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Are the images of ballet in pop culture getting better?


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#16 chrisk217

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Posted 08 May 2008 - 07:34 PM

As a former dancer who is at an age where I'm watching some of my perfectly capable female ex-colleagues turn into crazy, controlling/self-deprecating ballet ladies right before my very eyes, I found this pretty funny. It is satire, after all. Do we think this is really representative of a larger trend?

Well it was funny, particularly the dancer desperately trying to smoke the cigarette on a non-smoking sign.

But no, it's not just satire, it crosses the line to anti-ballet polemic with that final statement. Lisa is clearly delivering whatever message the viewer is to take away.

There were other mentions of ballet over the years, I'm afraid I don't really remember them, but they also contributed to a vague impression that ballet was more respected on the Simpsons in the past.

It's hard to tell if it's a general trend but this BT thread is largely anecdotal after all and the Simpsons certainly worth mentioning being as they are a not insignificant part of pop culture for the last 20 years.

#17 whetherwax

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Posted 08 May 2008 - 09:18 PM

Just last night on non commercial TV( i.e govt sponsored ) a variety program had a piece called "Men in Tutus" Yes you've guessed, it was even worse than trocoderos. A take off of Swan Lake in false eyelashes and blue eyeshadow so vile as to stunt my growth for sure. Cringeworthy to the extreme. Until society doesnt need to massage gender difference we're going to get this stuff - but this is, I think, different from the sense of belonging to a different physical team. The gender reinforcement is one thing , but baracking for a different form of phsysical activity is another.

#18 dancesmith

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 05:48 AM

My first question is how much pop culture actually influences attitudes or is it more of a reflection of existing attitudes. Because I tend to believe the later, I’m not sure that the portrayal of ballet in pop culture is changing very much because I’m not sure that the attitude about ballet overall is changing very much.

To me, the challenge of the image of ballet lies deep in its roots, from its beginning as a court dance, as an activity associated with elitism. Regardless of what the reality might often be, children whose families can afford ballet classes are often seen as privileged and people who can afford to often attend major performances have plenty of disposal income. In a society that prides itself on populism, this has created a degree of tension and has made ballet an easy target for elitism satire.

Unfortunately, there are proponents on both sides that continue to perpetuate the view of ballet being for the elite. Pop culture likes to present ballet as still belonging to the wealthy and to the “highbrows.” Alternatively, proponents of ballet not uncommonly view pop culture as representing the “unwashed masses,” whose interests are somehow beneath them. I would go so far as saying that some even use their interest in ballet as “proof” of their “more refined” status over the less enlightened, further fueling the image of elitism.

I think it is interesting that where class differences have be institutionally eliminated (at least in theory), such as the Soviet Union and Cuba, the acceptance and appreciation of ballet has grown. The people in these countries apparently ceased to view ballet as a province of the elite and began to claim it for the “masses” themselves. Equally interesting, it is the so-called pop culture that often declined under these conditions. (I am only offering this as an observation and am in no way advocating the means these countries used to achieve this turn of events.)

Pessimistically, I don’t think pop culture will change much until the attitudes they reflect change. Overall, in spite of the Simpson’s example, in my opinion, I’m not sure things have gotten worse but neither do I think they have necessarily gotten any better. Again, I believe it is probably a reflection of little change of the overall popular attitude toward ballet.
Optimistically, my biggest hope for a change in attitudes toward ballet is the growth in local companies, both in number and quality. Certainly an economic downturn will hurt them, but if we can continue to support them, I believe this will be one of the best ways to show the accessibility of ballet to everyone, not just the ones who can afford to see a few major performances a year. When that starts happening, we can start shedding the image of elitism and make ballet into more of a populist movement. When that happens, that is when we will start seeing the real changes in pop culture.

#19 Ray

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 07:40 AM

Unfortunately, there are proponents on both sides that continue to perpetuate the view of ballet being for the elite. Pop culture likes to present ballet as still belonging to the wealthy and to the “highbrows.” Alternatively, proponents of ballet not uncommonly view pop culture as representing the “unwashed masses,” whose interests are somehow beneath them. I would go so far as saying that some even use their interest in ballet as “proof” of their “more refined” status over the less enlightened, further fueling the image of elitism.


