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How much explanation do you want?

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On the Recent Performances forum, you can read Jeannie's report from a performance of The Washington Ballet where the stager of Esplanade was asked about the central role in an adagio and gave what is probably now the stock answer to any question about the meaning of a dance, "That's for you to interpret."

While I agree with that philosophy wholeheartedly, is it gracious or even practical? I agree with it because one of the beauties of dance is that it can have several meanings at once, some of which cannot be expressed in words. But I've also produced many a concert and I can tell you how alienated an audience can feel when they feel lost.

Against my own principles I started putting in brief program notes and I cannot tell you how grateful people were. I try to write them very carefully to not hamper the viewer who has a different take on what s/he saw; I will never say "This ballet is about X", but I will say "I spent many summers up north, the music I chose reminded me of the things I encountered there." Or if a title is a foreign or obscure word, I'll translate it. I cannot tell you how much of an ungracious host I felt after the 12th person embarrassedly asked me what Les Noces meant. I had completely overlooked the fact that people might not know.

Would it have been revealing too much for the stager to have said that the part was originally made on Bettie deJong, who was the Rehearsal Mistress at the time and nearing the end of her performing career? Would it have reduced a complex idea to only a single meaning? As you can see, I'm of two minds about this, what do you all think?


Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

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I, too, knew beforehand about the tall dancer, Bettie de Jong. She was quite strikingly different, even among the diverse physiques in the 1960s-to-mid70's Taylor company. I was somewhat sad that the stager did not mention her because she is an icon of dance, in her own way! I felt like raising my hand in the audience and mentioning her name but it was the end of a long evening & I decided to 'go lazy' and let the stager speak for himself. smile.gif

I don't think that it hurts peoples' imaginations to offer a few facts on what really *does* inspire a choreographer to create a dance. If I were the stager & received that question, I would have smiled & asked the questioner: "What do *you* think it means?" I'd let the guy in the audience give his explanation -- something prompted those guffaws from the audience when he originally asked the question, after all! -- then I would have explained the Bettie DeJong connection. As it turned out, the stager came across as a bit aloof, albeit very polite...sort of like saying: "I've answered you. Next question?" (My own words but that's the gist of how it came across. He missed the opportunity for a *really* fascinating discussion, IMO!)

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]

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This is a very good question, I think. It's probably impossible to do a dance or ballet worth anything that doesn't contain some references that might be mysterious to a good number of people in the audience. Someone who understands German or Italian will see (and hear) a work to German or Italian choral music that someone ignorant of those languages cannot -- (but was the choreographer reacting to words or sounds?)

I'd like to think that a good production of works like "Serenade" or "Esplanade," where there is meaning, and references, though not a literal story, make it easy for the audience to sense what the choreographer is trying to say. But I remember, from the beginning of "Esplanade," the "woman in pants" caused a great deal of furor -- odd, since in the 1970s, nearly all American women wore pants. (One of the theories--not blessed by Taylor--was that she was an unhappy lesbian.)

I like Leigh's solution, though it still may not contain enough "clues." I remember another Taylor dance, "Roses," that was subtitled, simply, "For Edwin Denby." Denby had just died. If you knew anything about his background -- his youth in Germany (hence the music), his early career as a poet and a gymnast (hence the gymnastic references in the choreography) -- the work would mean more to you. But writing all that out in a program note ("Note the use of the backward handstand at the most exultant part of the music....") could ruin it.

Re the questions of "what does Les Noces mean?" (a perfectly valid question) my very favorite audience comment of all time was when Roland Petit's company brought "Proust" here, and the woman behind me "whispered," loud enough to be heard by half the orchestra, "what's Proust French for?" There was a lot of material about Proust in the program book, but she either didn't know it was there (many people don't realize that there is something in the program book besides the cast list and ads) or didn't have time to read it.

Arlene Croce addressed this in an essay about choreography reprinted in "After Images," criticizing MacMillan's "Song of the Earth" for presuming knowledge -- of language (German) and culture (Chinese) -- that it is unlikely his audience had, saying that we were having these "public baths" in the classics without knowing what we were bathing in. One of the reasons that art moved to abstraction, perhaps, is that if you just have three red squares on a black background -- or four dancers dancing pleasing patterns -- nobody has to wonder about what it "means."

