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American Dumbed Down vs. Euro High Falutin'?Can we generalize about the worst?


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#1 kfw

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Posted 14 March 2005 - 09:43 AM

In the latest New York Observer , Charles Michener writes: ďA few years ago, I asked Sir Peter Jonas, the longtime head of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, to characterize the difference between the American and European approaches to producing opera. "American companies like the Met tend to view opera as entertainment," he said. "In Europe, we see it as serious business, an art form that has the capacity to provoke."

Iím wondering if there is any degree of similar divide in the ballet world. In America on the one hand, we do see the serious revivals and restagings of the sort that San Francisco Ballet has provided recently with Giselle and Sylvia, and Christopher Wheeldon gets commissions right and left and even does a new Swan Lake. There is an audience for this work here, and Ballet Talk helps to foster and sustain it.

On the other hand, of course, smaller, regional companies have been turning more and more to pop music and pop subjects. Houston Ballet has staged Dracula (whether or not thatís material for a good ballet, itís a fair guess it was chosen for its ability to interest a pop culture audience), the Joffrey has mixed pop with serious revivals right from the start, and even ABT has lately danced to George Harrison, and felt the need to sex up one of its bread and butter classics with a cartoonish von Rothbart variant.

Iím much less familiar with the situation in Europe, but many who know the ballets of Bejart and Neumeier and more recently Eiffman (whom I believe has a substantial fan base there) find their work arch and pretentious, and there are other names which escape me right now in the same category. Forsythe may be in a category by himself, but perhaps when he falls off the horse falls on the same side.

Would it be too much of an oversimplification, or would it be simply inaccurate, to say there is a critical (ah, but critics where?) consensus that at its worst stateside ballet is dumbed down while at its worst Continental work is too highfalutiní for its own good and equally lightweight?

And if there is anything to this, are commercial pressures alone to blame, or is there still a lot of truth in the old saw that America still lacks European cultural sophistication? Are artists and critics anywhere coalescing around new narratives or intellectual or cultural resources for renewal that the ballet world could draw on as well? And in regards to audiences, if Time Magazine should put Wheeldon on its cover and declare him not a potentially great choreographer but the Real Thing in 2005, would artists and intellectuals flock back to the theater, or would it take another Nureyev?

#2 Herman Stevens

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Posted 14 March 2005 - 12:35 PM

I think one of the biggest problems US companies are facing contrasted to European companies is the size of their halls.

As I recently ran into some of the Joffrey crew (on the Groningen Market of all places) I asked how many their home theater seated.

The answer was four thousand.

No company I know of in Europe has a 4000 seat dilemma strung around its neck.

In any area, whether it's New York, Amsterdam or St Petersburg, 1500 seats a night is the best you can do.

1500 means everybody can see what you're doing withut the dancers having to stretch their stuff.

If you have a bigger hall, you will never get a full house - i.e. you're always reprenhinsible for not being good enough, and thus you can be forced into doing more popular stuff, which is not goig to sell 4000 either.

But at least you're trying.

#3 zerbinetta

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Posted 15 March 2005 - 04:48 AM

As this link doesn't connect me to the Michener article & a search didn't find the article, I can only take the quote out of context as presented. It seems
that Mr Michener's question & Mr Jonas' reply deal with the "producing" of opera, the how of it & not the what; otherwise Mr Jonas' reply doesn't make much sense as American opera companies (Chicago, Houston, San Franciso, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Opera Company of St Louis to name a few; the Met being lax in this department) are regularly producing new works by American composers.

In defense of the Met, however, I would point out that approximately 20% of the 2004-05 repertoire consists of performances of operas such as Kat'a Kabanova, Pelleas et Melisande (hardly knee slappers these), Cyrano de Bergerac, Rodelinda, & the seldom performed Vespri Siciliani & Clemenza di Tito. The Met knows these likely will not sell out but feels a responsibility to keep them in the repertoire.

If Mr. Jonas is referring to a certain reluctance on the part of American opera companies to stage an "unusual" production of any given opera, he is quite correct but, given the fact that funding for the arts in the US (as opposed to Europe, for now anyway) is primarily beholden to private & corporate donors, rather than government subsidy, this should not be surprising. There is a smaller window of failure & the economic reality of needing a production that will age gracefully over many seasons.

