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Does Ballet Need Wall Plaques?What makes one "dance literate"? Does it Matter


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#1 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 08:44 AM

Maybe my morning coffee wasn’t hot enough or something, but one of the premises of Alistair Macauley’s 5/19/09 NYT review of ABT’s Spring Gala bugged me, and I’m not sure why—I’m not even sure it should have. I’d like to know what other BT’ers think. (Dirac linked to the review yesterday. Here it is again for convenience: "A Season Opener Includes an Obama in the House")

Macauley begins by suggesting that Michelle Obama’s speech was the evening’s “most valuable corrective” and approvingly quotes one of her lines: “My husband and I believe firmly that arts education develops innovative thinkers.” He then states that he wishes she’d saved that line for another occasion because “Ballet Theater’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House tends to be ballet at its most conformist, nowhere more so than in its opening-night jamboree.” What point is he trying to make here? Is it that the conventionality of the evening’s program belied the First Lady’s contention that arts education develops the ability to think innovatively? Or is it that only innovative art or conventional art presented innovatively will produce innovative thinkers? Or is it that the gala wasn't arts educational enough?

Anyway, that’s not what’s bugging me. Here’s the quote that set me off:

“Everything else was, as is usual with Ballet Theater’s spring gala, a preview of the season’s coming attractions. If only the company would invest in a compère* for these galas to explain what’s what and who’s who. Sure, we could all switch on our cellphones’ LCDs to see in the program book that the item after “The Procession” was from Act II of “La Sylphide,” but wouldn’t most of the audience have been happier if someone had informed us charmingly that this ballet is set in the Scotland that Walter Scott made Romantic? That it is the oldest choreography in international repertory (1836)? That this excerpt shows the enchanting moment when the hero, James, finds that the Sylphide to whom he has lost his heart is not the world’s only sylph but one of many? And that, unlike the lost 1832 original Parisian “Sylphide” and the many other 19th-century ballets that followed, this one shows the hero dancing the same steps alongside his beloved and her companions?

These facts aren’t arcane. They would deepen anybody’s pleasure in this “Sylphide” scene, which, out of context, may look more quaint than it is.

Gala audiences in my experience don’t mind being educated. Rather than being treated as if they know all they need to, they love being given things to look for. The same compère could have pointed out how the famous pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” Act II (in a version correctly described in the program as “after” Lev Ivanov’s choreography), is a late-Romantic variation on the original “Sylphide” idea. Here the princely hero is a nondancing cavalier amid the many swan-maidens who resemble the one with whom he is falling in love. (Though he dances elsewhere in the ballet, he does not in the presence of these enchanted beings.)”


Sounds like he’s auditioning for that MC gig! He goes on to observe that

“We’re in a recession that may prove a depression. One way for ballet to survive is to keep shoveling out ever more fouetté turns and grandes pirouettes and multiple entrechat-six and circuits of turns or jumps on the assumption that audiences can’t get enough of them. Another is for those in charge to help audiences become more intelligently interested. Which will Ballet Theater take?”


Is he suggesting that ballet can survive during a recession by providing handy, informative wall plaques just like the museums or by turning galas into lecture-demos? I agree that ballet needs an audience that demands more than circus stunts. I also agree that an audience with an informed taste is a good thing to have, but Macauley seems to be advocating the cultivation of a kind of geeky art historical sensibility that I wouldn’t consider a necessary component to the enjoyment of art.

Now, I’ll confess to being a geek of the first order: my little nerd heart quickens at the sight of a wall plaque. (I loved the little wall plaques McCauley scattered around his review, too.) But there’s nothing wrong with walking into a museum with the expectation that one can just wander around and look at the paintings and enjoy them (or not, as the case may be) without having done any homework. Or, to put it another way: you’ll enjoy a baseball game more if you know the rules, but you don’t need to know that baseball evolved from the Tudor sport of rounders to have a good time. You just need a good game to watch. Shouldn’t ballet focus on putting on a good show? Isn’t that what will pull the audience in and isn’t also what will teach them how to look?

