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Bill T. Jones

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I like the idea of "American danztheater" -- not that he's consciously so (he may be; I don't know) but the effect is the same. I think this ties into the "victim art" comment. To a formalist like Croce (who didn't try to review something she hadn't seen, I think, but rather attacked the genre, or trend, of something that was bubbling around at the time that she didn't like) a dance work where dance was not the predominant element, but, in fact, the subject matter was, would be grounds for a tirade. The idea, which is definitely very non-PC, that the subject matter was chosen with donors and audience in mind will probably be controversial for a long time.

To go back to the tanzteater idea -- what are its rules for the balance between form and content? I've admired many of Bausch's pieces that were very much content-centered, but I found the movement invention riveting: there was more than an Idea. (I write this knowing that many people loathe Bausch :wink: ) Where is the line?

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There are two parallel conversations going on here (Jones's work, and what ballet can/should do), and I'm interested in both, but I want to separate my posts so that I can think more clearly.

I would certainly classify myself as a ballet enthusiast, and I like Jones's work very much. I haven't seen his most recent piece, but did see the big theatrical things in the 80s/90s (especially Uncle Tom's Cabin and Still/Here) and have always been interested in the way he tries to bring the world into the theater. I think we saw that as early as Blauvelt Mountain (the duet with Zane where they built a stone wall on stage), but it has become more overt as he's added text to his work.

When Croce wrote her essay, it ripped through the dance community, and has been vibrating ever since. Although it has come to be applied to many different issues that we've confronted in the arts (censorship, sexuality, racism are only a few), in the beginning, her objection was about the use of sick people as participants in a performance. "In theater, one chooses what one will be. The cast members of Still/Here -- the sick people whom Jones has signed up -- have no choice other than to be sick." She felt that this intrusion of the real world made her job of critical analysis impossible -- that she couldn't bring herself to judge people on how well they 'performed' being ill. Living with AIDS or cancer couldn't be a performance for her, and to include that reality in an artificial construct was to make it impossibly off-balance. I think that for her, with her deep understanding of abstraction in dance, a person is as much a symbol as an individual onstage -- to put someone with cancer onstage would make them the personification of disease, while they are still the victim of it. To objectify them (in order to write about them analytically) was impossible -- to consider the work of art while the individuals kept their own identity was equally impossible -- it was, as the title of her essay says, "undiscussable."

Her concerns are still with us in the dance world -- the recent article in the Guardian about William Forsythe's

Three Atmospheric Studies

spends as much time examining whether dance can be political as it does the dance itself. And if that wasn't close enough, the author (John O'Mahony) speaks with Croce about this issue and gets the following comments:

"Choreographers mix dance with politics because it is the only way to get attention. And get grants too, probably. The importance of a work is equated with the nobility of the sentiment it expresses. I've stopped attending dance attractions because the last thing I want to see is dancers wasting their time on some high-minded godawful piece of choreography. I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am."

Aside from the more incendiary comments on new works, I think this is her actual complaint -- the emphasis on subject matter: "The importance of a work is equated with the nobility of the sentiment it expresses." I think, for Croce, the most noble dancing was the most abstract -- that the subject matter was of almost no importance. The showgirls of Who Cares and the denizens of the Elysian fields in Chaconne were equal in their importance as exemplars of classicism.

I've had the opportunity to discuss several "undiscussable" things in my writing life, and it has indeed been very difficult, but I am glad that I've done it, and have continued to write and talk about these topics. I have the greatest respect for Croce, as do all my writing colleagues, but these are issues where we each have to make our own decisions, and try to write our way to understanding. Which, honestly, is all we ever do.

If you're curious about her viewpoint, the essay is reprinted in her anthology Writing in the Dark. And if you'd like to know more about the response from other critics, in dance and in other fields, there's a lovely small anthology edited by Maurice Berger called The Crisis of Criticism.

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I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am."

I love this! I don't want to see any ballets about Iraq or Bush or Katrina, nor any modern probably either although Martha Graham could have done more 'tragedy of war' things with various events, but I don't want to be told about them by anyone older OR younger (if also dumber) than I am.

