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Allegro

NPR Punk v. Opera: where does ballet fit in?

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I was very interested by a piece on NPR about how punk rock fans are becoming quite attracted to the opera. It made me think a lot about the whole "phenomenon" but ended up with some questions regarding/relating to ballet.

They mentioned that Opera is the only classic art where the audience demographic is actually getting younger and younger. So why is that? One would think that with the relatively young dancers that make up the art (relative to the older opera singers) ballet would be very attractive to a younger generation. And with the love of atheletes and athletics in our country, why wouldn't a partially physical art do well? In contrast to opera, which incorporates much less movement(except for the vocal cords :)).

And the other question comes from the commentator's remark that since Opera deals with such strong and pure emotions, many of these punk people are being drawn to it. (the idea of an individual's fight and struggle against the world was also mentioned) My question is: Since ballet obviously deals with love, hate, desire, joy, jealousy, etc etc, why isn't it attracting the same crowd? (if you want to buy their theory) Is it because it offers a subdued version of these emotions, or is it because ballet is too esoteric, or what?

I would be interested to hear other's observations on the piece or on the mentioned questions. Please understand that I have the utmost respect for opera, so none of this is said in degredation of that art!

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Allegro, I heard that NPR story yesterday too and posted about it on the "Other Arts" Board in the Subtexts & Contexts section. I don't have time now to respond to your questions but will return later on.

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vagansmom, I was copying Allegro's thread to Other Arts just as you were posting. I've closed your thread so that we wouldn't have two competing threads on the same topic in the same forum. I hope you don't mind! :)

I'm also pressed for time at the moment but would also be interested in hearing comments on this. Good topic, Allegro, and thank you.

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I think I only heard a bit of that program. :( Vagansmom, did they really say "wallow"?

Opera takes terrible tragedies and ennobles them, turning them into something sublime, whereas punk rock takes equally horrendous life stories and wallows in them. But both are expressions in the extreme and that's what keeps this new young audience entralled by opera.

For what it's worth, I don't have enough experience with Punk Rock to comment... Is it still even being played?

I wish I'd heard the program... How exciting - http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/index.html - my out of date Real Player allows me to listen to yesterday's program! :)

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Oh, yes, very much so. Or maybe your idea of punk rock is different from what's being played today.

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I thought punk rock had died a decade ago! (But that's only from hearsay; I don't listen to pop music except when in a cab.)

I think it's an interesting idea and I'm grateful it's being raised. Is this also the reason that the most popular of the narrative ballets today are "Onegin," "Manon" and "Romeo and Juliet?" (And the second wave of Draculas and Madam Butterflies?)

These ballets are not as rich as operas and the criticism of them from an artistic point of view is that they lack depth -- lack supporting characters, trivialize or sentimentalize raw emotions, etc. Which wouldn't bother a generation that knows opera only through surtitles!

But from an audience point of view, especially to people new to ballet, these are the favorites.

Also, opera is generally popular now. Teens were drawn to ballet in the earliy Nureyev and early Baryshnikov periods to watch cute guys. It could be that simple -- it's chic, everybody's going, it's cool to say "I'm going to the opera." ???

All rank speculations :)

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I think there is something here reflected in the current fad fascination with "extreme" anything? We now have people advertising "extreme" ballet and even religion, and it has about as much meaning as "extreme" nacho flavor. It seems theyare saying that it's not opera that's popular, it's Italian verismo opera with its extremity of emotion. I wonder if from a historical perspective, we've always suspected the vitality of the "core" and only believed in the edges as being where creativity lies.

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel

I wonder if from a historical perspective, we've always suspected the vitality of the "core" and only believed in the edges as being where creativity lies.

THAT's an interesting thought. Meaning that we, the audience, always either suspect or misunderstand the "core" -- what the artist is trying to do, or how the artist understands the art form -- but will be attracted by something external -- star dancer, great costumes, extreme emotion, etc. That might be the "bait," but I do think many people do make the "switch" -- i.e., finding the core.

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I actually meant something slightly different - that if the entire corpus of art produced by a generation or society is like a tree, we tend to look at the showy works at the leaves and ignore the trunk that supports and feeds it. But your version works too!

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I can think of two other reasons for the limited attraction of the punkers to ballet: it's a visual, as opposed to auditory, art. As we all know, it doesn't translate to the small screen very well so audiences must really attend a performance. I'd like to know how many of the punkers who're now embracing opera actually attend many performances themselves as opposed to buying the music. The problem may still come down to one of accessibility.

Second, using my own self as an example, I didn't like "tutu ballets" for the longest time. I found them stilted and rather silly. I enjoyed Balanchine's works that were presented with the women in either leotards or flowing chiffon skirts. My appreciation for the classical tutu came over a long period of time and mostly as the result of watching student dancers work themselves up to such roles. Nowadays it's probably the section of a ballet that I most look forward to. But it took time to develop that appreciation.

My many opera-loving friends often cite tutus as a barrier to their enjoying ballet. I don't think any of the ballets Alexandra listed as being considered popular are "tutu ballets", am I right?