Consider McCauley’s little “La Sylphide” disquisition: I don’t think the audience needs to know that “unlike the lost 1832 original Parisian “Sylphide” and the many other 19th-century ballets that followed, this one shows the hero dancing the same steps alongside his beloved and her companions.” A "dance literate" audience should be able to see that the men and women are dancing the same steps and should be able to perceive on some level that it's different in its theatrical and emotional effect than men and women dancing different steps, but it shouldn’t have to be told this by an MC and it shouldn't have to know about the lost 1832 Parisian version. Would knowing about Walter Scott's romanticized Scotland really deepen the audience's pleasure in the scene? (It's charming that Macauley thinks that the audience would have a clue about Walter Scott in the first place.) And so what if it seems quaint? People pay good money and travel great distances to immerse themselves in quaint. I'm not too proud to admit that I like a dollop of quaint myself every now and then.

Anyway, I don’t how one gets an audience to see better--to be "dance literate"--but I don’t think MCs at galas are the way to go. I'm not convinced that the kind of edification that Macauley proposes will engender a wave of innovative thinking, either, and I'm even less convinced that it will pack the houses.

So BT'ers, what do you think: do audiences need to be "dance literate" or "ballet literate" and if so, what do ballet companies need to do to foster that literacy? What is "ballet literacy" anyway, and is it something one is conscious of having? If you don't know efface from croise from ecarte, or who Bournonville was, or about the Romantic fascination with enchanted young women, can you still be literate? Is Macauley on to something in his review?

*I had to look this up. From the American Heritage Dictionary: “The master of ceremonies as of a television entertainment program or a variety show.”

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 09:25 AM

Quick note - compère is a much more common term in the U.K. than here. Two nations separated by a common language . . .

#3 Farrell Fan

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 09:45 AM

You've made your case brilliantly, Kathleen. I think the best way for audiences to become "dance literate" is by seeing a lot of dance and also reading critics like Macaulay. He has invigorated the NYTimes ballet coverage tremendously. But I completely agree with you that his review of the gala was peculiar in the extreme. Actually, I expected complaints from BTers, but not along the lines you took. His remark at the end that "Ballet Theater has fewer true ballerinas than its repertory requires. On Monday, however, there was no doubting that Ms. Ananiashvili and Ms. Vishneva were among those few" seems likely to provoke ire from both fans and ballletomanes alike. A compere saying such a thing would be booed off the stage.

#4 dirac

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 09:47 AM

What point is he trying to make here? Is it that the conventionality of the evening’s program belied the First Lady’s contention that arts education develops the ability to think innovatively? Or is it that only innovative art or conventional art presented innovatively will produce innovative thinkers? Or is it that the gala wasn't arts educational enough?


I think he meant the first – ‘that the conventionality of the evening’s program belied the First Lady’s contention that arts education develops the ability to think innovatively.’ (You put it better than he did.) I suspect also that Macaulay is afflicted with ObamaLove, a condition which causes the sufferer to greet with hosannas the most unremarkable pronouncements made by the President or his missus. Michelle Obama’s line doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, to me anyway. Arts education doesn’t lead ineluctably to innovative thinkers; it leads to people being better educated about the arts, and they will make of that what they can and will. (Often as not it leads to a greater appreciation of tradition and the past.)

He then goes off on a bit of a tangent. I don’t think it’s necessarily such a bad idea, if handled correctly. Galas are supposed to be fun, and you don’t want to have someone lecturing you, but on the other hand it might not be a bad thing to have a few details pointed out that the audience might miss or put the excerpt the audience is about to see in context. Of course, this would also make a long night longer. There is also such a thing as program notes, which the audience can consult during intermissions, with no need for an Ed Sullivan to chivvy them along.

