what they saw. I didn't care what the notes were, just that they were to become conscious of what they were thinking. The final exam was to write their aesthetic.

On the last day, we discussed the whole process. They got a lot out of it, or at least they said they did. And although the aesthetics got more specific, and they had to deal with WHY they liked this or didn't like that, they didn't change. They could just verbalize their preferences more precisely, and more easily. They also found out a lot about themselves. One young woman, a rather didactic sort, who worshipped the Early Moderns, especially Graham, came to the conclusion that she was a classicist, which disturbed her -- how can you be a modernist AND a classicist? Well, what was Graham? And learning that made her more relaxed about her likes and dislikes. (Before, she'd worry that it was odd she liked something that others would label "classical.")

To me, the labeling is important WHEN YOU'RE LEARNING or building your aesthetic. I would say, "Be able to put everything in a box with a label on it for the movers. You might take things out of one box and put them in another, or break one box in two, or merge them. Fool around with this until you think you have a systematic view of the world of dance/art. THEN you can store those boxes, or smash 'em and mix everything up, do whatever you want. But you'll always know where they came from, and that will help you see things more clearly.

For what that's worth :)


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