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August 9, 2006

Sound and Fury

Well, it’s August.

Lewis Segal started it off with a bang, with Five Things I Hate about Ballet, an article that looks like it was designed to stimulate more chatter than discussion. And people did indeed chatter.

I’m not sure refuting Segal’s arguments is worth the effort; the piece doesn’t seem to have been written to be taken too seriously but rather as fodder for a slow season. Then again, what is a blog other than chatter?

So here goes:

Paraphrasing his five points:

1. Ballet has less history than it pretends. Segal’s real objection seems to be to shoddy versions of the classics.

[D]on't let the myth of ballet's ancient primacy and long hold on Western culture keep you from openly dissing all that's dreadful in the contemporary perversions of 19th century classics that companies keep merchandising.

Fair enough, but it would be better stated as such. Ballet does have a history and tradition; the legacy needs better care rather than abandonment. Are we supposed to hate Swan Lake or campaign for a better one?

2. Ballet reinforces prejudiced and racist stereotypes. And so does The Merchant of Venice, but we still produce it. There is only so much one can judge art by standards that changed in society after it was made. I agree that there are certain stumbling blocks, such as parts in blackface – the Mariinsky still does this for the children in Bayadère – that either should be changed or given context for the audience. Still, I think the stereotypes Segal talks about are, in the end, less important and universal than the work itself. A feminist Giselle may be worth seeing, but it is no longer Giselle. People need to – and do – relate to Giselle, as a woman who rightly or wrongly dies for love and redeems her lover by her forgiveness. The original transcends the issue simply by committing to portraying its world wholly and honestly, and without the original, none of the variations have a context.

3. Ballet infantilizes and mechanizes its participants. Didn’t this one go out of fashion with Off Balance and Dancing on My Grave? As most of Balanchine’s ballerinas attested, no one let them feel more like themselves. In the years I danced, what Segal describes as infantilization I chose to accept as a form of voluntary discipline. It wasn’t easy, and I would not ask others to do it unwillingly (nor does it give a license for abuse of authority) but it’s like a religious vocation. The rewards are intangible and those on the outside may never fully understand why.

I recall dancing in the corps de ballet in the Snow scene of the Nutcracker over 15 years ago – a version with men in it. We had done 14 Nutcrackers in a row. I was tired and wondering where I was going to find the strength to do another show. The music came on; the snow started to fall. I listened to the Tchaikovsky. I lifted Eleanor, my partner, in a soaring arc to enter and I felt my place in the landscape and inside the music. I was there, with the other dancers, making something bigger than all of us. You can call me a cog in a wheel if you wish, but at that moment I knew more than any other exactly why I danced.

4. Ballet stars are compromising and not advancing the art. Well, I’d like to see a generation of better stars, but is this really one of the five biggest things you hate about ballet, Mr. Segal? Hollywood movie stars are earning millions of dollars for steaming piles of celluloid crap and you’re carping about ballet dancers selling out?

5. True beauty is endangered by mere prettiness. Again, Segal has a very good point. But is it a reason to hate ballet? Demand beauty! It is out there. Don’t settle for prettiness.

As others have pointed out, Segal is in Los Angeles, and the ballet situation there is transient. There’s no resident company (they’ve tried again and again, another one is starting up even now) and the touring companies he sees are world renowned, but on tour one sees snapshots rather than process.

John Rockwell at the Times weighed in as well. We are generally on the same side in this argument, so I wish I were not taking exception, but there is a point he makes that needs to be addressed because he makes it continually – it’s his shtick.

It seems as if every fourth article Rockwell brings up the specter of the Luddite balletomane who is against all progress. Occasionally they appear as “high minded critics” while he stalwartly represents the vox populi.

Fanatic balletomanes resist such change on the very grounds Mr. Segal uses to chide all of ballet. For them anything but classroom ballet technique degrades the form, and a search for relevance is a descent into gimmickry and perversion.

There are so many ballet magazines and ballet Web sites out there now that simply assume the superiority of ballet to all other forms of dance that it is nice to have a corrective.

John and I have had this discussion before. I’m calling bullshit. Let me try and make this explicit and clear.

John, if you’re going to insinuate that balletomanes think all dance forms are inferior to ballet, then you’ve got to come up with a better example than Jennifer Homans’ article, which I (a fanatic balletomane if ever there were one) didn't agree with either and where it’s only what you inferred. You’ve convinced yourself of this.

No one is arguing against change. Nor is anyone is arguing for absolute purity. If you say we are, cite it already.

We are arguing that the stuff currently being produced by crossover choreographers for ballet companies is lousy, often because they aren’t skilled enough at ballet and don’t know how or in what proportion to integrate it with their own vocabulary. I use this analogy frequently, but if you add a teaspoon of soy sauce to a pound of steak you get a well flavored steak. If you add a pound of soy sauce to a pound of steak you wind up with something inedible.

We are also not arguing against ballet and other forms ever mixing. We are arguing for better ballets, and we don't think the road to them is looking only outside the walls.

Anything but classroom ballet technique does not degrade the form. Any ballet without mastery of it does. A search for relevance is not a descent into gimmickry or perversion, but I’m far more interested in the artist saying what’s on his or her mind honestly than trying to be relevant.

Look, we all like ballet here. But you’re the chief dance critic of the chief paper in the United States. Enough with the strawmen already.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at August 9, 2006 12:35 AM

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Thanks for the great rebuttal, and especially for addressing the "straw man" issue of conservatism in the ballet world.

You might enjoy another critique of Segal's piece posted to my blog this morning, "Bait and Switch: A Dance Critic Runs Amok." The author, who was a ballet student through her teen years, takes up issues of ballet's authorship, its so-called "intimidation factor," and its relationship to the broader cultural forces affecting young people.

The post is at:


Posted by: Jeremiah McNichols at August 9, 2006 8:05 AM

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