I hardly have time to write, nowadays, but what will become of Dance, and more specifically about Ballet, is always in mind. I worry, as you know, about their vitality and future.
I was reading this blog of Greg Sandow on the future of classical music (a passion, but I do not follow and study like Dance), and came upon this, that… could have been written for Dance, just by replacing the word music!
Since the link doesn’t embed in the text, I quote:
“We’re in a new era. To adapt to it, and build a new audience, here are four things you should do:
Understand and respect the culture outside classical music.
Your new audience will come from the world outside classical music. Where else could it come from? And to reach these new people, you of course have to know them. Who are they? What kind of culture do they already have? You have to respect them, because if you don’t, they won’t respect you.
Work actively to find your audience.
The people you want to reach may not yet care about classical music. So they won’t respond to conventional PR and marketing. They won’t come to you on their own. And so you have to actively go out and find them. You have to talk to them where they live, where they work, and where they go for entertainment and for inspiration. You have to inhabit their world.
Your urgency, your joy, and your passion will draw people to you. But you can’t be joyful if you don’t love the music that you perform. So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing. Trust your new audience. Trust it to be smart, to be curious, and to respond with joy when it sees how joyful you are.
Make music vividly.
The people you reach will want to love the music you bring them. But can you meet them halfway? Are you bringing them something they really can love? Your performances should be entirely yours, performances nobody else could give. Your music should breathe. Contrasts should feel like they’re contrasts. Climaxes should feel like climaxes. Are you doing everything you can to bring your music alive?”
I’m grateful for Greg Sandow, prolixe me would never be able to write such a splendid resume!
Isn’t the luscious, graceful Odetta a pleasure to watch in this video? I loved the dancer, I kept skipping to her scenes, and wish I had been there to see this performance. Unfortunately, I don’t know who she is.
In the whole video you can’t see her doing any fouettés or great jumps, so there are probably none.
Of course, you will say, this is not (bold-lettered) ballet!
This is were I snort and count to ten, because I don’t even know where to begin answering you – there are so many interconnected issues here… I try to write about them one at a time, but never achieve less then 1.500 words!!
It’s about what concert DANCE really is – Ballet being just one kind of it, one corner of the whole picture. It’s about what-is-ballet rules and their uncountable (negative) consequences – to us as audience, and to Ballet dancers.
Of course, I know there are several kinds of “us” in the public of Ballet, but I don’t see any reason why the rule-loving kind should be taken more seriously that mine.
MY kind knows that Dance (Ballet INCLUDED) is, in its very groundstones, about gracefulnessand creating magic – more than anything else.We also know, through boring experiences, that rules don’t guarantee either one. Both groundstones are very singular, each dancer has its own way, depending on who he is: physical build, psyche, soul. These two qualities, gracefulness, and being able to create magic, is what turns performers into dancers, and movement into Art.
120 fouettés in 24 seconds, 2 meter high jumps, technical precision, a certain weight, a certain height, colour, age, looks, not one of them, and not all of them bundled together with a golden bow on top, guarantee we will see… Dance!
Sorry to say (at this point you are squinting at my pointed finger), if Ballet does not have these two qualities, it is not Dance! Call it Fancy Gymnastics, or something like that, but NOT Dance. (Fist on the table!)
I’m making fun, but the truth is, this couldn’t be more serious. It seems, looking the Dance millieu from the outside, that the hard work needed ends up making people forget the forest and see only the next tree.
The consequences of forgetting about what Dance really is, are far reaching and sad. It means female dancers having bodies as spindly as an insect’s leg. It means male dancers with busted spines. It means dancers with busted joints, bones and tendons. It means the average age of retirement is 35. It means 30% of retirements are due to injuries. It means dancers believing they are done at 40. It means dancers believing they are not dancers if they don’t overextend. It means dancers seeing themselves more as performers of dangerous or exotic feats (those pics of contortionism are so popular now… aargh!) than artists.
