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Has Classical Ballet detached from reality?

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Hi

I have recently have heard it said that ballet has detached itself from reality, and that is the reason why fewer and fewer young people are currently practising this art form. The person who said this (who is quite respected among South American dance communuties) claimed that, on its emphasis on extreme thinness and androgynous looks, young girls tend to devote themselves to other dance forms which enable to show their feminity and with which they may feel more closely identified.

I wonder what you would think about this.

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I'm not sure that ballet has ever been that connected to reality. Plus, based on the explosion of Summer Intensive sessions in the U.S. every summer, it seems that ballet participation (at the student level) has boomed over the last couple decades here.

I think the greater challenges are funding in a TV/movie world.

jayo

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I'm with jayo; I don't think ballet has ever had much to do with reality. After all, how many people express affection by lifting their partner and swooping her into a fish-dive in the Real World? The escapist factor is one of the main things that draws me to ballet, actually. Perhaps if people weren't so afraid of that, it'd be more appealing.

Stateside at least, ballet is often associated with all that is ultra-feminine and "girly." Many dance studios are painted pink, with Degas posters, for example, and male dancers often have their sexuality and masculinity called into question. If anything, if ballet had more androgynous appeal, we'd have more boys taking up ballet than we do currently. This particular issue with the "femininity" of ballet as an art form is a different issue IMO from the current vogue for "boyish" and often unrealistic physiques in female dancers, which is nonetheless a major issue for ballet, and may well be a factor in deterring some people from enjoying it.

I also agree that the popularity of watching ballet might be at a different place than the popularity of "doing" ballet. However, if the SI's and schools do a good job at teaching ballet, one would hope the students would come away with a greater appreciation for the art form!

Funding is a can of worms these days, unfortunately.

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For me, the beauty of ballet both conjures an ideal world and hints at the goodness at the heart of this world. In that sense, for me it's an escape, but an escape into a heightened reality. I may be wrong, but I have to think that one reason ballet isn't more popular, and that many regional ballet companies have to replace Classical and Romantic works with contemporary choreography, is that we live in these relatively cynical and unromantic times, when dark and "edgy" art and entertainment is favored over the beautiful, and the graphic is favored over the suggestive. The latter conveys more Eros than sexiness; it's more about longing -- and as such has more creative power -- than it is about temporary satisfaction. In that sense, the beauty of a classical port de bra really is marginal and detached from what's seen as down to earth reality.

I'm guessing that among many casual balletgoers, victims in my opinion of popular culture, the dance doesn't resonate like it could. It has dimensions they're not in the habit of looking for, so that for example even when they do the holiday thing and go to the Nutcracker, even to a traditional version by a fine professional company, they may enjoy it as a pretty and sentimental story, but not fully sense its depth. On a subconscious level beautiful may get confused with pretty, and there are a lot of other places to go for pretty.

In a similar vein, when older balletomanes and dancers say that today's dancers don't have individuality and the resultant degree of star power, I have to wonder if one reason is that many have been handicapped by this hard-edged culture, so that even some of the most sensitive and intelligent among them don't feel fully at home in what the choreography is expressing. If in their time off they listen to Coldplay rather than Mozart, won't they dance better to Coldplay than Mozart?

Theologian Karl Barth wrote that listening in Mozart he was "transported to the threshold of a world which in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world." Commissioned by a local newspaper to write a "Letter of Thanks to Mozart," he wrote in part that "with an ear open to your musical dialectic, one can become young and become old, can work and rest, be content and sad: in short, one can live." My guess is that ballet lovers, particularly the older ballet lovers still among us, tend to understand what he's talking about better than do people who reject ballet as detached from reality.

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kfw,

That was an amazing post. I'm awestruck by the thought/conclusion,

On a subconscious level beautiful may get confused with pretty, and there are a lot of other places to go for pretty.

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Under the surface of your comments, kfw, lurks a fundamental question: Which reality? There is the reality of our urbanized, commericialized society on the one hand. Yes, it is possible for classical ballet to address aspects of that. But there is the reality of the soul, where beauty need not be pretty, where the eternal themes of love, death, pain and joy reside. Plenty of that in the best of ballet.

And that's all there is in Mozart!

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Thankyou kfw for such a beautiful post. Your first paragraph says so much and I'm touched by what you've expressed. Perhaps a dose of Mozart would do everyone some good!

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I think that in some ways, ballet has detached itself from the audience. I recently took a friend who had never seen ballet to Giselle, and contrary to my expectations, he preferred Act II to Act I, not because he knew anything about dancing, but because he could tell what was going on--the action is built in to the choreography. Act I requires mime to tell us what's going on (as you can't peek at the program synopsis in the dark) and today's dancers and AD's are so overly familiar with the plot that they expect a few rather vague gestures to speak paragraphs--even I had a tough time figuring out what they were trying to express sometimes.

