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A 19th century take on the Taste issue

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I've been reading reviews, diaries, letters, etc. about ballet in mid-19th century New York, and one thing stands out as being quite different from our own time. Each theater catered to a very specific taste -- there are remnants of this now, certainly. Someone who goes to DTW might not go to the Met, and vice versa -- but this was REALLY class/education/taste specific. The theaters in the Bowery were popular, working man's theaters, those on Broadway (not today's Broadway, their Broadway) catered to the moneyed, educated classes. Among the Broadway theaters, there were some that were proudly American, in the sense of being anti-Europe for political rather than cultural reasons, and there were some whose audiences only accepted European culture, especially French culture, as fine art. While this probably accurately reflected the taste of some members of the latter group, there undoubtedly were those who jumped on this bandwagon because it reflected the taste of the level of society to which they aspired.

While most people would go primarily to "their" theaters, there was a group of people interested in theater, the arts, etc -- one might call them the intelligentsia -- who would go to everything and write about it. What's interesting about these reviews/letters is that the reviewers accept this fragmented taste and write about the ballet/opera/plays/revues in their social context. And they'd go to the Bowery theaters when something interesting, or innovative, was playing. "The new pantomine at the Bowery is a devastatingly clever satire," they'd say. They wouldn't bother with lambasting the slapstick elements, which they considered to be in coarse taste. They'd mention this, but in one line -- "it's to be expected that the Bowery audience preferred the pratfalls," etc. This would be thought patronizing today, but they took the work for what it was and found what was interesting about it. They didn't condescend to the art, and they didn't write, "another tasteless effort by Mr. Tasteless at the Bowery. What was potentially a vibrant and wiitty satire was sunk by the most vulgar humor and a dependence on pratfalls to get laughs," which is how we might put it today. That's NOT taking the work at face value. (And, of course, today's Bowery would market said satire as great art, which leads today's critics to point out that it's not, etc etc etc.)

Since newspapers were also taste/political party/class/etc. specific, one probably only read the reviews and commentaries of the theaters one patronized. If one did read a rival paper, the critics could be dismissed as writing "typical Whig nonsense" or as "those unpatriotic uptowners," or whatever.

In our more democratic times, everybody has to like everything, everything has to be considered equal. Perhaps this is the root of "dumbing down." I imagine that this older, boutique world, with its pratfall lovers theater, song and dance theater, French opera theater, experimental American art theater, etc., was much richer. You can have this kind of variety in New York because it's big, but in the 19th century other cities -- primarily Philadelphia and Boston, but also San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and other mid-sized to large cities -- were more diverse. Now, we have ONE ballet company that has to cater to all tastes, or thinks it does.

Is that more democratic, or less? Would this model work today? Or be reworked for today? Or is it a bad old idea that should have vanished?

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Is the question "Are seperate and unique identities good for ballet"? I think this discussion is happening all across the performance media - radio, news, movies, etc. as the Time-AOL-Warner-Disney-Radio One.......Barnes and Noble, Borders, ........

I miss the individual bookstores that reflected the owner's taste and the individual companies that reflected the director's taste. In the seventies and eighties one went to NYCB, ABT and Joffrey expecting differences and formed fierce loyalaties around those companies tastes and dancing. While somewhat true today, I think it is not as much.

Are dance companies to become McDonalds and Holiday Inns where the standard is similar around the globe, yet the same and not very luxurious?

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I agree. I think there is taste-segregation on the radio still, although the problem of Giant Companies buying up everything is troubling. But rap fans don't want to listen to Frank Sinatra, or vice versa.

I think the problems -- problems in the sense of complaints about critics, or fights among fans -- all start from cross-taste marketing, trying to make everyone like, appreciate and value everything else, and everybody angling to get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

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Not only cross taste marketing but a "customer" centric view as panic sets in while audiences shrink. There was a philosophy that artists produced as a form of their expression or take on the world. Now it seems that artists must look to their public (whatever that means???) and create work that they will like.

There is a huge discussion on this in the Kotler book on Marketing the Performing Arts. He agrees with you, Alexandra, that companies must have a strong indentity and then market that to new and old audiences. The examples of companies that tried to be all things to all people mainly ended with a new director or lost audiences.

I guess we should be grateful that today the Ashton uppers visit the McMillan lowers (classes or tastes??). In the nineteenth century I doubt if an upper would be caught dead in a lower and a lower probably could not afford to attend an upper. This was a tradition brought down through the centuries - royalty versus peasants. Royality versus bourgeois versus servants. Today the upper East side versus Upper West versus Village versus Alphabet City....