If you don't know efface from croise from ecarte, or who Bournonville was, or about the Romantic fascination with enchanted young women, can you still be literate?


Such knowledge can only increase appreciation of the art form, but it’s only truly helpful if the person has already responded to ballet on a more fundamental level, and you don’t need the book learning for that response.

Lots of food for discussion here. Thanks for starting the topic, Kathleen.

#5 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 10:54 AM

I think the best way for audiences to become "dance literate" is by seeing a lot of dance and also reading critics like Macaulay. He has invigorated the NYTimes ballet coverage tremendously.


I agree! I hope no one takes my post as a slam against Macauley. I enjoy reading him and I almost always learn something from his reviews. I even agree with him sometimes :wink:

#6 LiLing

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Posted 20 May 2009 - 04:20 PM

What point is he trying to make here? Is it that the conventionality of the evening’s program belied the First Lady’s contention that arts education develops the ability to think innovatively? Or is it that only innovative art or conventional art presented innovatively will produce innovative thinkers? Or is it that the gala wasn't arts educational enough?


I took it to mean the first. Mrs. Obama's praise of the value of arts education was prompted by the appearance of students from the Co. school, and Macauley was making the point that the the gala performance, and repertoire scheduled for the season hardly showed the innovative thinking she referred to. He also pointed out that one of the works the students danced was "scarcely choreography" consisting of conventional classroom steps.
I am with Macauley in wishing to see more adventurous programing, in the tradition of the old Ballet Theatre, a museum with a modern wing. I am also aware of the financial reasons for staying with the safe crowd pleasers.

As for a compere, I may be cynical, but I don't think the socialites, and the husbands they drag along, who pay big bucks to attend galas are there to be educated. Well, maybe if it was Hugh Jackman.

#7 leonid17

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 09:08 AM

Alistair MaCaulay talks about giving audiences explanations about ballet plots and proceeds in this article to lose his own. Having watched Mr MaCaulay climb to the top rung of ballet criticism, in this article he sounds to me somewhat jaded being some distance from the usual readable informative self which I am always happy to read.

When he states, For those of us who had been missing those old-style numbers (George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton excelled in them) in which a ballerina(Ananiashvilli) seemed to make something out of nothing, it was oddly endearing to see a new if minor specimen of the genre." I am not certain that he is old enough to have seen any seriously important ballerina’s other than the one being discussed.

One the one hand he wants explanations for an unknowledgeable audience and then writes in the NYT, “Mr. Ratmansky gave Ms. Ananiashvili one particular little beaten step (in ballet terminology, a grand battement raccourci battu) that intoxicatingly caught a recurrent figure in the music.” Assuming members of the gala audience read the NYT, how does such a sentence actually educate the audience that he expresses so much concern for?

He writes, “As it happens, Ivanov’s original 1895 “Swan Lake” pas de deux was actually a pas de deux à trois, with the prince’s friend Benno assisting in the partnering. (This version was still danced in the early 1960s, and it could be restored to good effect: it makes clearer that the heroine, in her alarm and conflicted feelings about the prince’s love for her, repeatedly falls away from him, only to be chivalrously caught by another man she doesn’t even see.”Having seen “Swan Lake” with a Benno, I am fairly happy in a non-authentic production of the Petipa/Ivanov version, not to have him in the lakeside scene. Nor in London, do I remember critics or balletomanes at the time missing Benno when he disappeared almost 50 years ago.

A gala performance of the type that he is writing about is a divertissement i.e. an entertainment or diversion; it is not an occasion for pontificating such as, “Another is for those in charge to help audiences become more intelligently interested.” A Gala audience in its majority is possibly less of a serious ballet audience than would attend an ordinary ballet evening. They are there to be amused not bemused by something they are not necessarily deeply interested in but have supported something thought to be worthy by paying a high price.