A very thoughtful response, but I'm going to limit my response to the paragraph above. I think this can be true, although I find that the kind of elitism that is often practised in the ballet world is that of the collector, the fan, or the connoisseur (rather than, say, the "intellectual elite"). This sometimes results in a tolerance of very coarse productions--i.e., ballets about Dracula, baseball, Darfur, etc.; tacky "contemporary" solos in international competitions, etc. The snobbery in these cases is all aimed at how dancers dance, but does not extend to quality of choreography, music, scenery, lighting, etc. I guess this happens in opera a lot too--people will kill to hear favorite singers sing anything, and in any venue.

#20 Ray

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 07:46 AM

Just last night on non commercial TV( i.e govt sponsored ) a variety program had a piece called "Men in Tutus" Yes you've guessed, it was even worse than trocoderos.


What's wrong with the Trockaderos?

#21 SanderO

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 09:35 AM

This question topic is somewhat of a tautology in that ballet is not part of popular culture, not intended to be, very much the way other forms of high art are not.

The two types of cultures carve out and define the broader way we define a culture in general. The USA is dominated by pop culture which only occasionally makes a foray into what is considered high culture to borrow technique, metaphor, images etc... established cultural icons. But it will al most always revise, reform and re invent them. Modern dance has this relationship to classic ballet.

Dance in popular culture seems mostly about participation of the people in a social context - doing it - as opposed to the performance "arts" which are viewed from a seat in a theater. Pop culture is in a constant process of renewal and redefinition and classic ballet is more about preserving, perfecting and protecting a bit of history... something that is an anathema to pop culture. Of course some creations from pop culture do have staying power and become the "classic" of their era, define it and the rest of it seems to fade.

The issue for those interested in the high arts is preserving it. Unlike a painting or a building, dance is of the moment, lining is a stretch of time, and even video recordings are but a shadow of the real experience. The tradition and knowledge of ballet requires rigorous training, and it is essentially being passed from person to person through time. This is one of the special things about classic ballet which makes it so precious to those who love it. And this process is completely absent in pop culture which is completely fad driven.

Elitism has an awful sound to it and ballet being associated with the elite is most unfortunate because it puts beauty as the currency of class struggle.

Frankly, I think we are drowning in pop culture and could do with a lot more "high culture" in the mix.

#22 Quiggin

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 10:15 AM

Unlike a painting or a building, dance is of the moment, lining is a stretch of time, and even video recordings are but a shadow of the real experience. The tradition and knowledge of ballet requires rigorous training, and it is essentially being passed from person to person through time. This is one of the special things about classic ballet which makes it so precious to those who love it.


The continuity of ballet is indeed miraculous.

It's also interesting that as high culture as it is, in the 20th century at least, ballet seemed dependent on dancers from working class families to keep it going. I'm thinking of Nureyev, Villella, Farrell, and all the dancers from Cuba that we depend on so heavily. They seem to remember how to possess a lucky bit of space and remember how to tell stories. Or am I romanticizing too much?

#23 bart

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 01:01 PM

This is an interest problem. Pop culture and the classic arts do not mix like oil and water. They might, at best inhabit the same "media" at times but merge they can't. There will always be cross over efforts and the new guys will always find themselves reaching back into our cultural past for "things" to re package and re use in their own present / modernist manner.

I'm not one who thinks of high art as a separate entity from the rest of culture. I tend to look at all the arts as lining up in the form of spectrum, with much in the way of continuity and give and take. Think of a line graph. At one ends there's a biggish hill representing what are called the higher arts. Then there's a valley or depression. And then there is another, vastly taller hill representing the popular or mass arts. There's always been cross-pollination, even when the audiences and participants don't notice that it's occurring. A generation ago, the entire graph would have had a more flattened-out appearance: operettas, the more high-brow Broadway musicals, and frilly ballets in the style of Massine filled that center space. Today, all of that middle ground is pretty much gone.

Ballet, as several have suggested, has never been an art form for the masses. But what about the image of ballet expressed in the popular culture. Weren't there a higher level of knowledge of the rudiments and an atmospher of general admiration for what ballet dancers achieve? For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, at least?

Let's consider the Simpsons as a case study. After all it's been popular for 20 years now. There were more than a few references in the show's first decade and they were largely neutral/positive. Not so lately.

Thanks, chrisk217, for that comparison. It does suggest that something is going on in the offices where this show is created. Perhaps a sense of changing audience? After so many years on the cutting edge, maybe the creators think the Simpsons themselves have to become more conventional to avoid alientating those viewers who are still loyal?