I, of course, want to know everything -- not necessarily when I'm watching the dance, but certainly afterwards. But I realize that normal people aren't so obsessive smile.gif So Leigh's question is a good one -- how much information do you want?

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Coincidentally, I was researching Nijinska's "Les Biches" last week, around the time when I attended this Washington Ballet performance. I had just viewed a private film of the work at a library and was trying to get my hands on every scrap of information about the 'true meaning' of that masterpiece of a ballet. [What a ballet...talk about a good candidate for revival!] Maybe I didn't look in the right places but I scoured my own private library plus the Library of Congress for reviews, essays and such. *Nowhere* could I find an explanation by Nijinska or any dance critic of "Les Biches", except to say that it is what is on the surface: a nice 1920s "house party" somewhere in the south of France....intended to be the "Les Sylphides" of the 1920s (a simple 'mood piece'). But who/what does the girl in the blue tunic ("La Garconne") symbolize? Just like the Bettie DeJong character in "Esplanade" it is too simplistic to assume "a lesbian."

"Les Noces" is also a puzzlement. Less so "Train Bleu" in which the story and funny characters are spelled out quite clearly.

Doggone it - I sure wish that La Nijinska had further explained her ballets!

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Jeannie, I can't give you a cite, but I know I've read in several places that "Les Biches" was considered, at the time, to have been a not-very-veiled, if one was in those circles, ballet about homosexuality, hence "La Garconne." (As was her brother's "Jeux.") You could show a girl pretending to be a boy, but not the reverse, in those days.

Sorry, this is off Leigh's topic.

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Thanks, Alexandra. Whatever...it's a masterpiece.

Back to Leigh's main topic: This sort of explanation to "Les Biches" is an example of the sort of thing that, I think, should be in the program notes. Another example on a different topic: Robbins' "The Concert." For those of us who do not live in NYC or have inside knowledge on the types of "audience characters" depicted in the ballet, why not an explanation? What may be obvious to frequent arts patrons in Manhattan isn't necessarily so to folks in the Hinterland. Or is half the fun in keeping certain 'secrets' to oneself (for the choreographer and his inner circle, perhaps)?

If I were choreographing a ballet that takes a lighthearted look at typical Washington, DC bureaucrats, I would like the non-Washington audience to have the inside track on the types of characters shown...and, believe me, we have some distinct "types" around here.

- Jeannie

(p.s. - *Totally* unrelated: Did you guys see what happened to the U.S. Stock Market today? up-up-up...wooo-hooo...need some more disposable income as we purchase our ballet subscriptions for next year)

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 05, 2001).]

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I'm a pretty academic type and like to "know" things, but I admit I get bored and discouraged if notes are super long or detailed HOWEVER I wholeheartedly endorse Leigh Witchel's view of this matter. Something to help situate the audience -- to "welcome" them into the work and into the theater -- seems very appropriate. Sometimes, I even find choreographers a trifle disingenuous when they take a more austere approach. It's not exactly as if they don't want or even expect a certain coterie of people to know what is going on...I know who Edwin Denby "is" but until reading Alexandra's post here just now, I didn't know anything about his life, certainly not that he had done gymnastics and, well, I'm sure that at a performance of Taylor's Roses, the work would seem much more resonant to me -- at any rate less arbitrary -- with that knowledge. Surely, Taylor is partly assuming that "some" of his audience will get it, "some" of his audience will know who Denby is. He may sincerely not care if they all do, and yet...if the choreography and choice of music has been partly determined by a relation to Denby, these things are meant to be part of how the work affects one. That doesn't mean it doesn't also have to work on its "own" terms -- but even the way audiences respond to "pure" forms is conditioned by their prior knowledge, experience, etc. It's a very naive purism that thinks otherwise. And, I might add, a very naive view of audiences that thinks a mere program note will necessarily prevent them from coming up with their own ideas about what they are seeing. Having a little framework can actually heighten one's perceptions...

