Jump to content
This Site Uses Cookies. If You Want to Disable Cookies, Please See Your Browser Documentation. ×

Not getting it/not liking it; where's the line?

Recommended Posts

Hockeyfan's post about a misguided Liebesleder review has had puppies -- there are a lot of subissues in there. Leigh raised one on a thread below -- how do you tell what went wrong? -- and Hans, in his answers on the other thread, raised another, which I thought deserved a thread of its own.

There's a school of thought that if you truly understand an artist's work, then you'll like it. It's one of the most frequent complaints I heard, when editing Washington DanceView, which dealt primarily with local modern dance. "Please don't send X to review me. He doesn't understand my work." X would argue that he understood it perfectly, thank you, and it was ghastly.

Hans, if he will permit me a paraphrase, wrote that he understood Balanchine and did "get it," but just didn't like it.

There is a point of view, and you'll read it in posts on this and other sites, that "I know he's great, but he leaves me cold" or "the works are just so unemotional." That's been the case since the beginning, and will probably always be the case. And one can think of parallel complaints about other choreograohers. For many, Ashton just isn't edgy enough. Many who rate innovation highly don't/can't see the innovation in his works and fault him for that as well.

Another part of this issue is, when do the objections stop being discussable? I wrote about this on the other thread and repeat it here. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a repeated criticism of Balanchine ballets that they were lacking in decor -- a perfectly reasonable comment from people whose eye had been trained by Diaghilev but that doesn't take into account Balanchine's aesthetic. They may have argued, "I don't care if he wants us to concentrate on the choreography, ballet is a blending of three arts and he's ignoring one of them." Balanchine eventually "won" this debate, but it was a discussable issue for some time. (By this, I mean that his works became accepted for what they were, not that decor no longer matters generally.)

Link to comment

I don't like not getting it, and so, if I don't get it, I will often work at getting it, because I neither like it nor dislike it until I get it, or think I do, and the fruits of this labor have often been good to have. If I don't get it, what would I be liking or not liking? Something else, right? Something not apprehended, something other than the thing I don't get.

But many seem to me not to like something they don't get. They don't distinguish between the part they get and the part they don't, I think.

Link to comment

Case in point regarding last night's televised perf. from NYCB, Liebeslieder excerpt specifically: A newbie balleto wrote to me afterwards that "a waltz is a waltz is a waltz, and that's all there is to it." Precisely the opposite of what Balanchine was trying to demonstrate. I replied that I'd been a regular ballet goer for over ten years when I saw my first Liebelieder, didn't get it, but after four or five viewings, it had a strong hold on me. Of course, critics viewing new works don't have that luxury.

However, I went into the first viewing knowing enough of the ballet's legendary status so that I knew there were treasures in there. I just had to let them reveal themselves to me.

Link to comment

"Liebeslieder" is a great example for this question. There are a lot of people who, at first glance, say, "this is just waltzes! It's boring! It's not ballet! It's schmaltz!!" And yet I know people who do "get it" in the sense of understanding technically what Balanchine was doing, who don't think that it all looks alike, but who don't like it because they find the music is....schmaltz.

Perhaps one of the problems (small lightning bolt) is that "get it" can mean "understand it, figure it out" and also mean "appreciate it, buy into its world."

Link to comment
Perhaps one of the problems (small lightning bolt) is that "get it" can mean "understand it, figure it out" and also mean "appreciate it, buy into its world."

To me, for critics there is only one definition of "get it," and that is the first -- does the critic understand what the context is and what the choreographer was attempting to do? Once established the critic can determine whether it worked or not, whether s/he liked/appreciated/bought into/liked it (or parts of it) or not, and/or whether the music was appropriate or not and why, etc.

Link to comment

I agree, definitely. The difference between "I like it" and "it's a great work of art" or, conversely, "I hate it, but it's a great work of art." The difference between taste and aesthetic. That's for when I'm writing. But for when I'm watching, I do think you can "get it" (i.e., understand it) without being caught up in its world; i.e., loving it.

