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Ed Waffle

Booing at the ballet???

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In a thread on a different subject Nanatchka asked: "How about a thread on booing and hissing????"

First things first—for purposes of this post, the term “booing” will mean the opposite of “applauding”—an audible expression of displeasure concerning what one has just seen or heard, or, in some really malicious cases, what one is about to hear.

Booing is more prevalent in opera than ballet audiences and more prevalent in Western Europe than in North America or at least Canada and the United States—not sure about Mexico. Italians seem to boo more readily than do the citizens of other European nations and those in Parma are the most audible and insistent regarding their unhappiness with the state of the lyric stage.

Wherever they happen the worst cases are booing someone because she is not someone else. Opera lore is full of instances of catcalls aimed at a singer because she was singing a role in an auditorium that another singer had made her own.

I never boo performers and consider it reprehensible when it is done. One always assumes that the singer or dancer is doing the very best she can and may be having a bad night—or in some cases, a bad decade. Very occasionally I have wanted to shout a rude expression at someone who has obviously phoned in a performance and is trying to milk the curtain calls. If one simply doesn’t like an artist, though, either don’t go to the theater when he is on stage or don’t applaud. An example is a tenor who often appears here in Motown. I have heard him in heroic tenor roles in the German, Italian and French rep and can say that he is my least favorite singer. I don’t think he does anything well—or even adequately. Lots of people do like him, though, including many critics, conductors and other singers. This is the case where simply not applauding when he comes out for a curtain call is appropriate.

I did feel that Jean-Christophe Maillot who choreographed “Cinderella” to the Prokofiev score for his Ballet de Monte-Carlo did a horrible job of it and booed his appearance with the company. Choreographers in ballet and directors in opera have much more control of how a work is presented than do the performers they direct. The audience should feel free let them know when a work is executed as planned and is still garbage.

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I like your last sentence, Ed, and have often wanted to boo a really bad ballet. However, I could never do that because of the dancers. Maybe only if the dancers had finished bowing and the choreographer comes on stage for his/her own bow and it would be clear that we were booing the choreographer and not the dancers, but I think I would still prefer to let it be known by silence at that point instead of applause. Booing just seems to me to be too rude and cruel.

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Just to make it clear (which I didn't in the original post), Maillot took his bow after his dancers bowed--they were still on stage but had already been applauded and had a few curtain calls. I had been clapping and yelling "Bravo" and "Brava", especially for Bernice Coppieters who is one of the most elegant, expressive and beautiful dancers working today.

I even made a point of identifying Maillot from his picture in the program before I began booing him. I think a pie in the face would have been more appropriate, since his "Cinderella" was farcically bad.

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I'll never forget seeing several performances with Heather Watts at NYCB and hearing several people boo, loudly. Most of the crowd were brava-ing their heads off, obviously for the career, not the performance. I must admit, I've seen many painful performances like that and wish some dancers/AD's had more foresight about bowing out gracefully.

For the record, I stand with Victoria in not doing anything if I didn't like it, which has on occasion gotten a "dear, you can clap after the performance response" from my neighbors in the audience!

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I have read about worse than booing. In the late 19th century, a ballerina (have forgotten her name, must look it up) in S:t Petersburg got a dead cat thrown at her.

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I find myself worried about the cat. I hope it wasn't murdered for the occasion. I mean, how else? {"Oh look, the cat's dead. How handy, we're going to the ballet tonight!"---?) Speaking of cats, on extremely rare occasion I have been known to hiss (the girly version of booing), but never at a performer. I would probably hiss more often, but I feel constrained to behave like a guest when attending performances as a guest of the company or the house. By the way,I hissed for content--or against it, really, or for the magisterial complaint Ed Waffle delineates in his last line. I also have left things at intermission, perhaps most notably MacMillan's Manon, which I found nauseatingly misogynistic. I only once walked out in the middle of something, and it was very bad behavior on my part. (Exit, pursued by amplfied Irish music.) Lately, I find myself thinking very carefully before going out. Perhaps the ultimate refusal to applaud is just staying home in the first place.

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Nanatchka wrote: "I find myself worried about the cat."

So did I. Pet murder to express displeasure is going way to far. Vegetables, however....

Maria Callas, cancelled a performance of Norma after the first act--she had bronchitis, tried to go on anyway and wasn't able to continue. It was with the Rome Opera and the President of the Italian Republic was in attendance. Callas was attacked in the press (the headlines are amazing), it was discussed in Parliment and she was quite unpopular at Italian houses for several months.

After one performance in Milan soon after the Rome incident, someone threw a bunch of radishes onto the stage, instead of the usual flowers. There are as many different accounts of what happened next as their are people who have told the story, but just about everyone agrees on one thing.

