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Ballet's "elitist" image --what do you think?

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Really, that's very clever. Uses humor the defuse a potential negative connotation.

Good for the Vancouver Recital Society. Someone was thinking outside the box.

Richard

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My perspective on this issue is to step back and "analyze" exactly what ballet is... and then place it into contemporary culture.

Ballet, like classic music comes from a tradition of European culture. Must "high culture" was produced for royalty as "entertainment" etc. Going back to the renaissance, artists were "employed" by patrons who were commissioned to paint "on demand" and even the subjects were chosen. The "court" was responsible for much of music produced during this period.

The unwashed masses were left with less structured and studied artistic expression. They simply did not have the time to study and acquire the discipline of the "schools" of art and music and so forth.

These "schools" were very hard to get into, and had very rigid rules and are the epitome of what is elitism. I don't know the history of ballet, but I would guess that, like art it has a similar past, rooted in performing for the upper echelon of European society. This does not mean that what was produced in the arts under this "system" was not exquisite or beautiful or less artistic.

As we moved into the late 19th century, the arts underwent some major changes and all sorts of new movements and expressions emerged, upsetting the apple carts in the various disciplines. Individuals in the visual arts rebelled against the rigid ways of the old "schools". The era of "classic music" had past and those works became part of the repertoire of musicians who were the embodiment of "time machines" providing replicas of art and music heard in the past.

Ballet is rooted in this same tradition and is viewed this way, despite the fact that new ballets are created, new choreographers are "re interpreting" "old" ballets and dances are dancing to contemporary music which did not exist when ballet was born. Perhaps (I don't know as I don't know the history of ballet"... even new "steps" etc. are introduced into the genre.

But the perception remains that ballet is yet another "time machine" looking back to a piece of European culture created for the "idle classes". It requires years of study and even this is not accessible to those in the lower classes who must struggle to survive and don't get the opportunity to struggle to achieve greatness in dance.

The thematic material of ballet is largely a legacy of what the aristocracy viewed back then for amusement. But again, this does not make it any less beautiful.. in the same when renaissance art created for the Medici is not considered beautiful today.

The audience reflects this very Euro-centric culture for the most part in ballet which has a predominant classic repertoire. This may be changing, but when it changes too much it becomes modern dance and not ballet.

When you visit the metropolitan museum you see the same (almost) cross section of society in the halls as you do at concerts, opera or ballet. These all represent the repository of European culture and people who are interested in THEIR culture heritage. Unfortunately, the common person's cultural heritage is largely to be found in art, architecture, and music produced for the hoy paloy of the time.

Today those who have a great interest in the "classic" arts are tainted with the stroke of that very broad brush of being interested in a culture largely created for the aristocracy of the past. It seems that this is usually the parts of the past that survive... that which is created by those of wealth who CAN have a legacy through time.

Although the very talented artists in the performing arts are not typically part of the aristocracy today... the rich don't do the hard work to become an artist usually... only the very best will be embraced as celebs for their extraordinary talent and rub shoulders with the hoy paloy.

Today the ABT, which I attend a bit has rich sponsors for their principal dancers in a throwback to the patrons of yesteryear. You wonder why people see the ballet as elitist... ask the management of companies such as the ABT who model their funding on ancient history (at least in the case sited). Add to that the expensive tickets and the fact that going to the ballet or opera in NYC costs a couple for grand tier seats perhaps $400 when you consider transport, dinner, baby sitters, parking, snacks at intermission and you can see who the target audience is.

Things have not really changed in a very real way. The "arts" are for the well heeled. END OF STORY

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Things have not really changed in a very real way. The "arts" are for the well heeled. END OF STORY

That's highly exaggerated.

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Ballet and the"Classical" field as a whole are considered, and always have been considerd elitist. But, "Classical" institutions work in a very hostile environment. Many public school systems have either drastically reduced, or eliminated funding for basic classes in music, dance, art, etc. Some have even eliminated sports programs. So, cultural institutions have to expand their education budgets, and have programs like student tickets, in order to encourage young people to come to their performances. BUT, that takes money, alot of money!!!

That is unfortunately the reality. Those rich patrons of the arts are committed to their institutions. Yes, they receive prestige and influence!

But, the overwhelming majority of them give their time and money, because they want their institution to thrive! Many of them also want as many of the public to enjoy seeing a performance or exhibit, as much as possible.

Costs for everything are going up!!

