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Ballet's "elitist" image --what do you think?Ballet-bashing? or partly accurate?


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#16 bart

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 05:01 AM

Thanks, Bluenightdipper, for your thoughtful comments.

Ticket pricing is problem here, too, and I don't think companies address it very well or consistently. As someone who has been convinced that only by paying full price can I truly be "supporting the arts," I admit to feeling somewhat annoyed to find seats being filled by last-minute giveaways and by papering the house.

Perhaps the most overlooked reason is society as whole these days. People (again all of my comments are merely my thoughts on the matter and by no means definative) seem to derive more pleasure these days and only seem to be able to make themselves feel better when they are putting someone else down for any reason they can find. One can hardly scream at a soloist to "get a move on" like at the football, or cricket for example, whilst eating a pie and drinking a beer. Ballet requires discipline not do, to watch and from that comes enjoyment (for the dancer and the audience). The irony is whilst the "older" population becomes more and more undisciplined and young girls are often criticised for not being disciplined and having no direction, in a small regional area of tasmania there are more than five ballet schools all full with young girls wanting to learn the art of ballet.


It's sad whent he requiement to sit quietly and pay attention becomes a deterrent to attending any performance. But I think you're right. There are so many "audience participation" spectator sports -- movie attendance being one of the most prominent nowadays -- that people may have to feel the it's downright odd to take part in what is seen as ancient and out-of-date 19th-century audience rituals.

#17 Bluenightdipper

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 05:41 AM

Phew! :beg: Thank you Bart for your response. I thought I may have been a little to deep and meaningful with my previous post.

It's funny I have been thinking more about this issue and I am begining to wonder is the "elitist" perception (real or otherwise) forged, partly from simple misunderstanding, lack of knowledge, and a case of "couldn't be bothered to taking the time to understand."

For example waaaaaaaay back when I was at school (that what it feels like sometimes) part of our curriculum in English was to study some of Shakespeares works and part of the Music curriculum was classical "ancient and out-of-date 19th-century " pieces.

I used to do some volunter work with high school aged children and most if not all had no idea who Shakespeare was and as for the 1812 Overture never heard of it, but then when you told them that Shakespeare wrote the original Romeo and Juliet (like the movie with Leonardo Di Caprio) and the 1812 Overture (like the music for the Army recruiting advertisement on TV) there was a feint, slight glimmer of recognition.

As humans we tend to denegrate that which we fear most, that which we do not know or understand, hence the "elitist" perception and associated behaviours. Perhaps all that is needed on all sides is a little bit of "education" and by that I don't mean making ballet compulsory, but rather getting "it out there more."

By "getting it out there more" I also don't mean "seats being filled by last-minute giveaways and by papering the house " (that is boarderline patronisation) but rather a simple matter of making people aware that ballet whilst it may be an "ancient and out-of-date 19th-century " art, it does exist and it has many great aesthetic, physical, musical, dramatic characteristics which not only make dance what it is but may also add character to a person to enable them to achieve an elite level in whatever they choose to do.

#18 YouOverThere

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 11:54 AM

Ticket pricing is  problem here, too, and I don't think companies  address it very well or consistently. 


Arts organizations are often criticized for their ticket prices, and I think often unfairly. While it's true that the cost prices out lower income people, at least in Denver the cost of tickets to (at least) professional basketball, football, and hockey also prices out these groups, yet they don't receive the same criticism. I would guess that the average price of a pro football or hockey ticket exceeds the average price of a Colorado Ballet or Colorado Symphony ticket. It unfortunately requires a significant amount of money to stage a ballet and that money has to come from somewhere. The dancers are, IMHO, already severely underpaid.

#19 Kate Lennard

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 07:04 PM

There is one glaring omission from this debate around which the elitism of ballet and opera is unequivocal and why despite tickets being expensive sports events are uncomparable to ballet in terms of elitism and that is simply - race.

High art is overwhelmingly white, and any form of art or entertainment which is situated within society as we know and live it today and does not reflect the multi-culturalism of society and the attendent issues thereof cannot be seen as anything other than divorced from society. Apart from it, elitist.

Sadly the occasional Accosta, Anderson come across as nothing more than nods towards tokenism when the sole black face is surrounded by a field of white faces.

Sports, popular culture, music culture give multi-cultural role models and stars for children, young people and adults to aspire to. The ascension from unknown to MBA, NFL or MTV star is one wholly recognisable, the struggle to achieve relevant to the fan. There is nothing of this within ballet and sadly very little done to address this.

The black dancers who were chosen to enter the halcyon major companies, such as Ashe, Long, Douglas all had tales of frustrated ambition before leaving to join environments where race was not an issue but talent was.

