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Subject: "'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00" Archived thread - Read only
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Conferences What's Happening Topic #1133
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Ann Williams

12-12-00, 02:24 PM (GMT)
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"'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00"
   BIG's (Ballet Independents' Group) 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' discussion forum at the RFH last night proved a lively and stimulating experience.

BIG's co-ordinators, Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson, had done well in organising a distinguished panel of speakers - Andrée Grau, a senior ballet educationalist at the University of Surrey Roehampton, Alastair Macaulay, well-know journalist and dance critic, and Roger Tully, a dancer and teacher for over 50 years. There were a few distinguished dance professionals in the audience as well, many of whom seemed to know each other to judge by the amount of air-kissing going on.

The three panelists were requested to make brief opening statements. Alastair Macaulay was the first to speak. Interestingly, his take on Greer's notorious statement was that it was a 'gender' issue (though how he worked this out from her brief and thoughtless words he never made clear, even at my later pressing). He had seen Greer on last Sunday's 'Art Zone' where she had narrowed down her criticism to the final shot in 'Billy Elliott' showing a male dancer in a movement from 'Swan Lake', She had found it, amongst other things, to be 'camp'; Macaulay said he didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with camp in small doses.
Andrée Grau's input was more wide-ranging. She discussed the perceived problems in ballet; 'violence' (bullying) in teaching, eating disorders, cliched images in posters and publicity material; all these negative images of ballet needed to be changed.

Roger Tully made a fascinating point in his contribution: Nijinsky, Karsavina, Pavlova etc had all come from the same school, yet in their careers they had emerged as utterly individual artists. Today, however, we see RB, RAD and NYCB-trained dancers emerging 'like peas in a pod' with nothing whatsoever to differentiate them.

The floor was then thrown open for discussion and I opened the batting by saying that Greer's original statement was doubly negative; the reference to cancer was offensive to cancer sufferers too. Picking up on this, someone suggested that the cancer reference could easily equate to the way ballet 'gobbled up' a lot of scarce arts funding.

The discussion then widened out fascinatingly; who were the choreographers to follow Petipa, Balanchine, Ashton and Macmillan? Of course, there was no answer to that worrying problem. Branching out into dancers, Macaulay said that Sylvie Guillem was no answer to anything. As good as she was, she could only do steps, and could not 'breathe' into the space around her as, for instance, Fonteyn could. Hard to explain, but as much as I adore Sylvie, I knew exactly what he meant, despite only ever having seen brief glimpses of Fonteyn on film.

The foregoing by no means covers everything that was said, but it gives a flavour of the event. I found it slightly frustrating that the meeting never got to grips with the issue it headlined, and as much as I pressed I could not get Susie Crow or Jennifer Jackson to explain how they were going to deal with Greer's silly, unthinking, utterance (if indeed they felt it needed 'dealing with'). A gentleman present suggested that if Ninette de Valois was a mere 40 years younger she could deal very briskly indeed with Ms Greer in any face-to-face confrontation on the subject!

The evening ended informally over drinks and I found myself chatting to Amanda Eyles (ex-ENB dancer and former RB notater) and Lynne Wate (ex SWRB) now working for Photoplay Productions, a film company. Both looked as if they could still do a decent Sugar Plum Fairy if you asked them nicely.

BIG is supported by London Arts. For further information, telephone or fax Jennifer Jackson on 020 8741 2842 or Susie Crow on 020 8767 2284 (susiecrow@easynet.co.uk).

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00 Susie 13-12-00 1
     RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00 Jonathan 15-12-00 2
         RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00 Carly Gillies 16-12-00 3
     RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00 Richard J 17-12-00 4

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13-12-00, 03:26 AM (GMT)
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1. "RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00"
In response to message #0
   Thanks Ann for your prompt posting about the event. It was indeed a wide ranging discussion, looking both inward to the nature of ballet itself and outward to how it is perceived and marketed, whether it is high art or low art or, as was suggested, has the ability to be both at once. There was a consensus that ballet has an image problem for which the profession is itself in part to blame (Andree Grau produced publicity material from two major teaching organisations as evidence of pandering to perceptions of kitsch and camp, which one can imagine Germaine Greer pouring scorn on), but also the invisibility of the central element, classical dance, in its portrayal in the media - of which Billy Elliott is a prime example. It was striking that none of the critics on Review noted the crudely caricatured portrayal of ballet in the film - perhaps because that is all they ever see of it? It was noted that Germaine Greer was able to appreciate opera and see through its more risible conventions to the richness and value within - but could not do this with ballet.