And if you think that the elitist label pertains only to the arts, just look at the way the little fan is gradually being squeezed out of sporting venues. When the new Yankee Stadium opens up, it will have those private boxes, but the stadium will hold about 5000 fewer seats!!! I hope they have standing room!!!!!

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So, cultural institutions have to expand their education budgets, and have programs like student tickets, in order to encourage young people to come to their performances. BUT, that takes money, alot of money!!!

That is unfortunately the reality. Those rich patrons of the arts are committed to their institutions. Yes, they receive prestige and influence!

But, the overwhelming majority of them give their time and money, because they want their institution to thrive! Many of them also want as many of the public to enjoy seeing a performance or exhibit, as much as possible.

Costs for everything are going up!!

And if you think that the elitist label pertains only to the arts, just look at the way the little fan is gradually being squeezed out of sporting venues. When the new Yankee Stadium opens up, it will have those private boxes, but the stadium will hold about 5000 fewer seats!!! I hope they have standing room!!!!!

Of course the money has to come. But you describe as well how it's meant to bring in those who aren't rich or 'well-heeled.' I'm a 'classical artist' myself and with, some would say, an objectionable tendency toward 'elitism.' On the other hand, I also know that the Arts are something that fill the whole social spectrum. While it's true that written history is the history of the ruling class, it is not true that unwritten history is only the history of the ruling class, or that it's a less important history. It can be passed down by the well-known various traditions, and is valued quite as highly by all those echelons of society as that in the wealthy or well-to-do classes. Ballet, of course, does have its royal roots, and then has evolved into a sophisticated urban phenomenon; my own problem has been wanting it to stop with the urban, but it's not going to just because I'd prefer it.

And while you are right that rich patrons receive prestige and influence (deservedly so unless they get too pushy about it), they do not affect the creative process nearly all the time. However 'poorer' in money the artists are, it is they who determine ultimately what kind of art is produced most intimately, because they are closer to the actual moment of creation. When necessary, they are also sly enough to 'pull a fast one' on some of the smug bluestockings who think money can determine total access. The other aspects of a culture, the political for example, colour what any given period in the Arts looks like. (this is not a discussion of 'art as politics', I well know that isn't done here, nor do I wish to. Only to point out that political climate and economic climate are bonded very closely, and both influence the Arts hugely.)

Sports have long had elitist strains in them, according to which sports. Golf and polo have not had the same social status as has basketball, for example. This is all written up in Veblen's 'Theory of the Leisure Class.'

Ultimately, the arts are for everyone who can make use of them, but if one group is singled out, such as 'the arts are for the well-heeled,' then it could equally be said that 'the arts are for artists', because it is they who know most thoroughly how art works best--and are the ones who make it. they also talk to each other in a different way about their particular art from the way they discuss it with others. A clear example is the art historian or musicologist, who can never, no matter how much a connoisseur, know painting, sculpture or music the way the painter, sculptor or violinist can.

So that although certain arts like ballet do have an audience that is mostly educated at very least, there are plenty of faithful 4th ringers who are very important to the continued survival of ballet, just to use one example.

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Patrick makes very strong points... and they are hard to dismiss.

However, although sports is getting into the stratosphere to attend as a spectator, they are infinitely more accessible to amatures who play them in streets, lawns, school yards and so on.

it should be noted that museums such as the Metropolitan have an optional fee which means that anyone with interest can afford the price of admission. This is not true of the opera or the ballet in NYC as far as I know.

Classical training IS expensive in years and money and unless a student is sponsored with a scholarship, only upper middle and above classes can pursue classical arts educations.

With empty seats for the ballet in NYC why don't they offer them at deep discounts to students or those who cannot afford the full fare? Perhaps the image of the well heeled audience would be tarnished?

Art appreciation is something that also requires education and trying to get kids to sit still in the opera may be a waste of time without some time invested in art "appreciation".

Being familiar with the "arts" is indeed a sign of a good education and this is typically, but not always associated with the well off... the elite in society. These are some of the ways the upper crust distinguishes themselves from the rest of us.

There is no law barring any person from study of the arts, the discrimination is much more subtle, much the way blacks still suffer in america. Look at the cross section of people in the typical ausdience at the opera or the ballet or at the museum and you can see why the arts are seen as elitist. They ARE for the elite in a sense... the barriers are unstated and not acknowldged... but they are there.

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To Papeetepatrick: I did not mean that the well-heeled really influenced artistic/creative processes. I just meant to say that they have their place in cultural arts institutions. I agree with you wholeheartily that the choreographers, dancers and the rest of the artistic arm are the main ingredients that forms the fabric of dance.