Last year I saw Richard Foreman's Nietzsche play. (Not everyone here may know Foreman's work -- it's sort of cross between popular, satirical farce and super-intellectualized experimental theater.) He probably assumes an audience that knows something about Nietzsche, but his program notes gave one a sketch that situated you even if you didn't know anything and helped you to "get" some of the play's allusive gags; at the same time it didn't go into much detail -- you didn't feel like you were in a classroom, and certainly the audience was "free" to have its own responses/interpretations -- and, of course, real Nietzsche scholars would still get many more of the jokes and allusions than someone dependent on the program note. This seemed to me to hit a nice balance.

P.S. I'm a slow writer, and by the time I posted Jeannie had also posted -- making still more forcefully the point about coteries and "insider" audiences...

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited April 05, 2001).]

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I think Jeannie and Drew have both made excellent points -- is it possible for the choreographer to know what percentage of his audience "gets it"? Should he care? In the Taylor example (yes, I know it's not a ballet smile.gif ), as Drew said, probably a good chunk of Taylor's audience would know the name Edwin Denby and may have even read his work. I had just happened to have read a translation, by a friend, of an article Denby had written about his experiences in Germany (nothing nasty/Nazi smile.gif ), about gymnastics and German poetry. (My memory is vague. People who really know a lot about Denby may feel free to correct.) "Roses" came here about three months later, so it was fresh in my mind.

To attack the question from the choreographer's angle and make it more general, if one were composing a dance in memory of a friend, one might use music beloved by the friend, or even that the friend had said, "Gosh, I'd wish you'd choreographed to that." Putting that information into a program note could put too much emphasis on it, and perhaps the only thing that would be remembered about the ballet was "dedicated to Joe's friend Ed, who just loved the Pizzicata Polka and died in a car crash."

Dare I suggest that perhaps the well-informed critic can solve the choreographer's problem, albeit after the audience has seen the piece, by suggesting some meanings smile.gif That way it's not done with sledgehammer force in the program, but the pretexts for the ballet will make their way into lore. Of course, the critic could have a tin eye and be making the whole thing up, but that's another story.....

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Here in Miami, Edward Villella always offers a discussion before every performance, and there has been a very positive response. It seems to me that the audience appreciates being told a few things to watch for in an evening, such as the differences of styles, motivation, symbolism, not to mention the personal stories behind the ballets themselves. Many friends of mine vow never to miss the pre-performance talks, finding them helpful to understanding the structure of Agon or even Raymonda Variations. He is able to point out the wit in a ballet, and then people can watch for that, if they want. I guess the discussions make people feel a little more knowledgable, and this makes them feel more comfortable, too. I know that I would find Agon very disconcerting if I were seeing it for the first time- or even the second, third or fourth. When people feel comfortable with what they are watching- when they feel they UNDERSTAND it- they are more likely to appreciate it, and buy tickets then to the next series. At least, that is how I would operate.

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If you're doing a story ballet you ought to include a libretto that describes the general action, and this is usually the case.

But in an abstract (storyless, non-narrative, whatever term you prefer) dance I believe the choreography should speak for itself. To the best of my knowledge I have never seen program notes for a Balanchine ballet (beyond "first presented in...") and never needed them. I just looked at the stage, saw people dancing and heard music and it was all quite clear. When watching "Serenade" I don't really know what the part with the fallen girl, the guy and the girl with her hand over his eyes is all about, but I know what I feel when watching it.

Whatever one's inspiration for a work, the choreography should not rely on the facts behind that inspiration to be comprehensible. The choreography should be coherent and self-contained, so that even without knowing anything about the person or event that inspired it, the viewer can understand what you are trying to say.

Allusions to other works of choreography can either add a humorous touch or deepen the meaning for those who know the work in question; but that reference should be integrated into the work such that those who haven't seen the referenced piece don't wind up scratching their heads wondering "what was THAT all about?"

I don't want an explanation. I want to see a comprehensible piece of work that I can enjoy without benefit of a decoder ring.


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I sometimes think I want a lot of explanation, but then when I get it, I wish I hadn't -- there really are things that dance says better than words. But, when I see a ballet that I don't particularly care for, and perhaps don't understand, and then read something that explains it, then I want to know more again. Vicious circle (cycle?)