Link to comment

I have a good example of getting it, but not liking it, unfortunately, it is from modern dance, but I hope that it contributes to the discussion anyway ;-). I saw Paul Taylor's company on tour in April, the bill was Mercuric Tididngs (1982), Dante Variations (2004), and Promethean Fire (2002). The first and last pieces, I enjoyed very much, and feel like I "got", there not being much in the way of "plot", but conveying emotion and energy. This is contrasted with Dante Variations, which I also got, buyt did not like at all. Dante's Variations was rather conspiculously about people in puragtory; lots of thrashing, anguished movement, moving lots, but not seeming to get anywhere. There were dancers with their hands or legs tied, a piece of toilet paper that would NOT come off of his shoe, ect. It definitely meant to convey frustration, and well, I found that very FRUSTRATING. I feel like I understood what the choreographers were trying to convey, I just wouldn't sit through it again!

Link to comment

For years, I have been trying to 'get' Martha Graham. I have made an effort to put my prejudices aside---so, I have been trying to 'get it'. I can honestly say that after all my efforts---I don't like it. However, last season I saw my first Paul Taylor concert (I can be a late bloomer) and 'got it', so much so, that I will go to see Taylor the next time they are in town.

Link to comment

That happens, doesn't it? Some you "get" right away. I had the same problem with Graham, and I started watching her in the mid-70s, well past the glory days, but she was still alive and rehearsing the company actively. A few years ago, I decided I was going to get her :) I played "Night Journey" on the tape "Dancers World" The fourth time, I got it. Can't tell you why. She was always one of my favorite choreographers on paper, but I'd never seen on stage what I'd read about until then.

Link to comment

I was going to start a thread similar to this when I found this old one.

I recently attended Miami City's third program and after about 10 Balanchine pieces I have seen them perform, I don't get it.

Exactly as mentioned before, I feel cold and disinterested with the vast majority. It is quite frustrating as I know so many people really "get" the relationship of dancer and music, the geometry of the choreography. I feel like I'm illiterate and can't appreciate something more subtle. Whereas I've seen a bit of modern and just about any other "classic" choreographers and whether I like them or not, I'm not left with this feeling. What's the key to getting a choreographer? Brute repitition?

Link to comment

To Balanchine, possibly. It took me a year before I liked it. It took me about seven years of infrequent viewing to get Ashton. But there are some choreographers one never warms to. Not everyone likes every masterpiece.

I think you answered this in your post, but just to be sure it's clear - do you see what other people say is so wonderful and it's not interesting to you (the visualization of the music, etc.), or do you not even see what they're talking about?

Link to comment

Ah, but is it ever that simple? Like it or not, your taste is what gets you into certain clubhouses, or keeps you out. I'm not a great one for arguing absolutes in taste, but I'll still tell you I know bad taste when I see it. We can say to each his own - the problems arise when the Dali-ists start getting jealous of the Monet-ites who happen to be the ones who have written all the art history books.

Link to comment

Since the only purpose of art is to give you an experience, but it's an experience YOU have to have, you can go a long time feeling one thing about a ballet or painting or novel and later find that a new experience of it is radically different from the last one. I like re-visiting paintings and novels and ballets --

Some can be hard nuts to crack, others can be so easy that you can go years without knowing what they "mean" -- or even what they're SAYING.

Lets’ talk about something other than ballets -- I remember being at a party dancing and my friend Jon was singing along to this song, a pretty pretty song by the Beatles,

"How does it feel to be/

one of the beautiful/


And i was shocked to realize that those were the words... I'd been listening to that song on the radio and nodding my head to it years already and never had a clue that it was ironic..... Beautiful PEOPLE?

Second example: I bought a Penguin paperback of Ivy Compton-Burnett's "A house and its Head" at a train station and tried to read it on my trip and could not get through the first page. Got home, put it on a shelf, every year or so I'd try again. Could not get through the first page. Dame Ivy never identifies who's talking, and the story is almost all dialogue. Finally, after about 10 years, i got it -- I was shocked. It was horrifying. This was a family around the breakfast table and they were being SO cruel to each other, it was like Wuthering Heights. Once you heard the voices, the tone carried it; and the tones were unbelievable. It was hard to tell which was harder to accept: A) the sustained acceptance of the rules of conversational engagement among the family, or B) the venom, the naked contempt, the brazen-faced parade of such ugly behavior.

