Lewis Segal in the LA Times on what's wrong with ballet
Posted 05 August 2006 - 07:39 AM
What do you think?
Posted 05 August 2006 - 08:35 AM
Segal uses "So You Think You Can Dance" as an example. This show has about as much to do with ballet as the New York City subway system. Less, even. Sometimes, you can find a ballet dancer on the NYC subway.
This is a Jeremiah who inveighs against the Higher Power, rather than the audience. We've asked the question before on this board: Why is it that LA cannot keep a ballet company? Is it from a failure of ballet to maintain political correctness? San Francisco, many miles closer to the PC home of UC Berkeley, has done just fine with ballet. Is it because ballet isn't cool, and hip, and current? Segal fulminates against "bait and switch", decrying (however misbegotten) attempts to make ballet classics more "relevant". Or is it the lack of a truly resident ballet-supporting audience? So much of the entertainment industry maintains a house or at least a mailing address there, but don't actually live within a distance that would make a trip to the ballet just a cross-town hop, but a major trek down the Coastal Highway. So what's wrong with LA? Many fine teachers live and work there, but no really major company can call it home! There are equivalencies to the Pasadena Playhouse, where screen actors can do "stage", after a fashion, but no place for gifted civic and regional dancers to step up, should they become company material.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 08:40 AM
One of the first things that caught my eye was this:
These are not frivolous questions, and I hope we address them here.
As to the other points, a first reading makes me think that similar criticism could be (and has been) made of almost every serious classical art -- even though Segal takes pains to exempt several classical arts (music, theater) from the spear-thrusts he aims at ballet.
How do we respond? How do we defend ballet in a manner that attracts and maybe even persuades the larger public? Or is such a defense even necessary?
Posted 05 August 2006 - 09:34 AM
LA supports an opera, directed by Placido Domingo.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 12:00 PM
I'm very eager for new works, but new BALLET works. Creative classicism is in crisis, and has been for years. The fault is not in the form, but in the artistic direction. Encourage classical choreography, and you'll get it. Critics, too, are unhelpful when there is a new classical work and it's squashed with, "it's not trendy!" "It's just classroom steps!!" (which may be true, but is often not) and only works which "smash the bounds of tired old classical ballet!!!" are greeted with approval.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 01:52 PM
I'm more sympathetic to argument that some story ballets present bigoted sterotypes, but if I view those "lustful Muslims" and "murderous Hindus" as just lustful, murderous individuals, they still look relevant.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 01:56 PM
But Segal would certainly respond by denying that ballet is one of the "high arts." In his article, you get the picture of a rather "low" art indeed -- an artifact of 19th century white, imperialist court society, its small repertoire repeated constantly --which both deceives and exploits the dancers (especially the girls and women) who devote their lives to it.
This is a attempted nuclear attack on ballet such as I've never seen in respectable print before. And I will admit to knowing arts-loving people who feel more or less the same, but are too gentle to say so publicly.
Segal's "five things" are as follows:
1) Classical ballet, which isn't even all that old as classical arts go, "ignores the present [and] falsifies the past."
2) Classical ballet is full of "happy slaves, lustful Muslims, murderous Hindus," and often expresses an imperialist and racist point of view which "simply buttresses a sense of white European privilege by dramatizing how colorfully nasty things are elsewhere."
3) Dancers work on an "assembly line, automatic and unyielding." They are treated like children and are disposed of as soon as they get too old, too fat, or just too ... something.
4) With a few exceptions like Bocca, the finest ballet dancers are rather trapped in an unadventurous repertoire and are not encouraged to take creative risks of the sort that serious actors can take as a matter of course.
5) Ballet is often not beautiful, merely pretty -- something which is "relatively easy, a matter of symmetry, smoothness, good taste and a sense of dancing as a form of decoration."
Personally, I find this list appalling and exagerrated to the point of surrealism. And I know that all of us can think of numerous exceptions to everything he says.
But the tiny element of truth in each charge is a wedge that can be used in the future to expand this kind of attack and make it even more widespread. Bookings, donations, funding, etc., may be affected. Some sort of detailed point-by-point rebuttal may be called for.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 02:24 PM
There are still some experts around- those that for some reason or other are able to develop dancers and coach ballets in a manner that makes the art form still feel relevent- at least in the srudio. But the issue of no substantial new classical work is maybe the bigger problem. Where are the works reflecting the issues and culture of today? Could there be a current choreographer who could deal with some of the deep rooted political issues that face us today? A few weeks ago, I went to see a series of plays at a local theater. Every single one of them had either premiered within the last few months, or was premiering that evening. The plays were fresh and relevent to today's world, and while they didn't all suceed, the audience didn't know what to expect next, either. Wouldn't it be wonderful if ballet could be used in such a way, and the dancers encouraged to use their own minds to bring thes works to life?