Not one poster here mentioned race, because I hazzard a guess not one poster who contributed to this thread is black? (Please correct me if wrong) And until ballet addresses this it cannot be anything other than elitist.

#20 Bluenightdipper

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 08:59 PM

YouOver there, I totally agree with you in that dancers are severely underpaid.

This is where I face a connundrum. With the income from ticket sales, Government grants, benefactors, philanthripists etc. Where does is all go?? Like you say, not to the dancers. A bit like companies posting billion dollar profits and laying off thousands of workers, whilst increasing the cost of their product.

One begins to wonder if some ventures are never meant to be commercial enterprises and by trying to make them such we are destroying them?

#21 Bluenightdipper

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Posted 14 February 2006 - 09:27 PM

Kate,

You are correcct in guessing that I am not black.

I would perhaps beg to differ on a few points made by yourself.

There is one glaring omission from this debate around which the elitism of ballet and opera is unequivocal and why despite tickets being expensive sports events are uncomparable to ballet in terms of elitism and that is simply - race.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


I know here in Australia that race is also an issue when it comes to football, cricket (hardly any aboriginals), soccer (hardly any Australians) and just about any other sport at an elite level. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps certain races are attracted to certain activities due to their heritage and culture and therefore seen to be elitist by other races and cultures. I will probably be crucified for what I am about to say by it is only my opinion based on personal experience. We all (regardless of race) like to embrace the philosophy of multi-culturalisim, but when it comes to the doing, human nature prevails. Therefore, is elitisim mearly reflecting the subconscious of society?

Sports, popular culture, music culture give multi-cultural role models and stars for children, young people and adults to aspire to.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I'm not really into pop culture, music culture and the like, but when I do watch Rage (a bit like MTV I suppose), HIP Hop seems to be very black to me, Punk/Techno seems to be very UK, does that then makes these elitist? Perhaps it does to thoes not involved in those styles.

The black dancers who were chosen to enter the halcyon major companies, such as Ashe, Long, Douglas all had tales of frustrated ambition before leaving to join environments where race was not an issue but talent was.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Any woman trying to compete in a male dominated work force of any male for that matter trying to compete in a female dominated work force would relate to this.

Does the US have an all black dance company? We have an all aboriginal dance company here in Australia and from what I have heard and read they are highly talented, skilled and yes elite dancers. Like I mentioned in the Australian Ballet forum, trying to see the aboriginal company is just as difficult as it is to see the Australian Ballet if you don't live in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Canberra.

I'd better get back on track for this forum,

Perhaps Ballet is elitist, but then is it really so bad? We all like to be part of something special that reflects our cultural and artistic heritage. Be it black, white, asian, whatever. It is a shame I think when we can't accept that each race/religion will have it's own elite form of dance, music, communication. Perhaps we should be celebrating this elitisim, for each race, because isn't that what the philosophy of multi-culturalism is all about, not a common denominator?

#22 kfw

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 04:41 AM

High art is overwhelmingly white, and any form of art or entertainment which is situated within society as we know and live it today and does not reflect the multi-culturalism of society and the attendent issues thereof cannot be seen as anything other than divorced from society. Apart from it, elitist.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Like all good art, ballet is rooted primarily in particular aesthetic and cultural traditions, not political agendas, however important. What art or work of art can speak to or for everyone? And why should it have to? Western society is multi-cultural precisely because it is made up of specific cultures, and a society that truly "celebrates multi-culturalism" allows all of its cultures to thrive. It doesn't subject them to political tests.

#23 Kate Lennard

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 05:07 AM

I think you're both misinterpreting my points. No one is saying that ballet must be inclusory, however, the fact that it isn't means it cannot defend itself effectively against allegations of elitism when juxtaposed against the majority of cultural and sporting pursuits which on face value are.

There is a very great difference between elitism and "elite" as has been pointed out here before. A ballet dancer within a top company is indeed an "elite" athlete in much the same way an Olympian is, however the Olympian is an aspirational commodity the dancer not. Yes, indeed certain sports, music genres are exclusory to the a "typical" ballet audience, but what these art forms/sporting forms have is that they speak directly to a huge cross section of society; not least because within a black context many of the musicians and athletes came from crippling poverty and by dint of talent and hard work became successful and create a product which speaks directly to achievement. Rooted within culture.

The fact is that an aboriginal company, the now sadly defunct DTH and modern dance taken as proof of a non-elitist inclusive face of dance is a non-starter as an argument. Two swallows do not a summer make.