He says,” Gala audiences in my experience don’t mind being educated.” How does he know this?” I have probably attended a hundred more galas than Mr MaCaulay and my observation is that people go because it is a fairly high social event(or was in my youth) where you dress up, talk to people of similar wealth or status and feel good that your expensive seats may help to keep a company going. Of course serious balletomanes attend also.

In England the government feels it is important to support young people in attending the arts and high arts to create future audiences. I am far from certain that you can educate anyone to enjoy the arts. It has been my long experience of attending art events and producing art events for children and adults, that people find their own way to seeing, enjoying and committing themselves by regularly attending, chosen art forms without any particular encouragement or education in particular genres.
Some people go fairly regularly to the ballet to simply enjoy a performance or particular dancers and gain little or no knowledge about the art form and in the process are happy in their pastime. Others seek out everything there is to know about the art form and its history and somewhere in between you may find your average regular balletgoer. Being to educated in ballet may to some, may think that it will robs them of the spontaneity of their experience when they go to performances.
Dirac puts the arguments clearly when he states. " Such knowledge can only increase appreciation of the art form, but it’s only truly helpful if the person has already responded to ballet on a more fundamental level, and you don’t need the book learning for that response."

PS Thank you Kathleen for starting this thread.

#8 Helene

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 12:04 PM

I agree that Macaulay meant the first, and with leonid, I take issue with his statement that "Gala audiences in my experience don’t mind being educated."

Gala audiences, at least the big donor portion, are notorious for being a bit intoxicated from the pre-Gala dinner, and chomping the bit to go to the post-Gala party. Just an example, but I remember in Peter Boal's first pre-season Gala, the week before the season opener, they held the curtain for the people at the dinner, and more than a number of women needed a little extra support to make it to their seats. (The men didn't have 4" heels to deal with.) When you think about galas in general, there's little room for much that requires an attention span, although there are exceptions, like when "Dances at a Gathering" made its debut at the NYCB Spring Gala.

Wall Plaques, in my opinion, are for kids, the ones who, in theory, have to listen, because there will be a quiz, and for adults who voluntarily appear at pre-show lectures, like the superb ones given by Doug Fullington at PNB. Hopefully, if enough kids are exposed to arts education at a young age will become part of the self-selecting latter group and will bring along their friends, children, and godchildren.

On a related topic, we recently got email to our "Contact Us" link asking for information on ballet tours. While there are any number of (mostly high-end, yikes) opera tours, with the occasional ballet thrown in (Bolshoi, Mariinsky, or Vienna State Opera), I don't know of any tour where people interested in a combination of ballet and ballet education, and where like-minded people can go to saturate themselves in dance and wall plaques for a week or two. It's a shame.

#9 dirac

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 03:50 PM

When he states, For those of us who had been missing those old-style numbers (George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton excelled in them) in which a ballerina (Ananiashvilli) seemed to make something out of nothing, it was oddly endearing to see a new if minor specimen of the genre. I am not certain that he is old enough to have seen any seriously important ballerina’s other than the one being discussed.


Perhaps it isn’t really a question of age? I’m sure Macaulay has probably seen a good deal, but it’s possible to wish to see again works in a style that has gone out of fashion, even if you weren’t around for all of it.

I am far from certain that you can educate anyone to enjoy the arts. It has been my long experience of attending art events and producing art events for children and adults, that people find there own way to seeing, enjoying and committing themselves by regularly attending, chosen art forms without any particular encouragement or education in particular genres.


Very true. But I think efforts to reach out are of value, especially in getting to children (and adults) who aren’t of a class or income level that attends arts events as a matter of course. Certainly, you can’t educate anyone to enjoy the arts. But at least they will know what is out there.

I have probably attended a hundred more galas than Mr Macaulay and my observation is that people go because it is a fairly high social event(or was in my youth) where you dress up, talk to people of similar wealth or status and feel good that your expensive seats may help to keep a company going.


People are really going to see and be seen, for the most part. You do get real fans, too, as you note.