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I have had a thought here, and it maybe is reaching, but I believe that ballet may not be extreme enough for the opera-loving post-punk. After all, what is done does not usually get presented if it looks difficult or forced. And yes, the auditory/visual split works here. The operaphile who only knows the score by sound might be horrified to see what actually goes on onstage in many opera productions, while when at a rock concert, they might just not be in any condition to care what the show looks like, if they even can see it, given the press of bodies at many of these shows. In opera, there is a term "spinto" for a singer who blasts out sound forcefully; in most rock today, hardly anything ISN'T forced. In ballet, evidencing strain and pain of a physical nature from the dancing alone isn't normally a goal. Or perhaps today's operaphile and punkophrenic is the next wave of balletomane? Just to rest the nerves?

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I agree with you, Major Mel. Ballet is supposed to look easy, and sometimes I think it is almost a diservice to the artists.

"If it looks easy, it is easy."

But since everyone sings in the shower, perhaps singers are given more credit. After all, who causally attempts foutte e'lair or a double tour as a matter or course?

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That last argument goes both ways-- how many people try to trill or sing the "Exultate, Jubilate" in the shower? Whereas plenty of people go to clubs and "dance" the night away. Just as it is painful to watch ballet dancers with sickled feet and stiff arms, it is just as painful to the classical musician to listen to the squeaky, raspy, slightly off-key or otherwise unexceptional voices that make up pop music today.

Also, what type of opera is most popular today? Is it the romantic Italian operas of Verdi or the baroque comedies of Mozart? The style of Romeo and Juliet has more with the former, whereas Sleeping Beauty is closer to the latter in terms of its classical, harmonious structure. If you want to see extreme, Romeo and Juliet is the ballet with double suicides, murder, duels, and secret marriage (and it doesn't hurt that the play is very popular). Sleeping Beauty isn't extreme at all except perhaps in the sense of being extremely restrained.

Also, IMO, some of it goes back to the way ballet is taught and performed (perhaps I should say "executed") these days. Ballet dancers think that they dance with their arms and legs; therefore, their movement tends to be superficial, almost arbitrary wavings of the limbs. Opera singers (and modern dancers) know that the torso is where the art must begin. I would even venture to say that classical singing is more of a "full-body" art than ballet is (at least as ballet is currently danced--the way ballet should be danced is something else entirely). It is this that makes the difference, and it is important. One's heart is not located in one's arm or leg, so how is it emotionally expressive to do an arabesque? The gestures of the limbs must be extensions of what occurs in the torso. Based on videos I've seen, this used to be much better understood than it currently is, whether it was a conscious understanding or not. Therefore, I think that it is perhaps the way opera is performed that makes it more appealing to younger people.

Maybe I've been a dancer for too long, but could someone please explain just how the mere sight of a tutu could put someone off? I don't really understand how its presence could be so offensive.

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LOL, Hans, since I'm the one who made that statement, I ought to try to explain.

Except I'm not sure I can anymore :) I LIKE tutus now.

I think I found the tutu itself simply silly to behold. No one wears tutus in real life. Historically, no one wore them. I couldn't think of them seriously. If anything, I still think they resemble a science fiction costume more than anything else. As a newcomer to ballet many moons ago, the combination of that absurd-looking garment, along with what I thought were the affectations of pose after pose, was off-putting. I had little background in ballet at that point (unless Sister Mary Baptista's after-school ballet class in first grade counts ;) )

This was in the early 1970's, long before I began taking adult ballet lessons myself and before I had a child who lived for ballet.

Current colleagues of mine at school have told me they think tutus are silly. But in their case, it seems that they relegate the tutu to an old-fashioned world that's out of step (pardon the pun) with the present world. To them, it's the antithesis of feminism.

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I appreciate what Vagansmom means about tutus.

For me, to a certain extent, I enjoy art more if I can somehow identify with it -- either with the joy of movement, the depth of the expression, or perhaps even what I've somehow imagine the art form to be.

Given this need to identify, it is easier, somehow, for me to appreciate corps work and the type of dancing Vagansmom described as liking first. I find tutu dancing to be far more abstract and based on pure, classical (and may we say, more arcane) ballet. Therefore, I think it is harder to appreciate.

True balletomanes might groan -- but this is embodied by the fact that many find the dances of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier to be the dullest part of the Nutcracker.

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Yes, that is true. And to think the Nutcracker used to be criticized for making the audience wait too long to see the ballerina!

However, I do see what you mean--it's not easy to view the tutu (especially in its present form) as a shortened version of the wide skirts all women used to wear, and the idea of both showing the legs and keeping the male partner a decent distance away is definitely an old-fashioned one.

One thing that might explain the popularity of opera but not ballet is that while opera was in its Romantic period (Verdi, Wagner, &c), ballet was having its Classical (or Neoclassical, depending on one's perspective) period with classical tutus and the like (strangely enough, Classical ballet is danced to Romantic music). Therefore, while opera was becoming less and less formal in structure and more extreme emotionally, ballet was becoming more formal, up until the 20th century. Then all hell broke loose ;).