Dancers live an extremely cloistered life, often having little or no contact with those of us beyond the footlights, and it's easy to start regarding that big black space as a void where the mirror is supposed to be. Talk to a dancer after a performance and they ask you, "Did you notice when I wobbled during the promenade?" and not, "What did you think of my characterization?"

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Kfw's comments are brilliant.

The reaction of Hans' friend to Act I of Giselle -- and preference for the more abstract Act II -- is also something to ponder. This response may reflect a cultural lack of comfort -- and identification -- with the traditional and rather rigid hierarchies found in Giselle's village world -- a world not unlike Prince's world in Act I of Swan Lake, or the extreme social etiquette that leads Carabosse to curse Aurora at the start of Sleeping Beauty, etc.. Classical ballet began as a very ritualized entertainment for royal courts. Social hierarchy in ballet is usually immutable in a way we no longer understand and of which most of us deeply disapprove in the modern world. Violating the established order -- even unwittingly, as with Giselle's attachment to Albrecht -- is almost always punished. Think of poor Odette, an innocent victim if there ever was one. Conversely, hierarchy is frequently celebrated, as with the often tedious promenades for Kings, Queens, courtiers, etc.

Similarly, gender roles -- one aspect of the "romantic" impulse mentioned by kfw -- are generally fixed, traditiional and unquestioned. Ballet characters seem more willing to cross species lines -- James and Sylphide, Florine and Bluebird, Siegfried and Odette -- than threaten traditional gender roles.

Audiences -- especially younger audiences -- have very few cultural references to prepare them for the value system and behavior code of your typical classical ballet. I know people who find this kind of art both irrelevant and affected.

My own feeling is that the dance and musical elements outweight all of this. I also appreciate very much kfw's sophisticated understanding -- and defense -- of the very high level of escapism provided by ballet and, indeed, all the classical arts:

For me, the beauty of ballet both conjures an ideal world and hints at the goodness at the heart of this world. In that sense, for me it's an escape, but an escape into a heightened reality.

....

Theologian Karl Barth wrote that listening in Mozart he was "transported to the threshold of a world which in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world." Commissioned by a local newspaper to write a "Letter of Thanks to Mozart," he wrote in part that "with an ear open to your musical dialectic, one can become young and become old, can work and rest, be content and sad: in short, one can live." My guess is that ballet lovers, particularly the older ballet lovers still among us, tend to understand what he's talking about better than do people who reject ballet as detached from reality.

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Thank you, everyone, for your kind words. Bart, “brilliant” is waay too kind and better applies to your own comments here, but I’ll take the compliment while I can get it! carbro, thanks for your comments too, but either I misunderstand you, or we actually agree.

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Just a quick note: in the case of my friend, he is very involved in drama and has performed Shakespeare, so I don't think he was bothered by the old fashioned social hierarchies and/or gender stereotypes.

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Hans, I'm delighted to hear that about your friend.

In theater, a popular trend in Europe at least is to reset Shakespeare and other classics in some strange 20th-century world -- for instance, the Court of Denmark as a den of mafiosi, slick, vulgar and violent. Same with opera.

Our time has its own hierarachies -- as firmly based in wealth, power and propaganda as any in the past. But "art" today tends to want to wipe away the veneer of divine right and inherited glamour that certain classical ballets continue to promote.

I reallize, of course, that some ballet classics have been (similarly?) re-set as to time and cultural allusion. The use of 30s-40s movie glamour (NOT inherited) and semi-fascist chic in certain productions I've read about seem tp be attempts to translate the classics into a world of more familiar cultural allusions. Unfortunately they rarely work. Though, I admit I'm fond of Nureyev's Hollywood Cinderella. And the Mark Morris Nutcracker.

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Hi

I have recently have heard it said that ballet has detached itself from reality, and that is the reason why fewer and fewer young people are currently practising this art form.  The person who said this (who is quite respected among South American dance communuties) claimed that, on its emphasis on extreme thinness and androgynous looks, young girls tend to devote themselves to other dance forms which enable to show their feminity and with which they may feel more closely identified.

I wonder what you would think about this.

Hi,

Ballet like classical music is always a way out of reality. I listen to a lot of classical music, that's part of my job, so the moment I sit down and relax the world outside is non existing anymore. The same for ballet! It is pre eminent to sever the connection with your daily life in order to feel and understand what is going on. It is a world where your fantasy is master, and will dictate where the road will go. That is the only way to fall deep into the crevice and will grant you the insights you need. I am able yo sever all ties during a performance and dig deep into whatever I look at. Communication at that moment is impossible with me, I go into a sort of trance.Mentally it drains me, but the total experience is breathtaking I asure you.

And apart from that ballet as music had never anything to do with reality, god forbid, we would be the poorer for it!

Walboi

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