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"Ballet? Never Heard of It"


miliosr

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Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured a very interesting article by Terry Teachout discussing the end of the "ballet boom" and the ensuing decline in viewership for ballet and modern dance in the US. (Sorry no link -- you have to register to read Journal pieces.)

Teachout has many interesting things to say but this piece of information really caught my eye:

"Consider this: Of the 120 American dance companies that received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986, 50% are no longer in existence, among them such noted ensembles as Alwin Nikolais Dance Company, Chicago City Ballet, the Cleveland Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Feld Ballet, the Oakland Ballet Company and Twyla Tharp Dance."

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Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured a very interesting article by Terry Teachout discussing the end of the "ballet boom" and the ensuing decline in viewership for ballet and modern dance in the US. (Sorry no link -- you have to register to read Journal pieces.)

Teachout has many interesting things to say but this piece of information really caught my eye:

"Consider this: Of the 120 American dance companies that received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986, 50% are no longer in existence, among them such noted ensembles as Alwin Nikolais Dance Company, Chicago City Ballet, the Cleveland Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Feld Ballet, the Oakland Ballet Company and Twyla Tharp Dance."

Ouch!

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Thank you, kfw!

I think Terry Teachout makes some oversimplifications, perhaps for the benefit of readers no longer familiar with the basics of dance. The issue isn't so much that "classical dance is a comparatively young art form that lacks a universally recognized canon of crowd-pleasing classics," it's that so many of the works that would have made up that canon have been lost. Ballet isn't much younger than opera, but unlike dance, music can be notated with relative ease. Plunk down an opera score before any competent musician and he or she ought to be able to play it on the spot. The problems with dance notation, on the other hand, are immense: the body has many moving parts, it moves through space, and how, in what rhythm and in which direction all those parts make their way through space have to be recorded. To record a ballet in Laban or Benesh notation takes a very, very long time, and companies are lucky if they can employ even one choreologist. There's nothing like universal notation literacy in the dance world. For most of its history, ballet has been passed down by a method akin to oral tradition, and I'd venture to guess that 99% of ballets have been lost along the way.

It's not only new episodes of Dance in America that have become "as rare as funny sitcoms." All the "high" arts are suffering. There are also far fewer new recordings of classical music than there used to be. The studio recording of opera has become so expensive that new opera sets are practically an endangered species. The recording of classical music was never profitable, but record companies used to do it for the prestige value. They don't any more. (Perhaps someday all labels will be forced to adopt the Naxos formula of paying musicians up front with no royalties down the road.)

I also don't think it's true that "Swan Lake-style classical ballet, with its tutus and Tchaikovsky, is 'irrelevant' to today's young people." Tutu ballets are just about the only ones guaranteed to sell out. The same holds true for classic symphonies, operas, exhibits of Old Masters and so forth. With each passing year I've watched the my city's symphony orchestra move away further from any sort of experimentation in favour of an ever narrower repertoire of the tried and true, while the local opera company has opted for a season of nothing but Italian opera.

But I certainly agree that the "quality of new choreography has fallen off significantly." Somehow I don't think people go to the theater expecting a new ballet to be a masterpiece, though this may have been the case when the choreographic giants of the 20th century were still alive. Such expectations would have made going to the ballet a more thrilling prospect than it is today. It may also be true that some of today's choreography is incomprehensible to audiences, much in the same way that a lot of "serious" music, theater and visual art of the past century is incomprehensible to the average person. The creators have alienated themselves from the masses and only the "committed dance buffs" are left.

I wish someone had all this figured out, but this is one of those really vexing questions I'm not sure anyone can answer. Why is Sting's "Songs From the Labyrinth" the no. 1 "classical" album in the United States? Why don't most of the people who buy Andrea Boccelli albums turn into bona fide opera buffs? Why don't most of the people that make an annual pilgrimage to the concert hall to hear Handel's Messiah turn into regular concert goers? Why don't the majority of people who go to see the Nutcracker turn into ballet subscribers? Does anyone know why arts organizations can't seem to "close the sale"?

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Part of the answer may be in a comment I heard once after a student ballet performance:

"Well, we've had our culture now."

Apparently, some people think art is like going to the dentist--something you know you should do once or twice a year but really don't enjoy.

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