Callas picked up the offending vegetables and said "You can't get radishes at the opera house."

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Performers have put in years of hard work, classses, failures and rejection to reach the moment when they're onstage in front of an audience. However much a performance I've just witnessed was disappointing to me, it helps me to think about how much work they must have put into that, and I assume they made their best attempt at the role. Many times I have done something successfully a million times in classes and rehearsals but on stage it just doesn't happen. The most frustrating thing for me as a dancer is when they do something perfectly seconds before the curtain opens I'll do something perfectly, and then when it comes time to do it, I mess it up :)

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I've never booed a performer at the ballet, but I felt like booing the choreographer Angelin Preljocaj at the NYCB premiere of La Stravaganza a few years ago. Now I'm sorry I restrained myself --they're bringing it back! The booing of Heather Watts was led in print by Arlene Croce. It shouldn't have happened. The worst booing I ever heard at NYCB was when the curtain came down on Balanchine's Don Quixote and Robbins' Watermill during their first seasons. But the booing stopped when the dancers came out.

I confess I once booed the great Franco Corelli at the opera. It was a performance of Turandot with the even greater Birgit Nillson. Corelli had good looks and the greatest tenor voice since Jussi Bjorling, but his stage deportment was atrocious. In the final scene of Turandot, while Nillson descended a long staircase, he waited for her at the bottom, with his arms folded and looking bored out of his skull. When she arrived, he kicked the train of her dress out of his way and began the love duet, facing the audience and holding her at arm's length. After the performance, when he took a solo call, I booed. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but I've been sorry ever since. He was a magnificent singer and reportedly suffered from terrible stage fright.

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I agree with those who have said they don't boo performers. I simply withhold my applause (or my presence if I know I can't stand a particular performer).

However, if a performance is truly dreadful, I certainly have voted with my feet (at a convenient interval, so as not to disturb other audience members who might actually be enjoying themselves). My feeling is that I've already had to pay for my ticket, why should I suffer further?

Ed's description of booing those responsible for a terrrible production reminds me of the hideous "Rigoletto" that Lyric Opera of Chicago did a couple of years ago. It was set in a men's club (!) and included, among other horrors, the rape of Gilda onstage -- surrounded by leering club members. We were there on opening night. Chicago audiences are generally tame, but when the production team had the nerve to step on stage at the end of the evening, the entire audience began to boo. Because WFMT-FM broadcasts Lyric opening nights live, thousands of listeners heard this reaction loud and clear.

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What wonderful posts! I myself do not boo, (nor hiss I have a slight lisp and this would sound really terrible!) But as I said in the "Bravo" posts I smile and applaud loud and long when I'm pleased, so I applaud politely and try to afix a proper facial expression when I'm not.

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I have to say that I throw my lot in with Doris R. and if I'm really unimpressed, I try to imagine myself up there doing whatever it is that they were doing.:eek:

All right, the truth be known, I do withhold my applause on occasion. The whole idea of booing a performance reminds me of a scene from Fellini's Satyricon, or perhaps big time wrestling.

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Like other members, I never boo a dancer, on the grounds that he or she had given a "best effort," though I have withheld applause.

Heather Watts is a case in point. She rose to prominence as what baseball calls a "utility player": she could dance almost any ballerina role with great skill if not total mastery, and on very short notice. As she matured as an artist her gift for modern and dramatic roles became clear, and her performances in other roles deteriorated. For instance, I once saw a Swan Lake she more or less phoned in. [sentence deleted by Alexandra] Add her mercurical temperament, and you have the recipe for a controversial star.

But I digress. I might withhold applause from an inadequate performer, and (in cases where such folks appear onstage) boo a conductor who lost all co-ordination with the stage, designers who left performers in the dark, or a director who pursued a wildly wrong-headed concept (like Carmen in Franco's Spain).

On the proper occasion, I will stand and cheer. But I insist on keping a sense of proportion.

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I have, on occasion, booed a conductor or a choreographer or a designer or even, on one occasion, a company director. By the time they come on for their curtain calls the performers have already been (hopefully) warmly applauded, so boos directed at non-dancers are clearly directed at them and not at the performers. There are occasions when booing is one's only recourse - especially when the non-performer's work is so horrendous that hanging, drawing and quartering would be too good for them!