Ballet rooted within the confines of an opera house, presenting an overwhelmingly caucasian face and due to cost relying on a handfull of 19th century works (NYCB excepted, of course) can never be argued as being progressive and all-inclusive.

The fact that I post here I would hope be proof positive that I love ballet as an art form, passionately. But certain aspects, the arguments of regressive politicised femininity, institutionalised rascism are hard to make arguments against. And if one does wish to tackle the allegations of elitism one has to truly look at these aspects and not become defensive, but acknowledge them head on for what they are. Very real criticisms by ballet's harshest detractors.

On another ballet site I read recently a poster commenting on POB's Le Parc saying that it struck her that the choreography of the gardeners would not work on dancers of "color" because they work black sweaters with the arms rolled up and black gloved hands which were placed on their white forearms. That such an inane comment was seen as being worthy of being shared is saddening, what was moreso was that not a single respondent to the thread saw fit to criticise this comment. That is was seen as being valid.

#24 Mashinka

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 07:18 AM

Does "non-Caucasian" mean just black or does it include Asian and Oriental dancers? Ballet has taken off big time in Japan and is now booming in China with the result that these dancers are represented in just about every company you care to name.

I'm not certain that "grinding poverty" exists in the UK, poverty exists almost everywhere though and if you're poor than you've no chance in classsical ballet as classes cost money and few working class dancers make it anywhere regardless of their colour. The exception was the old Soviet Union, but that no longer exists and it will be interesting to see how the demise of the old system will impact upon future generations of dancers.

I've first hand experience of attitudes towards black dancers as I worked as an assistant/administrator to the black dancer William Louther for a number of years: he found working in Europe was more congenial than in the US as he'd experienced serious racism when dancing with a white partner in the southern states. One of the dancers in his company, James Lammy, who now works in Austria, told me of his disappointment at not being accepted as a classical dancer, but I've a feeling that things have moved on today and that there is more acceptance of non-white dancers. I once raised a question with an RB teacher at one of those Q & A sessions arranged by one of the ballet clubs, about the scarcity of black dancers in the company. He didn't like the question at all and looked plainly embarrassed to be asked. Audience reaction was somewhat different as all had something to say on the subject and that totally white, middle-aged, middle class audience made it perfectly clear that they had no objections to non-whites in their favourite art form at all.

I have to say that opera is generally accepted as being just as elitist as ballet, but black singers, from Jessye Norman down, don't seem to face these barriers.

#25 Kate Lennard

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 07:45 AM

Does "non-Caucasian" mean just black or does it include Asian and Oriental dancers?  Ballet has taken off big time in Japan and is now booming in China with the result that these dancers are represented in just about every company you care to name.

In the context of this argument I totally concede that non-caucasian includes Asian, Eurasian and Oriental and these dancers are poorly represented within the context of major companies. Moreover, this argument of elitism is taken in the context of Western perception of ballet. Yes, the ballet boom within Asia is happening but until these companies tour extensively with a classical repertoire within the West one cannot make a case for the Western perception of ballet being multi-national in terms of skin colour within companies.

Moreover the cause and effect of racism is most clearly seen and the battle most purely fought on the subject of black skin. Unapologetically, dark black.

I'm not certain that "grinding poverty" exists in the UK, poverty exists almost everywhere though and if you're poor than you've no chance in classsical ballet as classes cost money and few working class dancers make it anywhere regardless of their colour.  The exception was the old Soviet Union, but that no longer exists and it will be interesting to see how the demise of the old system will impact upon future generations of dancers.

Mashinska, grinding poverty does exist within the UK and it's naive to think not. However, yes you're right regarding the cost of becoming a dancer and a pursuit which is so resolutely middle-class especially in regards to being a pre-requisite for achievement can not claim to be anything other than elitist. The interesting thing in regards to the post Soviet ballet is the plethora of small-scale touring Russian companies whose incessant itinerary of small venues and regional towns probably does more to dispel the "elitist" tag for classical ballet than anything else.


Louther was a miraculous modern dancer, yes, but his inclusion does take the argument away from the arena that this question must be tackled - the opera house, its patrons and the make-up of the company.

Progress isn't found in off-shoot all black companies forming because the incredible dancers are horrendously underused within the mainstream. Progess comes from a line up of swans in the corps whose dancers contain black, asian, Oriental dancers the focus not being on ethnicity but meritocracy.

I think too, that the problem of elitism and racism was highlighted by your questioning of that rather reactionary teacher from the "Old school", the majority of the great ballet institutions are composed of stars, teachers, ballet masters etc whose formative careers took place in the not too distant past when such segregations were still sanctioned by society. When racism was de riguer and acceptable on a deep societal level, (though it is naive to suggest it still isn't, but now it's gone underground to a greater extent). But these divisions still exist and whilst society may have progressed like the audience at the event, the institution hasn't caught up yet. And perhaps this is the problem as a whole - ballet is still in an adolescent state of mind.