It also means a certain kind of public, as well as many companies, agents, choreographers and ballet schools believing these absurdities are normal, unavoidable and correct. It seems a kind of mass delusion! Beware!!!
REALLY! I’m deeply disappointed every time I see a bland, perfect display of technical precision performed by correctly looking and emploi-ed dancers, so keen in achieving outstanding feats they forget why, after all, they are on stage… They may win an ISO 9000 Ballet Quality Control Certificate… but if they don’t give me what I came for, what’s the point?
A little scared by my frown, you say that good technique, the right looks, age, etc, are not opposed to artistry… on the contrary, they enhance it…
Yes! you are right! Sometimes those gifted with my necessary qualities come with a plus… and I’m very grateful when it happens!
Only… overvalued rules end up establishing a trend: the exclusion of non-complying dancers, gifted or not, from school on, no matter what… and the poor remaining creatures are beaten out of their individuality as much as possible! And the rules keep coming, ever more strict and more demanding! If dancers are born with what it takes, they must be REALLY, fiercely driven by their talent, not to forget what they knew instinctively. Because, you see, gracefulness, and acting skills, seem nowadays invisible (I wonder if some times even negative?) to decision makers – the Guardians of Rules in the Sacred Temples – the big companies.
Still on your remark: I don’t need a complete package! give me gracefulness and magic, and I will be happy – it is what really counts. Anything else is unexpected profit – it enhances their worth, but is by far not so valuable as the capital…
If dancers are graceful, and create magic, they may be old or young, white, black, yellow or green, have too big boobs or feet, or a belly, be bald, tall or small… I will love them.
Odetta is an example. Dancers over 40 that refuse to stop, like Alessandra Ferri – who created Cheri with, by the way, not-built-by-the-rule Hernan Cornejo, is another. I would not want to miss this:
But, you say, these are exceptional dancers…
Yes, they are, in that they did not accept labels!
It happens I greatly admire a dancer that some (great experts, I suppose) “accuse” of having poor turn-out. I did not care, because it does not impair the beauty of his dancing at all. But then, I read some western reviewers that saw a causal connection between “faulty” turn-out and height of jumps. When I was a dancer myself, a long time ago, I did not hear a single word about this, and it triggered my curiosity now.
I have not found (yet?) objective information on this connection. Those reviewers used it to explain why Russian dancers jump higher: they would also have “poor” turn-out more often than western dancers, and there would reside their ability to reach greater heights. The connection may be just one of those myths that grow, who knows how, in every community, but… may Russian dancers jump higher or not, may their turn-out be perfect or not… I must say: it makes sense!
But I also found out some disturbing objective, REAL facts about turn-out: it is responsible for shortening the active career of many dancers, because it wears out all articulations, ligaments and tendons from hips down to toes! Of course! It is logical, isn’t it? It’s an unnatural position, constantly exerting strain on them!
My teachers used to say turn-out was needed for balance. I recently asked some gymnastics physical trainers (not ballet teachers this time) how exactly it helped me stay still on point. They laughed… and I felt cheated! It’s just how, or where, you place the weight of your hip bones and head above your feet, one said, and to a lesser degree, on the strength of your calf and back bones to keep them there. You may be in the craziest position, the other one said, just find your center of gravity and place it in a vertical line above your foot and you are in balance. Hm.
Please, don’t think I would wish to wipe turn-out out of ballet! There is no way an arabesque will look beautiful with a heel protruding skyward! And an attitude would cease to be an attitude, to become just… a foot pointing up behind your back. An entrechat would be impossible (just think! what a mess!)… and it certainly helps you place your hips correctly and not look like a duck in pliés (it helps, but is not indispensable).
But on the other hand… running through the stage with your feet turned-out is NOT beautiful, it looks, BE TRUTHFUL NOW!… ridiculous!!! We dancers and ballet lovers, including myself, just became used to this strange aesthetic, and do not question it anymore. When I allowed myself to see its oddness, I remembered that Juliet running down the stairs with turned-out knees and feet always made me cringe, and vaguely wish something was different… BE TRUTHFUL AGAIN: it looks NOT graceful!
