How much explanation do you want?
Posted 05 April 2001 - 12:40 PM
While I agree with that philosophy wholeheartedly, is it gracious or even practical? I agree with it because one of the beauties of dance is that it can have several meanings at once, some of which cannot be expressed in words. But I've also produced many a concert and I can tell you how alienated an audience can feel when they feel lost.
Against my own principles I started putting in brief program notes and I cannot tell you how grateful people were. I try to write them very carefully to not hamper the viewer who has a different take on what s/he saw; I will never say "This ballet is about X", but I will say "I spent many summers up north, the music I chose reminded me of the things I encountered there." Or if a title is a foreign or obscure word, I'll translate it. I cannot tell you how much of an ungracious host I felt after the 12th person embarrassedly asked me what Les Noces meant. I had completely overlooked the fact that people might not know.
Would it have been revealing too much for the stager to have said that the part was originally made on Bettie deJong, who was the Rehearsal Mistress at the time and nearing the end of her performing career? Would it have reduced a complex idea to only a single meaning? As you can see, I'm of two minds about this, what do you all think?
Leigh Witchel - email@example.com
Personal Page and Dance Writing
Dance as Ever
Posted 05 April 2001 - 01:03 PM
I don't think that it hurts peoples' imaginations to offer a few facts on what really *does* inspire a choreographer to create a dance. If I were the stager & received that question, I would have smiled & asked the questioner: "What do *you* think it means?" I'd let the guy in the audience give his explanation -- something prompted those guffaws from the audience when he originally asked the question, after all! -- then I would have explained the Bettie DeJong connection. As it turned out, the stager came across as a bit aloof, albeit very polite...sort of like saying: "I've answered you. Next question?" (My own words but that's the gist of how it came across. He missed the opportunity for a *really* fascinating discussion, IMO!)
[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]
Posted 05 April 2001 - 01:50 PM
I'd like to think that a good production of works like "Serenade" or "Esplanade," where there is meaning, and references, though not a literal story, make it easy for the audience to sense what the choreographer is trying to say. But I remember, from the beginning of "Esplanade," the "woman in pants" caused a great deal of furor -- odd, since in the 1970s, nearly all American women wore pants. (One of the theories--not blessed by Taylor--was that she was an unhappy lesbian.)
I like Leigh's solution, though it still may not contain enough "clues." I remember another Taylor dance, "Roses," that was subtitled, simply, "For Edwin Denby." Denby had just died. If you knew anything about his background -- his youth in Germany (hence the music), his early career as a poet and a gymnast (hence the gymnastic references in the choreography) -- the work would mean more to you. But writing all that out in a program note ("Note the use of the backward handstand at the most exultant part of the music....") could ruin it.
Re the questions of "what does Les Noces mean?" (a perfectly valid question) my very favorite audience comment of all time was when Roland Petit's company brought "Proust" here, and the woman behind me "whispered," loud enough to be heard by half the orchestra, "what's Proust French for?" There was a lot of material about Proust in the program book, but she either didn't know it was there (many people don't realize that there is something in the program book besides the cast list and ads) or didn't have time to read it.
Arlene Croce addressed this in an essay about choreography reprinted in "After Images," criticizing MacMillan's "Song of the Earth" for presuming knowledge -- of language (German) and culture (Chinese) -- that it is unlikely his audience had, saying that we were having these "public baths" in the classics without knowing what we were bathing in. One of the reasons that art moved to abstraction, perhaps, is that if you just have three red squares on a black background -- or four dancers dancing pleasing patterns -- nobody has to wonder about what it "means."
I, of course, want to know everything -- not necessarily when I'm watching the dance, but certainly afterwards. But I realize that normal people aren't so obsessive So Leigh's question is a good one -- how much information do you want?
Posted 05 April 2001 - 02:29 PM
"Les Noces" is also a puzzlement. Less so "Train Bleu" in which the story and funny characters are spelled out quite clearly.