Dancers, in ballet especially, need to learn to defend themselves in a predominantly verbal culture which is in dance terms largely illiterate - Roger Tully aptly quoted Pavlova who saw clearly the difference between these modes of communication "If I could tell you what it meant I wouldn't need to dance it". Our current culture was seen to be hostile to classical dance in other ways, too fast moving to engage with it in the long term, and with so many other "leisure activities" vying for the public's interest and money. A young choreographer present voiced the prevalent feeling that ballet seemed out of touch with current life, culture and concerns. Ballet institutions were seen as inappropriate and slow to adapt to the needs of the form for survival in such a context.

There was fascinating discussion of the nature of the form. Alastair Macaulay felt that distinct male and female roles (as exemplified in the Sleeping Beauty Act 3 pas de deux for Aurora and her prince) were intrinsic to the form - another thing which might arouse Germaine Greer's ire. I questioned this as in the classroom the vast majority of the vocabulary is done by both sexes, and the science and principles of the movement hold true for both. Roger Tully saw a more subtle combination of male and female principles in equilibrium in the form - the male that of finite shape, the female constant flowing movement, the dance being the interrelation of these two. AM also questioned the future of pointwork, whether it still had aesthetic and symbolic validity.

All Forum discussions whatever the topic seem inevitably to lead to reflections on the nature of the training/education of dancers. There was concern at the excessive concentration on technique at the expense of truthful expression through dance, a sense that dancers had lost their confidence in what they do, and if they did not believe in it neither would an audience. There was a strong feeling that ballet dancers are currently not allowed/encouraged to mature as people. RT implied that this is at the heart of the current dearth of ballet choreography - the fault is not in the form or its rules, but in the lack of experience in the makers of art and quoted "Make men and women and they will make art".

Wasn't intending to supplement Ann's piece at such length, but once I started... Either Jennifer Jackson or myself will be writing about the event for Dance Europe. As to what else we can do concerning Germaine Greer and her comments, we did invite her and Mark Lawson and received no response. We will continue to work away at what we do - that is probably the best answer to her.

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15-12-00, 04:20 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00"
In response to message #1
   I am really amazed that anyone could be bothered to worry about Germaine Greer's remarks. She's a well-seasoned panellist, hired not least, I imagine, because she's good at producing alliterative, inflammatory soundbites on just about any subject - the thinking person's spicy chicken McNuggets.

Beyond that though, how could anyone expect the person who wrote "The Whole Woman" to think otherwise of ballet? The opening chapter alone is a diatribe against contemporary obsessions with fitness, youth and beauty, all of which are central to most people's image of ballet.

I don't think the ballet world will fall apart because of what she said, nor do I think there's a lot of point taking issue with her. She doesn't like ballet: so what?

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Carly Gillies

16-12-00, 09:56 AM (GMT)
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3. "RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00"
In response to message #2
   I suspect that if Greer had been asked to elaborate at the time on her comment she may have had something more interesting and possibly less contraversial to say.
I've heard ballet described as a "celebration of the beautiful body", and as a ballet lover I'm aware of a dilemma between my unashamed enjoyment of looking at beautiful bodies, and the knowledge that only a small minority of people naturally have such well proportioned and aesthetically pleasing bodies. And that some of those who do, suffer greatly to attain and keep them. ( and I'm not even going to go into the ethics of suffering ).
I liked "the whole woman". I think Greer has a lot that's important to say about the increasing commercial pressures on young people. And her opinionated rhetoric makes it a more enjoyable read.
Unfortunately I suspect that only a tiny proportion of her readership are teenagers - the age when she suggests they are being "deliberately infected" ( by advertisers and such ) "with Body Dysmorphic Disorder"

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Richard J

17-12-00, 06:49 PM (GMT)
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4. "RE: 'Ballet as Cultural Cancer' forum 11.12.00"
In response to message #1
   I'm glad the point has been made that Ms Greer has a love of opera; considering the inter-dependence of opera and ballet at various stages of their development, it is sad when someone of intelligence finds it possible to accept the conventions of one while deriding the other.

