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October 1, 2006

Out of Britain

The British are still writing about dance as if it mattered.

In the Guardian, John O’Mahony is reporting on Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies, described in its press release as "The most damning comment on the horror, personal devastation and hypocrisy produced in any art form since the Iraq war began." Forsythe has never been one for understatement.

O’Mahony managed to get a written statement out of Arlene Croce that almost replayed the Still/Here controversy of ’94:

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.

Croce’s not one for understatement either. Useless vitriol aside, there is a lesson there. I harp constantly on the best use of a medium. Dance depicts emotional states beautifully. It does facts and figures badly. It can be made to do it by mixing media and using the spoken word or projections, but there comes a point when what a choreographer wants to do no longer wants to be a dance. At that point it’s time to start thinking about doing an essay or a play.

If a choreographer is going to mix media or do topical work, it’s no longer only judged as a dance. Unsuccessful dances that included written narrative in them didn’t fail because the idea couldn’t work, but because they were made by talented choreographers who were untalented writers. In the same way, if you do a dance on Iraq, you need to be as knowledgeable about Iraq as you are about choreography.

In the Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen talks about the British reality series Ballet Hoo and Brendan McCarthy at Dancerdance, which has happily reanimated, takes the opposing view.

I’m sympathetic to Christiansen, possibly because the incomprehension of the difference between professional and amateur is more pervasive in the United States than in Britain. It’s part of our national fantasy that in the same way that anyone can grow up to be president, everyone is interesting and capable of being an artist the moment they put pen to paper, paint to canvas or step on a stage.

Of course, and alas, none of this is true. But when arts advocacy groups talk about the large audience numbers for ballet, that number probably includes all the families that went to see a dance school recital. They may have gone to see a ballet in name, but what they’ve really gone to do is see their daughter on stage in a sequined costume. The moment she gets bored with it and plays soccer instead, their association with the ballet ends. What Christiansen calls “the post-Victorian tradition of self-motivated self-improvement” happened here too, but is dying out. A senior dance writer whose father was a truck driver talks of his family making regular Sunday trips to either a museum or the symphony or the ballet, all from the simple firm belief that culture was self-improvement.

There are plenty of reasons this is dying out. Television isn’t helping; it offers entertainment without effort or expense. Ticket and admission prices are costly, especially for dance and live theater. But I also think the very belief that culture improves one is under attack. This is why I agree with Brendan that shows like Ballet Hoo are important. Christiansen is right that the fantasy that amateur art is professional is debilitating but the art has to be on their radar in the first place. The most important thing we need to do is get parents and children away from their TVs and into museums and the theater. Not only for children’s theater as a franchised extension for TV entertainment – “Dora the Explorer” live on stage! All that manages to do is reinforce TV watching habits – but for them to get used to the theater as a place of communal expression of culture. And therein lies the conflict – whose culture? Who decides?

In Spiked Online, Josie Appleton takes up the culture cudgel with a vengeance in an interview with Jeffery Taylor, “Where are the Margot Fonteyns?” Mr. Taylor is the proverbial Grumpy Old Man. “In my day, our teachers groped and insulted us and WE LIKED IT.” I’ve had inspiring old school teachers and abusive old school teachers. I’ve never heard of a parent who, when the need for touching a student was explained, didn’t allow it. The teachers I recall most fondly (it’s not actually a ballet teacher, but my 7th grade French teacher, Jacob Miller, a tough bastard with a very tender heart known as Jake the Snake) was the most stringently demanding. Kids respond to challenges, especially when they know that the teacher passionately cares.

I recall (happily with amusement; I was 20 by then and was old enough to handle such things) a teacher who taught a stretching class and put his hand right in my crotch to “show” a stretch. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I really wanted to say, “I don’t turn out from there. Really.” A few years later in men’s class I jokingly commented to a friend regarding the teacher, “He’s groped every other guy in the class. I guess he doesn’t like me.”

People aren’t objecting to touching, they are objecting to abusive touching. They are not objecting to demanding the best from a student; they objecting to demeaning, insulting abuse. Abusive behavior in a situation of absolute authority such as dance training is going to happen sooner rather than later without supervision and self-policing. Abusive behavior masquerading as Old School teaching sounds like a bad excuse for not having learned a better way to inspire and motivate students.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at October 1, 2006 11:21 AM

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The Forsythe piece as described sounded like a mixed bag, to say the least. You can do an abduction in dance; you could even do a massacre in dance, although I’m not sure I’d want to see it. (I have doubts about the ‘stylized aerial bombardment’ too, although I sure would like to see that ‘dainty female Rumsfeld.’)

Nice to hear from Croce again, sort of. She sounds less peevish in another quote O’Mahony uses later in the article. ‘"In the 60s and 70s," Croce wrote in her fax, "there were dances about Vietnam and civil rights and so on, but they weren't dances that affected the stature of the art and the direction it was to take ... What we wanted was dancing about dance.”’ I suppose all artists would like to make works that have an impact in the way she describes, but topical art can be valuable and interesting. It won’t necessarily last forever, but is that the goal?

I’m awfully glad I’m not sitting there having to listen to Forsythe’s monologues, though.

Posted by: Alison at October 2, 2006 6:05 PM

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