While the funding situation for ballet remains the same, it is otherwise rather different as a far greater proportion of new ballets than new operas are produced on a regular basis. Most ballets are also a great deal less expensive to produce both from the physical aspect (sets, costumes, stage furnishings, props) & the personnel aspect (# of principal singers needed at high fees, conductors likewise, size of orchestra, size of chorus, length of rehearsal period, etc.)

Now, as to the question of our national tendency to feel inferior in some way to Europe when it comes to the arts .. well, that's something we need to get over. Just remember where Mr B chose to work.

#4 kfw

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Posted 15 March 2005 - 02:24 PM

Itís too bad the link has expired. Zerbinetta, the way see it the how and the what run together here Ė if you will, is the way opera companies approach their productions mirrored in the way ballet companies approach new choreography? I also donít see Balanchineís acceptance of Kirsteinís offer as a judgment on, or a reliable indication of, the relative quality of culture on one side of the Atlantic vs. the other.

European subsidy of the serious arts does suggest there is a higher level of interest in them there, but even if the generalization Iím wondering about is correct, I'm not sure I consider pretension much better than lack of ambition, just unfortunate in a different way. The former might indicate high cultural exhaustion, the latter that companies aren't aiming for culture at all, but only trying to entertain. I guess that's part of what I'm wondering: if American and European companies do tend to view their work differently, why is that?

The question could be best be broadened to include the audience. Do people go to the ballet to be entertained or to be moved and/or challenged? Iím usually entertained, but I go to be moved, and Iíll guess that most Ballet Talkers do the same. What the general audience does, especially the non-subscription audience, is a different question.

#5 Anthony_NYC

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Posted 15 March 2005 - 08:25 PM

In the latest New York Observer , Charles Michener writes: ďA few years ago, I asked Sir Peter Jonas, the longtime head of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, to characterize the difference between the American and European approaches to producing opera. "American companies like the Met tend to view opera as entertainment," he said. "In Europe, we see it as serious business, an art form that has the capacity to provoke."


Just the usual tiresome snobbery, but as for the last sentence: Does he mean to imply that art has to "provoke" to be valid?

#6 kfw

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 05:34 AM

It's only snobbery if it isn't true. I suggested why it might be true. Could you be specific about where you think I'm wrong and why you think it isn't?

#7 Treefrog

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 06:45 AM

Herman, your point is very well taken. I don't think all US companies have to play such a large venue.

As a side note, the Auditorium Theatre is absolutely glorious, and some percentage of the pleasure of going to the Joffrey is soaking in the atmosphere. I always find something new to gaze at. The Auditorium is brand spanking new by European standards (1889 or thereabouts), but highly significant architecturally. Louis Sullivan was the architect, and Dankmar Adler the engineer. It is just magnificent.

One advantage to the large venue is that it is almost always possible to get last-minute tickets! A huge disadvantage is that the seasons are so short. The current program runs just two weekends, plus one Wednesday night opener. And, it's just one program at a time; we'll get another one in May.

I do think this presentation format is a response to an audience conception that ballet is entertainment. If they presented two programs simultaneously -- as they used to -- I think most people would choose one rather than see both. "I WENT to the ballet already this week," they would think.

#8 kfw

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 07:08 AM

I do think this presentation format is a response to an audience conception that ballet is entertainment.  If they presented two programs simultaneously -- as they used to -- I think most people would choose one rather than see both.  "I WENT to the ballet already this week," they would think.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

That's interesting, Treefrog. Whereas as a lot of us here would see both programs more than once if possible.

Thanks for the description of the Auditorium Theatre. I always thought going there was an event in itself, besides whatever the program was. That's the theater where I first saw ballet: the Joffrey from the gallery, as part of a high school humanities class.