The "Proust" instance is an interesting one. Probably 85% of the audience will have heard of Proust, but how many will have read him? I haven't, I blush to admit, and have only a hazy idea of something about an unusual cookie, a peculiar lighting, and a vague sense of nostalgia. Not much to make a ballet about.

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This topic makes me think of something that Melissa Hayden recalled about Balanchine, when he was onced asked by an individual what one of his ballets was "about".

Balanchine's reply; "It's about 15 minutes - it takes 15 minutes to dance this ballet". wink.gif (I'm sure THAT little gem never made it into any NYCB playbills!!)

[This message has been edited by Yvonne (edited April 06, 2001).]

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When I was going regularly to Covent Garden in the early 1970's, the programs (which cost something, probably about the equivalent of $ 1 or $2 in today's terms), had farily extensive plot summaries for the story ballets, and some very interesting supplemental essays about the music, about the history of the piece, and about the choreographer, written by critics in an accessible, jargon-free, but not puffy style with some historical pictures. A very long way from the pieces in Stage bill. These gave the audience that was interested some background and definitely helped with some of the details.

I think newer members of the NYCB audience might be interested in knowing some of the history of Serenade, for example, about the use of the girl who falls, or a brief report on the first performance, which is a long way from "explaining" what is really going on. And a ballet like Harliquinade would certainly be richer if the audience knew some of the background of the Commedia del arte characters.

I do find the personal jottings or literary quotations of some of the European companies somewhat irritating and pretentious, but notes like Leigh mentioned are very useful.

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as a choreographer i am always at a loss when someone asks me what my work is about. i don't work with stories, or themes...i work with movement and music. alot of times there seems to be vague characters that devellop, but those come from the dancers interacting, not my choreography. if the work were to be danced by other people totally different characters may come across. i am also annoyed when people start trying to read alot into my work. it seems that they are trying to hard, trying to be what they think art fans should be, but i wish that they could just enjoy what is going on on the stage instead of being mental about it.

when i see a ballet with a plot i do want a synopsis. if it a ballet that has been done before i do enjoy reading the history. but i don't understand why everything has to have a deep meaning. just enjoy what you are seeing.

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The thing is that many people come to the ballet thinking that this is Art, and therefore, something to be understood. If they do not think that they "get" it, then they may feel alienated and separated from the work and the emotions therein. Even a few lines communicated to the audience, in a program, in a pre-concert discussion, whatever, helps to create a sense of connection between the audience and the work. It doesn't have to be much, a brief outline of the story, if there is one. If there isn't, even something about what the choreographer was thinking at the time, or even the line "Dance can be defined as human movement through space" can help the audience know where this piece of work is coming from. That goes a long way towards bringing the audience into what is happening on stage, which ought to be the first goal of all performing artists.

[This message has been edited by dancersteven (edited April 06, 2001).]

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How much explanation do I want? Simple—-I don’t want any.

Everything should be there on stage and in the pit (or the loudspeakers) and should speak for itself and to me directly. Program notes are useful in the same way that 'people watching' or chatting with those in neighboring seats can be useful, in filling the time between arriving at the venue and when the curtain goes up.

The impact of a performance on a person in the audience is an event in itself. Sometimes reading the program notes afterwards can be illuminating—finding out what the choreographer was setting out to convey and how she attempted it and comparing that against what one actually heard and saw.

Cargill wrote: “And a ballet like Harliquinade would certainly be richer if the audience knew some of the background of the Commedia del arte characters.” Not being familiar with “Harliquinade” (something I can say about close to 100% of the standard repertory) I will bow to Cargill's greater knowledge. However opera, an art form which has roots in commedia dell’arte, is not measurably enriched by knowing who Pataloon, Harlequin, Brigehella and others were. “Ariadne auf Naxos” the Hofmannsthal and Strauss collaboration, juxtaposed opera and commedia dell’arte conventions but with such audacity and truth that all you need to know is what you can see and hear during the performance.


"Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out,

and glory in the sword which wears away the scabbard:


Writing of Pauline Viardot

[This message has been edited by Ed Waffle (edited April 06, 2001).]

