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Is ballet a sport?


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#31 Mel Johnson

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Posted 12 May 2006 - 03:38 AM

I was somewhat shocked to learn that I hold a "post-modern" attitude toward the identity of ballet as sport. Epistemological pomos hold that because of the subjectivity of both the observer and the observed, it is impossible accurately to quantify what is so blatantly a qualitative activity. Thus, one cannot score it in an objective way. Using the competition criterion for identifying sport is therefore impossible.

#32 Farrell Fan

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Posted 12 May 2006 - 06:51 AM

Excellent, Ballet Master Mel! You have written the very model of a post-modern paragraph.

#33 sandik

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Posted 12 May 2006 - 08:52 AM

One of the twisty things about this discussion is that "sport" is not a consistent entity. There are huge factional arguments about the distinctions between quantifiable competition (the "higher, farther, faster" contingent) and the qualifiable competition (with "style" points) There are still people who believe that the only true Olympic sports are those that can be measured absolutely, that the only role for a judge is to make sure that the rules have been followed.

As someone who lives outside the sports world, I often forget these factions and think of the whole thing as a unified world, but it is not.

#34 beck_hen

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Posted 12 May 2006 - 08:57 AM

Does ballet have more to offer as a sport or as an art? It is a bit amusing to think of pointe shoes as "apparatus," like a pole in the pole vault, or a tutu as a uniform, and 32 fouettes in terms of degrees of difficulty. But if people only want to see amazing physical feats they can watch the Olympics on tv; they don't need to go to the theatre. Why bother to watch a whole ballet, and not just instant replays of the "good parts"? Why not get rid of the easy steps? Why use music at all, or why not use a rousing medley of "We will rock you" and "It's getting hot in here"? While moments in ballet can be taken out of context and compared to athletics, I think it's missing the point. Existing sports do a better job focusing on purely physical achievement and paring away everything else.

The experience of going to the ballet also involves entering an imagined world. There is no reason to "compete" dressed up as Romeo and Juliet, instead of wearing aerodynamic, high-tech outfits like swimmers and track-and-field athletes. There is a reason to dress up as Romeo and Juliet if you are trying to evoke another world, and make a statement about enduring love and family conflict. Does it matter if it is day or night, or if you are on a balcony or in a ballroom, if the height of the developpe is what counts?

In my view, ballet makes a rather silly sport, but does very well as an art form. Can selling ballet as a sport build a loyal, knowledgeable audience? Will that audience sit through Jardin aux Lilas, or will we lose part of our heritage because it isn't interesting athletically?

I just watched Fonteyn and Nureyev on video in Les Sylphides. I enjoyed it more than recent performances by ABT because Fonteyn wasn't straining so hard. Her movements were understated, her energy controlled, and so she looked light. Today's dancers are turning the fluttering of an arm into an event. What I want is to see the fullest possible range of movement: hard and soft, high and low, quick and slow. That full range doesn't seem to fit into an athletic paradigm: we're only getting the biggest, fastest, etc. No one is "winning" for best musicality, and so on. If ballet becomes a sport, we get into the whole nasty business of judging. That isn't working so well for ice skating or gymnastics.

I don't want to completely disparage anything that brings people to the ballet. But viewing ballet as sport seems at best a transitional attitude—if people aren't hooked by other aspects of it, will they remain enthusiastic, and keep attending? Will I be forced to sit through semi-ludicrous technique fests like Le Corsaire over and over again?

#35 fandango

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Posted 12 May 2006 - 01:01 PM

A non-ballet-loving friend (is that an oxymoron?) said, "If I could figure out how to handicap ballet, there would be no financial crises."

That may be correct...but what I love about ballet is not so much seeing perfect technique, but rather experiencing talented people using technique to help me be part of a world that is not my own.

#36 Amanda_K

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Posted 24 May 2006 - 08:24 PM

I urge young people to stop counting fouettes and instead look for line, feeling, expression and that mysterious experience that can only happen at the Ballet.


Yes!!! It is annoying to watch ballet videos and see only fouettes and pirouettes. It is much more interesting to watch true artistic expression, and if fouettes and pirouettes and other crowd-pleasers fit that category, that's fine. Just don't use them at the expense of art.

One of my favorite ballets, Serenade, has hardly any movement in the beginning, but it is very profound and I would rather watch it then all the fouettes in the world.

The argument many people seem to have for ballet being a sport is that dancers work just as hard as atheletes. That they sweat and stuff. Well, there are many activities that require hard physical work. There are obvious differences between a sport and an art, but I'm not going to repeat what's already been said. Dance is art. It's that simple.

#37 donb

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 09:44 AM

Dance Fish, I think it is very clear that Ballet is NOT a sport.... I urge young people to stop counting fouettes and instead look for line, feeling, expression and that mysterious experience that can only happen at the Ballet.


