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Ballet and Culture - does it follow or lead?

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Here's this week's burning question ;)

An art form can reflect the culture around it, or it can be in the vanguard and lead a culture.

What do you think ballet's relation to culture is?

Of course, it doesn't have to be solely one or the other and it changes over time as well, but can you think of examples where ballet has lead the way on certain standards, trends or beliefs - or places where you think it reflects us, or lags behind?

What would you like ballet to do?

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I'm never shy of thoughts, but I wanted someone else to go first :D

I'll throw this out: I think that often when this topic is discussed, we get diverted to content -- that ballet must be relevant in literal terms (real life, etc) and not the centuries old aesthetic principle that art reflects an ideal. I think art -- true art, real art, high art, that kind of art -- should reflect each society's, each era's, each generation's ideal of what life can be, not in a utopian sense, but in more abstract terms.

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Being off in the boondocks, I am not in a position to write knowledgeably about this.

But, I can give an opinion. ;)

And, I agree with Mr. Johnson. -sigh-

At least where we live, in Germany, if a theatre is in trouble financially, it is the ballet which usually gets cut back - or out - first. :(


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As a person who is only now becoming comfortable with the chromaticism of Richard Strauss, I am happy with ballet staying away from the vanguard of cultural change. Leave the vanguard to the opera directors who are smart enough to stage works without reference to the composers and librettists.

If there is a vanguard, then there can also be a heroic rear guard. I would nominate classical ballet in this part of the struggle against encroaching philistinism. Although as Mr. Johnson can attest, rear guard actions, valiant though they may be, very often do not have happy results.

I would favor ballet as a museum of the centuries old European culture that engendered it.

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Ed, you're right, retiring actions can often have very sad results, but sometimes, they are the only correct course of action, and carried out skillfully, can bring armies and their commanders high praise, even from their opponents. During the War for American Independence, both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette carried out retreats, the former from Long Island, the latter from Barren Hill, PA, that earned them a gazetting (a favorable critique) in British military journals of the day. In neither case was a single soldier lost. Both generals pulled back from untenable positions, and saved their armies. At the Battle of Monmouth, NJ, Washington was further gazetted for organizing and directing a brilliant counterattack from what had started as a rout. Likewise, in the American Civil War, at the Battle of Chickamauga, Major-General George H. Thomas turned his XIV Corps into a rear-guard and saved the entire Army of the Cumberland, when their commander had a nervous breakdown on the field. His fame continues as "The Rock of Chickamauga". Sometimes, retrenchment is the only correct thing to do. Just ask Mikhail Fokine. His "Les Sylphides" restated the Romantic ethos, and THEN his reforms and progress could really start!

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Mel's citation of Fokine is an interesting one in part because of his connection to Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, a company that was most definately in the vanguard of its times culturally.

There have been other times in the past when dancing has been the leader of the pack, as it were, reaching into new territories and setting standards, not just for itself, but for other arts as well. I think the English ballet pre and post WWII was in a similar position, as was American ballet in the 1950's. If you want to expand the field to include modern dance, the list becomes even longer. (Just think of Merce Cunningham)

Right now, I don't think dance holds that place. I like the image of the canary and the coal mine -- the arts in general do that for our overall culture, and dance might serve as the first indicator.

Like most parts of the country, people are cutting back and worrying about money here, but overall I'm hopeful about what's going on. I see much work that I like in a conservator role (including a lovely production of Sleeping Beauty at Pacific Northwest Ballet last week) but I also see some exciting new material that's worth supporting for itself, not just for its worth as a place holder for hoped-for future dances.

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I'm still humming Excelsior. I don't know how much influence that ballet had on the society (it was a very popular production and had a lot of influence on ballet of its time) but it's one of the very few classical ballets I've seen that dealt with history, from the end of the Inquisition (and the beginning of modern history, as they saw it) through the building of the Suez Canal. It had an extraordinarily clear point of view -- Progress is Good. Those who halt Progress are as ignorant and harmful to society as the Inquisitors; they want to bring us back to the dark ages. Probably most people would agree with that (including me) -- although the environmentalist in me had a sneaking sympathy for the Spirit of Darkness (that halter of Progress).

BUT it dealt with contemporary life directly (mountains were blown up) and metaphorically. Characters based on real people wore contemporary dress, those representing Thoughts or Concepts were in tights.

This doesn't go to Leigh's larger question, but it's one example of how dance -- big, popular, mainstream dance -- can use material of interest to the larger society.

Sandi, I wish you'd start a topic about the good contemporary work you're seeing -- I think the point that we don't need to have masterpieces every day, and we shouldn't waste Today waiting for the masterpieces of Tomorrow, but I can't think of much BALLET I've seen in the past decade that I'd want to see again, if I didn't have to. Although I don't think the modern dance scene is much brighter in the masterpiece department, I've seen dozens of smaller works during that same time period that I enjoyed, but in ballet.....

I'm also curious -- how do you think Cunningham influenced society generally? I think his influence on modern dance is huge, but I'm not sure about the larger influence.

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