But I had t be ready to suffer that, and it wasn’t till I understood more about my own family -- or had gotten far enough away from them to feel safe – that I was ready to see the resentments, rivalries, treacheries, sororicidal passions at play.

Link to comment

I revisted the Live at Lincoln Center Balanchine 100 Year Celebration I've taped to see if I could nail down what I do and don't see. Watching the Duo Concertant, I see the relationship of the dancers and the music - as well as the adagio section of the Concerto Barocco shown.

It's very obvious in Duo Concertant to me now, whether I'd noticed that before I'm not sure.

I think when I've seen a lot of Balanchine -- to me -- I've had the impression that the choreography was a tad too fast for the dancers to fully execute which is terribly distracting (from the MCB performances).

At that point, the student in me comes out and starts focusing on technique which will drain the enjoyment out of any performance.

Maybe enough reading has shed the light on what I was missing or these done by very talented dancers, in video illustrates it better.

After this minor revelation, I think I don't like it - but I do get it a little better. I like some parts, as well as the interpretation of the music physically. I want the music and some sort of emotion that pulls me in and I simply have not experienced this yet. I prefer stories, but a clear emotional line is satisfying as well.

In a bit of a twist, I was a bit disappointed the first time I saw Swan Lake... I'd listened to the music a lot before seeing the ballet and was let down that the choreography didn't 'sync' how I'd conceptually imagined in my mind. Maybe I'd go for the Balanchine interpretation. :wink:

Link to comment

Thanks, Nicoal, for reopening this strand. I will be attending 2 performances of Miami's Program III when it comes to West Palm Beach this weekend, and will have the chance to compare my reactions to yours.

I really appreciated your second post, because I also notice that, during Balanchine works, I tend to focus on the steps, and am often unable to appreciate larger patterns and sweep of the whole thing. So much happens -- steps, gestures, costumes, lights, interactions -- in such a short amount of time.

Let's face it, most purchasers of ballet tickets attend only a handful of first-rate, serious performances a year -- either by choice, or because that is all that is offered in their locality. They also patronize other performance arts. They look to be entertained.

I honestly don't know how someone like this could ever be expected to experience all the layers of feeling and meaning in a serious dance work. People looking for the kind of enjoyment provided by more accessible entertainment don't "get it" partly because they don't really know what they are looking at and have decided that it is not really worth the effort to achieve the enjoyment readily available in other art forms, including other kinds of dance. People know that the steps are "difficult", and are able to admire the work involved. But it takes a lot of experience -- repeated performances, some technical knowledge, a knowledge of the historical context, familiarity with different dancers, etc -- to "see" (and appreciate) most is going on. This is not unlike trying to watch an NBA game once or twice a year, without knowing anything about the plays, the players, the rules, the opposing teams, or the history of the season so far . It becomes a surface blur: so much to see, so much to miss.

I think that the programming of serious dance work is sometimes to blame. Outisde of the biggest cities, when there is a mixed bill, a single Balanchine comes first. There, in splendid isolation is this genuflection to "art," with appropriate polite applause. This is followed by something familiar (which alludes more directly to popular culture) by Tharp, Caniparoli, Stroman , etc. You can feel the audience heating up. Hey, we understand this. We are meant to leave the theater feeling good, with most of the people around us talking about how much they enjoyed the later works.

An all-Balanchine program, showing the range of feeling, style, and visual images that this choreography can yield, seems to serve Balanchine better than the isolated work. Miami's Program II last season, with Ballo della Regina, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Stars and Stripes, is an example of this. It produced a lot of enthusiasm and post-curtain chatter. Granted, these are "popular" Balanchine works. But people were given the time -- and a certain amount of comparative context -- to observe and learn about Balanchine in a variety of musical styles. And it seems to have worked -- that time, anyway.

Link to comment
This is not unlike trying to watch an NBA game once or twice a year, without knowing anything about the plays, the players, the rules, the opposing teams, or the history of the season so far .  It becomes a surface blur:  so much to see, so much to miss. 

Or else you see the game as I do, the few times I've gone, as a huge piece of performance art, rather like what I think the Roman Circuses must have been like!