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I grew up in a working class family where classical music and opera played constantly. I happened to like it a lot more than my friends, but the same music played in many of their houses as well, particularly the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. In public school, we had music once a week from grades 1-8 with the focus on classical music. In high school, there were half classes in chorus and band -- which played everything from jazz to Sousa to a version of "Eroica" highlights for band -- that alternated with science lab. Classically trained singers performed opera, operetta, musicals, and popular songs and ballet dancers danced on the Ed Sullivan Show, Firestone Theater, and the Bell Telephone Hour, and later on Live from Lincoln Center and Great Performances.

In the Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain, arts programming appeared regularly on state TV channels. It was considered standard education for a well-rounded citizen.

There was a schism, though, between attending live performances and listening to them on the radio and watching them on TV. There is certainly the perception of cost barriers, which were addressed by City Center and the New York State Theater companies, which had a charter to offer live performance at a reasonable price. Growing up, my father and I sat in the Family Circle of the Met or the Fourth Ring of NYST, and the cost of the bridge toll and parking was more than the cost of both tickets. My first opera ticket to New York City Opera in 1971 cost $3.75, because two junior high school friends and I splurged on tickets and didn't sit in the very top section. In the 1980's, standing room for NYCB was $2.50. When we went to Knicks and Rangers games, it was more expensive even before adding in refreshments, which aren't allowed inside most North American performance venues.

The last ticket I bought to the ballet cost $60 including handling charge, and was in the First Tier, the equivalent of about the sixth row of the first raised section in any hall. The cheapest seat was $20. Parking in a nearby lot was $6, with adjacent parking priced at $8. The cheapest seat for Champions on Ice, which is coming to Everett in July, is $46 before handling charges, with the equivalent of my ballet seat selling for $66-$96, plus $15 in handling fees, parking, and enough gas to drive 30 minutes north of Seattle. Seattle Supersonics season's tickets range from $10-$120 per seat, but the $10 and $13 seats are appalling and have no equivalent in McCaw Hall. The Seahawks site doesn't list any prices, although they'll take $100 deposit for a season's ticket, so I guess if you have to ask... Seattle Mariner Tickets are $18-$55 (except for the bleachetrs, which are $14), and any parking space within walking distance costs $20, not to mention $6 beer, etc. Ticket prices to the opera and ballet and symphony and chamber music concerts are comparable to major league sporting events, and that doesn't stop millions of people attend sporting events each year in the US alone.

I think there's a psychological barrier to attending live performances in a performing arts venue. What to wear? How to behave? Will all those rich people judge? Will it be comprehensible? Will it be boring? Will I have anything to say about the performance? (Will I feel comfortable posting about it?) There's the sense that there are a select number of well-trained people who know anything -- the elite -- whereas with baseball or football or hockey or basketball, everyone's an expert, and "How about those Mets?" is a conversation starter just about anywhere in the US (and "How about that Ronaldinho?" works in just about every place else: Ronaldinho better than Maradona, says Pele.) That's where the elitist image comes in.

I don't read music, and had a total of three months of flute lessons and one semester of piano in college. Do I understand the contrapunctal juxtaposition of the inverse canon, etc. etc. that I read about in symphony programs? (Goes right over my head.) Do I have any theoretical understanding or ability to follow voices in a string quartet and understand their complexity? (That would be "no.") But it never ocurred to me not to attend a live performance because of this, and I think that's because growing up, there was a concerted effort to make the performing arts part of the life experience of the middle class or anyone aspiring to it.

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Helene,

As an "old timer" I had a similar backrground and yes... the cost of things was radicaly different than it is today.. Remember 15 cent subway fares and 5 cent candy bars.. 25 cent a gallon gas an the same for a pack of cigarettes?

These items are still "incidental" costs for the rich. Look at how many drive and own several gas hogs called SUVs?

The fact remains, that the arts are relagated to a small niche in our culture and the republicans would be happy to suspend all public support of the arts. The niche, sadly is mostly occupied by the wealthy and those who without the easy path of wealth, stuggle to acheive what it takes to be an artist or an arts consumer.

I don't read music but I have always listened to classic music and as a child attended concerts with a friend who beacme a professional musician. But the reality is that we were from the middle class... and were exposed as you were to the arts in school and home. I don't hink many blue collar families foster this interest... especially today. Of course there are exceptions... and thanks god for that because if not there would no doubt of the arts and ballet as elitist.

