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bad taste/taste/taste differences

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This is another "wormy can" question, inspired by a web site a friend sent me this afternoon. It's a real estate site that has photos of apartments, most of them beyond my reachk but it was fun to flip through them and see how someone who could afford $6 million for a two-bedroom apartment would decorate it.

Often when we think of "taste" or use the word, it's to say that something is in "good taste" or "bad taste." But sometimes it's just "different taste." Among these apartments were some that must have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to decorate, but I swear I wouldn't live in them they were willed to me with the stipulation that I couldn't throw out a single furbelow. Others were at odds with their buildings. There was one that looked like it had been owned by someone with a severe Barbara Cartland complex (everything was pink and there were lots and lots of organdy pillows and bows), but the building was starkly contemporary, very simple, very plain, the kind of place where you'd expect two pieces of furniture per room, max, and huge modern art paintings on the walls. Different taste. I wouldn't say it was in bad taste; it was quite elegant. It just wasn't my taste.

Are there some types of dance/ballet that simply aren't to one's taste -- story ballets, ballets to X composer, "pretentious" ballets, whatever ballets?

And can we differentiate between "not to my taste" and "that's in bad taste?" It's a very relativist age to begin with, and that, coupled with fear of offending (someone reading this will undoubtedly have a house filled with pink pillows; I apologize) makes us dance around the taste issues. There are choreographers who are often accused of being "tasteless" -- Smuin, Eifman, Bejart. And some who are accused of being "too tasteful" -- Ashton, for one.

We have the elements of agreement in the language. "elegant," "sophisticated" "refined" are qualities that many would use to describe "good taste," while "coarse," "common," are words used to describe "bad taste." Little black dress and pearls, good taste. Chartreuse and purple polka dot plether dress with ruffles and a turquoise underskirt with a giant silver poodle tacked onto the dress, bad taste. Jackie O and Audrey Hepburn, good taste. Dolly Parton, bad taste. (I use her as an example because she's on record as saying she knows she dresses in bad taste.)

Is taste still an issue? Is it a discussable issue? Or is it something that we can only deal with in small groups, when everyone has been vetted and has the password and we know we won't offend anyone? In discussing dance, is there a way around the taste issue? Should there be? Is there a way to say, "I think that using small children as soldiers is in poor taste," or "the moment when the corps comes out, wearing bikinis with swastikas on them, is so loathsomely tasteless," etc.

I do realize that this is a can of worms, but if we're careful, I think it might be discussable.

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Well, thankfully, I'm don't have a Barbara Cartland complex so I didn't take offense! ;) Interesting topic, Alexandra. Taste, in all of its states, is so subjective, isn't it?

I'm barely making a dent in the lid by writing this, but is there really something that is universally in bad taste? There may well be someone who'd love those corps members in bikinis and swastikas... though it wouldn't be me.

There have been some ballets that I've seen that I did not particularly like. For example, Schumann's "Davidsundlertanze" by Balanchine... I know many other people loved it. Perhaps I might say that I found the men's costumes, and in particular poor Charles Askegard's, to be in bad taste... does this count?

Alexandra, I'm sure you're after something much deeper than my comments on costumes, but I figured if I started...others might follow. :mad:

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Thanks for being brave, BW! I think you've hit on the central problem, actually: like beauty, is there such a thing as universal good taste and bad taste? I'd argue that yes, in theory -- we hvae words for it, as I wrote above. But when we get to the examples, then we get into trouble.

Maybe we're momentarily frozen, because of the Fear of Offense factor (I don't mean just here, but in society generally)? Yet we'll still say that something is "overly tasteful" or, conversely, "hideoulsy tasteless," and (unless we loved either work in question) most of us will nod our heads and know what we're talking about.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

the moment when the corps comes out, wearing bikinis with swastikas on them

Well, it works in The Producers, but then that's a musical-within-a-musical, and the moment is supposed to be bad taste to the nth degree, to the point where it becomes ludicrous.