As a non-dancer, but a photographer of the dance, I have found this to be a very interesting line to follow. Initially I would have thought that perhaps ballet is a "sport", because of the very athletic ability I see in the dancers. It is a good point that there is no "scoring" per se, however, would not the "enjoyment level" or "quality level" of the ballet as perceived by the viewer actually be a type of "score"? Certainly the choreographer is very aware of the quality level of the participants in "his(her) dance". And, I also suspect that in reality each of the dancers is very aware of the competition between each other (in the corps) or with previous principals that have done the piece.

In my mind, I also find it interesting to compare the ballet to womens' gymnastics. In gymnastics, although in many aspects quite different, in my opinion there is both art AND scoring, and thus would be considered a sport. However, in photographing both gymnastics and ballet, I find the two types of resulting images very similar, especially if I take the gymnastics photos in the studio. In fact, I often use the same type of lighting to take studio photographs of ballet dancers and of gymnasts.

An interesting topic... but in the end, does it really matter? There is no question that ballet is an art. Cannot it be a sport also, if it makes someone happy to think of it so?

donb

#38 carbro

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 10:30 AM

An interesting topic... but in the end, does it really matter?

To us, sitting in the audience, we can take it either way we wish. But I would hate to see ballet performed by a bunch of folks who consider themselves athletes first and oh, by the way, maybe artists, too.

#39 Farrell Fan

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 11:13 AM

This question keeps recurring on Ballet Talk, but it had not occurred to me until today to "answer" it with the title of Joseph H. Mazo's book about the NYCB of an earlier time: "Dance is a Contact Sport." I think the title was meant to counteract the fairytale image of ballet, by pointing out the grueling effort involved, the physical pain, psychological stress and constant risk of physical injury. But it is evident that Mazo is a starry-eyed fan, and his book's title is not meant to be taken literally. It is an unforgettable portrait of a group of lovely, inspiring people dedicated to their art. The book has one "flaw." It covers the performance year of 1973, so Suzanne Farrell is not in the group.

#40 papeetepatrick

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 01:04 PM

'An interesting topic... but in the end, does it really matter? There is no question that ballet is an art. Cannot it be a sport also, if it makes someone happy to think of it so?'

I think it does matter, and also that that is probably inevitably what is happening and will kill it if it does. The more it becomes sportlike, the less it will be ballet, and they can make it into a new category at the Olympics and sets won't be necessary at all, just corporate logos in the background.

Competition is everywhere and always has been, it is not peculiar to sports. There are some obvious sorts of athletic matching that occur in all dance technique, but it's really so-called 'ice dancing' that best illustrates the danger. Huge populations think they were getting 'art' when Torville and Dean did 'Bolero' with lovely corporate logos. It's a cheap way to 'download' dance and think you are sensitive without having to do any earning.

People can make themselves happy by thinking of ballet as a sport. Just because this is incorrect thinking doesn't make it useless: one of Nietzsche's most controversial proliferations is his argument privileging falseness over truth; he says that it can lead to longevity in many cases. People can also make themselves happy with recreational drugs, but then the law of diminishing returns kicks in, so the benefits need to be understood as temporary before embarking on such projects.

The latest evolutionary technologies, such as those described in Ray Kurzweil's recent 'The Singularity is Near' seem to make it nearly unimaginable that a pure virtualizing will not prevail, in spite of the inevitable backlash from people like me, who cannot bear the thought. The more popular arts, like the Broadway musical, are already reflecting their corporate origins much more flagrantly (see Ben Brantley), and the nature of classical arts is to outlast by their very nature, but things I have recently seen make me feel pessimistic. That ABT 'Swan Lake' production is already vacuous: For awhile, if this is seen as the only way to 'get ballet to large numbers of people,' it will seem to work; but it seems to me more likely that such productions will not convert large numbers of people into the ballet audience, but that the popular culture will expropriate ballet into itself more and more so that what it once was will be barely recognizable.

I would so love to be wrong.

#41 Helene

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 01:43 PM

There are some obvious sorts of athletic matching that occur in all dance technique, but it's really so-called 'ice dancing' that best illustrates the danger. Huge populations think they were getting 'art' when Torville and Dean did 'Bolero' with lovely corporate logos.

It's interesting that you mention this, because there was a session at the recent Pop Conference at Experience Music Project in which presenter Maria Chiarrino said:

The program [Bolero] is seamless and flowing, lacking in extraneous or idle gestures but set to schlocky, intro-to-classical-for-dummies garbage, so defiantly middlebrow in its conception, yet we remember it, above all other efforts, for expanding the artistic horizons of ice dancing.


(Under the picture of Torvill and Dean.)

One of the more popular shows on Public TV was an annual ballroom dancing competition, often hosted by Juliette Prowse. Competitive ballroom dancing has been rumbling for years about applying to become a Summer Olympic sport.

