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Bringing Ballet to the People


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#1 Arcturus

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 01:40 PM

There is an interesting thread in this subforum regarding ballet in popular culture. What I want to discuss is exposing new people to ballet. It is no surprise that many people's ideas of what ballet is or what dancers are like, is based upon the skewed perspective of commercials or movies which are designed to sell product or make an interesting story. As someone relatively new to ballet, even I continue to be amazed at the scope of the artform from humorous "The Concert" to the dark "The Cage", by Jerome Robbins. From the fast paced and energetic "Seven Greek Dances" to the slower and enchanting "Afternoon of a Faun" (can you tell I'm a Robbin's fan). It is my honest belief that if many people were to see real ballet, they would be impressed and their opinions would change. I took my brother-in-law and younger brother to their first performance, Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Bolero", and not only did it defy their expectations, but they loved it as well.

The trouble I have found though, is that unless an outside force occurs to knock them from their routines, so to speak, most people are less inclined to try things new. My brother-in-law and brother may have gone their entire lives without seeing a performance, because it is simply not something that is part of their horizon at least until now. Advertising alone doesn't seem to be effective, because (again from personal experience), people will gloss over those things which they have predetermined do not apply to them. I give you two examples: One, is that I lived in Portland for almost 3 years and don't ever recall seeing a ballet ad in the newspaper, even for Nutcracker, yet I read the newspaper quite regularly. When I first discovered ballet, on the internet of all places, I didn't even know there was a local company and had to do a Google search. Second, I noticed that when I drive around with my friend who is an auto-mechanic, he notices and points out every single autoparts store and I couldn't even tell you a single one we passed on our trip, simply because I don't "see" them. They become part of the background noise.

So how do we get people to "see" ballet? Not by putting ads in the newspaper and waiting for people to show up. From my, certainly very limited experience, I don't think that is very effective. Instead, why not be proactive and bring ballet to the people? Be that outside force knocks people from their routines and intrudes into their lives in some unexpected way. Don't let media companies write the dialogue for you in popular culture. Grab life by the reins.

There are a group of dancers who have inspired me by doing just that, called "Uprising", lead by OBT Soloist Candace Bouchard. They are still in their infancy and exploring ideas, such as teaming up with local musicians and performing in traditionally non-dance venues. The aim being that people who come for the bands end up seeing ballet (and vice versa). I still think there is a lot of unexplored potential here, but I think they are on the right track. I hope and wish that other dancers around the world would be inspired to do something similar. In fact, I'm sure there already are and I am interested in hearing about other groups, what they have done in the past, and what has been successful or failed. I'm also interested in hearing your opinions on the idea in general.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan, volunteer, and supporter of many local dance organizations in my local community, including "Uprising" and Oregon Ballet Theatre. This isn't just about one company though or one group of dancers though, but about the art of ballet in general, breaking many misconceptions caused by popular culture, sharing the joy of dance with new people, and hopefully keep enough fresh fans and supporters flowing into the community to help keep it financially and creatively healthy for many generations to come.

Here is a link to "Uprising", but again, I want to hear about other organizations, successes, and your thoughts.
http://www.obt.org/uprising/

#2 Helene

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 04:41 PM

I don't know of anything specifically ballet-related, but I know Matt Haimovitz tours and performs routinely in bars and other non-traditional venues. We heard him in Seattle at The Tractor a couple of years ago, and he played with his cello ensemble.

Also, in Seattle there is a group called Simple Measures, which was founded by cellist Rajan Krishnaswami. They perform chamber music outside of concert halls. Their latest concert, which featured music by classical composers in film, performed last May in Freemont Abbey, Miller Community Center, Bastyr University Chapel, and Mount Baker Community Club. We saw them a couple of years ago at the Mount Baker Community Club, and that performance included a work by PNB Principal Dancer Stanko Milov for him and former PNB Principal Julie Tobiasson, as well as baroque dances performed by Seattle Early Dance.

Simple Measures' format is interactive: the audience is close, the lights are only partly down, and there are informative remarks, Q&A's and performer/audience discussions during the concert.

I often think that concert halls are like the big Carnegie libraries or like Kafka's "The Castle", creating fear to enter.

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 05:31 PM

Simple Measures' format is interactive: the audience is close, the lights are only partly down, and there are informative remarks, Q&A's and performer/audience discussions during the concert.

I often think that concert halls are like the big Carnegie libraries or like Kafka's "The Castle", creating fear to enter.


How interesting you'd post this on a day when I was thinking just what a pleasure it would be to spend all my time inside the Met. I've got AC, but it's not as good as theirs, and I like all the big halls at Lincoln Center except the acoustics at NYCB, which are worse than the heat.