I think we are capable of discussing it as long as we recall the old saw "De gustibus non disputandam est" or "There's no arguing over taste." As long as we keep clear of wrangling, I think we can talk about it. Remember, everybody is absolutely right when they speak of what they like and dislike. There is little changing of mind brought on by passionate denunciation. Reasoned, calm discourse and the imparting of information may eventually lead to a modification, but it will be a slow process. In matters like taste, there are few "road to Damascus" moments, when the scales fall from the eyes, and a miracle of insight is reached. Although it does happen here more often than in a lot of other places I've seen. Shucks, we once even kept a thread about diet on Young Dancers for awhile, and nobody got off of fact, into well-intentioned but ill-advised, badly-grounded opinion. If we can do it there on that topic, we can do it here on this one.

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Can you distinguish between something which is tacky, and something which is in bad taste? Or is it just a matter of context? I went to see Bourne's Nutcracker! recently and I loved it. However, the costumes were gaudy, the dancing was at some points suggestive, and I suppose that people who take ballet seriously (TOO seriously ;) ?!) might have found it to be in bad taste. I personally thought it was great, because everything was done tongue in cheek - they chose those pink wigs because they were funny and overdone, not as a serious statement. It suited the production. If Aurora came out wearing a pink puffball tutu and matching fluffy wig for her birthday party, it would be an entirely different story.

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beckster, I think "tacky" is a great vehicle for parody, although I am certain there could be differences of opinion on the appropriatness of parody itself - as you've noted you wouldn't like to see Aurora come out in a pink puff ball costume for her big moment. ;)

The question of likes and dislikes, and the "there's no accounting for taste" assumption do make it difficult to really label what is "in bad taste"...at times, anyway. There is also the question of what is "art" and is the artist's use of what we might consider "bad taste" something which they have the right to use in order to make their artistic statement? Mayor Guilliani, the former Czar - I mean Mayor - of NYC, didn't think so.

I do think there is a basic understanding of what is bad taste, but, then. I am fooled everyday.

Don't mean to digress, but hoping to fan the embers here... There are some of us, here, in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern parts of the US that are snowed in today but our Internet connections ar fully functioning.

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I think taste is a very personal issue and - above that - just because something is (or may be) in bad taste doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't be done. Sometimes, in fact, I would say that there is all the more reason why it should be done, if it provokes a constructive reaction.

For example, is the Holocaust "good taste" as a subject for a ballet? Probably not, yet MacMillan's "Valley of Shadows" remains in my mind as one of my most striking and deeply moving balletic experiences. (In fact, I am not a fan of MacMillan - for me, too many of his ballets scream "Victim!" and it seems that no-one has any control over their own fate, but that's another matter). Yet - to my mind at least - less "offensive" subjects have been in poorer taste, probably because they were too frivolous in their intent to make me see anything other than what happened on stage.


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Yes, I suppose the point I wanted to make was that it is all related to context. A swastika or a bikini would be in very bad taste if the setting was not sympathetic to it. A swastika worn in a ballet which was not addressing the second world war in a sensitive and thought-provoking way is likely to offend people, especially since many alive today will remember the events and their true horror. However, in context, a costume which showed a swastika might enhance a ballet like that described by JaneD. Surely that is what costume is for? If the ballet was thought-provoking and meant to make you think about the subject more deeply or realise its implications, a swastika might not be out of place.

In the same way, a scene with erotic or sexual tones would be acceptable in an "adult" ballet like Mayerling but would definitely be tasteless in another more traditional type of ballet or one which was aimed at a younger audience.

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JaneD and beckster, I appreciate your comments and feel the same way. I only wish I had seen Mayerling so I could comment on it intelligently!