If it depended on me. I would ask female dancers to walk and run keeping 12h in their mind, instead of 14:45h, and male dancers to walk/run using their feet in the most comfortable way…
I analyzed a lot of steps and positions, and came to the conclusion that several of them would be more graceful if legs and feet were in a more natural position… and that turn-out is not needed for several others – the taking-off and landing in big jumps being just one of the examples. How things came to be the way they are? How did ballet become so unnatural? Why?
Would it not be wiser to use full turn-out only where it is really needed, and keep dancers dancing for a longer time?
Oh, my goodness, this sounds as anarchism in my own ears, but maybe it IS being questioned nowadays, and I just don’t know – after all, my technical knowledge is not extensive or up to date. I hope so: why not question standards that are unhealthy and/or ungraceful?
I doubt, anyway, Petipa was half as keen on full, perfect turn-out as ballet experts are nowadays…
Dance was the first great passion in my life, but even when I was part of our Dance community, little information about what was going on “there, where it matters” reached us – if at all, with great delay. We were just too far away, and Communication Age had not yet begun. I was lucky, I had teachers that were ex-dancers that had gone abroad and eventually came back with solid knowledge and great technical skill, but this happened so seldom, less than once in a decade! All I knew by then was pure classical (the most contained, severe English style!) and Martha Graham. When I gave up dancing, I kept the greatest possible distance between me and all that concerned Ballet, by my own choice – a kind of Dance “coma”…
I awakened to a “new” world, a world I had not been aware existed.
I was searching YouTube for classical Music works that had never graced the shelves of my city’s stores, when I linked to a piece that was just score to a ballet. BALLET! I realized, for the first time, that I could now see ballets, performances, dancers I had only heard about before – and was suddenly overcome by an urgent longing for Dance. I started with Martha Graham, and went on on suggested links, Paul Taylor, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp… Awesome! I remember clearly my amazement, as I realized all that had happened during the time I had been “away”.
Eventually I clicked on Lar Lubovitch’s “Othello” staged by San Francisco Ballet, Desmond Richardson and Yuan Yuan Tan as principals. I was mesmerized! So beautiful this blend of classical and contemporary, so different from all I had known, the richer choreography, the amazing male roles – these men were REALLY dancing! And choreography and dancers were all so deeply expressive! I watched it three times in a row before I could go on.
I went on to Othello’s PDD danced by Marcelo Gomes and Alessandra Ferri. WOW…! Until that moment, all I knew about him was that he is a Brazilian ballet dancer who succeded abroad. I searched more.
Two more days with my eyes glued to the screen, and I knew ALL about him and Alessandra I could get on the web: clips, interviews, pictures, reviews. Marcelo Gomes led me next to the Kings of the Dance.
I clicked on Labyrinth of Solitude.
I had never seen anything so beautiful and heartbreaking before. It was so overwhelming I stopped all I was doing , and went for a walk to think about what I had seen. My life had suffered a division: there is a before and an after Labyrinth.
THIS much meaning, feeling, power could be conveyed through Dance!! I knew, back from my days, that for those who dance, it can be a deep sensorial and emotional experience, but I had been also sadly aware that this experience was not extended to our audience! A Ballet evening was just a sophisticated event that people with cultured tastes felt obliged to attend, but the moment the curtains closed, they started talking about where to have dinner, the stock market… – had that evening existed or not, nothing was changed.
But THIS! this was something else. Labyrinth had blowed me off my feet! Not as a dancer, but as audience. And not in a theatre, seated in the dark, magic flowing from a lighted stage, but at home, my pets fooling around me, phone ringing, – on a 14″ notebook with awful sound quality…
It became my favourite work, and a sort of standard. I like everything about Labyrinth. The theme; the music (Vitali, strange composer, who created this one sweeping, emotional score 150 years ahead of his time…); the way it is danced by Vasiliev, believable and intense; the absence of settings and costume; De Bana’s expressive choreography, and how he blended all of it into something that was more than the sum of parts.
