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The first session I attended was on Saturday afternoon. Entitled Presenting Ballet Across America, it was a panel of artistic directors of ballet companies and critics. Sitting on the panel were the Washington Ballet‘s artistic director, Septime Webre, and associate director, Jeff Edwards. From the Boston Ballet, artistic director Miko Nissinen. From the Joffrey Ballet, artistic director Ashely Wheater. Critics Jean Battey Lewis of the Washington Times and Theodore Bale from Boston rounded out the panel. The moderator was the NY Post’s Robert Johnson.
Though I am but a baby in the world of balletomanes, even I was able recognize the star power of this panel. Topics discussed were accessibility, outreach and education, programming choices, touring, music, and relationships with critics. On this last topic, I thought it was a nice touch to have critics from the same cities as two of the artistic directors, given their long-standing, if at times adversarial, relationships. I was going to neatly summarize everything, but there were so many nice nuggets of insight and quotes that the below is essentially a cleaned-up version of my notes.
To gain an entry point to dance, audiences need to find something that they can connect with. Some connect with abstract ideas and emotions, while others need more explicit or literal imagery. Dancegoers seem to have shorter attention spans than operagoers. Why is it operagoers will happily sit through a 4 hour opera, but dancegoers squirm in their seats if it’s over an hour? These considerations may be factored in for whether a work will contain an intermission or not.
On the use of popular music to appeal to broader audiences:
Very few of those pieces have any staying power, because they relied on the strength of the music or the star power of the musician rather than on the strength of the choreography. Tharp’s Sinatra Songs is an exception because it was such a significant contribution to the American jazz canon (it’s been done by 17 companies, and counting). Live music is so important to the art. It’s not financially feasible to have Sting go on tour with you. If we do want to use contemporary music, we need to start seeking out one of the many talented, but lesser known musicians working today.
On TV, video and movies:
This is an exciting time where dancing being #1 on TV for the first time in decades is very exciting. It’s a moment of opportunity. We’re just waiting to see a reality show about ballet! There needs to be better integration of video and dance– the video behind the dancer showing abstractions or cues has been done. An example of innovation was given from the Paris Ballet where video showed activities going on live offstage that vastly contrasted with what the audience saw on stage.
The Company did more harm than good to the Joffrey. It trivialized the company and was a caricature of the artistic director and his process. It would add value to have dance critics write about dance movies and dance on TV, rather than a TV or movie critic that knows nothing about the art. Two exceptions cited were Lewis’ review of Fred Astaire movie reissues, and Bale’s review of The Company.
Someone asked why so few video dances apply the classical dance vocabularly (mostly modern and ballroom). Maybe it’s because ballet thinks so rigidly in terms of the rectangular proscenium stage, whereas video benefits from more dynamic facings and shapes. HD technology is a good thing– it allows more of the movement to come through the screen, even on proscenium-filmed video dances.
Would companies ever consider a shift of resources from live to video dance? To do it right, you have to invest millions of dollars in the right equipment, which will become obsolete in just a few years. It’s not financially feasible because it would take too much away from the audiences. What about alternative sources of funding? Forsythe did a DVD the documents his whole process, and it was funded by museums.
We need to think about how we can better develop talent in the USA. 40% of companies are foreign and 70% of principles are foreign. This says something about the quality of our own training. Other countries have rigid training and curricula in place. We need to look at what sort of standards of quality we should require for teachers and students. Discipline and rigor are lacking, yet we are trying to do too much too early (i.e., 8 yr olds going en pointe). Schools affiliated with companies are money makers so there’s an incentive to keep standards lower, such as holding on to students that are not progressing, to keep getting their tuition.
It is difficult to attract African American dancers. They mostly seem to gravitate to historically AA companies such as Ailey. What could companies do to become more representative of the communities they belong to?
There is a trend now to more varied body types. How we talk about shape and weight has changed, and our eyes have changed in terms of how we see bodies.
On dance criticism:
Dance critics can do more to inform their audiences and provide context. There is too much “inside baseball,” assuming readers know much more than they do about dance. In terms of how companies see their critics, articles should be constructive and emphasize the singular point of view so that readers understand that it’s coming from just one perspective.