Made me also think, with your 'the audience is close', how I can't stand that, even when I've seen wonderful little theater productions, and way up close as when I saw Karen Finley's hilarious Martha Stewart performance in 2004. Can't stand tiny theater with 8 rows.

The only thing I dislike about going to the Met is the prices. I know an usher there who used to slip me in, but I always paid in blood, so it's not worth it. I also hated it when I was an usher, but that was then and the Met is a rude house. I know this is :off topic: but I was iterested in the OP, although I never know how anybody gets these ideas to bring art to the people, except through talking about it, and TV, etc., so it was interesting to find there are organizations who are unselfish enough to go out and do this sort of yeomanry. Arcturus mentions his brother and brother-in-law, who've gone a lifetime without seeing a ballet perf. I think mine all have as well, and I don't even care. Talking about it with them would be awful. I have two sisters who see it when they can, even if it's pretty small-town, so we talk about it sometimes, and I always talk to one of them on the phone about everything I see (not enough, given ABT's incredible season just over--it sounds like the best season anybody nearly ever had, at least I got to go once, that was great.) I went to the Joyce a bunch of times this year, that's not really 'fear-inducing', nor is it very satisfying, except in rare cases like that Chinese company from Taiwan doing that long ritualistic theater-dance piece. Well, that was just as good as anything I saw in the AWESOME spaces. Never think of Kafka's 'The Castle' because haven't read, and think I won't, because I think about 'The Trial' and 'The Metamorphosis' pretty often, and probably does me no good at all. :angel_not:

Anyway, good luck, Arcturus. By the way, one of the two or three people who got me most interested in ballet is from Portland, and I think she was always talking about Nina Raimondo and Walter, and there was, I think, some Russian teacher, but I can't remember the name. But was surprised to hear that the Portland papers had so few write-ups. I always thought Portlanders were very culture-oriented by nature, but maybe that's only the ones I've met in NYC>

#4 Mel Johnson

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 07:09 PM

Research the activities of the Ford Foundation with the New York City Ballet in the early through mid-1960s. There are some things they did that wouldn't play today, but the program was, on the whole, a success. It was a nationwide effort, and the largest to date, but also the most productive, and could be scaled for a regional company and audience.

#5 kfw

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 07:46 PM

I often think that concert halls are like the big Carnegie libraries or like Kafka's "The Castle", creating fear to enter.

I've never understood this reaction; I wish I did. A grand space promises a grand experience, doesn't it? Surely all these people don't lack curiosity and a hunger for new cultural experiences? Surely in this age when the schools preach self-esteem, they don't fear they can't learn the lingo?

#6 Jack Reed

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 08:51 PM

I'm also surprised by the idea of fear of concert halls. Don't people go to the movies anymore? (I don't see very many people there when I go, but I always assume that's because I let Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic's film critic, pick my movies, and nobody else does that.)

But I have a few problems with seeing dancers dancing at almost arm's length distance. Watchers will get the effort, the muscularity, the sweat, the physicality, and so on, but what about the ephemerality? I've seen some ballet from very close, in studios, and it can still "work" fairly well, especially if the dancers are really good, but I think years of watching have got me tuned in to it in the way we're hoping these newbies will eventually. Will these dancers have things to say that turns people toward developing their appreciation for ballet? Sometimes I despair that all dancers themselves "get" anymore is technical execution. How can they help onlookers to enjoy -- literally, to become joyful from -- what they see?

Pardon my skepticism, it's my habit, but I've long and often thought how to match up more people who would enjoy ballet with the actual experience of it. My own experience, with only a handful of people, has been to take them to the ballet, not the other way around. Ideally, I'd like to see ballet on television -- provided it were well done, something we can't always assume -- but that's expensive. And there is the problem you allude to, Arcturus, that people filter what they try through their prejudices, and they get it wrong sometimes. (Having written that, I remember that I had to find my own way, and that I had two "first encounters" with ballet, years apart. In other words, it didn't "take" the first time. But ballet didn't exactly come to me -- I decided to try it, and I went to it, both times.)

#7 volcanohunter

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 09:05 PM

I often think that concert halls are like the big Carnegie libraries or like Kafka's "The Castle", creating fear to enter.

I've never understood this reaction; I wish I did. A grand space promises a grand experience, doesn't it? Surely all these people don't lack curiosity and a hunger for new cultural experiences? Surely in this age when the schools preach self-esteem, they don't fear they can't learn the lingo?