During the month of December there was a thread on Nutcrackers...the original story and its many ramifications over the years... I believe it was on this forum. In particular, we were talking about the sexual under and overtones of certain versions... At the time, I had just seen Pacific Northwest Ballet's film version on TV and various poster's pointed out the more obvious hints at the sexual awakening of the young Clara (or was she Marie?!)... Since I hadn't caught the whole show on TV, I hadn't noticed these. Later having received my own copy, courtesy of Juliet:cool:, I could see the vying for Clara that was going on between her two admirers. In thiscase, it seemed to be in perfectly good taste, as it did not go overtly overboard at all and, let's face it, it's a mainstay of family entertainment in ballet form during the "holiday" season.

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PNB's Nutcracker never lapses in taste, and neither did Baryshnikov's production for ABT.

The problem I had with both of them was that they were both fairly esoteric with regard to the relationship between Clara/Marie and Drosselmeyer and sometimes the Nutcracker Prince himself. That's entirely a different issue. It's difficult to fall into bad taste when the audience is busy going "what's going on here, hey???"

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In reading the link today to Ismene Brown's searing article in the "Telegraph" about Eifman's ballet Tchaikovsky, I'd venture to say that she has no qualms telling us about what she considers to be "in bad taste" - her article is entitled "Genius reduced to a self-loathing zombie" and if you check out the links page today, you'll find the article. (For some reason I couldn't seem to post that link here.)

...Any lingering doubts that Eifman is unmentionable anywhere near Kenneth MacMillan were put to flight in his 1993 fantasy portrait of another tortured genius, this one in a "gay, syphilitic schizophrenic shock". The piece was dire all the way from the opening tableau of the composer jerking in dislocated spasms under a spotlight the colour of bile, to the climax of his quasi-crucifixion upside-down on a card table.

This sounds as though it could fit that idea of universal bad taste, doesn't it? And yet, I'm sure there may be some who will have considered it quite artful. Not having seen it myself, it's impossible for me to make any valid comments.

Is there really no accounting for taste?

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The definition of good taste can definitely fall into the same category as that of being politically correct -- namely, that which is safely in good taste (ie, the black dress and pearls).

The interesting area, as always, is where people disagree.

I would propose that things in bad taste are frequently not well thought out, whereas those in good taste adhere to some kind of aesthetic principle or plan.

I'm sure there is someone with an artistic (or perhaps, pyschology?) background who can explain to us why choosing pink as a color scheme is counter to basic artistic principles. Maybe because it is suggestive of the red of bordellos, for example?

It's also interesting to mull over why bad taste can be acceptable if it is "tongue in cheek" or some how otherwise explained away.

Note that this works with watching a movie, like Hairspray, but not for living long term with pink cushions.

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I sure don’t claim to have good taste, but I do feel strongly that good and bad taste are true and necessary categories, even though we probably all sometimes assign specific artistic works and aesthetic objects to the wrong category.

Wasn’t it here not too long ago that people were talking about different levels of perception, about the various levels on which one can appreciate a ballet? I imagine we can all agree that some errors of taste come through inexperience. Or, to put it another way, we might say that what’s good taste at a young age or for an inexperienced audience member may be bad taste for an older or more experienced one.

If you’ve never seen “Liebeslieder Walzer” (I’ve only seen it on video), you might think Martins’ “A Schubertiad” is a great ballet. (Or perhaps if you’ve seen more ballet than I have, and know something about waltzing and understand music better than I do, you might think the comparison spurious). Certainly a viewer who doesn’t listen to classical music and saw “A Schubertiad” by a third rate company on his or her first evening at the ballet might think the piece was excellent, not knowing that other ballets and other dancers display much more of the admired qualities. If they’re naturally perceptive – if they have budding good taste – that novice might even see and admire qualities that some experienced viewers were incapable of seeing. Or precisely because they’re new to the ballet they might have been concentrating hard enough to notice things others missed, so that we could say that in loving that ballet they displayed better taste than certain better educated but jaded or naturally less capable viewers.