As for Franco Corelli - I shall ask a voice teacher/singer I know who used to study with Corelli about said incident. There is, of course, the famous one also in connection with Nilsson. Nilsson and Corelli had a kind of love-hate relationship. Nilsson said (to me) that being a tenor Corelli had "resonance boxes where his brains should be". In "Turandot" she was always mannerly towards OTHER tenors - when they ceased to hold a note (when singing together), so did she. But with Corelli it was a contest of lung capacity - which Nilsson usually won handily. Once Corelli complained to Rudolf Bing, then director of the Met Opera about this. Bing suggested that in the scene where Calaf has to kiss Turandot Corelli should give her a little nip. A few nights later Corelli and Nilsson were scheduled to sing "Tosca" together. Nilsson sent a note to the Met management saying that she was cancelling because "a mad dog bit me". Needless to say Bing had to do a lot of work to make the performance happen!

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When I was still a student I attended a performance with a teacher whom I admired. At the end of a performance my teacher lept up and very loudly expressed an opinion of displeasure by booing. I must say I was embarassed and shocked, but also kind of caught up by the theatricality of the gesture. Later, reading about reactions to premieres of Rite of Spring and Afternoon of a Faun , I was taken by the whole idea of scandal at the ballet, and the heated discussion that followed a performance about which there were passionate differences of opinions. It sort of added more spice to the glamour of the world of ballet.

I could never bring myself to Boo at my fellow performers, although I've witnessed performances that I really disagreed with. Usually if I don't like what I'm seeing, I cover my face with my program or close my eyes and listen to the music or take a nap. The worst I can bring myself to do is simply withhold my applause. The only time I was upset enough to Boo was not when I was in the audience but rather onstage. We had just finished performing a rather experimental Forsythe work in Holland somewhere. During the ovation there was a lot of commotion and a lot of booing. I felt compelled to boo right back and shake my fist at the angry patrons. The adrenaline rush was exilerating, even if my behavior was questionable.

Rick McCullough

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Thank you for that story, Rick! I've never heard of a dancer booing the audience :)

I wonder how much of this varies from country to country? I had a German friend once whom I took to a local modern dance performance which he loathed. After the first number, he stood up and enthusiastically booed. It was a very small crowd, maybe 40, so people noticed.

He complained later that Americans watched dance the way they drove -- asleep. What was the fun of going if you couldn't boo? He claimed that German audiences booed all the time.

Sonja, is that true? Or perhaps the Stuttgart and Munich audiences are different from Cologne and Hamburg!

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alexandra wrote:

He complained later that Americans watched dance the way they drove -- asleep.

At least he didn't say that Americans watched dance the way they drove--while talking on the phone and eating a cheeseburger.

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Ah, Ed, this was in the 1980s. We were more civilized then! (I've been to dance performances where people talked on their cell phones and ate cheeseburgers!)

His analogy to driving was based on fun on the autobahn, where there are no speed limits. American tourists ruined the whole driving experience by insisting on sticking to 70 or 80 mph and freaking out at hairpin turns.

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I don't think I've ever booed anyone, although I've been tempted to. Oh, I did join in the boos directed at the NYCB orchestra at their first few bows after the previous couple of strikes, but that's understandable. I think for awhile after the strike before last the orchestra stopped taking their last-intermission bows because of the torrents of boos. But that was only because they richly deserved it.

I also remember the boos that frequently greeted Watermill. I remember an early or mid-Eighties performance where Villella came out for the curtain call only to be greeted by a torrent of boos. Although I'm sure he was used to folks booing Watermill by then (I don't recall it getting booed in the mid-Seventies), I won't soon forget his crestfallen look of hurt and surprise, which he soon covered with a perfectly poised professional mien. Regardless of what one thought of Watermill (I rather liked it, but that's another kettle of worms), booing Eddie Villella at the NYS Theater is beyond unforgiveable.

Other than that, I figure someone someplace might've liked a particular show, and who am I to spoil their fun? There must've been people somewhere who actually enjoyed Heather Watt's virtues as a performer (whatever they might've been -- I lacked such fine powers of discernment). I wouldn't have wanted to rain on their parade. Besides, it's hard to boo when one is biting one's knuckles.

The most recent incident of really inappropriate booing I recall happend last fall at a performance of the Met's somewhat unconventional but rather brilliant production of Eugene Onegin (and I'm too lazy to look up the credits). After Onegin (Thomas Hampson, that night) kills Lensky, the orchestra goes immediately into that grand polonaise. Many be-wigged footmen emerge, some make off with Lensky's body, others change a very passive Onegin's clothes from his outdoorsy dueling outfit to formal eveningwear. I thought it was a very clever transition, representing his years of indolent wandering before encountering Tatiana and Gremin. Apparently it left some disgruntled member of the audience feeling short-changed out of the sight of the Met Opera Ballet in boots and ribbons stamping and kicking their way through a real polonaise, and as soon as the music ended, out came a very loud and prolonged "booo!" from somewhere up near the rafters. There was an embarassed murmer from the audience, and the show went on.

