Essay

A Word of Advice to Dance Audiences: Shhhh!

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

It may not have been her first trip to the ballet, and one hopes it won't be her last. But the little girl holding down a very expensive seat for the Kennedy Center's presentation of the Kirov Ballet one evening last month was barely big enough to keep the retractable seat from swallowing her up like a ladybug caught in an accordion. Your first thought is a huge sense of warmth and hope: that children still get excited about the dance, they still put on their Sunday best and still look forward to an evening that stretches, oh, three or four hours past their normal bedtime.

Your second thought, as the lights go down and the show begins, is that she is definitely not old enough to be in the theater. She can't stop talking. Mostly it's questions: Who's that? What are they doing? Where's the ballerina?

Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" isn't a complex ballet for adults to understand, at least not the plot; a cursory knowledge of the Shakespeare play gets you through quite easily. But for a child, perhaps only 6 or 7 years old, it's overwhelming. It isn't all taffeta and pretty ballerinas, princes and pas de deux. There's a story line, the basics of which are communicated not just through dance but through mime and gesture, a language that feels very much left over from the days of silent film.

But one girl's confusion is another man's distraction, and in the middle of something rapturously beautiful, you feel a squall line of George Costanza-like rage coming on. "You know, we're living in a society!" the character once fumed with red-faced rage on "Seinfeld." What with the latecomers, the early leavers and the high-pitched feedback between hearing aids and the infrared amplification system (which nearly ruined a Susan Graham recital last month), they might just chisel those words above the doors of the Kennedy Center.

Everyone's guilty, but ballet audiences are the worst -- and not just because of the little girls. In an earlier presentation by American Ballet Theatre, performing Antony Tudor's autumnally sad "Dark Elegies," a woman with an amply endowed charm bracelet added a percussion track all the way through (but not in time with) the music. The score, Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," is far more delicate, far more easily spoiled, than that of Prokofiev. And this was a grown woman, utterly indifferent to the din she was causing.

Which leads to a troubling thought: Are ballet audiences simply indifferent to music? The evidence isn't encouraging. Ballet orchestras tend to be much worse than symphony orchestras or those that accompany opera. For years, the New York City Ballet Orchestra has been beyond embarrassing, producing not music but a barren hodgepodge of feints in the general direction of what the composer called for, all held together with a leaden hand by the conductor. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra can sound like two entirely unrelated groups, depending not only on who is conducting but whether the music is accompanying dancers or singers. It's always worse for dance.

With the Opera House Orchestra alternating with the City Ballet Orchestra -- a contractual quirk of the City Ballet's yearly visits to the Kennedy Center -- it's been a race to the bottom.

"Last week, the New York City Ballet Orchestra was in the pit," wrote Post critic Sarah Kaufman in March 2005. "All three programs were accompanied by spongy, unremarkable and, at certain painful points, flawed performances of what must be its standard fare."

"When 'Monumentum pro Gesualdo' wasn't being ruined by the Opera House Orchestra's poor performance . . ." she wrote a year later, about a Stravinsky score that accompanies a Balanchine dance, when the same company visited. Kaufman, it should be noted, is the rare dance critic to even notice the music. Bad music is enabled at all levels in the dance world, and critics must share the blame.

But it never seems to matter to ballet audiences, who show up nonetheless, and don't clamor for better treatment from the musicians in the pit. Perhaps it's because they've been given a kind of reverse ear training, as they grow up learning the great classics of dance. Throughout much of the 19th century, the music written for ballet was mostly trash. Churned out by composers such as Leon Minkus, Adolphe Adam and Leo Delibes, most ballet scores were aural wallpaper.

Tchaikovsky changed this, setting a standard that choreographers such as George Balanchine (raised very much in the world of Russian ballet that Tchaikovsky helped define) would try to uphold. But choosing good music (and Balanchine, with a few exceptions, chose the best) doesn't mean that performances will be adequate. Minkus and Co. seem to take their revenge: Ruin bad music and who notices? But ruin Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev and you've done some serious artistic mischief.

The worst, the earplug performances, are always those that combine orchestra, instrumental soloist and complex music. Balanchine's "Movements for Piano and Orchestra," with a thorny, spiky, nervous score by Stravinsky, could be a great ballet -- if ballet orchestras could play it. You feel inclined to say, well, just use a recording, a concession to despair.

The indifference to music among the serious dance crowd can't be blamed just on a regular diet of wretched performances. Arts that fuse two art forms -- music and theater in opera, music and dance in ballet, photography and drama in film -- generally attract audiences that are allied, more or less, with one form over another. Opera audiences will tolerate an astonishing amount of bad acting from great singers. And ballet audiences, it seems, will tolerate a whole mess of God-awful music so long as the dancers are spectacular. Film fanatics generally come in two breeds: those who insist on good storytelling (the majority of the audience) and find visual beauty a pleasant extra; and those who are indifferent to stories (the highbrow crowd) and think a film a failure if it doesn't explore the visual in some experimental new way.

Fusion art forms often make great leaps forward when someone comes in and upsets the standard thinking about which art is meant to be paramount. In the history of opera, most "reforms" came from composers who believed that they were giving drama more weight, relative to the music. Gluck, in his reform operas, insisted on a musical vocabulary, and a basic story line, that accentuated the dramatic and downplayed the ornamental and the aural filigree. Wagner was under the illusion that he was making similar reforms, about a hundred years later, as had Gluck in the 18th century.

In the history of film, small revolutions have come from similar revision of the basic priorities. Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 filmmakers are among only the more recent to declare (in their words) a "vow of chastity," meant to get filmmaking back from the world of high-gloss illusions of Hollywood -- "The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur)" -- and into a new era of visual simplicity and honesty.

Choreographers have tried, from time to time, similar revolutions. "Moves," a 1959 ballet by Jerome Robbins, included no music at all. But that was, in a sense, conceding the battle -- as if to admit that music really was extraneous. Balanchine, as mentioned, turned to serious music for inspiration. Still, it's tantalizing to imagine a choreographer who wouldn't just insist on good music but would demand good performance as well. That simple act could be revolutionary, and redemptive. New audiences might experience the vital synergy between motion and music that would, in an ideal world, be the bare minimum that any dance audience would demand.

The old, lousy orchestras would be rusticated or retired -- and new, young, hungry ones given the work they deserve -- and finally we'd both see and hear what Balanchine wanted in "Movements for Piano and Orchestra."

Of course, first, we'd have to learn to be quiet.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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