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"pretentiousness" in dance


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 04:23 PM

Like "beauty," "pretentiousness" is in the eye of the beholder, but I'd be curious how people are defining this. It's something one reads fairly often -- almost always about a ballet or choreographer, almost never about a dancer.

I thought I'd raise this, because it's a cousin of Leigh's topic -- how much explanation do you want? Often the charge of pretentiousness is leveled at work that presumes a level of education or familiarity that most of us don't have. Where is the line?

For me, it's in intent and naturalness. If someone is genuinely well-educated, and his frame of reference since youth has included the Greek gods, say, or nuclear physics, I don't think it's pretentious to use them in a work, although I think the artist would be wise to explain something in the program notes. But if I sense that an artist is trying to impress me, and is using words he looked up in the dictionary but never really uses, or Greek (or other) Gods that live only in an encyclopoedia for him/her, then I start thinking "pretentious."

The word is sometimes used, though (especially by Americans about Europeans) to mean anything with content -- at least, that's how I read it. What do you all think?

#2 Natalia

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 05:00 PM

I agree with your definition of "pretense" Alexandra. If the audience-member has a well-rounded education and is fairly well-read, then s/he should have no trouble understanding 75-80% of the ballets (or other works of art) out there.

The problem arises when the topic of the work is so specific to one geographic region or lifestyle or cultural group, that only audiences from said group can understand the message.

*What is the Ultimate Pretense? To me, it's when the creator of this "insider work" doesn't care to share this inside knowledge with the general public by publishing program notes to explain intent, meaning, and such.

Case-in-point (surprise! non-ballet related): I recently attended the screening of a Hungarian docudrama at the American Film Institute. Subject: the settlement of Hungary by the ancient Magyar peoples 1,100 years ago. The film was mainly visual...almost a silent film. Two hours of unexplained images...a stag in the forest...two kings slash their wrists and do a blood-letting ceremony...endless wanderings on horseback through the flat Hungarian Plain with no "story." I was reaching for the No-Doze...a real snoozer! To my amazement, the mostly-Hungarian audience in the theater were in tears as the show ended and the lights came up. They gave the director a standing ovation. The guy sitting in front of me was crying: "this is our sacred stag...this is our history in poetry!" Yet I was almost asleep, as no verbal explanation was given, nor were any program notes provided. Obviously, the presenters assumed that everyone attending this *public* screening in Washington, DC (not Budapest) to which TICKETS were SOLD would be well versed in Hungarian history of the Middle Ages. That, to me, is "Pretense." Especially if it is being presented in a 'cultural exchange' setting where one assumes that not all viewers belong to the group depicted in the work of art.

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 06:12 PM

That's an interesting example -- perhaps it didn't occur to them that "foreigners" would be unfamiliar with these images, that obviously struck such deep chords in the original audience. I think I'd be frustrated, too, and wish I'd been given some explanation, but I'd be more bothered if, say, an American dance or ballet company did a ballet using the same material with lots of program notes explaining everything -- of course, it would matter how it were phrased and, again, intent. If it were a Hungarian-American eager to share his heritage, that would be one thing. If it were someone caught by the beauty of the stag and wanted to use that motif visually, that, too, would be fine by me. If, however, someone were going after the Ethnic Group of the Month grant and did a ballet that LOOKED like a story ballet but that no one except a Ph.D. in Hungarian history would have a snowball's chance of decoding, and had program notes along the lines of: "A bush burns in the darkness. Tears. Stars. The moon. History is all. All is history. The stag leaps..." (I'm barely making this up) I'd be tempted to bring out the P word.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 06:23 PM

The funny thing is, the reason I always avoided program notes is that I found them pretentious (usually more so from conceptual choreographers - Jiri Kylian is in the hall of fame for pretentious program notes, as is Maurice Bejart.) My feeling still is that if the ballet *needs* program notes, maybe the choreographer should have written an essay instead of making a ballet.

I usually think of things in terms of gracious/ungracious, rather than pretentious/unpretentious. Even assuming that one is doing a "difficult" work that is going to take work from the audience, there is a way to bring the audience with you in the experience. I know there are people who believe that an audience needs to be confronted, and I can see situations where that has produced fascinating theater and I don't believe that every dance should be light or happy, but in general, my feeling is that the audience came to you and paid money to see what you are doing. The least you can do is be a decent host.

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#5 BalletNut

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 09:08 PM

A pretentious ballet is, to me, one that tries to take on a depth that it doesn't have. It could also apply to a choreographer who is so preoccupied with getting a message across that the artistic merit of their work takes a backseat to making sure that the audience "gets the point." I'm not saying that political messages in ballets are necessarily a bad thing--if used effectively and sparingly they can be quite moving--but the motive should go beyond trying to foist one's personal opinions on the audience. After all, we are there to be entertained, not preached at.



[This message has been edited by BalletNut (edited April 05, 2001).]

#6 vagansmom

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Posted 05 April 2001 - 10:36 PM

I loved your comment, Leigh, about program notes and writing an essay rather than a ballet! I don't mind a line or two, as cause for heightened understanding, in the program notes. But the ballet simply must stand on its own, without the program notes whether it has a lofty purpose or not. It has to be pleasing in some fashion to me, and interestingly stated. If it can't be that without the use of progam notes, then I find it's pretentious.

#7 julip

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Posted 06 April 2001 - 11:21 AM

pretentious works. well, being an arts school alumni i know all about pretentious works. day in, day out. that's all you ever see. everyone's trying to do something they aren't, create works that they don't even get. if you have to speak for 5 min on a three min class room work, then it's too prententious. get back down to earth.

#8 Katharyn

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Posted 10 April 2001 - 09:37 PM

:D Oh Alexandra, thats hilarious ("the stag... leaps."). And precisely what I would consider pretentious. That nasty kind of "Please, all, I am a genius. The depth of my work is so unbounded that I will probably lose half of you on the journey to the end of this piece. This is my point. I wish to alienate the majority of my audience by being delibrately obtuse because then it will prove what a master I am."

julip, that comment was perfect - everyone's trying to be someone they're not, creating works they don't even get.

I want to see sincerity on stage, and if it's obviously false by the absurd posturing in a piece when a choreographer is going for the so called 'intellectual high ground' in a particular subject, I start to roll my eyes...

To me, balletnut, what you are talking about is the complete opposite of pretentiousness. The continual efforts of a choreographer for their audience to 'get the point' is, to me, a dumbing down of the work that is patronising at best.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 10 April 2001 - 10:03 PM

Katharyn, thanks for joining in. I think your "alienation rationalization" is, unfortunately, exactly what drives some of this.

I have a real life example, from a modern dance concert, not a ballet one (and a very good one, I thought; a tanzteater piece that wasn't pretentious at all). In the progrma book, our composer, is described: "X is a contemporary composer in the sense that he is living in our times. In the imagination of those who listen to his music, the music is without reference but with roots, without etiquette but with characteristics.. . . .He composes in collaboration with musicians from classical, contemporary, traditional, and ethnic backgrounds, and with them invents and develops new musical techniques to create an imaginary world for the spectator, a sonorous, tri-dimensional sculpture."

#10 BalletNut

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Posted 10 April 2001 - 10:14 PM

Katharyn, perhaps I worded my post wrongly. By "making the audience get the point" I meant trying to include political correctness, homoeroticism, incest, or any other "hot topics" without regard to subtlety or taste, choreographing a work that assumes that audiences will automatically be as moved by said subjects as the choreographer is, and assuming that those themes are as obvious to the audience as they are to the choreographer and dancers.

I hope this clears things up a bit. :D

[ 04-10-2001: Message edited by: BalletNut ]


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