Unfortunately, there are proponents on both sides that continue to perpetuate the view of ballet being for the elite. Pop culture likes to present ballet as still belonging to the wealthy and to the “highbrows.” Alternatively, proponents of ballet not uncommonly view pop culture as representing the “unwashed masses,” whose interests are somehow beneath them. I would go so far as saying that some even use their interest in ballet as “proof” of their “more refined” status over the less enlightened, further fueling the image of elitism.

I think it is interesting that where class differences have be institutionally eliminated (at least in theory), such as the Soviet Union and Cuba, the acceptance and appreciation of ballet has grown. The people in these countries apparently ceased to view ballet as a province of the elite and began to claim it for the “masses” themselves.

I'm sorry, dancesmith, to take your point out of context, making a complex argument appear a little too simple. But you does suggest that what we are seeing in the U.S. -- and in certain other parts of the world -- is not necessarily inevitable ... or irreversible. Tha' might, tfor those who take the long view, a comforting thought. Or not?

#24 SanderO

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Posted 09 May 2008 - 02:52 PM

Bart,

I will agree that culture when considered as high culture and pop culture are not points but represent a continuum. But I suppose this too is hard to pin down. Some people consider Frank Gehry a brilliant architect and would place his buildings on the high culture side the same way they would Richard Serra or Andy Warhol. Others would consider there work rubbish, silly, campy self indulgent, you name it - even art for art sake and dismiss it as "pop culture" rubbish.

Ballet might be analogous to early music or baroque music which represent a body of work from the past. Choreographers can use the classical "language" and create new work and if they are good at their craft it might be indistinguishable from the quality of work of Petipa for example. But it will for all intent and purpose be esoteric and appeal to a very narrow segment of the population.

Vishneva recently did her Beauty in Motion "show" parts of which looked more like Cirque du Soleil than ballet. It wasn't meant to be ballet, though Vishneva is one of the finest ballerinas today. Was this an effort at reaching across the culture divide? I thought FLOW was just that in fact. But who did it appeal to? Ballet fans were disappointed I would think. Did it or would it appeal to the Cirque du Soleil crowd and bring them in to see the ballet. Or was this just "artistic" expression for a ballerina who feels constrained by the bounds of classicism?

#25 Paul Parish

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Posted 10 May 2008 - 12:03 AM

thanks, dancesmith, for that thoughtful post. That struck me as really smart.

THe thing about popular culture bart and everybody, that you have to remember is that unlike in the 30s, right now it's 80% the product of advertisers. Now people aren't stupid, and we all understand that advertisers are trying to amuse/distract us while they get their hands on our wallets -- so nobodyreally trusts advertisers, but we're all kinda suckers for hte way the advertisers fsweet-talk us and seduce us and and make us feel they're entertaining us for free -- and htey are VERY entertaining. Problem is, it is NOT free.
They play on snob value, but they also pretend to be populist -- though they're not REALLY interested in hte well-being of people who don't have money to spend. In fact, they're trying to make us feel insecure, so we'll step in line with whatever they say is cool.... They get paid to do that, and paid well -- and htere's lots of talent working behind hte scenes to keep it all appealing.

I guess I have to give Groening more credit than this, but basically he has no critique of commercial culture except to say watch your wallet. I can't watch the show it makes me depressed. in fact, I've disabled my TV.

So IMO, it's not particularly satisfuing to study what they're up to -- it's NECESSARY to figure out their strategies, since I htink one needs to keep up good defenses against htem -- and you have to give them credit when they do something remarkable. But remember, they're trying to make a fool out of you, since a fool and his money are soon parted, and it's your money they want.
................................

edited Sat AM to say, well, I guess I went a little off the deep end here. Still, it's the advertising that strikes me as burning with a hard, gem-like flame.

#26 dancesmith

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Posted 13 May 2008 - 06:32 AM

Bart,
Thanks for bringing up the continuum of art. I actually had written a similar paragraph but fortunately cut it from my post because you expressed it much better. The one thing I might add is that the range of our ability to understand and appreciate art forms all along the continuum is limited only by our own individual vision. There are no true dividing lines, only those we chose to create and allow. I believe that if we expect others to have a broader vision, we must be prepared to demonstrate that possibility ourselves.