Opera is indeed as elitist if not more so, but then again black vocal art is an accepted part of black cultural heritage and the technique of opera is centered around the voice, of course. The cross over seems more "organic" if you will.

#26 bart

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 08:14 AM

Like all good art, ballet is rooted primarily in particular aesthetic and cultural traditions, not political agendas, however important. What art or work of art can speak to or for everyone? And why should it have to? Western society is multi-cultural precisely because it is made up of specific cultures, and a society that truly "celebrates multi-culturalism" allows all of its cultures to thrive. It doesn't subject them to political tests.

Thanks, kfw, for the simple way you expressed something very profoundly true.

My own idea of multiculturalism is that access to all sorts of culture should be available to everyone. Eductation and training in a variety of art forms -- including those considered "traditional" or Euro-centeric or even elitist -- ditto.

Multiculturalism should also, I think, include a deep respect for a variety of forms. And awe for those who create them.

There is too much building up of "my" art form by putting down yours, in my opinion. And ballet is too often on the receiving end of this unfair and -- when you think of it -- undemocratic way of thinking.

One of the nice things about being involved in Ballet Talk is that I am exposed --regardless of the color, gender or national origin of the posters -- to a great variety of interests and an astonishing range of expertise. Not just ballet. Not by a long shot. Though it is a common interest in and love of this one art form that brings us together.

#27 Hans

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 09:12 AM

Ballet rooted within the confines of an opera house, presenting an overwhelmingly caucasian face and due to cost relying on a handfull of 19th century works (NYCB excepted, of course) can never be argued as being progressive and all-inclusive.


Which companies, exactly, rely on a handful of 19th century works? Every ballet company brochure I see seems to have a contortionist in pointe shoes suspended in an odd pose on the cover, while the text talks about all the new, "revolutionary" choreography being performed with almost no mention of the classics.

Yes, the ballet boom within Asia is happening but until these companies tour extensively with a classical repertoire within the West one cannot make a case for the Western perception of ballet being multi-national in terms of skin colour within companies.


NYCB barely tours at all (only to the Kennedy Center) whereas the National Ballet of China and the Universal Ballet have come to the US on several occasions. (They are both excellent, IMO.)

#28 bart

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 09:20 AM

I second Hans's two points.

The interesting thing in regards to the post Soviet ballet is the plethora of small-scale touring Russian companies whose incessant itinerary of small venues and regional towns probably does more to dispel the "elitist" tag for classical ballet than anything else.


Definitely !! We've discussed this in reference to the Russian National Ballet and other similar troups. Here's a link to one such disscussion:

http://ballettalk.in...showtopic=13667

We've also had a number of threads about the issue of race and ballet (and the other classical arats). Here's just one of them;

http://ballettalk.in...showtopic=16581

I hope we'll have further discussion of these interesting topics here.

#29 ami1436

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 09:32 AM

I don't have much to say mainly because I feel like I'd be best off keeping my mouth shut right now.

The fact is that an aboriginal company, the now sadly defunct DTH


I don't think we can call DTH aboriginal - indigenous.

On another ballet site I read recently a poster commenting on POB's Le Parc saying that it struck her that the choreography of the gardeners would not work on dancers of "color" because they work black sweaters with the arms rolled up and black gloved hands which were placed on their white forearms. That such an inane comment was seen as being worthy of being shared is saddening, what was moreso was that not a single respondent to the thread saw fit to criticise this comment. That is was seen as being valid.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


I was that poster, as you well know. And my point was that the costuming affect of only seeing faces in the dark light would not work, and thus limit casting and further perhaps limit which companies would take this on. Should you have found the comment as inane or saddening, I do feel that there are, perhaps, more tactful ways in which it could be said.

I wonder what obstacles are faced by non-coloured dancers in say, Cuba, Colombia... wherever.

I have never ever felt the need to fully, purposefully introduce myself 'ethnically'. How odd that I almost feel I need to in the virtual world.

#30 carbro

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Posted 15 February 2006 - 10:05 AM

I wonder what obstacles are faced by non-coloured dancers in say, Cuba, Colombia... wherever.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

It seemed to me, on their last visit to New York just a couple of years ago, that Ballet Nacional de Cuba was strikingly less multiethnic -- i.e., more white -- than it was a generation ago. :wink: This is just a casual observation, but an observation nonetheless.


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