After gathering my wits back, I searched further (my ethernal gratitude to YouTube’s inventor!), and started to identify which choreographers and dancers had been – and are now – responsible for this new (for me) richness. I knew several by name or a rare photo, but had never SEEN the real dancing, believe it or not! My personal “hall of fame” became a mix of active and retired professionals, even some long passed away – problem is, they jumped into my life all at once, it took me some time to correctly locate them in space and time – they were all very “here and now” in my mind – they still are, and I like it that way.
I fell deeply in love with Dance again, more than before. I saw, at last, Dance becoming an Art like her sisters. THIS was what Dance should be, anyone could appreciate, could love it now, men and women, young and old, expert or not. Anyone should be given the opportunity to experience its power, everyone should be exposed to its magic: I had a Quest!
My other projects (I always have too many, anyway) became less important, as my knowledge and awareness grew steadily. I’m fortunate that I can now, as never before in a too busy life, open my door and let Dance and Music come in and make themselves really comfortable in me. (only problem is, I suffer from fits of goose-bumps at an alarming rate nowadays).
The Quest means no hard work at all: I use it as an excuse to write about beauty and art gifted people create for us – giving Dance some thought while I write – not as an expert, but as the grateful receiving end, and then throw it in the wind/web, hoping it makes a difference, even the tiniest one, in bringing Dance closer to a wider audience. The other task is to win people around me over… making them some pleasure, too, when I succeed. Is that nice or what?
“What makes one’s dancing compelling is one’s love for it. What draws the eye is the ability to watch someone having a profound internal experience translated into the external physical world. As a dancer, you are a kind of translator for divine energy, the non-verbal prayer.” … “When dancing felt best to me, it was when all parts of myself, some I could name, and some I could not, danced together, without hierarchy.”
Terpsichore! she is talking about Terpsichore…
Tai Jimenez was Principal Dancer of The Dance Theatre of Harlem and with the Boston Ballet, and is a teacher now.
This blog is, more than anything else, about the reception of Dance, about what we in the audience – I should better use “I”, since my opinions are far from being an unanimity – want, wish, expect from Dance, and think/feel when see it. But often things get mixed up, because I want to understand what makes a performance compelling – and end up reading with great interest what dancers and choreographers have to say about their motivations and experiences.
Although it is meant for dancers, this prayer she wrote feels so right!, I had to quote it too:
“Dear Universe, Help me to love myself as I am. Let my dancing be an expression of that love. Help me to recognize the Light in others without diminishing my own Light by falling into jealousy. Help me to move through doubt, fear and self-hatred into the dance of Love. Help me to love every part of my body without exception. Help me to practice recovering quickly from my mistakes, and to honor my limitations with patience so that I may uncover the gift in the disguise of that limitation. Help me to see through the obstacle of the Ideal Image and to trust that my best is good enough. Help me to nourish myself mind, body and soul so that I may be a vessel for Grace,and help me to let go so that I may be One with ecstasy. Thank you for this day of dancing.”
Anyone who has these wishes granted will certainly be a great pleasure to see dancing!
Edited one day after first publishing:it’s an awful long post, again. If you’re not patient enough, just go to the to examples in the end – they speak for themselves.
I have a problem with overuse of weird and ugly movements in contemporary dance.
I know it sounds unsophisticated and simple-minded, but am I just a traditional ballet lover with an idealized view of dancing? I believe not, I have a few arguments, and they may be not that naive (although I love this little figure, I stitched it together myself!).