Link to comment


I'm curious to see how you react, if I had the funds I'd like to see the program again with a bit more concentration paid to the Balanchine pieces.

I can completely understand your comments regarding so many things to take in at once - being a fairly long-standing ballet student, I can often get distracted by their technique; especially if I lose interest.

I own quite a few videos with a variety of choreographers, but none are Balanchine. Those which I might not have appreciated or liked so much (Choo San Goh's Configurations in The Dancer and the Dance w/Baryshnikov) I have come around on. I especially found a pas de deux striking, it brought tears to my eyes which is incredibly rare for me with ballet. And this was a piece Goh said was about the music and dance, not a certain emotional undercurrent or plot.

But with Balanchine, it's been more of a self-fulfilling prophecy - I don't get it or like it so I don't want to purchase it, therefore the only time I see it is live and often times for the first viewing of a certain piece.

I'd love to have a more broad scope of performances under my belt, but honestly I don't have that kind of expendable income or time. We get tickets to the four programs with MCB, but it's difficult to squeeze in a lot more.

As a last note, I think another major roadblock for me (and my husband) is Stravinsky. Both of us admire and thoroughly enjoy classical music but neither of us can wrap our ears around Stravinsky. Again, maybe this is something that will change with time but currently there are several pieces we've seen in performances that honestly made us both cringe... :angry2:

Link to comment


Thanks for your reply. You and I -- and most of the audience for serious dance in this country -- are pretty much in the same boat. I also am limited in the amount of dance I can see. And I find that much of what I "know" about ballet comes from a rather random collection of videos, often taped from Dance in America or other PBS source. ( I have the advantage that I saw a lot of dance in the 50s and 60s, though I admit I cut back a lot when the NYCB moved to that huge barn the State Theater -- little stick figures doing lots of steps far, far away). We love dance, but it is simply not possible to get from it what someone who attends dozens of NYCB programs a season or arranges vacation time to follow the ABT or Paris Opera or Kirov, etc. I have been learning a tremendous amount from following the Ballet Talk forums, but it takes a lot of effort to translate some of this into the dance selections, experience, resources, and (frankly) interest available to me.

I used to be in the fine wine business, and I think of ballet fans as being rather like wine lovers. Some become so involved -- in time, money, travel, collecting -- that they actually are able, in blind tastings, to identify specific vineyards and vintages. They have a vast wine vocabulary (analogies, technical language, etc.) and a deep sense of wine history. They are the ones responsible for keeping up the standards of the winemakers and wineries -- because they can identify variations, articulate ups and downs, etc.

The other folk simply love and value wine, and make sacrifices to enjoy it when they can. They really can't explain why they value this. They provide the bulk of the money spent on wine, but often fall into the "I like what I like" category. Many actually pay attention -- want to learn -- want to develop greater appreciation and understanding. They are a kind of "second string" just as necessary to the health of the wine business as the connoiseur.

Going back to ballet -- in the Ballet Talk forum, the second group often live (as you and I do) in areas that are not world dance centers. NYCB and ABT do not know us. The Royal Ballet passes us by. Danish is an accompaniment to coffee, but Bournonville n'existe pas. At best, we get visiting groups of less than stellar Russians (eg., a Sleeping Beauty in West Palm this spring) -- and marvelous touring contemporary dance companies. We also have our local or "regional" groups. Ballet Florida in West Palm. Several good contemporary companies in Miami.

This is what I do. I look at the tapes I have and try to "see" very clearly what is going on. I read as much as I have time for (the county library system has a surprising number of dance biogs and even videos). I go to as many performances as I can afford (two visits per program is a treat I give myself for Miami and Ballet Florida, but I have to go alone to the second performance). Seeing different casts do the same ballet is the single best thing I have done to develop my ability to "see" dance. I really hope you try it at least once.)

I would get the best possible seats I can afford (not really difficult in south Florida if you buy early in the season) and experiment until you find a viewpoint you really enjoy. (I personally prefer to be close to the stage, grand tier side, which allows me to see the patterns from above and slightly to the side). I use opera glasses judiciously. (I personally love to watch pas de deux with glasses -- to see the physicality up close makes the effect even more lovely and incomprehensible.