Doggone it - I sure wish that La Nijinska had further explained her ballets!
Posted 05 April 2001 - 02:39 PM
Sorry, this is off Leigh's topic.
Posted 05 April 2001 - 03:08 PM
Back to Leigh's main topic: This sort of explanation to "Les Biches" is an example of the sort of thing that, I think, should be in the program notes. Another example on a different topic: Robbins' "The Concert." For those of us who do not live in NYC or have inside knowledge on the types of "audience characters" depicted in the ballet, why not an explanation? What may be obvious to frequent arts patrons in Manhattan isn't necessarily so to folks in the Hinterland. Or is half the fun in keeping certain 'secrets' to oneself (for the choreographer and his inner circle, perhaps)?
If I were choreographing a ballet that takes a lighthearted look at typical Washington, DC bureaucrats, I would like the non-Washington audience to have the inside track on the types of characters shown...and, believe me, we have some distinct "types" around here.
(p.s. - *Totally* unrelated: Did you guys see what happened to the U.S. Stock Market today? up-up-up...wooo-hooo...need some more disposable income as we purchase our ballet subscriptions for next year)
[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]
Posted 05 April 2001 - 03:22 PM
Last year I saw Richard Foreman's Nietzsche play. (Not everyone here may know Foreman's work -- it's sort of cross between popular, satirical farce and super-intellectualized experimental theater.) He probably assumes an audience that knows something about Nietzsche, but his program notes gave one a sketch that situated you even if you didn't know anything and helped you to "get" some of the play's allusive gags; at the same time it didn't go into much detail -- you didn't feel like you were in a classroom, and certainly the audience was "free" to have its own responses/interpretations -- and, of course, real Nietzsche scholars would still get many more of the jokes and allusions than someone dependent on the program note. This seemed to me to hit a nice balance.
P.S. I'm a slow writer, and by the time I posted Jeannie had also posted -- making still more forcefully the point about coteries and "insider" audiences...
[This message has been edited by Drew (edited April 05, 2001).]
Posted 05 April 2001 - 04:08 PM
To attack the question from the choreographer's angle and make it more general, if one were composing a dance in memory of a friend, one might use music beloved by the friend, or even that the friend had said, "Gosh, I'd wish you'd choreographed to that." Putting that information into a program note could put too much emphasis on it, and perhaps the only thing that would be remembered about the ballet was "dedicated to Joe's friend Ed, who just loved the Pizzicata Polka and died in a car crash."
Dare I suggest that perhaps the well-informed critic can solve the choreographer's problem, albeit after the audience has seen the piece, by suggesting some meanings That way it's not done with sledgehammer force in the program, but the pretexts for the ballet will make their way into lore. Of course, the critic could have a tin eye and be making the whole thing up, but that's another story.....
Posted 05 April 2001 - 05:17 PM
Posted 05 April 2001 - 08:10 PM
But in an abstract (storyless, non-narrative, whatever term you prefer) dance I believe the choreography should speak for itself. To the best of my knowledge I have never seen program notes for a Balanchine ballet (beyond "first presented in...") and never needed them. I just looked at the stage, saw people dancing and heard music and it was all quite clear. When watching "Serenade" I don't really know what the part with the fallen girl, the guy and the girl with her hand over his eyes is all about, but I know what I feel when watching it.
Whatever one's inspiration for a work, the choreography should not rely on the facts behind that inspiration to be comprehensible. The choreography should be coherent and self-contained, so that even without knowing anything about the person or event that inspired it, the viewer can understand what you are trying to say.
Allusions to other works of choreography can either add a humorous touch or deepen the meaning for those who know the work in question; but that reference should be integrated into the work such that those who haven't seen the referenced piece don't wind up scratching their heads wondering "what was THAT all about?"
I don't want an explanation. I want to see a comprehensible piece of work that I can enjoy without benefit of a decoder ring.
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