#9 cargill

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 12:59 PM

Again, I didn't read the whole article, just the bit quoted, so I may be off base here, but personally seeing and reading about some of the recent European opera productions, I am very glad I live in the benighted US. I don't think Mozart is improved by some of the very peculiar and deliberately provocative European productions. (Mozart or Shakespeare anyone else, for that matter.) Government subsidies insulate arts organizations for a lot of things, including the needs of the audience, yes even the need to be entertained. Booing and sucess de scandale aren't as much of a problem when it doesn't affect your box office. This of course, can be a good thing in terms of genuine experimenting, but deliberately insulting an audience by trying to be provocative is, to me, just the mirror image of deliberately courting an audience via market surveys, focus groups, etc. The artist (I use the term loosely!) in both cases, is looking over his shoulder at the audience, gauging their reaction, instead of following his own inspiration.

#10 Anthony_NYC

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 06:54 PM

It's only snobbery if it isn't true. I suggested why it might be true. Could you be specific about where you think I'm wrong and why you think it isn't?


He's saying that if we're not "provoked" by a production then we're not really having a true artistic experience on the level of European audiences. This is absurd and presumptuous, the idea that if a star director doesn't tell us what an opera is about then we can't really understand it or feel it or think about it properly.

#11 carbro

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 08:41 PM

While I agree that European institutions, with the security of state support, can afford to take chances that their American counterparts cannot, I think there is also a difference in temperament, that Americans just have a lower threshold for provocation. Yes, I realize this is a generalization. :rolleyes:

I find it amusingly ironic, and a little sad, that the Land of the First Amendment can't (or won't) tolerate some of the iconoclasm that is expected in European houses.

Can a production be provocative and good? Why not? But too often the shock quotient and artistic quotient have an inverse relationship. Why? Beethoven, for example, was able to shock his public, make his political points and create works that have been admired through a couple of centuries, all rolled up together. Does he have a counterpart in our day?

#12 Anthony_NYC

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Posted 16 March 2005 - 11:01 PM

kfw, I forgot to add that I actually don't disagree with what you've been saying. Jonas is talking about opera, and the situation there is very different. He takes works of art created by others and gives them provocative new stagings. Which is fine. Just don't tell me that's the only way to do it. Imagine ballet getting to a similar point, where a director proclaims that the traditional production of Pillar of Fire is a mere entertainment, and doesn't actually become living art until he puts his "radical" spin on it so we in the audience can at long last comprehend its disturbing elements.

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 03:54 AM

If this thread is requesting generalizations, then we are all familiar with the European artists who attempt provocation and only end up with the ever-popular Eurotrash. Oddly, American conservatism, which I will stipulate, may inadvertently act as a safe haven, a refuge for classicism. It is similar to the greeting offered to Balanchine, when he returned to Russia for the first time. A greeter offered, "Welcome to Russia, home of the Classic ballet." Balanchine responded, "No, America is now the home of the Classic ballet. Russia is now the home of the Romantic ballet." Things have changed since, but the the same general idea applies.

#14 kfw

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 10:05 AM

Imagine ballet getting to a similar point, where a director proclaims that the traditional production of Pillar of Fire is a mere entertainment, and doesn't actually become living art until he puts his "radical" spin on it so we in the audience can at long last comprehend its disturbing elements.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Thanks for the information and explanation, Anthony. If that's all Jonas is saying, of course I agree with you.

Carbro, I don't think I agree with your first two paragraphs, because I agree with your third. Maybe I'm missing some good examples, but which contemporary shock works are much good? I'm trying to think of the last shocking opera or ballet, or the last shocking work in another art form that provoked true controversy rather than the usual predictable food fights over sexual or supposedly bigoted content. It seems most would-be provocateurs nowadays just preach to their own crowd, who look down their noses at everybody else. To my mind that's a failure of heart, and art.

#15 carbro

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 10:36 AM

Actually, kfw, you pretty much state my case. The questions in my third paragraph were not rhetorical.

I can't think of an example from the last 25 years or so of something good that was created for the primary purpose of shaking things up. But I don't see a necessary correlation between poor quality and Making a Statement. It just seems to happen that way.

Many years ago, Richard Burton appeared in a production of Hamlet with no sets or costumes. The idea was to return to the richness of Shakespeare's words -- the very thing that has given the work its longevity -- with no distraction. I think it's a valid end in itself, but finding the essential core of a work is at least a first step in resetting it in a new context. Perhaps the stagers whom we are discussing are skipping this step and dealing superficially (or inappropriately) with their works.


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