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A little knowledge

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As an architect and not a dancer, I have always thought about how we perceive/experience the "completed" work. This is, of course, the way it is meant to be experienced.. the completed and perfected work. We see paintings in museums, we experience buildings every day, furniture.. opera, theater and ballet, which is the nature of this site.

Yet to get to that final "perfect" work... requires enormous effort, knowledge, experience, training and rehearsal. Artists seem to love the entire process of getting to the completed work. As observers, we rarely see what came before, we don't see the painter painting, the architect drawing, the ballet dancers in rehearsal and so on.

However, if you are one of the artists or performers who are involved in these great artistic efforts, you will have a very different perspective on not only the whole process, but the final work.

A ballet dancer is IN the work and perceives it from INSIDE, from on the stage, not from the other side of the proscenium. And when they DO sit in the audience, the see the performance with such intimate knowledge of what is taking place on stage. Surely they attend the ballet that I do, but see something very different. Perhaps I see buildings very differently from ballerinas??

I have recently become more and more interested in ballet and opera as a "consumer". Unlike recorded music the power of the live performance is so much a part of the experience. Each time I attend I am intensely aware of how much work and coordination has gone into the performance which unfolds for ME. But I am extremely "naive" about the "technical" matters of the ballet and opera... as a dancer may be about how a building is created, or a painting.

Although all art involves time... time to create the work... some art is static when completed, and others, like music and ballet come alive in a unique snatch of time - "the performance"... and each performance... will be unique for any of a number of reasons.

As I am more and more drawn to the beauty of ballet I am wondering if I want to be looking deeper into how it was created, or do I want to remain naive and completely awed by what I see. Obviously, young people may be drawn to become dancers, performers or artists, but at my age all I could do is "study" intellectually how it all happens... perhaps observe rehearsals and so on.

I don't think I want to do that at this stage, but I wanted to receive the reactions to others about this topic. How much does more knowledge and insight add to the experience? Is there an "argument" for one to remain "sensitive" but untrained and uneducated to the technique, jargon and nuance of the genre? Would seeing all the hard work and so forth... "de-glamorize" the experience for me when I observe a performance? My gut reaction is that more knowledge DOES lead to an increased appreciation of the art. But do you lose a little of that "AWE" factor when you see how human it all is - art, that is?

What say you?

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There is a great quote that Arlene Croce uses in her review of John Curry (I think - it should be in "Going to the Dance") that she takes from R.P. Blackmur's "The Swan in Zurich". It's stayed with me for a long while and encapsulates your question quite well.

"All knowledge is a fall from the paradise of undifferentiated sensation."

You gain and you lose. Ballet truly is an insider's art - there are things that grow even more amazing when you know the work that goes into it. But it does remove one's innocence. There's no way any longer I can look at ballet and still see what a beginner sees.

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I think your architecture/ballet analogy will give you the answer you seek. I can't see in a building what you can, I'm sure. I may see a house that I think is beautiful and finely made (it's got trees and ivy and it's grey stone and it has a good view) and you'll not only know that it's a bad copy of a landmark building in some foreign clime that I've never seen, but see that the rooms don't flow in the best way, that it's not placed on the land correctly so it will get the sun at all the wrong times and no cross-breeze in the summer, that the stone isn't native to that area, and that the balance of the rooms is off. But you'll still see the beauty in (pick your favorite Gothic cathedral, or simple federal house in an old town). You'll just know how it was made.

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Another quotation which you may find relevant:

"I should say that a knowledge of technique is essential to the full understanding of the ballet but not necessary for its appreciation; for the latter I think that emotional or intellectual reaction to the music, movement and decor is quite enough.

For my own part, the less I knew of ballet the greater was my enjoyment; too carping an attitude is a great hindrance to enjoyment and a little knowledge can mar a lot of pleasure."

Frederick Ashton, 1947

For MY own part, I found that the learning curve took me through a rather depressing period where I knew enough to carp but not enough to appreciate the best properly - perseverance pays!

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As a musician, I want to learn about dance notation to a degree at least, and then juxtapose it to the musical scores. I'm interested if musicians do a lot of this, and if, say, people in ballet orchestras often know ballet notation. As far as falls from innocence go, the fall is good for getting the knowledge, but I do think you can get the sense of wonder back even with the knowledge, because I can always get it back for music eventually. I do think, however, that you have to sometimes leave off all technical concerns in your mastered discipline for temporary periods if you want to get the sense of innocence, wonder, whatever you want to call it--that can be a kind of discipline in itself, in that you learn to leave off all the intellectual part and let the pure sensation be replenished. Of course, since music is so much a part of ballet, I can even use ballet as a means to recapture the wonder of music itself while I learn about ballet--because when I am trying to learn what I don't know about ballet, I can suspend consciousness about the music and hear it in a more instinctive way again, and quite as if I were not a musician. This started with the more obviously great music, as with Balanchine's and Ashton's use of Ravel, as well as MacMillan's Prokofiev in the Czinner 'Romeo and Juliet', but, lo and behold, I watched a Kirov tape of 'Le Bayadere' last night, and even sold my soul to Minkus. It was so well-played by the orchestra under this stern-looking conductor, I thoroughly enjoyed all of it. My only problem with learning more about the technical aspects and some dance notation is fear of being too lazy to do it! My first step is to follow more orchestral scores along with the ballets. I've done this now with 'La Valse' to the Ashton. Now I've got the 4 volumes of Baletnoe tvorchestvo: Spi︠a︡shchai︠a︡ krasavit︠s︡a. v. 1 by Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich, 1840-1893.