I read about the ballet (its creation, performance history, etc.) before the performance. The internet is a Godsend for this. When the performance is over, I try to DISCUSS the performance with at least one person who has seen it -- that really helps me, not only articulating (and listening) what we like, but also why we like it. I try to stick to the positive when I am disturbed or puzzled by a dance. Getting negative is, for me, just a way of shutting the door to future learning.

Also, I support the local company as much as possible, with cash if I can, but at least by talking up the performances among my friends (and in your case, fellow dance students). I support the artists, often applauding loudly and even bravo-ing because I admire that they can actually do this marvelous, difficult, incredibly beautiful thing -- and because I know that we can't all be at the top of our professions.

As for Stavinsky. Did I neglect to say that it is EARLY Stravinsky that moves me? Firebird, Apollo, Petruschka, Violin Concerto, etc. These are really worth listening to -- and watching Balanchine becomes a wonderful form of "listening" (this may take a while).

Link to comment


I think that was a wonderful, thoughtful post. I hope you'll write about as many of the performances you see as you can. I love to read about companies that I can't see -- I'm afraid Seattle to Florida routes are very limited, as is my vacation time -- and Miami City Ballet is one I'm very interested in.

There's also a forum for Modern (and other) Dance Performances, and I hope you'll write about contemporary dance groups you see as well.

Link to comment
I think that the programming of serious dance work is sometimes to blame.  Outisde of the biggest cities, when there is a mixed bill, a single Balanchine comes first.  There, in splendid isolation is this genuflection to "art," with appropriate polite applause.  This is followed by something familiar (which alludes more directly to popular culture) by Tharp,  Caniparoli, Stroman , etc.  You can feel the  audience heating up.  Hey, we understand this.  We are meant to leave the theater feeling good, with most of the people around us talking about how much they enjoyed the later works. 

This was how ABT programmed their recent tour to Houston. Started off with Mozartiana, and then Pillar of Fire followed by a Kylian. The Balanchine received lukewarm applause while the stirring Pillar and "witty" Kylian (what was it called again?) received wild cheers. Of course, I can't expect ABT to tour with a triple Balanchine bill, but I would have preferred to see it that way.

Link to comment


You've made some wonderful points.

We have similar seats and from other dance performances we've attended, this works best for us. Not too far away, but enough that you can get a scope of the overall design. We attended one evening of the International Ballet Festival (Gala) which was quite interesting, to see participants from all over the world - not just the home team and doing a wide variety of classical and more contemporary choreography.

The seats were a bit too close, but since most were small groups of dancers it wasn't too much of a hinderance. And there was a couple in a pas de deux that even though the technique was a bit shakey, their expressions and enthusiasm made up for it 10 times over. I was very pleased to be up close and personal for that.

What an interesting comparison to the wine world... I think something I tend to forget is that appreciating dance performance is a skill in-of-itself. Sometimes I figure because I'm so familiar with technique I'm ready to see a live performance, but what I'm coming to realize is I need to take off that student cap so as to not focus on occasional chicken wing arms or not-so-pointed feet.

Most importantly I think you pointed out is not to become negative. It's one thing to dislike a performance, but to take it in stride is important. I find myself getting grumpy because I don't like the music or the choreography first off. Gotta remember to relax and take it in and try to ruminate later what it is that I took issue with.

All in all, this is supposed to be fun, I can't forget that! :)

Link to comment

I certainly agree with bart's point about program-making. That most practical and sensible of people, George Balanchine, "understood that he had first to capture the interest and arouse the enthusiasm of the public who came to his theatre. Then they would want to come back, and he could show them something new and start to educate them further. He needed the initial interest and enthusiasm to show them they could learn to enjoy pieces that were not readily accessible, that did not disclose their qualities on first exposure... His tactic for exposing his audience to work they might tend to reject was to arrange the program with the 'hard' piece in the middle. No ballet needed this treatment more thanLiebeslieder Walzer... When it was new in the repertory,Liebeslieder was last on the program, and some people who thought they would not like it for one reason or another left after the second ballet... So Mr. B moved it to second on the program, people stayed to see the last ballet, and over time they got to like Liebeslieder, too." (I'm quoting from page 12 ofSuki Schorer on Balanchine Technique; don't let the name fool you, this is not just a dance manual. There's a lot of wonderful material, including quotes and anecdotes, about working with "Mr. B" in the book. Pity that part's not indexed.)