In reality the middle class really believes that they are on the way to becoming the upper class. This concept of class mobility is one of the myths of America. Again it is possible here, but only for a very few, but it doesn't prevent ma y in the middle class from identifying with the rich and "copying" their "behavior". But the thrust is not really to "bring the arts to the people" but rather for those who want to be in the top of sociiety to "get with the program" and acquire the "trappings" of wealth.

I think Cuba may have a different approach to the arts and if true it demonstrates how capitalism and socialism manage the social fabric.

It should also be noted that some ethnic groups have and foster different "values" and encourage their younger generation to take pursue specific carreers in life... no?

What say you?

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[moderator beanie on]

Quick admin point - tread gently with politics here, please. Political discussion in the context of arts funding and within this topic, is certainly on-topic, but we do have Democrats, Republicans, Independents and even people from other countries where they could care less about US politics posting here. FWIW here are the NEA appropriation figures - http://www.nea.gov/about/Facts/AppropriationsHistory.html . The budget for the NEA has increased by 25% since 2000.

[moderator beanie off]

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To Helene and DefJef: We had the oil embargos in the 1970s. Our autos

became more fuel efficient. 30 years later, we have giant SUVs that are gas guzzlers!!! Talk about being doomed repeating history!!!!

The Cubans do have it over us with appreciation for ballet and performing arts. They may also have separate agendas too.

And most European countries support their arts institutions very well with subsidies. But aren't their prices up there with US prices?

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Culture throws some spin on the ball of economics. Even in the short time I was in Russia, one could see the difference of the position of the artist in society there versus the US and the ambivalence is written into our national myths of individualism. We have a very ambivalent relationship to elitism of any sort. It isn't all hatred but the area of highest distrust is intellectual or artistic elitism. A cherished American myth is that anyone can do anything. Anyone can grow up to be president, everyone's a star waiting to be discovered. The artists we are most fascinated with fit into that myth - preferably by having little or no training and coming from nowhere. This loops back to the concept of snobbery - if it takes other than native intelligence to appreciate it, we suspect it (I bet serious oenophiles in the US can relate).

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Arghh !!! I agree with (or am provoked into thinking by) all these posts.

Those of us who, like Helene and others, benefitted from families who valued the classical arts have had a great advantage. Much of that came from the greater accessibility of the classical arts on radio, tv, in school programs, and in the form of low-priced tickets (often very much subsidised for school groups and for the young generally).

Helene raises a point that is so common-sensical that I think it often gets lost. Many people have always been intimidated by the who process of going to a classical art performance. I someteimes suspect that many people see it as mine-field of potential embarrassments and discomforts. Whereas for me, thanks to many advantages (not the least of which was imagination), it was an invitation to a very magical new world.

And, doesn't social class (a term many Americans detest, but which exists in our society in its own fluid American form) figure into most of the questions Helene raises below?

I think there's a psychological barrier to attending live performances in a performing arts venue. What to wear? How to behave? Will all those rich people judge? Will it be comprehensible? Will it be boring? Will I have anything to say about the performance?

DefJef, I have a question about the following:

When you visit the metropolitan museum you see the same (almost) cross section of society in the halls as you do at concerts, opera or ballet. These all represent the repository of European culture and people who are interested in THEIR culture heritage.

Would you agree that most museums --eeven the Met -- are open to a vast variety of cultural expressions from all over the world. Much religious art, folk and decorative art, etc., were very accessible to all classes -- though each group may have gotten something different from them. Even opera, at least in Europe, with its adventurous policy of setting classical works in many different periods and milieus, speaks to a much wider range of people than it once did. Think of all thsoe varients of the Ring. Concert programs, too, are being designed quite differently in much of the western world than they once were. "Greater accessibility" has become a major goal of these reforms. And the results are often quite impressive.

Only classical ballet, it seems to me, seems stuck in the image of s refined and separatist classical art that you describe.

ABT and the Kirov can integrate contemporary works to their repertories, works that are often quite as sexy and devoted to modern ideas of movement and psychology as you will find anywhere. But Swan Lake is Swan Lake. In this rep, ballet seems fated to remain the kind of museum you describe.

For the good, I would say. :) Probably inevitable. But, clearly, not everyone agrees. :)

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The data cited of annual expenditures of the NEA uts spending today at about where it was in the early 70s. Adjust that for inflation and you can see our government is essentially starving the arts... or as the right would decribe it.. leaving it to the "market" and the private sector.