Gos. Muzykalʹnoe being brought in from Lincoln Center Library to follow along with. I fully believe that adding as many elements as possible adds to the greatest kind of joy in all the Arts, at least for me. When it feels like labour, that's maybe not fun, but it does then pay off.

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Since at my age actually studying dance is not a possibility, and so I could only do it in an "intellectual" way reading and perhaps going so far as to observe classes or rehearsals. I could never "feel" dance in my bones so to speak.

However, without a trained eye, I still can see which dancers are "exceptional" or seem to perform and move with "exceptional grace and control". Perhaps this is one of the earmarks of genius, that it is able to transcend our nativity and penetrate our consciousness in such a splendid way.

Two weeks ago we watch Le Corsaire with Medora performed by Paloma Herrera. This is the second time in two years we have seen her perform that part. I watched her very closely and I was struck by how completely fluid and in sync with the score she danced... Although this statement on the face would describe any dancer, I particularly noted her upper body, arms and hands and she moved them in a way I have not observed in the past. It got me thinking if I wasn't looking more closely this second time and it was part of the education of study and detail... and hence the original topic post. How much does an observer such as myself go to amplify the experience? I don't want to be keenly aware of technique because it reminds me of looking at the brush strokes of a painting and not stepping back and seeing the entire work.

The impressionists played those marvelous "tricks" by desconstructing form into "brush strokes" and giving us the entire "impression" without perfect detail of "realism". Degas has wonderful impressions of the ballet studio, but seeing the ballet in motion, in time is an experience with leaves me dumbfounded. When I rise from my seat to leave I feel so terribly heavy and awkward and flawed as a human.. after experiencing the perfection which is ballet... and it makes me think... How is this all done? Conceived? What a mystery and what beauty! I don't even have the language to describe what I see... let alone understand it!

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DefJef, you raise a number of very interesting questions. Thanks. We've all had to try to answer this for ourselves, to some extent or other, consciously or unconsciously, as our fascination with ballet increased.

I love the Ashton quote posted by Jane. :D

Like many, I went through the "I don't know what's going on, but it's lovely" stage.

After a time, as I attended multiple performances of the same work (specifically at NYCB in the Balanchine days), I began to notice subtle differences which underlined the technical and aesthetic choices being made, as well as the accidental and random aspects which are part of live performance.

Then I entered a much-too-long "carping" stage and became very prone to passionate likes and dislikes, with lots of disgruntlement and disappointment.

When I got sick of that, I moved on.

A person who looks at a building or public space, who moves through it and uses it, is part of an on-going act of creation started by the architect. Just watch the crowds wending their way up and down the Spanish Steps or moving at different speeds, in different formations, and in different directions across St Peter's Square. I can't imagine these constructions without including the presence of those of us who are drawn to them.

Something similar happens when several thousand individuals settle into their seats, the lights go down, the music begins, and the curtain goes up. We may be, as Pascal said, merely reeds -- but we're "thinking reeds." The more you know, the more possible responses you will have. I hope you will continue to be astonished by them -- and will enjoy them as well.

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When I rise from my seat to leave I feel so terribly heavy and awkward and flawed as a human.. after experiencing the perfection which is ballet... and it makes me think... How is this all done? Conceived? What a mystery and what beauty! I don't even have the language to describe what I see... let alone understand it!

I always feel as though the dancing inspires me to focus on my own movements, however much less rarefied. Watching great ballet quickens me physically, even though I can't do any of the things I just saw on stage. It's possible to make your everyday movements more focussed and composed if you can keep images of the ballet dancers in your mind. In fact, there's not a thing I find of more use in a 'practical' sense than the way watching ballet energizes me physically. I don't know if others find this happening to them, but it immediately results in brain-sharpening and more composing of the movements so that you take care and do things more precisely. Since I've been concentrating more on Ballet Talk on keeping ballet in mind a large amount of the time, I haven't spilled anything and have broken only one wine glass. I think it's just a matter of keeping the music and some of the images going in your mind; this isn't some precious thing, it just is a matter of focussing on the presence of one's own movements.

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Since at my age actually studying dance is not a possibility, and so I could only do it in an "intellectual" way
Don't be so sure. I'm well on in years and took my first ballet class about 14 months ago.

Work at the barre and the relatively simple combinations of steps given in most adult beginners' classes may not come easily, but they DO come ... The challenge for me was more mind-body connectivity than anything.