As to how to "get it," I think we're all different, and so what works for one may not work for another, but all the same maybe describing how I like to prepare for and watch a ballet performance would be helpful.

I always try to get some familiarity with the music beforehand, because I've found that having the music in mind provides me with a kind of outline or sketch-map of the ballet, and then at the performance I sit there and marvel - or maybe not! - at how the choreographer fills it in with vivid, living detail. Ideally, I have a good recording at home and a score from a library - libraries are great resources for stretching the budget! Maybe see if yours has print music? - to follow along as I listen. (This is not the same as reading music, hearing music in your head as you see it on the page. I can't do that, I'm not a musician.) Being able to see each note on the page as I hear it on the recording can take a little practice, but it's a great aid to concentration, and unless the music is something I don't much like, this is very pleasant work! And in the theatre, the visual tends to dominate the audible for me, so this prior practice makes it easier to adjust the balance and take in both parts of the performance.

In Balanchine's case especially, if I catch myself asking myself, Why does he do that there?, I've learned that it's a clue that I'm not listening. With his choreography, I find an essential part of the way to get it is to hear it as well as see it. If I apply the same method to other choreographers, it may show up a weakness in their dance's construction, in that the dance expression through movement may not be so intimately related to the musical expression of the moment, but only uses the music for mood and background, like in movies. The relation between those two kinds of expression is often constantly changing. Sometimes it's step for note, or "crash go the cymbals and up goes Pat McBride," as somebody once put it, but I think it's better if it's more subtle and complex.

Maybe an easy example to give is the moment near the end of Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, where the girl walks backward on toe out of the "Room with a Mirror" (as the location used to be identified at NYCB; MCB's program missed this) : Do you remember that as she goes, the harp sounds four slow, descending notes, and then the same notes a second time. In some performances, the girl takes a step on each note, so this can be an example of step for note, and at the same time, it's more. Those notes and the other music at that point say to us that the composer is winding down his event, and the choreographer, listening (as it were), disengages his dancers, and winds down his event; for me, there is some partnership here between the dance and the music, not just a use of music as setting, though there is certainly that in this, too. But it may not be for you. As I say, we're all different.

Nicoal, your "preparation" to see a performance ofSwan Lake by listening to the music for it didn't turn out so well, so this might not a good approach for you. Still, maybe you might like to try listening to the Tchaikovsky Second Piano Concerto before you see MCB'sBallet Imperial. (I don't know a good one on CD, although there were two on LP, one by Zhukov and the Moscow Radio Symphony conducted by Rozhdestvensky and another by Magalov and the London Symphony conducted by Colin Davis, which weren't reissued as far as I know.) Even hearing a bad recording might give you a little "warmup" for the events of the performance by giving you some familiarity, so that the performance itself will be more like a second time, and you may discover things you might have missed, and you can get some of the benefits of a repeat experience, as bart and I recommend, for the price of one, if that recording comes from your library. Another benefit I get from this approach is that I can see some of the ballet again in my mind when I listen to the recording again after I've seen the performance. More bang for the buck! I hope this helps some, and that you both get a bang out of MCB's Program IV.

Link to comment

Thank you, Jack, for your post. I also "see" the dance and hear the music in a way that is completely intertwined. But I honestly had not thought of previewing the music before the peformance. A lot of ballet music is so familiar -- or at least sounds familiar -- which encourages a certain amount of laziness. You have raised a challenge, and I hope to be able to locate and listen to Vittorio Rieti's score -- based on Bellini -- before Miami City Ballet's Sonnambula this weekend.

Incidentally, knowing the history of a ballet -- in this case choreographed for the Ballet Russe with legendary dancers like Danilova, Tallchief, Magallanes -- will very much add to the interest of the performances in 2005. Today's dancers (whose parents may not even have been born at the time of the premiere in 1946) are part of a long strand of tradition. Being aware of this is one of the greatest pleasures of watching serious dance.

Link to comment
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...