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Jack Smith

The world of ballet demonstrates to schoolchildren that, beyond doubt, the human being is not an abstraction

May 13, 1987|Jack Smith

When I was a young boy I was not exposed to ballet. No company ever brought it to the small towns in which I grew up. It was as foreign to Bakersfield and Whittier as ice hockey and yoga.

I grew up on baseball, football and the movies. Ballet was something they did in France.

Not only was it foreign, it was sissy. My father would no more have allowed me to take ballet lessons than to wear dresses.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I saw my first ballet, at the old Philharmonic Auditorium downtown, which gave many of us our first taste of culture. One of the dances that night was "Spectre of the Rose," and I can still remember how impressed I was by the sheer athleticism of the male star.

I was thinking of this childhood deprivation Monday when my wife and I saw the Joffrey II Ballet perform in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center before an audience of 3,000 fifth-graders.

It was the first day of the 17th annual Blue Ribbon Holiday Festival, which by the end of this week will have introduced 30,000 Los Angeles schoolchildren to the enchantment of ballet.

We arrived between the two morning performances. Yellow school buses were lined up four abreast in the entire block of Hope Street west of the Music Center. Three thousand children who had seen the first show were in orderly groups on the terrace, waiting to board their buses. The logistics of getting those children aboard the right buses was a miracle in itself.

When we took our seats the pavilion was already filled. I have never seen a more enthusiastic audience. I doubt that 1% of those children had ever seen ballet before. But it was as if the form had been invented for them. It was instant love.

The show began with "A Visit to the Ballet Class," which gave the children a look at how ballet dancers train for their art. The physiques of the male dancers, and their athletic prowess, must have disabused the boys in the audience of the notion that ballet is sissy.

Then they performed what the narrator, Richard Englund, identified as a divertissement, introducing the children to that lovely word. It was from "Spring Waters," music by Rachmaninoff (whom all children love at first hearing), and Mr. Englund observed that in Europe spring is when the glaciers melt and young love blooms.

The applause was shattering. Clapping, whistling, catcalls. Nijinsky would have loved it.

A young woman named Janet Moody came out to explain a demonstration of theatrical lighting. First, the stage was dappled with light. It was the kind of light, as she pointed out, that one sees on the floor of a forest. Then the light simulated rain, and artificial lightning came.

The applause was thunder.

These children had been raised on the special effects of "Star Wars," and yet they seemed to appreciate this modest demonstration of theatrical art, as if they understood the difference in doing it for film and doing it in a theater in front of a live audience.

Evidently hoping to make the point that ballet is not entirely locked into the 19th Century, they did a modern dance in which the dancers formed triangles and emulated machines, but the narrator reminded the children, "The human body cannot be made abstract, because you are really a person."

They concluded with a breathtaking pas de deux in which the male dancer grasped the female at the waist, while she extended her arms and her legs in opposite directions, and walked her gracefully across the stage. The pas de deux, in its many variations, is among the highest art forms in civilization, and, if nothing else, it demonstrates, beyond doubt, that the human being is not an abstraction.

The applause was thrilling. They clapped. They cheered. They whistled.

After the show they formed into classes on the terrace and we watched from a balcony as they danced. They had practiced their routines at school, and now they did them en masse under the direction of Barbara Haig, who called out instructions over a loudspeaker from the balcony.

Boys and girls together, they did their bows and pirouettes and seemed to be having a wonderful time.

I wondered how many of them had ever seen ballet before . . . how many had been to the Music Center . . . how many had even been downtown. I wondered how many would be changed in some way by this experience. Would one, perhaps, become a ballet dancer? Would a hundred come back to the Music Center? Would 1,000 remember that a human being is not an abstraction?

Later, at a Blue Ribbon luncheon in the Founders' Room, I sat by a happy chance next to Gerald Arpino, associate director and resident choreographer of the Joffrey.

I told him about my schoolboy attitudes toward ballet, and asked him if he had encountered that.

"It was terrible," he said. "If you walked down the street with your ballet shoes and said you were going to ballet class, you ended up with two black eyes and a bloody nose. Forget it."

"Hasn't that changed?" someone asked.

"It hasn't changed enough," Arpino said.

If anything can change it, the Blue Ribbon will. They are right in trying to reach the children.

It's probably too late for me, though. Given my choice of fantasies, I'd rather play quarterback for the Raiders.

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