(You started this thread with the concept of a "perfect" work of art. Ballet class has made me so much more aware of the slow, developmental process. The concept of perfection -- with all the self-judgment that it implies -- simply went out the door.)

And I'm really happy I've taken this route. My experience in the class has revolutionized the way I see dance performances as a member of the audience. (There have been some interesting discussions of this process both here and, to a greater extent, on our sister site Ballet Talk for Dancers.)

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I love all the quotes given here, but also keep thinking how a painting or sculpture or architecture are not at all like ballet which is a *living* art. It is flesh and bones, athleticism, soul and sex, as well as great structure and great imagination... when at its best. I'd think that the more one knows about what goes into creating a ballet and it's dancers, the deeper the overall appreciation would also be. A first kiss versus matured, deep passion...

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Of course!!!!!!! Each ballet performance lives but one time... the same painting hangs on the wall until it turns to dust. Performance is very special because it is a unique experience through a snatch of time.. precious and fleeting. Yet that performance is the result of thousands and thousands of hours of work... by the dancers, the corps, the musicians, the composer, the choreographer, the set designers and builders... and it involves in a sense ALL the hours of ALL their training all meeting in one performance which might last but an hour... and you get to see it from only one unique location.

But this is only one wonderful aspect which makes a ballet such a precious art form... or opera for that matter.

But it must be noted that the world is divided into two general classes of people... those who have intimate knowledge of (in this case) ballet... and those who do not. But of course there are those who leave the later class and begin the process of entering the class in the know... and this DOES change the experience of perhaps not only ballet, but of movement and gesture and posture and who knows how many other things.

I am not motivated at almost 60 to learn to do ballet... but I am tickled by the idea of becoming more knowledgeable about the art because it MAY make the performances I attend so much more "robust". But I fear becoming focused on looking for "technique" and so on and not having the experience of being "washed over" by the whole gestalt... the balance, the form, the extension, the precision.. sometimes like a flower growing right before your eyes! I love to be wowed by the incredible poise and timing and perfection and sitting their in stunned disbelief of how a ballet might come together. Dance is a language I feel but cannot speak and I wonder how these works are created.

Do you get lost in looking at the trees so closely that you can miss the splendor of the forest? Scientists and almost all creative people MUST focus on detail and precision of the "very small" because it is reflected in the very large... in the way each brick must be precisely placed to make a perfect wall.

And then there is the notion that a ballet.. is a "set" work when done by a choreographer... and it only changes with the orchestra, the dancers, the theater and perhaps the set... Each performance is a somewhat exact replica of the vision of the choreographer... each one takes on a "personality"... a signature... like when a song is "covered" or sung by a different artist. To begin to see all this requires a far amount of "familiarity" and knowledge and exposure. Since ballet performances are so few and far between it takes a long time to "get there". Even opera you can at least listen to recordings... not so with ballet as far as I know... And unlike a play.. you can't even read it and use your imagination. Ballet is unique this way.

What say you?

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First of all, you write so beautifully... It would be such fun to read your thoughts after seeing specific performances. Ballet Talkers are not at all only interested in professional craft knowledge, or professional writer voices. This website is full of a variety of ballet lovers just as passionate as you! We all learn from each other -- no tights, slippers and dance classes required!

>>I love to be wowed by the incredible poise and timing and

>>perfection and sitting there in stunned disbelief of how a ballet

>>might come together...

We do too!

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I'm reminded of how I tear up with joy every time I see the holiday tree growing in Balanchine's Nutcracker Act 1 leading to Clara's bed gliding in the soft snow. I think I'll always see it that way... as a beginner (as with many other amazing moments in ballets)... At least I hope I do. Some kisses are like that too...

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I've seen many ballets many different times, with many different dancers. I get the most pleasure by watching someone new to the role, who either nails it, or usually who shows great promise in the role. And, I will look foward to watching his/her interpretation evolve and bloom in all of its glory!!!!!!

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Whether you make a formal study of ballet, or learn more about it simply by watching more performances, your perceptions will change. It might be interesting to keep a sort of dance diary--write down how you feel about the performances that you see now, and later when you have a more "sophisticated" appreciation of ballet, reread what you wrote about your first impressions.

As a parent of a dance student, I have sat through many Nutcracker performances. I wonder what it will be like to see a Nutcracker years from now when I am no longer caught up in the whole ballet school drama of it all. It would be nice to get the magic back again.

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As Mrs. Stahlbaum says, over time "your perceptions will change." Enjoy the process!

Do you get lost in looking at the trees so closely that you can miss the splendor of the forest?

I guess my response is that it is possible experience do both, with the eye -- and mind -- panning in and out like a movie camera. Sometimes, when things are just right, you can focus on both simultaneously. Like the dancer, the audience should never rest for too long.

The key variable for me is the time (and, alas, $$$$ :blushing: ) to see multiple performances of ballets, preferably with different casts.

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