So again I return to my point that the uber wealthy remain the patrons of the arts, with their grants, endowments, tax deductible (of course) support of the arts etc.

Leigh also notes the much beloved myth of america.. that anyone has a chance at rising to the top and those stories always headline the news.

But it must never be forgotten that we live in a pyramid where the huge base supports those at the pinnacle. Wealth and power have come from the mass of people, albeit concentrated in those very few at the top.

But returning to the notion of "elitism" and the perception that the arts and ballet are elitist it should be noted who asserts the claim and why do they do this? Although there are some very self invoilved self centered people who can't help bu see past their own rose colored glasses... the vast majority of us, regardles of our station like to think of ourselves as ... just one of the members of humanity. Celebs are always remarking how much like the average John and Jan Doe they are... and if they don't have OUR problems, the ones they have are equal somehow.

This is a false assertion of equality in our society, especially by the priviledged. Priviledge is treated as they expect... "first class". The perception of elitism perhaps may be noting more than a statement of resentment about being excluded, for whatever reason from playing up there in the ether.

Money seems to be able to buy a lot more than tangible things in our culture. Money buys power, respectibilty, access and can put those with it next to those who have talent, skill, culture... you name it. The view perhaps maybe that getting access to the arts is nothing more complicated than having money.

When I attend the Met and survey the audience, I see what appear to be a mix of lovers of the opera and ballet and a whole lot more of what appears to be people with lots of cash who simply attend these performances because... well because... it goes with the territory of comporting wealth. These folks have all the expensive (better) seats.. access to the special "members" room and so on. They are usually the older people... The young and wealthy might be seen in the boxes at Yankee stadium...

Indeed part of the notion of elitism lives in the idea that ballet and the other "arts" are quite esoteric. To "get it" you need to be in the know and that takes time, dedication "hard work". You can't just show up at the ballet and see what many of the posters here see Sure you see the same performance, the same painting, hear the same notes... but without the deep understanding and intimate knowledge you are just not able to extract as much from the experience. So why are all the good seats and "access" wasted on those who usually and not the cognoscenti... Simply because they can buy it!

So we have this love hate relationship with material success. America blesses material success, but those who don't have shout that it is a stacked deck, an unfair deal and shout "elitism".

But in the end, talent is talent and regardless how it finds expression, it is recognized and embraced. For some painters it came long after they died. Performers have to make it whilst they are alive... alas.

No?

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Culture throws some spin on the ball of economics. Even in the short time I was in Russia, one could see the difference of the position of the artist in society there versus the US and the ambivalence is written into our national myths of individualism. We have a very ambivalent relationship to elitism of any sort. It isn't all hatred but the area of highest distrust is intellectual or artistic elitism. A cherished American myth is that anyone can do anything. Anyone can grow up to be president, everyone's a star waiting to be discovered. The artists we are most fascinated with fit into that myth - preferably by having little or no training and coming from nowhere. This loops back to the concept of snobbery - if it takes other than native intelligence to appreciate it, we suspect it (I bet serious oenophiles in the US can relate).

I can't say I disagree with a word of that, and the most refined part of it is the suspicion of training. This is true, because with training comes another language, as it were, and this is always in the classical arts an anti-redneck language. (I don't mean it's only urban, but that it's just opposed to the coarse and uncouth.)

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You can't just show up at the ballet and see what many of the posters here see Sure you see the same performance, the same painting, hear the same notes... but without the deep understanding and intimate knowledge you are just not able to extract as much from the experience. So why are all the good seats and "access" wasted on those who usually and not the cognoscenti... Simply because they can buy it!

Of course, and this is the part of what you wrote yesterday that I fully agree with, because it goes without saying that the rich can buy the most expensive things. Some of them will be knowledgeable up in the front row, some will be continuing their pursuit of a conspicuous consumption project held over from many of their other activities...however, as anyone who was also at the performance at NYCB on Balanchine's 100th birthday will back me up, while we all shared a toast of vodka and pastries led by Peter Martins, the only person who was allowed on the stage who was not a dancer was the head of the Balanchine Trust, Barbara Horgan. That means that even if Lesley Stahl and some other big names were not on assignment that night, their $40,000 or so didn't get them past the front row--not that I'd imagine someone like Ms. Stahl was capable of having a vulgar thought like that in her mind. And I just picked her out as one well-known name I've seen in the Playbill: She's also very likely one of the ones in the 'rich rows' who'd have a very cultivated perception of what she was so generously helping to support.