To begin with – and this is important: my problem is NOT with ridiculous, weird, strange or ugly movements used to impart the wealth of negative emotions and ideas that are part of life – just when they are used for other reasons and in other contexts. Some of them:
# 1: “I want to shock, I want to push you out of your comfort zone!”
Reality is not a nice place to live, but classical ballet refused the notion and presented us with an idealized view of human being. In this context, the use of ugly and weird movements in contemporary is a way to give a good push on ballet’s complacent audience, as a shocking device to make them again aware of the real facts of life. I subscribe to that! BUT…
… nowadays they became overused. It’s like these American B-films, where the characters use FUCK as their every fifth word. It should show how the character is bad, or messed up, but fails, nowadays, to have the desired effect. You see, I’m a clumsy person, and this puts me in frequent situations when swearing is needed… and heartily done!!! It would not be THAT satisfying, though, if I used swearing in every sentence. Overuse kills the effect of trespassing, of rebellion, of a striking-back reaction. It becomes just bad manners, and does not make us jump in our seats anymore, or even uncomfortable.
If ugly movements are used to shock us, or to remind us of the ugly side of reality, well… it’s not working anymore, they are, nowadays, just… boringly ugly!
# 2: “Contemporary dance is not falsely prude, or falsely nice”.
And there comes bottoms facing audience, or held up high facing the sky, or the common lift where the female dancer is held high, back against her partner’s chest, horizontally not-fully extended, half-open legs, crotch facing the public. I used to look for the sex act key of that movement, since a woman in that position, in all our minds, with legs tensed that way, is a powerful and beautiful image of sexual desire, very rarely seen in other contexts, if any – I would welcome that, by the way, sex is still taboo in ballet, even in contemporary, and many choreographers and dancers are still uncomfortable in acknowledging even that sex exists – as Theatre, for example, has been doing for a long time. But… no, it is mostly just a slightly out-of-tune movement that, more often than not, has nothing to do with sexual drive. So what does it mean, this position that, taken out of its context, is not exactly graceful? The same applies, for example, when dancers crawl on all their fours… in my body-language lexicon, this is about very little children (the child inside us?), or about a very desperate, in sheer terror human being, that turns animal-like for lack of options. So I look for hints either way, but more often than not… they are not there! Made by an adult, and without the archaic corresponding meaning, this kind of movement is not graceful or makes sense anywhere in the world… So?!??
# 3: It is original!
In a world with too many people, ideas and images, originality is an important way to stand out. For the sake of originality, people go to any lengths, pushing boundaries of aesthetics to ultimate extremes. If it comes from a deep understanding of hidden possibilities we common people are not aware yet, I love it. But sometimes weird, ugly dancing does not seem to have any meaning, or belong to an intended aesthetic statement, they come and go in the dancing, and you can’t make any sense out them.
We, social beings as we are, live inside a symbolic universe, which allows us to communicate. We share words, concepts, tastes, ideas. Even if I see blue were you see green, even if Thai food feels so hot for me I have a hard time identifying the other ingredients through my tears, even if my fragmented notion of time is different from my Arab neighbour’s flowing one… even so, we have more in common than we have differences. Every social group shares a symbolic universe, deeply grounded on its language, and part of these diverse universes is common to all mankind. It is not different with body language. Different cultures have different conventions about the meaning of movements, and some of this meaning is common to all humankind.
The common aspects are rooted mostly in archaic fears and needs. So if you are standing up and stretch yourself completely, as far as you can, your eyes not on someone else, but focused far away, or unfocused – what does it mean? Here? In China? In Iceland? You see what I mean? INSIDE a specific culture, it is even easier, because all body-language – partly deeply rooted, partly convention – is understandable, is a language like the spoken one.
Our ears, our eyes, our nose, our tongue, all our senses, are trained since early childhood, so we can share images and colours, flavours and smells, sounds… and concepts related to them, and ever more abstract ideas construed using these as ground-stones.