#42 beck_hen

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Posted 27 May 2006 - 07:22 AM

To oversimplify: as always, one can choose to view the glass as half-empty or half-full. On the one hand, ballet could continue to evolve into a sport, which might kill it as the art form we love. On the other hand, I've begun to think that ballet as sport will run its course. Once everyone has a six-o'clock penchee and can do triple fouettes, dancers will need something extra to stand out. I'm hoping that is artistry.

Historically, weren't we in a similar situation a century ago? Italian virtuousas like Pierina Legnani and Carlotta Brianza gave way to sensitive interpreters Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina. Meanwhile, Fokine reacted against dancing as empty spectacle.

I know the danger is that choreographic and interpretive nuances will be lost in the meantime. However, I think it is very interesting that Margot Fonteyn had never seen the Sleeping Beauty performed before she took on Aurora. Though she consulted with experts, she had no models, so she conceived the role from scratch, with a result that was personal and dramatically coherent.

#43 papeetepatrick

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Posted 27 May 2006 - 09:53 AM

'Historically, weren't we in a similar situation a century ago?'

No. Although your examples would make sense if we were. Ballet doesn't exist outside its historical period, and this period has no precedent. Technology is increasing at exponential rates and this is changing everything. While it is heartening to read of the success of Boston Ballet, Miami Ballet, and PNB and Suzanne Farrell Ballet, these don't really change the dynamic much. They are among the few benefits to ballet of the decentralizing process going on, but you don't see cities being built any more with the same kinds of centers they once had; and ballet is an urban thing more than it is an exurban thing. Once it has adapted to exurbia, it will probably be more like the hobby-careerisms in novelist J.G. Ballard's 'business parks' in 'SuperCannes' or the classes for the non-drinking members of the gated resort communities in 'Cocaine Nights.'

However, you could still be right (I obviously hope you are), but only with a strongly organized resistance, which also hasn't any precedent.

#44 bart

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Posted 27 May 2006 - 11:30 AM

beck_hen, the contrast you refer to is a real one. And it has probably always existed in the arts. There seems to be a cycle of swings between periods that seeks and rewards the thrill of technical proficiency (often for its own sake) and those which emphasize the slower, subtler expression of meaning and feeling. To me, it's a question of two different kinds of artistry -- and which is stressed in training, hiring, and on the stage.

As ballet becomes more and more competitive -- and companies seek a "pow!!" effect, especially when trying to impress younger audiences -- there's no surprise that young gifted dancers end up taking the technical route. You see this -- and hear it praised -- at one ballet competition after the other. How astounding was 14-year-old XYZ's performance in that bravura number from Corsaire!!! However, if you look closely at the lists of prize-winners at international ballet competitions of the years, you can either be impressed by the number of young dancers who have moved on to significant careers, or depressed by the number of seem not to have gone very far at all.

... you don't see cities being built any more with the same kinds of centers they once had; and ballet is an urban thing more than it is an exurban thing.

This is a very interesting point. Thanks for raising the issue of causality. In many North American cities, decentralization certainly has had an effect on the kind of competition ballet companies face, and I'm sure it also affects things like scheduling, fundraising, and choice of repertory.

When you think about it, however, North America today seems to have MORE rather than fewer centers of vibrant and active performance culture than it did when I was young. Cities like Houston, Seattle, Miami, Washington DC, Toronto-- even older cultural centers like Boston and Philadelphia -- had few if any high quality performance arts institutions except for symphonies. Few dancers, opera singers, or serious actors who wished to do fine work would ever have chosen to live permanently in any of them. This has all changed -- for the better. And performance arts centers -- located in or near the city center in most cases -- seem to be doing very well.

You might actually argue that ballet in North America has never been presented so well, in so many locations, to such a large audience, as it is today. What we might think of the aesthetics of it all -- the choreography, changes in style, etc. -- is another matter.

#45 bart

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Posted 27 May 2006 - 04:28 PM

Getting back to the original question: is ballet a sport? Patricia Barker called it "a contact sport" in the article discussing her planned retirement at over 40 from Pacific Northwest. Like other contact sports, injury is part of the package, and good conditioning helps prolong the career:

Boal said her longevity on stage is not just luck. She has a terrific maintenance program: "always in class, a diligent worker who rarely takes time off. She also loves what she is doing."

Although she has had sprains in her left and right feet, a break in the right foot, hostile encounters between her nose and a pointe shoe and elbow, a crack in her spine and problems with her left knee, she has not suffered serious injuries. The worst fear she had was a bulging disc on her sciatic nerve. Fortunately, injections cured that.

Dance, she reminds those who have never done it at a serious level, "is a contact sport." "Injuries happen to everyone."

She clearly remembers a sprain that occurred during the coda of the pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in the last act of "The Nutcracker." She shouted, sort of, to her partner, quickly changed the steps so she wouldn't have to stand on the injured leg alone and managed to finish the performance without falling.

The Barker story is discussed on http://ballettalk.in...=0


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