Anyway, nice work there, Sandik.

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And onto the other topic, what ballet can/should do, I am going to step very lightly and disagree mildly with Alexandra and Leigh. In its core, ballet is indeed about 'what we can be,' but I think the path we use to get to that topic can vary wildly, and along the way can incorporate all kinds of elements. To use an example that's already been mentioned, Tudor's Dark Elegies is at its most powerful when it is seen inside a ballet environment -- his manipulations of the Cecchetti style read most clearly when they are close to their source. Without that context, it is a good piece of choreography, but it is so much more profound when it is seen in that environment.

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I think, for Croce, the most noble dancing was the most abstract -- that the subject matter was of almost no importance. The showgirls of Who Cares and the denizens of the Elysian fields in Chaconne were equal in their importance as exemplars of classicism.
Yes! And, what's more, I think this was true of many of us who were awakened to unanticipated artistic possibilities by the work Balanchine produced and encouraged in the early decades of NYCB. For some of us in that generation, it's difficult to ask ballet for more. But Balanchine himself seemed to see ballet as a surprisingly big tent. How, I wonder, would he respond to the curent vogue for danztheater?

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So maybe, moving away from Croce and Still/Here, what are people's thoughts on Jones today and how he is perceived?

I hope we don't lose sight of this question.

Or of the matter of why contemporary CLASSICAL ballet tends to the other extreme: ignoring almost entirely major social or political issues of today. (

I remember reading the Miss Croce article and agreed that you don't have to see something to comment upon it if you have enough information on the subject. I have from across the pond, read reviews of Jones's work together with interviews he has given and wondered how the dance-world in London would respond to some of his works and doubted that I would want to see them. This is not because I do not think the issues he addressed are unsuitable for dance, they are just unsuitable for me. Because he has an audience, and a right to make works, I say more power to Mr. Jones method of expression as I am against arts fascism. Let every artist create their own genre and let audiences respond in their numbers.

I am not especially inclined to want to see social or political issues of today in classical dance realistically expressed, which Bart suggests are ignored in classical ballet as subject matter. Classical ballet is not reportage. I only want to receive the message I want to receive and in the genre I prefer.

My taste for dance include a very wide range of expression and I admire a number of companies/choreographers who operate within their own stylistic genre which is not classical dance.

Realism per se in art is impossibility, because art by definition uses its devices to communicate on a different level to that of a visual documentary. I go to the theatre to see a 'universal' representation of the human condition not a particular one.

Whilst Kenneth Macmillan had a more than moderate success with his original production of 'Rome and Juliet', his tackling the subjects of such as Anastasia, Isadora and Mayerling were disappointing to me in the extreme. Why, because his language of

realism, went for me, beyond the art of the genre, to a level of crudity of expression that seemed either to be a failure of inspiration or an impelling desire to shock. The subjects were 20th century and well-known if not absolute current. For me he attempted to use what I can only describe as a phony realism, as the actual events are unknown in their

particulars. Call it artistic licence if you like but where is the artistic truth of the genre

of the company he was working with. I don't think he was expanding the classical dance repertoire but he was certainly changing it and a vulgarity of histrionic emoting became acceptable to many members of the clssical ballet audience. MacMillan did not

create a new genre as examples of his choreographic mode can be found elsewhere.

I am not sure that 'realism' has a place in the classical ballet theatre because it has resonances for me that are anti-theatrical. The dance theatre is a place where the ‘world’ is re-constructed into a model which employs physical and mimetic metaphors as its language to communicate. No one actually sleeps with anyone or really dies on stage but in a convincing performance we believe this has happened.

Art is about the evoking or the representation of a psychological experience and in the theatre the depiction of what is real, does not need realism to do this. You do not see blood when a ballet dancer performing Mercutio is run through, but great dance actors convince you that you are watching a tragic event and you respond emotionally caught up in the passage of events that had happened and what must surely follow.