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These items are still "incidental" costs for the rich. Look at how many drive and own several gas hogs called SUVs?

I wouldn't call the people that I know who drive SUVs rich, but I live in a city and work in the suburbs, where they're used to go grocery shopping and to pick up the laundry. (I think you were too kind calling them "gas hogs.") This crosses class lines.

Again, I don't think this is an issue of money. Compare the millions who spend the same to attend a sporting event, even as a once-a-year treat, to the number who go to arts performances.

In reality the middle class really believes that they are on the way to becoming the upper class. This concept of class mobility is one of the myths of America. Again it is possible here, but only for a very few, but it doesn't prevent ma y in the middle class from identifying with the rich and "copying" their "behavior". But the thrust is not really to "bring the arts to the people" but rather for those who want to be in the top of sociiety to "get with the program" and acquire the "trappings" of wealth.
This might be true in the current climate, in which the target with the bullseye is the New Deal, but for several decades after WWII at least, there was a commitment to broader reach for the arts. I've never been able to get very deep into Caule's The Dancer Defects -- it takes a much deeper understanding of Russian literature and art than I have to get the full measure of it -- but I would not be surprised if this was simply a Cold War strategy, to show that American people were as culturally aware as the citizens of the Soviet Union.

I was thinking of this quote by Alexandra last night, but couldn't remember where to find it, and, seredipity! -- there it was in Mindy Aloff's Dance Anecdotes:

In the winter if 1994, a young Danish dancer told me the mime behind Danish curtain calls, as he had been taught it. First, the dancer raises both arms to, and looks up at, the patrons in the balcony. He then drops the left arm to his side and pulls the right arm in to his chest, hand over heart, as he humbly bows: "Thank you for appreciating my art." Then he lifts his head slightly and smiles, while raising both arms chest high and spreading them to take in the people in the Royal Theatre's most expensive seats, the orchestra's first four rows: "And thank you for paying."

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Indeed part of the notion of elitism lives in the idea that ballet and the other "arts" are quite esoteric. To "get it" you need to be in the know and that takes time, dedication "hard work". You can't just show up at the ballet and see what many of the posters here see Sure you see the same performance, the same painting, hear the same notes... but without the deep understanding and intimate knowledge you are just not able to extract as much from the experience.

The other problem is, you can show up WITH an equivalent amount of training and knowledge and still it can be as if the two of you saw shows in different theaters. Looping back to another problem. Just my opinion, but I think it's in the national character to like things that are quantitative and not open to interpretation. We like things we can count - someone who hits the ball farthest, runs fastest or does the most fouettes. Interpretation scares us - it's like a pop quiz with several potential wrong answers. I think it's part of our fear of art - and another of the fears Helene mentioned earlier - What if I don't get it? There's a whole series of arguments that make us uncomfortable if we have to interpret something or worse, say why we think X is better than Y without being able to point to more turns or a higher jump.

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I notice that we have been focusing on the audience -- the consumers of art. How about the producers?

I recently came across a review of a book about serfdom and the arts in imperial Russia:

... serfs, ex-serfs and the children of serfs provided the overwhelming majority of singers, composers, instrumentalists, dancers, actors and actresses, painters and scene painters, operators of stage machinery; without them, given the rigid structure of Russian society, there would have been no public concerts, no public ballet or opera, fewer painters and sculptors in the period ...

... many of the Russian participantors in all levels of the creative process during those 100 years were born in servitude, and continued in servitude, often leading miserable, humiliated, frustrated, or degrading lives.

-- Isabel de Madariaga, reviewing Richard Stites, Serfdom, Society, and the Arts in Imperial Russia, Yale University Press. From the 5/19/06 Times Literary Supplement

The various imperial court theaters -- although they began as private operations open only to the wealthy nobilitiy -- were eventually opened to the general ticket-buying public. Actually, in the beginning of this period, members of the wealthy and/or noble classes were not permitted to perform. The Esterhazy orchestra for whom Haydn composed was probably also a group of performing serfs or other dependents of the princely family.

In the US in the same period, there were similar though less rigid prejudices against working in the theater.

But I have the feeling that this kind of work was seen as -- and jumped at as -- a means to achieving a livelihood, possibly even wealth, and ultimately -- for the very best -- social respectability.

How about today? If the classical arts are increasingly "elitist" as far as the American audience is concerned, how democratic is the system for recruiting those who perform the arts and put them on the stage? And has that system become more or less democratic than in the past?