Posted 05 August 2006 - 04:55 PM
Posted 05 August 2006 - 05:53 PM
I don't think he knows as much about ballet as he thinks he does.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 06:43 PM
Note the clause early in the story in which Segal notes that the media aren't covering ballet. He implies that the reasons why coverage is dying are the fault of ballet-programming/marketing (in which there IS some truth), though the larger real reason is that editors are cutting back space for ALL reporting on the high arts, given the polls that show that the demographics their advertisers want to reach don't know much about the high arts (unlike 25 years ago, when people with lots of money to spend WERE interested in the high arts).
All over the place real dance critics -- are losing their pulpits and their "livings" -- Mindy Aloff is gone from the Nation, Tobi Tobias from her former job, the Village Voice is threatening to cut back almost everyone except those with "tenure," and arts sections are filling with soft features about gambling online, etc., that anyone with a gift for gab could write. This isn't new, it's just accelerating.
Segal can't talk about the cutbacks at the Times which are turning the West coast's greatest paper on the path to becoming a lousy paper like the SF Chronicle -- no editor would let him.
So he has to give himself a plausible reason for writing SOMETHING about ballet just to show the flag -- here's a story about the high arts -- and to get it sexy enough to mollify his editors he makes it look like a story about marketing. He has my sympathy.
edited to add:
I have no "inside" information: as Ia writer myself, I'm aware of these trends, and I'm just registering my speculations knowing hte situation at newspapers in general, and with sadness over hte slide of the great LA Times.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 08:20 PM
"Tenure" is not respected at the Village Voice, if one is talking about the paper's great writers. Since 2004, Richard Goldstein, James Ridgeway, Sydney Schanberg and Ward Harkavy (although he had less 'tenure') have all been fired, among others. They probably still need Deborah Jowitt, as the dance scene (ballet plus all the rest) still has an audience enough for it to be covered, but they'd fire her if they felt she was useless. The paper is a mere ghost of what it was even 2 years ago, and basically useless except for good listings. The LA Times is probably going the same route, with Jonah Goldberg replacing the veteran Scheer. Sure, Segal is pressured by the current culture just like everyone else, but I don't have any sympathy for it. Maureen Dowd had the guts to write about how Judith Miller was a liability to the Times even before the NYTimes's publisher decided to go ahead and fire her, and that's the kind of thing that deserves respect (in whatever field.)
Segal writes like a trendy, that's an understandable careerist posture but not very admirable. 'Flatulent nostalgia', which he so pompously and conspicuously employs, is particularly low in the hands of this sort of 'adapting creature.'
Posted 05 August 2006 - 08:35 PM
That's what I'd agree with, and I haven't any reason to think there could be such a choreographer or not. It definitely seems that there couldn't if there isn't. So there's the matter of burden of proof on ballet, so that even sleazy writers can be proved right if they are not proved wrong. The current culture does not seem to me to really require that people 'look at what is in front of them.' You can write all sorts of false things and get paid for it. The choreographer would possibly have to be even greater than the geniuses of the past to make such flatulent critics stand at attention, and we'll know if that miracle happens. As for pointe dancing that deals with 'deep rooted political issues that face us today', I don't think it either can or should. Those issues are better dealt with forms that have no trace of the archaic, and there isn't any way that ballet can be stripped of all those and still be singular. It could, however, possibly be brought up-to-date in the same way that complex music can, but I'm not at all sure that it will be.
Posted 05 August 2006 - 08:38 PM
I'd have to say though, with respect, that re Segal v Maureen Dowd you're comparing sling-shots and bazookas: Ms Dowd is a political columnist, not a dance critic, and politics at the moment has the arts in a half-Nelson; furthermore, her willingness to speak her mind colorfully is completely supported by the Times -- it's one of their selling points, indeed, to read her column online you have to pay extra.... SO there's not going to be much editorial pressure on her NOT to do such things, even if they WOULD rather she didn't.
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