There is nothing in one's personal experience of today which we might term as real (apropos realism), that is different from that of civilisations of the distant past. How so called realism is depicted in modern dance is no more real than that it is in classical ballet. In both cases a theatrical mode is employed with more or less subtlety in some cases more than it others. The resulting experience of the audience is dependant upon the sophistication of both the creator and the viewer.

19th century classical ballet firmly deals with real life physical and psychological experience as Bart states. As a sophisticated art form, 19th century classical ballet does not employ anything as prosaic as realism, but uses the elevated art forms of allegory, symbolism and allusion to stimulate a response in the viewer which can have a deeper resonance than real life events seen on television news, because of the power of the performance combined with the receptive mode that we adopt when in a theatre.

If audiences cannot see the portrayal of various psychological types and the takes on moral and social values in early ballets, it makes me wonder if I am watching what everybody else is watching.

In the life which is referred to as real, we experience beautiful, shoddy and tragic events which stimulate psychological responses. When an art form is employed in a sophisticated way depicting people and events both real and invented, it also stimulates psychological responses. To give an audience an ‘in your face’ experience of realism, says to me that the creator lacks a sophisticated theatrical skill. ‘Little is more’, is to me a vulgar expression but it conveys my views on so called graphic ‘realism’ on the dance stage.

Allusion is the stylistic device in the theatre which conveys more subtly and more effectively than any amount of realism because, the viewer engages at a psychological level in an individual way to what is being performed and the experience becomes highly personal and heightened because of their own experience of life plays a part.

Alexandra states correctly that classical ballets “… deal with timeless emotions/questions/issues in a way that is suited to the language, customs and ideals of the art form.”

The best artists recreate in their works, the human condition at a level of experience that can arouse disturbing, or elevating responses in the viewer. Is there not human tragedy in Giselle and La Sylphide? Classical ballet is after all an art form not a visit to the bull-ring. Whilst art can be appreciated by everyone in their own way, the arts deserve to be discussed in ways that endeavour to meet and understand the values of the expression of the form/genre, rather than criticise the methods it chooses not to use.

The popularity of 19th century classical ballets is not waning and it appears to me it is ever expanding. Ask the question why? It is not just the music. It is not just the scenery and costumes. It is the the mode of expression and the performance by good artists

that make this a fact.

Modern regular audiences of classical ballet may be tired of the repertoire that is presented perhaps because they believe they are entitled to the 'fix' of the 'new' which

typifies the era we live in. I certainly have seen more than 200 performances of "Swan Lake" yet I still find some felicitous detail today which I had not appreciated before.

Dare I say going to watch classical ballet is for me a serious thing. It is not in your face entertainment though there are some dancers who think it is and Directors of Ballet companies allow their audience pleasing tricks to take place.

Studying ballet technique doesn't open all the doors to the appreciation of the classical ballet genre. I think like any other art, if you are seduced by its creative appeal, learn to appreciate it for what it is and not what it might be. Classical ballet remains the most popular dance form in the western hemisphere and h

is now conquering the middle and far east.

Curiously enough eastern dance forms are becoming popular in Europe as the

best companies reflect a dedication to the truth of the values of the genre in its historic style of dance expression. It may be that eastern classical dance may become more popular for modern audiences than 'modern' dance.

When one thinks of the success of the Rambert Ballet and Nederland Dance Theatre in the 1960's and and 1970's one wonders where this popularity among the London dance audience disappeared to.

In London, Tango companies are successful in medium size venues as are Flamenco dance companies. Modern dance companies appear to attract new audiences but is generally companies like Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor that have the biggest success.

The problem that beset the classical ballet world today, is its failure to produce any choreographers of real standing. I would suggest that this is also the problem that besets

modern dance and perhaps Bill.T. Jones in his physical dance expression is filling a gap that some of the dance audience wants to experience.