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Hi!

I cannot believe I am typing. This is a thread I've followed and read through several times since it was first posted. I remember reading the title before clicking the screen to the postings. "Elitist" image? Well, in my pea brain the word "yes" popped right up. Certainly someone like me wasn't going to have anything to say on the subject, but it's been fascinating. While most of the posters have serious opinions and state them with eloquence, I thought I couldn't contribute at all. Why? Because I thought I was too stupid. I don't really know anything about ballet. How could I have a novel idea, a worthwhile comment, or even have enough background to agree with anyone else's statement? You guys are the experts, my "elitists". Yet, some of you have shared enough personal backgrounds to make me think you'd like to know what one as ignorant as I thinks.

So, maybe against my better judgement, here's a few:

I can read music! Although I have only about a six tone vocal range and can bearly now pound out Christmas carols on the piano for lack of practice, I can read music!

I wasn't a junior high schooler in 1971 but did attend my first opera that year. It cost a great deal more than $3.75 though I have no idea how much. We went annually to the Salzburg Festival. We drove up in a severely worn rental car that even the police officers directing traffic had to look at twice before flagging us into the opera-goers lane, but we went! We wore the same outfits every time, handing them down to younger siblings the following year. We went to orchestra and chamber music concerts too. The seats weren't the best, but we were there. We were a working class family that had been farmers the generation before. We were simply taking advantage of the opportunities available.

We were not "identifying with the rich and "copying" their "behavior"". We were not trying to ""get with the program" and acquire the "trappings" of wealth". We were also not alone in this honest pursuit of beauty and appreciation. Class mobility never figured into any of these activities. (We're all still happily middle class, working people!) While it was certainly fun to "rub elbows" with the "well heeled", I think the middle class knows exactly who they are. Those making sacrifices for the arts to so because they LOVE the arts, pure and simple, even without sophisticated knowledge, education, or background.

I'm the daughter of immigrants. Of course this is the land of opportunity and I could have grown up to be president. Okay, it's a myth; but, like most myths, there's an ideal involved that encourages the hopeful to reach heights never before imagined. Myths are important. Dreams are what makes artistry work. Believing as a child that each classmate and I could have grown to be president made it possible for each to dream of an occupation beyond those we already knew.

Who is to say that the myth really doesn't work? Perhaps those that found no promise in it simply stopped believing and hence stopped trying to achieve their goals.

This thread got me to ponder the very word "elitist". Though there are well written definitions, the statements Helene made gave me a greater sense of what, for me, this thread is all about. She wrote of a psychological barrier. She wrote, "What to wear? How to behave? Will all those rich people judge? Will it be comprehensible? Will it be boring? Will I have anything to say about the performance? (Will I feel comfortable posting about it?) There's the sense that there are a select number of well-trained people who know anything -- the elite--" These words spoke to me.

Though I've seen scores of live performances and know what to wear and how to behave, the psychological barrier still exists. Why? Because of the elitists, those well-trained people who know everything (and are comfortable posting!) Just as those in the middle class might appear to be assuming the airs of the rich, the elitists might appear to be part of a private club looking down their noses at the rest. When one assumes that another is only really interested in upward social mobility, one becomes a snob. When one assumes another is a snob, one loses the opportunity to learn and find ones rightful place.

What I guess I'm trying to say is "Thank You" to all those who aren't judging and are willing to share, to teach, and to help one like me, an ballet ignorant fan! By sharing little tidbits, like "I don't read music" and "I come from a working class family too", you break down the barrier. We seem more alike than different. I'm trying on this end, by reading everyday and now by getting enough courage to post.

mouse

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Thanks so much for that, mouse.

This quote has come up here before, but I think it's time for it again -

It's so good, I've saved it and checked with the source for the exact wording.

Nancy Dalva to Richard Howard: Richard, is poetry for everyone?

Richard Howard to Nancy Dalva: No, Nancy, poetry is for anyone.

radio interview by Nancy Dalva, the National Arts Review (circa 1980)

In other conversations, people tell stories much like mouse's - one great arts critic whose father was (I may be off here, but I think) a truck driver said that Sundays was the day that the family went to the Symphony or a Museum. Yes, they did it to "better themselves" and it probably wasn't conscious class mobility - it was what closer to something mouse implied, a genuine belief that the arts elevate humanity. I don't think this disproves economic or class motivations, but it adds a dimension to it.