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Ed Waffle -- I'm curious: when you go to an opera in a language you don't understand, do you read the libretto first? or a synopsis? do you follow the supertitles (if there are any)? Do you ever listen to recordings of the music before -- or for that matter, after -- the performance? I know from your posts that you are extremely knowledgeable about music and opera -- I can't help but think that when you walk into any kind of musical theater performance (including ballet), even if it's a world premier, you have a wealth of "internal" program notes you can bring to bear on what you are seeing -- knowledge about opera conventions, knowledge about the composer, etc. Do you think you would feel quite the way you do now if you didn't have that experience and knowledge? When you first started attending performances did you feel the way you feel now? (I'm not being rhetorical -- I'm really asking.)

Of course, choreographers have the right to judge how they want their work framed -- or not -- for an audience, to decide what's appropriate, what's useful etc. As it happens, I don't think anyone believes that a ballet (or opera) should in any way depend on some external, explanatory apparatus. But if a program note can help prepare an audience to see or hear better, why not? There seems to be a lingering suspicion that it's somehow getting in the way of the audience member's pure, spontaneous response -- but ultimately there's no such thing as a pure, spontaneous response. Someone who truly "knows" nothing (hasn't read reviews, hasn't seen other works by the same choreographer, etc.) will simply import knowledge or assumptions they have from other fields and experiences to the experience of the performance. Of course notes can be done badly -- ANYTHING can be done badly -- but they can also be done well and even sharpen people's perceptions. (And for the live theater most people want their perceptions sharpest when they are watching the work, not just trying to remember it.)

A more general thought. In many respects we live in a "culture" (hate the word) that does a lot to blunt people's capacity to respond to anything that requires a real capacity to perceive. Whether we're looking at something we consider art or entertainment -- literally, most of us don't know how to watch, how to listen, even how to respond viscerally etc. I think that's one of the things that has to be taken into account by theater/music/dance directors of all kinds even when they are hoping audiences will "just" respond to what's on stage etc. A great work of art should be an education in perception in and of itself, but it needs a context in which it can be perceived in the first place. Leigh Witchel is making (I think) a more pragmatic and modest point, but it seems to me partly linked to these larger questions...

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited April 06, 2001).]

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One thing that should be said about program notes, is that if you don't WANT to read them you don't have to. wink.gif As for me, I like all the notes I can get, both to pass the time while bobbing up and down in my seat while others arrive, and to have some basis for placing the art in context. I think it is absolutely necessary for people who are seeing a story ballet for the first time, to have some historical notes and synopsis. For abstract ballets, I would like some background information about the dancers and choreographer at least, but I agree with others that I don't want it overly "interpreted" for me prior to seeing it. I can't say that I've ever read anything in the program that I wished I hadn't read prior to seeing a ballet however. Often I've wished for more. As with all art though, I think its the PROCESS of experiencing it that is most rewarding, not that you arrive at the same interpretation of its meaning as someone (or everyone) else does.

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When I see a ballet, I sit back and absorb. I take in as much atmosphere, nuance, characterisation etc as I can (I see so little dance I want to memorise as much as possible -- and its amazing how much you can miss just by looking a way for a moment).

If its a story then I read the program notes before. If it isn't, I prefer to watch, draw my own conclusions and after, I want as much information as possible. I'll often do a little research, if applicable, just to glean a little more insight into the motivation behind a piece. A choreographer is influenced by so many things, I find it intriguing to discover what those things are-- determining what inspired them to create what I just experienced.

I like there to be a lot of information in the program. There is still a lot of art/literature/etc/etc that I haven't experienced, I don't want to be excluded from an 'in' reference because of my ignorance! Teach me, please! I want to know! ;)

So I'm sorry Julip, but you might find me a little frustrating. I don't like to think that what I'm watching is there just because the choreographer felt like it. Art for the sake of art. Dance for the sake of dance. I may be being a snob, but I like to think theres a bit more intellect behind a piece and wouldn't be able to help being disappointed to find there wasn't. (not suggesting at all there's no intellect behind a piece that appears to have no deep 'meaning'. Please don't take that the wrong way)


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