I am a professional musician who has watched many performances of both opera and ballet over the past forty years or so. There have been times when I have wished that opera performances were more visually believable, and there have been times when I have found the frothier side of ballet frustrating; but, at their best, these two art forms can provide a powerful experience, both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Of course, the dearth of new work of quality in ballet is a subject that has often been rehearsed before; the problem is all the more acute because ballet does not have as substantial a repertory as opera. Sadly, there is nothing to equate to the pre-1800 operatic repertoire, and those who have tried to make amends by using music from the concert repertoire have not always found enormous success. "Powder" (Stanton Welch) to the Mozart clarinet concerto seems to me to be a case in point. The choreography just does nothing for the music, especially in the second movement where the calm beauty of the music with its long phrases is accompanied by much fussiness on stage. This was a moment in the ballet theatre when I inevitably concentrated more on the music than on the choreography after deciding I had seen enough! By contrast, David Bintley's "The Protecting Veil" to John Tavener's score (which I saw in the same programme)is in a different league. However, here again audience opinions are divided, though this time from the dance perspective; some do not like the mixing of ballet with contemporary dance techniques, however slight the contemporary element.
Should this be such a problem?

Mentioning contemporary dance leads me to comment that the modern dance world often seems to have fared better with new music of real substance than ballet. Also, there does seem to be a retrogressive move in ballet at the moment; we are treated to endless versions of the (mainly 19th century) classics, which helps to engender audiences for new products in story time style (e.g. ENB's "Alice"). The contrast with the pioneering days of the 20's when such works as "Apollo" were new is stark. Mention of "Apollo" leads me to comment that nobody with any grain of aesthetic sense could possibly call that work (or other Stravinsky/Balanchine collaborations) "cultural cancer".

Sometimes the ballet world does seem to get a bit stuck in the mud, which plays into the hands of such as Ms Greer. However, she should look closely to the history of opera; she will find some pretty static moments, amounting to "concerts in costume". Neither is it the case that everything is solved in the opera world by bringing in directors from other forms of theatre; sometimes (like choreographers) they are not particularly musical people, and their tricks wreck the overall picture rather than completing it. Also, opera choruses still have to learn how to move, just as some dancers need to appreciate the shape of a phrase, not just the number of beats to count.

Perhaps it is as well that all cultural 'worlds', which are potentially very inward-looking groups, should be made to go in for a bit of soul searching from time to time. The problem, however, is not the art form itself. I expect GG has the same view of ballet as did the critic Taneyev who thought that a failing of Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony was that parts "sounded like ballet music". Ballet was seen as something decorative in Russia at that time; a case in point is "Don Quixote" where the drama is reduced to zero, the music (like most of Minkus) is nothing special (and that's being kind), and only the choreography sparkles - a travesty of poor Cervantes. The music for "Swan Lake" was something of a shock to the system, but Tchaikovsky opened a few eyes as to the possibilities for ballet; Diaghilev saw to it that others followed.

Ballet still needs to move on. Story ballets, for instance, need to build upon the legacy of such as MacMillan, allowing dancers to explore the human condition in greater depth; age and experience have been given scant regard on the ballet stage - who would have the ability to portray a character of the equivalent of King Lear, were such a ballet to be made? And works that are pure dance need to be programmed more frequently (and supported by the Arts Council in the regions, where the choice is usually limited to a couple of well-worn classics per season - at least that's the case with those of us who have to suffer ENB's programming). An audience for pure dance has to be built up gradually, but it works in New York!

Both opera and ballet have had their problems; I hope Ms G has encountered the writings of Noverre and Fokine as well as Gluck and Wagner, among others. Then she can start on Stephanie Jordan's book on the relationship between music and dance in 20th century ballet ("Moving Music"). For anyone really interested in theatre art, there is more to discover than the current wave of populism would have us believe.

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