Now, coming back to Art. Art is part of our symbolic universe, both the specific one, and the general one. I may have trouble understanding a Japanese Opera, or Indian music, when I’m seeing it for the first time and without preparing myself. But I can learn! I can learn its aesthetic criteria, the difficulties of performance, the concepts that are imbedded there, the culture where they came from, and then… THEN I will be exposed to the full power of that kind of Art. What I mean is: Art exists INSIDE a symbolic universe, and can only reach me if I share this universe.
There are artists that have an instinctive knowledge of our symbolic universe, but so a deep and great one, they are able to show us things we are not aware, that are in the boundaries of, or hidden from our “Weltanschauung”. And still, they share our symbolic universe, or they would be just psychopaths, living in a world of their own… It is my belief that this kind of Art, even if you can’t understand it rationally, will get at you anyway. Provided it is Art, provided it comes from a knowledge that includes mine and exceeds it in some way, and brings me a new truth I will recognize once seen, and then not be able to dismiss again. Problem is, this is not the kind of artist we are discussing here. This kind of artist is Beethoven, is Isadora Duncan, is Van Gogh, they are rare, so, SO rare! Most artists are not so far away from our everyday reality, and share our symbolic universe as it is. There is nothing less valuable about them, because Art must not throw our symbolic universe upside down, everytime, to be Art –in fact it rarely does, for it is, most of all, a way for us… just to live! Nietzsche said: “We have art in order not to die of the truth!”. We need Art in order to cope with what being human is, just IS!
Many artists strive, nowadays, to be boundary breakers, but if they resource to artificial means to become that, it is of no avail – this kind of issue should not even worry them – in fact, articialism gets in the way of creation! The points I enumerated above about the use of strange movements ARE artificial ways some choreographers are using, and do not convince me. At all.
To be original guarantees… originality, not that the work will be Art! To unveil hypocrisy and false moral values is always good, but does not guarantee the work will be Art (but a valuable socio-political statement, maybe?), and so on.
Our culture shares an immensurable knowledge on body-language and concepts of body beauty and body-movements beauty… and their corresponding ugliness. This wealth of meaning is just beginning to be explored by Dance. I wonder why so many choreographers are dismissive about our shared language, and try to create something that is not really new, just weird – to create something that is just… not understandable!
How many writers you know that use as much words they create from scratch as existing ones? How many perfumists do you know that create perfumes that smell like rotten eggs, or a car’s exhaustion? What happens when you hear music that uses not the kind of “hamony” your culture shares? even if it is Art, will it reach you?
I will a give an example, and a counter-example.
My example of weird, not understandable dancing is Ohad Naharin’s Passo. Passo is part of a larger work, and was presented, out of context, in Solo For Two, with Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, where I saw it the first time. Despite being performed by outstanding and expressive dancers, it was a shot off the mark, if I, in the audience, was the intended target. Even seeing the whole work, I doubt I would get what was to be imparted through the choreography. It was lost on me, I did not understand the body-language, and could not see, also, a possible internal coherence or consistency of Form, some aesthetic proposition I could recognize. Was it necessary to know about Gaga-technique? Well… Naharin could not expect that from me, could he? I must say: simple-minded me did not get it at all… I wonder if someone else did!
(The strange thing is, there are several choreographies of Naharin that I like – and, I believe, understand… so what is the matter with THIS one?
The counter-example is Mats Ek’s (he is Swedish) work, based on a play of Garcia Lorca (he is Spanish), using music from Bach (he is German), Villa-Lobos (he is Brazilian), Albeniz and Tarraga (they are Spanish): Bernardas Hus, or La Casa de Bernarda Alba. An extraordinary work, “readable” by anyone, despite the multicultural aspects… at least by any occidental one (due to Catholic religion references). But then, Mats Ek is an extraordinary choreographer, I’m fascinated by his work! Even if you do not know the original play (I did not), you get it, both emotion and plot, through the cleverest use of body-language in – and this is what I like the most – IN the dancing, THROUGH the dancing!
Link to complete work: << https://youtu.be/l2Sxi7USgzw>>.