AMENDED 7/10/2006

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Thanks, Ray, for that link. Croce's recent position, and the response of those who favor this kind of dance expression, are represented fairly well here:

Croce rarely speaks publicly these days, but did break her silence in a faxed statement to me: "Choreographers mix dance with politics because it is the only way to get attention. And get grants too, probably. The importance of a work is equated with the nobility of the sentiment it expresses. I've stopped attending dance attractions because the last thing I want to see is dancers wasting their time on some high-minded godawful piece of choreography. I don't want to be told about Iraq or Bush or Katrina by someone younger and dumber than I am."

Reading excerpts from the fax to Jones threatened to rekindle the feud. "I can't believe she would say such a stupid thing," he gasped. "Does she think that all the dancers working in the 1930s, making work that was very social-minded, were they all trying to get 'attention'?"

No one who has posted thus far on Ballet Talk has advocated something so specific, detailed, and obviously polemical as the Forsythe piece -- not for classiscal ballet, anyway. A good cause hammered into your eyes and head will rarely if ever be artistic or something you want to see again and again. Ballet is a non-verbal art which comes across best when it does not attempt to find visual equivalents of shouting. Leonid is right to remind us of the role of agit-prop performance as patronized both by the Communists and Fascist/Nazis in the 1930s.

A while ago, in a pm exchange with another member of Ballet Talk, I tried to imagine ways in which "situations" such as the Anne Frank story, or a generic war and terror situation centered in the Middle East, etc., could be turned -- by the right choreographer -- into a beautiful, uplifting, even idealistic ballet work, one which is "modern" in concept but relies primarily on classical technique for the most part, and which does NOT beocme bogged down in specific details and cartoonish advocacy. I can almost imagine such a work.

Then, to my surprise, I realized I would not necessarily want to see it -- more than once anyway.

I am glad that ballet companies now incorporate the best modern work in this genre (Joffrey's and ABT's revivals of The Green Table, for instance). But I've come to agree with those who feel that ballet's unique style, language, and emotive force is best suited to other kinds of expression.

Perhaps this great aesthetic division in the dance world comes down to matters of personal taste after all, which we then try to rationalize into aesthetic position papers. :wink:

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Robert Greskovic wrote something in Ballet 101 that is particularly apt here: "Ballet is not a realistic art form; it’s a lyrical poetic one."

That definition is very wide dramatically, however, wide enough to accomodate La Bayadere, Raymonda, La Fille Mal Gardee, Don Q, Napoli and many other works. The tent of classical dance accomodates a great deal of theater and a great deal of drama. It's an important point to make because the argument that ballet is not "realistic" is easily distorted or easily trends into the view that it is therefore "idealized" and "abstract" or something like that by nature and that is not true. I don't think that anyone advocates for the view that ballet is by its nature limited to the idealizations of ballet blanc -- La Bayadere or Don Q utilize the device of one of the characters dreaming up a ballet blanc to work one in, but those ballets are examples of how the form accomodates much more than the portrayal of idealized beings and scenes.

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In response to the Croce quote, I actually agree with her to an extent: I absolutely hate what gets passed off as "art" or even "worthwhile" because of the cause it supports. I do believe that great art has a higher purpose than propaganda.

On the other hand, I think that Bill T Jones is a great artist. I saw his new work, Blind Date, supposedly his most political in a long time, a direct response to the Iraq War. However, on seeing it, I would say that as usual, he is not content to make a dance about this war, but rather, War. Not to mention Nationalism. I capitalize these to make a parallel with the subjects of "high art" that many have discussed here: Love, Betrayal, etc. I am not in any way arguing that Jones' work is classical, but he deserves the respect of an artist-- he goes beyond the specifics of the now and shows us the universal, and even timeless elements of our current dilemmas. The parts I have seen of Still/Here were not "AIDS is bad" but "this is how humans deal with Mortality and Loss." Someone earlier in this thread mentioned admiring the way Jones "tried to put the world onstage" which I think is really the most succinct way to say it.

Of course, if its not to your taste, that's fine. But I wanted to point out that he's not some Long Island hipster screaming about Bush and jumping up and down, then labeling it "dance." He is a more sophisitcated fish than I think many posters give him credit for here.

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