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But there were some Uppers who DID visit the lower east side -- the specific example, was that there was a brilliant comic/mime who cut across all "markets." His hang out was one of the "low" theaters, and his work catered to that taste, but he was so good that the Taste Mavens had to catch his act. Now, they didn't want him to zip across to the Academy of Music and do a night, and MOST of the audience wouldn't go....

We have that now. It always gets me riled at a night of New Now Ballet, watching people -- usually older, if not downright old people -- whoop and holler at stuff that is a pop version of what they could get at Dance Place on a good night. But most would never go there. It's understandable. It's difficult to go to a new place -- how to tell which group is professional and which is not, down to the nitty-gritty of how to get there, where to park, and what to wear. So there are reasons for it, but still...

The Ashton/MacMillan reference in mbjerk's post above came from an email exchange we were having. I think we could take it out of upper/lower and just make it different, but it's a different taste, and I was saying that the Ashton people would be quite happy watching an all-Ashton week, but the MacMillan people might look at it and say, "how dull, how twee, it's not real, he's so sexless." And the MacMillan people would be perfectly happy watching an all-MacMillan week, but the Ashton ones would come in and say, "how gross, no choreography, no subtlety," etc.

And the problems happen when those two tastes are united under one roof. (Putting aside for the moment that while dancers want to dance all styles, when they're faced with warring aesthetics, one approach bleeds over into the other.) But as far as repertory planning/attendance goes, three things happen. One, one side "wins" and dominates the repertory, driving out the other. Two, the management tries to please both sides, providing a balanced repertory, and although there may be crossover to watch favorite dancers -- and real ballet fans will see anything :) -- a bifurcated audience isn't good for the company in the long run. Or, three, they try to finesse the situation by bringing in work that will please both sides, or ignore the things that each side really needs in its art and presents something else -- like a restaurant trying to please the fish haters and the beef haters by only serving chicken. After awhile, one gets tired of chicken.

(If "Ashton" and "MacMillan" don't do it for you, substitute "Martins" or "Balanchine" or "Petipa" or "Eifman" for any name and adjust attributes accordingly.)

Michael, back to the boutique idea -- that works for hats, and it works for painting and novels, but can it work for dance and theater, the more public arts? I'm not being rhetorical here, but practical. Is it possible to have, say, a ballet company with an audience big enough only to fill a 500-seat house, or a 1,000 seat house?

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It depends on how you define boutique. Joffrey was the boutique as both a 20th century museum of dance and a showplace for a pop-contemporary (times not dance) energy. ABT had the theatrical and the classics and NYCB showed off its Balanchine view of the world. All sold out large houses quite often and in many cities. When one ventured into the territory of the other it was an event that all fans turned out to see and discuss. Joffrey doing Shrew - ABT doing Symphony Concertante and NYCB doing Tharp/Robbins are examples where audiences converged to participate. At first this cross over was exciting for all. As with all things, as it became more the rule, the fun subsided.

IN my opinion (read here I go again) what has happened today is that companies now offer similar ballets and dancers. As a result, I suspect the majority of audience loyalty comes from either history (or a lack therof) or convenience. Why shop at the Neiman's down the road when Nordstrom's has similar dance across the street (or Old Navy has it for less and better marketing)? Unless one is of a type that will not be caught dead in Nordstrom's because one's history will not let one or one is knowledgeable to the point of telling which store has the best and do not care where one buys it, one shops for ease or with one's friends.

I know that I now go to ballet to be taken away from my daily life. Whether baudy or beautiful there are very few dancers left that transport me. Unfortunately I am one who has seen much and I expect the classics to tell a story, the abstract to wow me with musical brilliance and the dancers to perform magic. I do not care whether it happens on the street or at the Met, but good is good from any perspective. Even if I do not like it, I admire and respect it!

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mbjerk wrote:

At first this cross over was exciting for all. As with all things, as it became more the rule, the fun subsided.

As often happens, I think you've nailed it :) Novelty only works when it's novel. When the novel becomes commonplace, it's not novel any more and is boring.

I also agree that

I do not care whether it happens on the street or at the Met, but good is good from any perspective.

I do care that the art fits the frame. The street can move inside, and the Met can move outside, but very carefully.... Usually, both look better in their native surroundings.

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