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Originally posted by Hans

One thing that might explain the popularity of opera but not ballet is that while opera was in its Romantic period (Verdi, Wagner, &c), ballet was having its Classical (or Neoclassical, depending on one's perspective) period with classical tutus and the like (strangely enough, Classical ballet is danced to Romantic music).  

I know this is the way dance history is taught, but I think that we know more about the 19th century now than when the first books (that are still used, or that form the basis for later books) were written. Ballet's classical period took place at the same time every other art form's classical period took place -- we just don't have any left (Noverre's "Jason et Medea," Gardel's "Alfred le Grand," etc.) Romantic ballet rebelled against both classical content and classical form in the same way that music did.

Petipa, at least the works we have of his, was a throwback, and was basically making 18th century ballets with 19th century content and technique. Sleeping Beauty was a conscious attempt to recreate the ballet de fee.

I think the confusion also involves what is "classical" -- people used "classical ballet" in the same way they used "classical music," not to indicate a time period or aesthetic, but "something that isn't popular." Since "Swan Lake" Act II is thought of as the epitome of "classical ballet," somehow this became "Ballet is odd. It is the only art form where the classical period follows the Romantic." (I think there were a lot of things written when people who had not grown up with the art form were confronting it for the first time and trying to make sense out of it, and this is one of them. I know this is all OT, but since many of us have read the same books, I thought I should add that historical note.)

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I wrote that way in order to be clear--I have suspected for a long time now that ballet's classical period was in the 18th century, but late 19th century ballet is so often referred to as classical that I didn't want to confuse anyone. Perhaps we could make this into a different thread, but does that then make Petipa neoclassical (it's actually a rather apt term, IMO) and Balanchine neoromantic? I've thought for a while that neoromantic fits Balanchine better than neoclassical (and not just because of the hand position ;)).

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Like Picasso, Balanchine went through "periods" where he choreographed more in one style than another. Then, just when you thought you had him nailed down, he'd come out with something in a completely different style. He had both neoclassic and neoromantic periods, but they were all punctuated by other outputs that confounded classification. It kind of reminds me of Stephen Vincent Benet's description of Robert E. Lee, when he wrote that you could pin him down and examine what he did and come out with a conclusion regarding his mind, but there was a matter of the heart: "That he kept hidden, safe from all the picklocks of biographers." I've always found Balanchine enigmatic in that fashion.

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Being known to be somewhat of a 'punk', I'm feeling a bit of internal pressure to answear to this thread.

Maybe I should start by first stating why a good deal of people refer to me as...a 'punk'. On the outset its obvious...purple hair, tatoos, clothing you would never find in a department store, on and on. Then you dig a bit deeper and you see the music (fast, furious, no holds barred wether its Sex Pistols, Steve Reich, or Ritalin Kids). Go a bit further down that track and you see where it all comes from...a love of chaos (not anarchy), a love of extremes, a love of truth. Put them together with a personality that lives to the extreme in the moment...you get somewhat of that 'punk' personality.

After stating all that, I feel like I can tackle this thread. Why do I, as a punk type...why do I LOVE ballet? Hmm, maybe I should break this down, why do I love to DO ballet, why do I love to watch ballet...

Why do I love to DO ballet? It is extreme. it pushes everything to its maximum. It particular I love the extreme of the exhaustion. You go to a concert at a club and you can somewhat experience that. But its nothing compared to what taking a class in classical ballet technique does to your body. There is so much truth in it. Your soul is bared, your mind is completly open, and your body is broken down to its bare roots to express what nothing else could possibly do. It is not chaotic, however it is so dependent on the moment that it borders on that. If one step is taken wrong, then the body goes into chaos to try and regain itself...and that to me is exciting, walking that line between the ultimate control and chaos.

Why do I love to WATCH ballet? ok, honest truth...if I wasn't a dancer more than likely I would never watch classical or romantic ballet. Modern and contemporary dance is a different story. Because I am a dancer, I understand the extremes of ballet and I can appreciate them...but they don't thrill me. Rarely has that happened, and those times it has always been contemporary ballet. The fact that there is not alot of truth in classical ballet on the stage turns me off also. It always hits me as contrived, not relevant, and not current. I want something that hits me as something real and in the moment, not something that was created over a hundred years ago. Alot of that is performance, and the fact that so many dancers don't seem to be willing to give themselves totally over and let go of that safety net of technique...and instead just trust that it will be there to hold them up, and in the meantime take the risk and push everything further. Theres nothing terribly chaotic about ballet, especially since not many performers are willing to push themselves that much further and take the risk.

Holy cow...that got a bit long didn't it. Well, there you go... an answear from a 'punk' dancer. I think I'm going to go listen to The All American Rejects, they're one of those new punkers, you know (to quote Henry Rollins) they look like one of the Replacements thats been drug through the gutter for three blocks.

m/ >-< m/

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Fendrock writes:

"...many find the dances of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier to be the dullest part of the Nutcracker"

Ouch!:) That one hurt. The PDD is the only part of the 'Nutcracker' I can watch.

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