The first ballets I ever saw were Robert Joffrey’s “Trinity” and Gerald Arpino’s “The Relativity of Icarus.” I doubt if I’d be much taken with either piece today. But while at this late date I still see and put in good perceptual order a great deal less at the ballet than a lot of people here, I was able to see enough that night to move me to go back to the Auditorium Theater on my own, and to develop a love for the ballet. I’m guessing that some of the kids in my humanities class who came away unmoved or unintrigued might have had more inherently better “eyes” than I do, and might today be knowledgeable and tasteful lovers of other arts, but might never have learned to love the dance because they weren’t curious enough to try, to pay close attention.

I remember going to a Bob Marley concert and finally “getting it” about halfway through. I can remember buying all sorts of records of music I wasn’t familiar with because I was excited by a review and wanted to understand, as much as experience, what the reviewer was talking about. In her little book, “On Beauty and Being Just,” Elaine Scarry quotes a passage of Proust in which the author can’t stop staring at a face and declares that he’ll follow its owner wherever she goes. Scarry writes: “This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky” -- not a bad description of one reason I read Ballet Alert. Which in turn makes me buy books like Scarry’s, which in turn . . .

I guess what I’m saying is that I think the best taste, the most discerning taste, the most trustworthy taste, is also wide taste. It doesn’t just love and understand great ballets or piano pieces; it recognizes and adores aesthetic quality in many fields.

And I think that good taste is moral taste. Not that good art has to have a neat little moral, heaven forbid. But I think character will affect taste, beginning in some cases with the kind of art and entertainment we’re drawn to. A person of good character has his or her thoughts and emotions well-ordered. Good art is ordered and proportionate as well, and there’s the link, I think. Not that people of bad character can’t have a taste for good art – obviously, they can. We’re all drawn to the good; we can’t fully lose our taste for it. But I think poor character will compromise our understanding and appreciation, so that we’ll miss the full dimensions of the beautiful, miss its links to the greater good, or fail to appreciate them when we note them. I think again of the Scarry quote above. Good art will lead us further, into inquiry that is intellectual (even when it’s not given the high falutin’ word) as well as aesthetic.

Anyhow, maybe we could kick this discussion into a higher gear and sketch out a few principles with a polite but no holds barred debate over the merits of a particular ballet. I remember people here hating Martins’ Swan Lake, and hating Kevin McKenzie’s. Does anyone love them, and why?

Also, I’ve been reading Bruce Fleming’s essays in Sex, Art, and Audience, many of them first published in Alexandra’s DanceView. I don’t know if he posts here or just lurks, but I’m sure he’d have very useful things to say on this subject. And I’ll bet there are people here who’ve studied aesthetics. So I hope this thread will be continued.

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Thank you for that post, kfw - it's good to see a position that hasn't been in vogue for a long time asserted. When I went to school, the idea of art being elevating was in complete disfavor (the classic exception promulgated were the magnificent fine arts collections of the nazis). It still echoes in my ears and frankly, I accept it, but then again, I'm a relativist.

I hope we'll continue this discussion. Does anyone else think art and taste have an inherent morality to it?

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This is a tad tangential, but interesting nonetheless.

Researchers have discovered recently -- in the past eight years or so -- that there exists a physiological basis to "beauty", or, more properly, attractiveness. It turns out that symmetric individuals are more attractive than asymmetric ones. This is true of humans, who rate individuals with highly symmetric facial features as more attractive than those with less symmetric ones. (I believe the study involved heterosexual subjects rating individuals of the opposite sex.) It is ALSO true of other species! Female swallows, for example, prefer males with symmetric tails. They specifically key in on the tail symmetry: they cease to like males whose tails are made artificially less symmetric, and their little hearts and wings go aflutter when a naturally asymmetric male is made artificially symmetric.

I don't know what this has to do with taste in ballet, but I think it's cool. Actually, I did bring it up to address the question of whether there is some intrinsic, objective quality inherent in taste.

