Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bait and Switch: A Dance Critic Runs Amok

L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal took aim at ballet and its supporters in his Saturday "Critic's Notebook" in an acrid piece that drew a weak critique from New York Times dance critic John Rockwell. My wife, the photographer Jennifer McNichols, was a dancer in her own misspent youth and had some interesting things to say about Segal's article which I suggested she shape into a formal response.


Ballet companies, along with symphonies and museums around the country, are struggling. Is it the fault of the symphonies that audiences are dwindling? Of museums? Of ballet companies? How visible is any "high art" in the mass media? I'd argue that little that Andy Warhol considered pop is addressed or given a second look in the mass media these days beyond the "Life and Arts" page of most major papers.

It's ironic, then, that L.A. Times critic Lewis Segal would spend several of his fifteen minutes attempting to discourage readers from taking an interest in an art form he presumes they are not interested in. Much of his commentary is laughable, but the attack reflects a variety of misunderstandings about ballet's place in contemporary dance that are worth addressing. Oddly, a New York Times piece published yesterday failed to address any but the most obvious of these - that contemporary ballet encompasses much in dance that is, well, contemporary - and leaves the impression that Segal's broader criticisms about ballet's relationship with its audience, its sense of its own history, and its disgraceful effects on the youth of America represent a meaningful critique.

The "Intimidation Factor": High Art and its Discontents

Segal's claim that ballet is uniquely situated in terms of its "intimidation factor" is astonishingly naive. Isn't this the same complaint people leveled at modern or postmodern or even conceptual art? It's very easy to dismiss something by saying it has an "intimidation factor" or it's too "elitist," but the only evidence Segal offers that ballet has gone to great lengths to "cultivate" audience intimidation is that audiences have dwindled.

One institution Segal would be unlikely to take issue with is the gallery and museum system for displaying visual art, and this offers an interesting counterpoint to his broad attack on the ballet. Can you say that the art museum, with its echo chambers which almost require you to speak in hushed tones, its security guards, and its artwork that requires (a) copious explanatory material, (b) an art degree or (c) both to properly appreciate it don't also "cultivate an intimidation factor?" Or is this "intimidation" really just a self-consciouness on the part of the viewer? As far as ballet goes, most of us know most of the stories that the most popular ballets are based on, and have known them since childhood, because they're fairy tales. When did fairy tales become sources of intimidation for anyone but art critics with an ax to grind?

The Tower of Babble: Why An Art Form is Art + Form

Segal fleshes out his case against ballet by declaring that the form "falsifies its past" and offers a "bait and switch" of "forgeries, fake antiques," and "compromises between the look of then and the technique of now." It is difficult to draw any recommendations from this sound and fury. Which is it that he wants - old or new? Or shall we abandon the past completely and write only new ballets from now on? A ballet is not a movie to be seen once and then discarded. Appreciation grows each time you see a given ballet, and each choreographer and each new principal dancer offers their own interpretation of the role.

It seems to me that Segal's claim for "falsification" rests on a discomfort with the nature of authorship in ballet. Ballet has been in many ways an oral tradition, and this fact has played a critical role in the history of all dance choreography prior to the advent of the video camera, and much of it since. When choreographers die, principal dancers have often been left to preserve the vision - that is, their interpretation of it - which is passed down to other dancers, choreographers, and so on. To credit the original choreographer of the work even if you put your own spin on the production is thus a natural, if imperfect, position to take: It is ballet's conservative - that is to say, deferential - answer to the question of appropriation. You take it and interpret it but the basic structure and design is still (often) the work of the original choreographer, so that's who gets the credit.

Segal is in rare form when he treats us to a comparison between ballet and film:
When we talk about the finest young actors of the moment, we see how they balance commercial and artistic priorities in their careers - doing a studio action film followed by a risky independent drama, for instance, or maybe a stage project. But what recent star dancer has thought the same way other than Argentine firebrand Julio Bocca, who performed conservative rep for ABT in the U.S. throughout his career, then subsidized very different contemporary projects back home in Buenos Aires. Does any star these days lobby artistic directors for better choreography or dare to say, "I just don't want to be seen in that 'Swan Lake' "? Does responsibility to the art and audience extend beyond dancing well?
And thus Segal reveals how little he knows about ballet. I can't speak with complete confidence about modern dance companies, but from my understanding of the authority structure of ballet companies, the dance world simply doesn't function like Hollywood does. In ballet, for example, a dancer can't say to his or her company, "Hey, I'm the star and I just did a more commercial production, so you should mount a risky piece for me" - there are 30 other dancers that the company has to consider. It's the equivalent of saying, "Okay, now that we, the cast of Mission Impossible III, have completed this movie we'll all move en masse to a risky independent drama." It doesn't work that way. And dancers can't shop around companies for the next dance they'd prefer to do. One thing dance and film do have in common is that there are leaders in each medium - directors in film, and artistic directors and choreographers in ballet - who are open to input from their "stars," and some that aren't.

And Ballet Causes Global Warming, Too...

Segal's crowning glory is his complaint that ballet is "a system that denies young people any real choices in their lives," alluding to long mentorships beginning at an early age, the grueling discipline of ballet's athleticism, and the "unexamined existence" they lead by focusing so blindly on their craft. To the extent that this is true, it certainly is not a problem unique to ballet - it represents a change in our entire culture's way of viewing kids and in the meaning of a "successful" child.

Segal argues that the ballet "turns out obedient classical athletes by imposing rules about where to be, what to do, how much to eat, whom to believe in and when self-esteem is deserved or not" and sheds a tear for performers "who don't really know themselves but have learned how to move skillfully and energetically while thinking critically about how they're doing, not what" - could as easily be inserted into diatribes against gymnastics, ice skating, pop music, beauty pageants, and cheerleading, even to the kids whose parents shuffle them between after-school activities and never give them the opportunity to discover who they are or want to be. And there are whole books written (mostly for adults) that are trying to re-teach us how to live an examined life. So to set this all on the feet of ballet without addressing or even acknowledging that this is a cultural epidemic? Come on.
Because this system works like an assembly line, automatic and unyielding, it also breeds choreographers skating over the contours of major scores as if only half-listening, along with ridiculously expensive high-culture events that speak more about the burnout of an art than anything else.
I'd be surprised if Segal had not heard of "American Idol" or Britney Spears, both products of a culture that champions the production of high-profile "assembly-line" stars in media with far greater influence than the ballet. Is Segal really expecting us to swallow the idea that the prevalence of monotonous, uncreative work is a symptom of an art form's utter bankruptcy? Is the existence of "American Idol" a sign of what pop music "breeds" in musicians and performers? Is Oprah's Book Club a symptom of the cancer that is American literature? Are Hollywood blockbusters a giveaway of film's essential "copycat" nature? Of course not. You'll find this kind of backwards criticism in any medium, especially when critics are looking to make a few waves. Look a little deeper and you'll also find the standouts. It's these, not the support or rejection of critics, that explain a medium's centuries-long staying power.

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