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.”