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Well, since it just happened to me tonight at the ballet, I thought I would throw this can of worms into the discussion.

I was at City Ballet on the promenade during intermission when I met an acquaintance who was going to the ballet with another couple. When introduced to the gentleman he began to talk about the ballets we had seen, and how Concerto Barocco was a dull exercise and Chiaroscuro was a great, emotional work.

At first I stood there and just said, "Hmm!" but then I finally told him why I disagreed, as politely as I could - I'm not sure how polite it was since I did use the word "cheap" in my description.

Had he been talking about dancers I would have regarded it as personal taste, and I expect wildly varying taste there. It's nice when someone likes the dancers you do, but I regard that as mostly happenstance, with (I hope!) some discernment thrown in. But on ballets, he might as well have said Shakespeare was dull but The West Wing was gripping drama. It isn't as if the West Wing is crap, but if you can tell a $4 bottle of wine from a $20 bottle, but can't tell a $20 bottle of wine from an $80 one, chances are it isn't the wine, it's your tastebuds.

So, de gustibus non disputandum est? Or is there a point where someone just doesn't have taste? Is taste instinctive or educated, and do we have a right to expect that education?

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I think using some examples might help my understanding of what is in "good taste" and what isn't. In a ballet, what determines "bad taste?" Is it uncouth subject-matter, kitsch costumes, cheap choreography? Would Stars and Stripes be in "bad taste" because of its high-flutin' patriotism? Would the jogging/strutting steps of Rubies be in bad taste? For those of you who have seen the pop ballet in Center Stage, this ballet is obviously in bad taste (costumes, subject matter, & choreography). But, how would you identify the more subtle bad taste of Martins' Swan Lake for those of you who think so.

I think the perception of good taste is shared by most people. With a few exceptions, most of us would consider the chartreuse and polka dots to be bad taste and the little black dress and pearls to be good taste. Everybody considers Martha Stewart to have good taste, but that doesn't mean that everyone would chose to decorate their home like that. It's possible to acknowledge something as good taste without actually liking it. I guess the same holds true for ballet.


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I don't think that "Stars and Stripes" is in bad taste, as its function is to be a sort of vaudeville of "pop" patriotism, and the choreography contains a great deal of very sophisticated, almost Offenbachian energy and complexity. Of course, this would put me at odds with that considerable portion of the audience from its opening night that booed and walked out, because "their" Balanchine had sold out to some form of entertainment of which they disapproved. Gee, just like Offenbach, for whom a French critic, writing humorously, prescribed the following reaction for people who know nothing about music: "Shake head, smile, say 'Crazy'!"

"Rubies" has no such question about taste. There's a lot of vitality and witty commentary on the Stravinsky score by Balanchine, his old friend. I've never encountered anybody who objected to "Rubies" on the grounds of taste. Plenty about how tough the score is, proving that Stravinsky is still a leader in the music of today, but then, again, in different ways, so are Mozart and Beethoven!

To play Jeff Foxworthy here, "If you see a ballet where the color scheme for a set is aqua and orange, you might be at a ballet in bad taste." This works for Martins' NotSwanLake, but the rest of it is too awful to contemplate this early in the morning.:rolleyes:

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I may not know how to define bad taste, but I know it when I see it! It includes obscenity and nudity because someone with talent could make their points without deliberately attempting to shock. And hands down, ballets which exploit individuals are in bad taste--including Eifman and any and all ballets about the Princess of Wales. Of course, tasteful works can still be bad, and I suppose I have enjoyed bad taste, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

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I think that taste has to do both with appropriateness and extremes or moderation. To take Alexandra's example, pink organdy bows are inappropriate for an austere, modern building, but they would fit right in with a Victorian gazebo. However, some might find the already heavily-gingerbreaded and cupola-ed gazebo decked in pink organdy to be so over-the-top that it's tasteless. It still might be fun to look at, but after a while, it starts to make you feel a bit ill.