It was really beyond tacky.

I do wonder if opera audiences might be more prone to booing than ballet audiences. Thoughts, anyone?

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I do wonder if opera audiences might be more prone to booing than ballet audiences. Thoughts, anyone?

Opera audiences are generally more boorish, ill mannered and short tempered than ballet audiences. Renee Fleming was booed off the stage at La Scala when she did Lucretia Borgia there. Not because of any terrible flaws in her performance--the tapes from the one show she was able to get through were quite good--but because she wasn't the singer they wanted to hear.

At Beyreuth, the altar of Wagnerian truth, new productions are regularly booed, hissed and screeched at, just becauset they are new. The Onegin production at the Met was roundly booed when it premiered--it seemed that no one like it.

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The Onegin production at the Met was roundly booed when it premiered--it seemed that no one like it.

Well, I liked it. But what do I know?

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Well, I liked it. But what do I know?

What I should have written (since it is what I was thinking) is that, like many new and untraditional productions at the Met, the current Onegin production was not well received and it seemed as if no one liked it at the time.

This was obviously not the case since there were a lot of defenders of the production when it opened and it has become much less controversial. The fact that there was a significant amount of discussion and that it was quite heated but also often well founded shows that direction and production design remain important to opera goers in New York City.

And the fact that the Met was willing to do a relatively standard work in a nonstandard but ultimately effective way speaks well of their artistic administration.

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A lot of booing is caused by thwarted expectations. Some of the people who expected to see the customary pyrotechnical display by Edward Villella in Watermill were probably the booers Manhattnik heard. Similarly, the Met audience was expecting a polonaise during the Onegin polonaise and booed when they didn't get it. This kind of booing is completely unjustified, the product of closed minds.

However, sometimes I feel like booing when most of the audience is cheering. Some years ago, there was a production of Cavalleria Rusticana at the New York City Opera directed by Vera Zorina. During the justly famous Intermezzo, when nothing is supposed to happen onstage, the better to contemplate the mysteries of Sicilian honor, Easter, and Mascagni's music, Zorina staged a ballet for little girls in communion dresses. The audience loved it.

Cav and Pag seem to bring out the worst in directors. A few years after the Zorina production, they were transferred from their original locales in Sicily and Southern Italy to New York's Little Italy, under an elevated train station. I admit it was striking concept. There even was simulated sexual intercourse ender the el, between Turiddu and Lola. Once again the audience cheered loudly. But I thought the music was ill-served. Nobody booed. Most people cheered. And I just sat there.

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An excellent point, FF. In ballet, almost as much as at the opera, audiences arrive with very specific expectations -- related to the work scheduled, the dancers scheduled, their relatives scheduled -- and protest if those precise expectations aren't met. Such demands are, for the most part, unfair to the dancers, the choreographers, and others involved in the production.

On the other hand... I went last night to the new production of The Elephant Man, a play that ran on Broadway, to great acclaim, 23 years ago. The new production is much more abstract (or, if you will, "post-modern") in its staging, but it remains the story of a Victorian man, his body hideously disfugured by disease, whose spirit and wit came to be admired by London's elite.

Billy Crudup, in the title role, wears no protheses (though he does shave his head). As the clinician who became his protector describes the title character's deformities, Crudup distorts his body, his pace, and his speech. Later, at the moment of his death, he simply relaxes his face, and stretches out calmly onstage. The gesture draws gasps from the audience. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, "It's the little things...." And (judging by the buzz around me) audience members accepted both approaches as illuminating interpretations of the same play.

Similarly, there must be room for interpretation, and room for failure, if we want to see innovation in dance. I never heard Watermill booed, but then again, I've never seen it with more than a handful of fans rattling around the State Theatre. Thank you Mr. B., thank you Mr. R., for persevering, the one essential step from "flop" to "masterpiece."

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it probably is a cultural issue as well, whether to boo or to sit out a performance. having attended performances in quite a few parts of the world (including north america, china and europe), i generally would say it is a matter of cultural attitudes...someone mentioned in one of the posts how fascinating a strong "theatrical" response can be - loud, over the top booing is probably taken less seriously in a country like italy, by both audience and performer and seen more as an act of participation in the artistic discourse that is being established. In germany wild shouting at the end of a performance ís likely to be regarded as offensive behaviour.

Personally i enjoy the italian way. i think if it is understood on both sides - performer and spectator - that this is a dynamic, enjoyable ritual with a spark of good humour all around, then booing is acceptable...and i would say it adds a lot of passion to the discussion, which is only to be encouraged.;)

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