SanderO, I like the point you make about the difficulty sometimes in distinguishing exactly what is high culture and what is pop culture and the issue of the quality of the art. Just because something is presented as art and gains a great deal of attention (popular or unpopular), does that necessarily make it culture, pop or otherwise? Can pop art done well be "better" than high art done poorly? I just finished reading the biography of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and it ends with a discussion of the debate, both during his lifetime and ever since, regarding whether he represented high culture (classically trained in Paris, respected by other classical composers of the time) or popular culture (he primarily performed popular romantic music that appealed to audiences of the Victorian mid-1800’s). On one hand, his music introduced syncopated rhythms that would later inspire ragtime and on the other, it provided us Pasquinade and Tarantella.

Paul, I agree with you that there is a very real economic component to popular culture, but I’m not sure that it is based on any conspiracy of advertisers to trick us out of our money. Achieving economic security and continuing revenue is important for all art, pop or classical, the same as it is for us as individuals. While there are certainly people looking for a quick buck, its been proven many times over that in the long run, the most successful way to secure and maintain revenue is by genuinely understanding and consistently meeting the expectations of the people willing to pay, be that ballet audiences, art patrons, or consumers of popular culture.

I do believe ballet has the potential, and I stress potential, of finding broader acceptance and a resulting improved image in contemporary culture. Again, my hopes are based on the success of increasing local, accessible ballet experiences and productions allowing broader exposure. While not a great analogy, I would wish for ballet to achieve something similar to what has happened in the US with soccer. During the last World Cup, I was surprised at how many people, through their children and participation as children, have become very knowledgeable and appreciate the sport. Along with that, certainly in my lifetime, the image and attitude toward soccer has changed from some strange game foreigners play with their feet to one of the most played sports in the US. This popularity has all developed at the local level because, interestingly enough, most of the population has yet to ever attend a major professional soccer event! The real future of ballet in our culture probably lies much less with what happens at the NYCB or ABT, but much more likely to what happens at your local studios and companies.

#27 bart

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Posted 13 May 2008 - 10:01 AM

edited Sat AM to say, well, I guess I went a little off the deep end here. Still, it's the advertising that strikes me as burning with a hard, gem-like flame.

Paul, I think many of us go "off the deep end" on this issue, from time to time at least. All art, I suppose, involves the manipulation of a person's emotional responses. Some kinds of manipulation just seem to be more insidious and soul-less) than others. Advertising certainly lies at the far end of the deep end, as far as I'm concerned.

Dancesmith, I'm really intrigued by your soccer analogy. This does seem to be an example of the movement of an activity from something perceived as elitist and and somehow foreign into something rather classy and suitable for the upwardly mobile Americans. (The increased size and visibility of Latino communities in the US also help.)

This popularity has all developed at the local level because, interestingly enough, most of the population has yet to ever attend a major professional soccer event! The real future of ballet in our culture probably lies much less with what happens at the NYCB or ABT, but much more likely to what happens at your local studios and companies.

This is an extremely interesting point. Localism or devolution might indeed be a way to fight the power of the mass commercial media. The part of me that is a populist and kind of anti-Federalist would love it if things really worked this way. But somehow I fear that things don't usually work this way. I suspect that one Nureyev or one Baryshnikov -- buzzed, plugged and sold to the limit in the national media -- will have a bigger influence than numerous local schools and companies. A decision by Bart Simpson to enroll in the School of American Ballet might be even better. :unsure: :wub:

#28 GWTW

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Posted 13 May 2008 - 11:29 AM

This may be a little off topic, but to show that culture is always geography:

Dancesmith, I'm really intrigued by your soccer analogy. This does seem to be an example of the movement of an activity from something perceived as elitist and and somehow foreign into something rather classy and suitable for the upwardly mobile Americans.


In the rest of the world, soccer has not traditionally been an elitist sport. Quite the opposite. It is a game that can be played anywhere, any time with minimal investment in equipment.

#29 dancesmith

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Posted 13 May 2008 - 12:43 PM

A decision by Bart Simpson to enroll in the School of American Ballet might be even better. :unsure: :unsure:


Personally, I'm pulling for both Miley Cyrus and Oprah to take up ballet :wub: .

#30 GWTW

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Posted 14 May 2008 - 06:27 AM

Shoot me if you will, but I watched a (very short portion, truly, only while folding laundry) of an episode of the reality show, Kimora - Life in the Fab Lane, aout the life of Kimora Lee Simmons, who is a 'fashion mogul' :blushing: i.e. a former model, married or divorced, perhaps, from a very rich man. This episode focussed on the work/life balance of a fashion mogul who is also a mother, and Kimora said that while she isn't ever going to be a 'soccer mom' she can see herself being a 'ballet mom' in a few years when her daughters are old enough.


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