I wonder what we can all do to foster a belief that the arts do, in fact "better" people, and that even if any given art isn't for everyone, it is for anyone. Try it. It doesn't matter if you get it. There isn't a right answer. And most importantly, it's part of your birthright. Stars and Stripes, Agon and Square Dance are as American as baseball.

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Leigh--I thought more about your post about the suspicion of training, which I agreed with, but we do leave something out. Helene has pointed toward this with the fact that Americans are willing to part with hard-earned funds for sports far more frequently. Americans also love very highly-skilled sports which are not considered arts as such--they are always involved with the Olympics, with figure skating, gymnastics, with the diving and skiing competitions, etc., even leaving out basketball, baseball, and football.

So it's more than training, because all the sports require immense training. It's Arts training, and this has as much to do with 'Europe envy' as it does with suspicion of training--your example of oenophiles is but one. So that, if in the 20th century ballet and classical music were widely disseminated in America, it was still mostly European work that was performed and even the greatest 'American' choreographer is Russian, melting pot ideas notwithstanding (he was Maryinsky/Ballet Russes immigrant, not Ellis Island). Cultures developed over many centuries become more and more formalized. Americans got all the modern conveniences and money without developing a culture that would have time to formalize to anywhere near that degree. So American culture in a general sense is more informal. That's another area of sharp distrust--the formal. You are often considered to be putting on airs in America when you are just not interested in using pop language (or sometimes, even using bad grammar is part of a community's requirements for membership.) In both classical music and ballet, the bulk of the repertoire is European, still. Maybe 5% is homegrown American by now, but the greatest artistic American contributions have been in the more popular domains. Americans who have therefore not had the opportunity nor the inclination to get at least a rudimentary familiarity with ballet and classical music tend to resent those who have, and think of them as snobs, as you mentioned. In fact, we often do seem like snobs, but it is not more our fault, and I never worry about it. I've always been fascinated by the one-letter difference between 'snob' and 'slob,' though.

Incidentally, scientific training, mathematical training also require great training, and these are not considered very suspect.

Bart--I think I read that in the 19th century, ballet dancers were not often considered to be of particularly high character, and that some, in fact, did have to supplement their stage income in not the most lofty ways. That is like those 30's musicals of upper-class attitudes to their children, as Dick Powell, writing songs for what they considered low-class Broadway.

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Mouse, thank you for that post! I certainly want to disabuse any readers of the notion that I know the first thing about this topic - ballet and the arts. I don't. I am from a middle class family with a decent education who was exposed to lots of things and as I get older I grow "awe" at the arts and feel humbled before them. But I love the experience of being completely dazzled by ... for lack of a better word by the "work" of artists and performance artists.

I found this place because I simply want to know more about the genre and how others experience what I do. The quality of "thought" here is wonderful. What a crew!

One thing I am trying to wrap my mind around... and I hope to use this site to educate me and give me more insight is the nature of the ballet experience as differentiated from other art. I see ballet as a very special and very different language.

This perhaps may be part of the elitist nature of ballet... Now step back a moment you ballet lovers and just think how "abstract" the language of dance (ballet) is. Set aside the "libretto" which conveys the story... and the sets which tend to be... well "stage sets" and the dance is both completely "abstract" and completely rooted in "gestures" that is common to every human being.

Part of the esoteric nature of ballet lives in the "rigidity" of steps and so on which all dancers train for. These are the notes, the letters, the words of the language of ballet. God I can't find the words. So there is the notion of skill and athleticism and perfection in technique. But there is a lot more that dancers are able to do... and it is terrible "emotive" and full of "meaning" as gesture is "meant" to be. I am getting far a afield here, but again I am trying to convey that the language of something like ballet is esoteric. I popped over to Wikepedia and pulled this quote:

....another sense of esoteric has become more prominent: that which is complex and difficult to grasp except by the few who are more perceptive or aware. In this sense, esoteric knowledge often implies an inner or self-reflective wisdom absent from external knowledge.

The notion of ballet being "esoteric" may be the seed which spawns the elitist tag.

No?

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The notion of ballet being "esoteric" may be the seed which spawns the elitist tag.

No?

I don't think ballet is more esoteric than modern dance or opera or classical music to the general public. It is simply being marginalized by TV and one-dimensionalism of all kinds. However, it is more overtly and healthily sexual than opera perhaps (but not necessarily more than modern dance), and this is a puritanical country, preferring abstinence and pornography by turns to being simple and direct about something so basic.

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