I have only seen Benno on video, and as far as I'm concerned he can stay there.

#10 4mrdncr

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 08:25 PM

On a related topic, we recently got email to our "Contact Us" link asking for information on ballet tours. While there are any number of (mostly high-end, yikes) opera tours, with the occasional ballet thrown in (Bolshoi, Mariinsky, or Vienna State Opera), I don't know of any tour where people interested in a combination of ballet and ballet education, and where like-minded people can go to saturate themselves in dance and wall plaques for a week or two. It's a shame.


A few months ago, I saw a notice for just such a tour by an Australian travel company. During the 10-14 day tour to Spain, they were scheduled to attend 2 performances by Corella Ballet (in two different cities: the 1st at the beginning of the tour, the 2nd the final day of the tour at the Liceu in Barcelona), and also Victor Ullate's company, NDE, and even a flamenco performance. From the notice I read, this was not the first 'ballet tour' they had organized; but the first to Spain. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the travel company--I think it was one-word. Any Australian BT'ers know?

#11 innopac

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Posted 22 May 2009 - 01:14 AM

A few months ago, I saw a notice for just such a tour by an Australian travel company. During the 10-14 day tour to Spain, they were scheduled to attend 2 performances by Corella Ballet (in two different cities: the 1st at the beginning of the tour, the 2nd the final day of the tour at the Liceu in Barcelona), and also Victor Ullate's company, NDE, and even a flamenco performance. From the notice I read, this was not the first 'ballet tour' they had organized; but the first to Spain. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the travel company--I think it was one-word. Any Australian BT'ers know?


Was it Renaissance Tours?

#12 sandik

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Posted 24 May 2009 - 10:38 AM

Arts education doesn’t lead ineluctably to innovative thinkers; it leads to people being better educated about the arts, and they will make of that what they can and will. (Often as not it leads to a greater appreciation of tradition and the past.)


I think it helps here to remember that Macaulay is from Great Britain, where kids can take school exams in dance/dance history. I've seen some of the prep materials for the O and A level exams, and they were a thoughtful combination of technical analysis and general dance history. With the exception of a few (mostly private) arts high schools and a few innovative public programs, we have nothing like that here in the US

There is also such a thing as program notes, which the audience can consult during intermissions, with no need for an Ed Sullivan to chivvy them along.


It's been a few years since I've been to an ABT gala, and even longer since I've been to the Royal at all, but in my experience, the Royal (and most European companies) do a much more thorough job with program notes, essays, and general information than we do in the US. At Pacific Northwest Ballet (my hometown company) we get an excellent precis on each work in the program (either from Doug Fullington or his predecessor Jeannie Thomas) that includes a general description as well as specifics like premiere dates. Peter Boal's "letter" often includes what you might think of as fun facts, but the company doesn't seem to commission program essays anymore (the rest of the content is provided by the publisher and is the same for the other arts organizations in town that they serve). Those essays, which usually were based on some aspect of the programming, were a place to include the background details and connections that I think Macaulay is pining for here.

(Helene) On a related topic, we recently got email to our "Contact Us" link asking for information on ballet tours. While there are any number of (mostly high-end, yikes) opera tours, with the occasional ballet thrown in (Bolshoi, Mariinsky, or Vienna State Opera), I don't know of any tour where people interested in a combination of ballet and ballet education, and where like-minded people can go to saturate themselves in dance and wall plaques for a week or two. It's a shame.


I've heard of a couple of these in the US, but they were mostly one-off events, rather than an ongoing program from a tour company specializing in cultural tourism. Which is indeed too bad, since that is (or was, before the recent economic unpleasantness) a fast-growing part of the travel world. Here in Seattle this summer, the opera company will do two weeks of the Ring, with fully half the audience coming from somewhere else. They fly, they stay in hotels, they eat in restaurants, they do other touristy things during the day -- unlike me, who drives to the theater after eating dinner at home, and does laundry during the off time...


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