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Five things I hate about ballet

A repertoire that's decaying, danced by the disenfranchised. No wonder audiences are dwindling. It's not our fault.

August 06, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

RIGHT now, there's no major ballet event on the Southland horizon, and instead of a disappointment, that's a blessed relief.

Ballet has given us visions of limitless human potential and a sense of grace as profound as anything we have ever thought, felt or believed. But all too often, it now commandeers a disproportionate amount of money and attention in the dance world and returns only an increasingly self-satisfied triviality.

Yes, Miami City Ballet looked mighty fine in two Music Center programs a month ago. But significantly, the only work created since the dancers' infancy was borrowed from the world of modern dance. In this country, ballet simply will not address the realities of the moment, and its reliance on flatulent nostalgia makes it hard to defend as a living art.

When other forms of concert dance -- not to mention movies, TV or the theater -- are this empty and useless, it's easy to openly dislike or even despise them. But ballet has cultivated an intimidation factor that acts like a computer firewall. If people hate ballet, they frequently feel guilty and assume that it's got to be their own fault, that they're not educated or sensitive enough. If only they went more often, read more essays and program notes, joined a company support group ...

Forget it. Most ballet is every bit as bad as audiences secretly suspect -- and it's not going to improve until companies stop conning or shaming us into accepting damaged goods. In the meantime, guilt-free hatred of ballet is reasonable, maybe even necessary.

The first step (as always) is understanding that you're not alone -- that audiences are dwindling everywhere, that ballet is largely invisible in the mass media and that nearly a century after impresario Sergei Diaghilev reinvigorated the art in Europe and America with a transfusion of new, high-quality choreography and passionate dancing, companies are desperate to try just about anything else.

So perhaps now is as good a time as any to consider the state of the art as a whole: all the skill in the world and so little else worth celebrating.

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A history lesson: The tutu as icon -- and armor

Ballet intimidation largely depends on making you believe that Moses carried a tutu, tiara and toe shoes with him from Mt. Sinai along with the Ten Commandments -- that classical ballet as we know it has been a pillar of Western culture as long as classical music or the classics of world lit.

Wrong: Next season, Los Angeles Opera will perform a work that dates to 1642, and Shakespeare's heyday was even earlier. But the oldest ballets you're ever going to see originated in the 1830s and '40s -- and most of them have been revised so often that the original choreographers would scarcely recognize them.

Bad enough that ballet largely ignores the present, but it also falsifies its past. The problematic "Sleeping Beauty" that the Kirov Ballet danced at the Music Center last season credited 19th century master choreographer Marius Petipa, but it dates from 1952. And the so-called traditional versions of "Swan Lake" danced by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were premiered more recently than the radical Matthew Bourne modern-dance adaptation -- the one with the male swans.

So don't let the myth of ballet's ancient primacy and long hold on Western culture keep you from openly dissing all that's dreadful in the contemporary perversions of 19th century classics that companies keep merchandising. Forgeries, fake antiques, compromises between the look of then and the technique of now: Whatever you call them, they're the products of ballet's eternal bait and switch, intimidating only for how much millennial moola is spent mounting them again, season after season.

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Poisonous exoticism: The serpent among the flowers

For beginners, the easiest thing to hate about ballet may be the way so many 19th century story ballets depict non-Christian, non-European, nonwhite people. Happy slaves, lustful Muslims, murderous Hindus: They sure don't make 'em like that anymore. But why are we watching this stuff -- surely not out of nostalgia for the racism and xenophobia on view? It's not the same thing as viewing a movie from a less enlightened age, it's more like remaking one: enlisting the finest dance stars and stage artists of our time to reanimate a corrupt vision.

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