Perhaps it's not the spaces themselves but the smart-looking and smart-sounding people inside. Being a shy person by nature, I can understand how some people could feel intimidated by the connoisseurs, afraid that at any moment one could be asked for the secret password and, failing to produce it, be exposed as a know-nothing neophyte.

But it varies. Certainly there's nothing intimidating about going to an Ailey show. During the recent Ailey season at BAM, New York City Ballet advertised its "Architecture of Dance" season in the program. I'd be very curious to know how many first-timers that ad attracted.

#8 Mrs. Stahlbaum

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Posted 16 July 2010 - 09:32 PM

I think the problem of finding ballet is a real one. I remember years ago (before the internet made everything easy), some relatives were visiting from out of town and wanted to see a baseball game when they were here. I had never been to one. I had no idea when baseball season was, or where one actually went to find tickets. Back then, one searched for things in the phone book. Should I look up baseball, the team name, the stadium name or maybe call Ticketron? Should I drive all the way to the baseball stadium and see if the box office was open? I was really clueless. I think I ended up asking a co-worker.

I think it would be the same with ballet, although now one can Google anything. But still, imagine you have never seen a ballet and you think, maybe on Sunday I'll get some culture and go see a ballet. I think I'll see Swan Lake because it's a famous ballet and the only one I've ever heard of. It never occurred to you that ballet performances aren't available whenever you happen to feel like going to see one, so it's confusing that you can't find a performance and you give up. Or you Google Swan Lake and there are no performances of it and you just don't happen to know the name of any other ballets to look for. You don't know the name of ballet companies, and you have no idea where they perform. All you know is that you want to see a ballet. You look in the arts section of the newspaper, but there just don't happen to be any ballet performances advertised, so you give up.

I imagine another problem is that someone decides to try a ballet performance and so they buy tickets to something they see advertised. It's a Dolly Dinkle student production, but they have no way of knowing that until they get there, and then they are disappointed at what they see and never go again. Or they are anticipating a classical ballet and once they get there are shocked to find it's a contemporary piece and they are not pleasantly surprised because they were all set to see tutus and they feel gypped.

I don't know what the answer is.

#9 GNicholls

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Posted 31 July 2010 - 03:53 PM

Ballet Talk is giving me new confidence! Last night I went to an open studio performance of excerpts by Ballet Jorgen, Toronto's "other" company, which does education and outreach and tours in smaller communities. www.balletjorgen.ca/ I found it a pleasant, informal atmosphere. The company founder Bengt Jorgen spoke briefly about each piece. Saw part of Icarus, the first ballet by award-winning Toronto choreographer Malgorzata Nowacka, who has worked in contemporary dance for the past 10 years. Liked its structural quality, balancing regularity in movement with rushing passages and fleeting moments of emotional connection among the six dancers. As a newcomer to ballet, I like this kind of low-key easy-on-the-wallet event, journaling my impressions and reactions afterward. Maybe checking out advanced ballet schools and touring groups is one way to go in communities that don't have a ballet company.

#10 Jack Reed

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Posted 31 July 2010 - 06:55 PM

It looks like you're off to a good start, GNicholls. Especially the jottings just after; I find that a big aid to concentration. And serious ballet schools do offer a surprisingly high level of ability sometimes, and at a bargain, although the music will usually be recorded. What do you think of capitalizing on that to see the same repertory twice, maybe with some cast rotations? It can sensitize you to qualities of performance to see another dancer in the role - or even the same one a second time, for they may have achieved greater mastery of it, or found another take on it.

But where did that first impulse come from, that first desire to go and see?

#11 PeggyR

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Posted 31 July 2010 - 06:59 PM

Of course there isn’t any single solution to the problem of increasing the audience for dance, but I firmly believe that we, as knowledgeable dance lovers, have a responsibility to act as ambassadors.

My contribution for this year: a few weeks ago one of the women in my office came to work with her foot in one of those temporary walking casts. I asked what happened and she said her 10-year old daughter was taking ballet lessons and she, the mother, decided she would take classes with her daughter and get some much needed exercise. During her second class, mom tripped and broke her toe, hence the cast. To which I replied, “Sorry about the toe did you know that as a subscriber to San Francisco Ballet I can get you a really good discount on Nutcracker tickets?” So, they’re going to see the Nutcracker and if they like that, I plan to steer them gently toward Coppelia...

Every little bit helps!