If all the elements of a performance are harmonious and nothing is jarring or out of place, it will probably be viewed as tasteful as long as the subject matter is not inappropriate for the performance's intended audience. It is when the performance goes too far in a certain direction--legs always at 180 degrees, consistently fast tempi, consistently slow tempi, all costumes and sets made of blue brocade or red silk or whatever--that I would deem it tasteless.

For example, The entrance of the shades, dressed all in white, moving slowly down the ramp, is very beautiful, but the entire performance isn't slow--there are quick variations and slow variations and waltzes and pas de deux and pas de trois that keep things interesting and varied, while the music and the similar costumes of the corps, contrasting against the dark background, act as a unifying force, with the different colors of Solor and the more elaborate decoration of Nikiya act as a focal point. It all ties in, bringing various elements together to form an interesting but harmonious whole.

Of course, you could take that example and say, "Well, what about a ballet that contrasts gold lame costumes with red velvet sets, alternating Makarova-crawl adagios with Balanchine-on-speed marches? It has varying tempi and costumes in the same color scheme, but don't you think it's tacky?"

Yes, because it goes too far in the extremes. The idea is not just to provide variety, but to keep the contrasts from being too harsh. In the above example, there's no transition from one extreme to the other. Kingdom of the Shades builds from the slow entrance of the corps to Nikiya's lightning-quick tours de basque.

If something is in good taste, it will not be found tiresome when experienced repeatedly. Haydn's "surprise chord" might make you jump the first time you hear it, and 32 fast fouettes might indeed be thrilling, but an entire symphony played fortissimo or an entire ballet of fast pirouettes will become boring fast. Such details must be used sparingly; only then will the audience retain its interest for them because they are seen within their proper context.

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Originally posted by Leigh Witchel

So, de gustibus non disputandum est?  Or is there a point where someone just doesn't have taste?  Is taste instinctive or educated, and do we have a right to expect that education? [/b]

No, there is no accounting for personal preference--chocolate or vanilla. Cats or dogs. Men or women. Like that. That would seem to be instinctive. However, the kind of taste you are talking about here is educated. You don't have a right to expect it, but by the same token you might be wrong NOT to expect it. With someone , new to the field, who prefers a bad current work to a great old one is that part of the problem lies in the performance. If a great old piece is presented in a cloak of perfume of mothballs, and an indifferent current one is danced with the energy of people who know the choreographer is watching, and might have something great in mind for them if they do well, you get a kind of cognitive dissonance that can, in essence, confuse an uninitiated viewer. ...On the other hand, with someone well versed in the field who has a distinct leaning towards the awful---that's just bad taste. (Restraint is not the same thing as good taste, but they often look alike.) In brief: If you prefer Picasso to Matisse, I don't agree, but it's a matter of prefence. (De gustibus...) If you prefer Leroy Neiman, that's bad taste--or, in your lexicon, a lack of taste. (A passion for kitsch is beyond the scope of this conversation, but there is certainly such a thing as "knowing" bad taste .)

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What I consider extreme bad taste in ballet is when a choreographer has women being dragged along and/or made to sit or lie down on the floor. What reminded me of this was my first ever viewing of Wheeldon's Carousel on Friday night at NYCB. Although there was very much to be admired in this work, when the corps girls were flat on their faces on the ground for a seemingly endless period of time, bells went off in my head: really offensive, mysoginistic and in very bad taste.

So there.

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I don't think it's misogyny; it might be boring, but not prima facie evidence of hating or fearing women. If anything, it calls attention to the corps in an unusual attitude. We don't often see them in that position, after all. The second strongest position in all stage blocking is to have an actor face dead upstage. It has the advantage of calling attention to itself by the unexpected direction. It depends, also, on what the principals are doing while the corps is lying on the floor. Is it an intentional visual dissonance? Or is it a kind of balance and harmony?

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