#12 Jack Reed

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Posted 01 August 2010 - 07:56 AM

If they want to see Nutcracker again, will you say, No, it's time for Coppelia? Not just kidding! I'm reminded of a story: Years ago, parents chatting at intermission wanted to know what to take their kids to after they'd seen Nutcracker, which their kids had like a lot. (The context here is NYCB in the days when he supervised it, so we were thinking about Balanchine's version.) "When they're tired of Nutcracker..." I began, and my listeners laughed. I had guessed correctly that their kids, having had a good experience, wanted to repeat it! (Kids are so sensible.) And I encouraged that! They were dubious, but I tried to convince them that a repeat visit would help the kids to find more in it, and in themselves, maybe learning that it wasn't just the same.

This big kid might have been 40 when he first saw Balanchine's Nutcracker, and he was fascinated right away by some perfectly natural business at the beginning where two kids downstage struggle to use one chair to look through a keyhole at the Christmas-party preparations upstage we can all glimpse through a scrim. Next evening, I went back, having learned from experience that a good ballet had lots of details to enjoy a second time as well as some I didn't even notice the first. So here came the two kids downstage, who struggled with each other perfectly naturally again -- in exactly the same way! My God, that was rehearsed, too! A personal discovery for me, and the kind of one I wouldn't deny anyone else with the slightest interest in theater. So the point of my long anecdote to anyone introducing others to your interest is to go with whatever approach your newcomers want to take. Help them to find their way as I found mine.

(But I also answered those parents' question with "Harlequinade", in NYCB's repertory at the time, although not SFB's I think, because I had heard a few kids in the audience exclaiming with delight about what they saw at a matinee performance I attended.)

Anyway, good luck with your project.

#13 GNicholls

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Posted 01 August 2010 - 03:31 PM

It looks like you're off to a good start, GNicholls. Especially the jottings just after; I find that a big aid to concentration. And serious ballet schools do offer a surprisingly high level of ability sometimes, and at a bargain, although the music will usually be recorded. What do you think of capitalizing on that to see the same repertory twice, maybe with some cast rotations? It can sensitize you to qualities of performance to see another dancer in the role - or even the same one a second time, for they may have achieved greater mastery of it, or found another take on it.

But where did that first impulse come from, that first desire to go and see?

Thank you Jack! I plan to follow up Ballet Jorgen's open studio session by attending their full staged version this fall at the Betty Oliphant Theatre in Toronto. I'm a composer but my extensive musical education in the '70's did not include any connection to the dance world, despite in-depth study of the music of The Rite of Spring and L'Histoire du Soldat, for example. Back then went to the ballet a few times, but my re-discovery is due to video clips of ballet stars on YouTube! Ballet Jorgen is based at a community college where I have a connection, so I've decided to start going to live performances there. The company is totally in the spirit of "Bringing Ballet to the People." And really, isn't it better for an adult to develop a sense of what's going on by direct contact if possible, rather than poring over received opinion about whether Zakharova or Semionova is better, etc?

#14 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 01 August 2010 - 04:18 PM

I'm in the successful process of "converting" a friend of mine. I can't really remember how did all started, but next thing I know I was sending him some of my favorite clips from Youtube-(yes...the omnipresent tube). I started-(or course)-with Giselle, and one day he asked me if I was able to bring a ballet DVD to try his HUGE brand new plasma TV. That was it...the ballet viewing ritual still happens in weekly basis, and I even made a designed plan of what to see, starting with the romantics and then moving on with Petipa/Tchaikovsky and so on. Also, him being an rabid reader, I've been lending him my ballet biographies. To be honest, I've been partial about the ballets-(at some point I realized that we had to move on from Giselle... :blushing:, which to me is always a never ending territory to explore). My friend has been very receptive, and when I took him to see Alvin Ailey, after a while he confessed to me that he had wanted to ask me to leave and go see another classical ballet video. Oh well...blame it on the teacher... :blushing: )
Anyway...he recently traveled to France-(he's French, and is still there visiting family)-and one of the highlights of his trip, according to one of his last e-mails, has been watching La Bayadere live in Paris, with "a beautiful Russian ballerina named Diana Vishneva"-(his words... :wink: ).
My friend Philippe will be a new subscriber for the next MCB season .
Mission accomplished. :clapping:

#15 Jack Reed

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Posted 01 August 2010 - 06:19 PM

Well, GNicholls, could you ask for a better answer to your closing question than cubanmiamiboy's post, right after yours? I couldn't agree more, the actual experience is the place to begin, but reading may provide some ideas to deepen the continuing experience in the theater, I've found, depending what you read. As for preparation for the theater experience, I found it very useful, with Balanchine's repertory, to follow score to a recording and really get his music into my head - as a professional, you may already be able to listen even better than I as you watch.

You mention of your listening-only experience with Le Sacre reminds me that its composer said later in life that after seeing several efforts to choreograph it, he decided he liked it better as a concert piece.


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