Saturday night we attended a Ballet Arizona performance that was billed as part of a George Balanchine festival. While the music, the dancing, and the choreography were all exquisite, the experience was not without eyebrow-raising issues.
We bought tickets six months ago, when I learned that the program would be all ballets based on Stravinsky‘s music, a composer with whom Balanchine had a close friendship and affinity. I particularly looked forward to seeing Agon, one of my all-time favorite pieces of twentieth century music, a work that was a pivotal influence in my own composition in the year 1962, and one for which I own the score and have listened to over and over, but have never seen in a ballet production.
The Medium Is Not the Message
Imagine my disappointment when we received mail telling us that the programming had been changed substantially. While still a Balanchine festival, the music was no longer exclusively Stravinsky, but Mozart, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. Furthermore, though Agon was presented on another program in the series, we would not be seeing it.
My reaction was to write a letter of complaint to Ballet Arizona, pointing out that some people choose their performing arts events on the basis of content rather than medium. Such has always been true for me. When I choose a Phoenix Symphony concert, it is always because of the works they are performing, not just to hear the orchestra. It’s about the Beethoven or the Ives or the Mahler, not about the Phoenix Symphony, which sometimes sounds great but is nonetheless second rank orchestra even on a good day.
Imagine in comparison going to the theater, expecting to see Hamlet, and learning that they decided to present Harvey instead; or an exhibition of Monet replaced by paintings on black velvet; photographs by Annie Leibovitz substituted by photos of Princess Diana taken by paparazzi; a solo concert by Keith Jarrett stood in for by George Winston; a contemporary music concert of Elliott Carter compositions reprogrammed with somniferous musical blathering from Philip Glass; a reading from a new novel by Thomas Pynchon changed to Jacqueline Susann; the latest Woody Allen film screening Friday the 13th — Part 227 instead.
Ahem. I’ve digressed, but you get the point. Okay, admittedly Mozart and Tchaikovsky deserve better than to be compared with the likes of Jacqueline Suzann and Philip Glass. But their music has been played over and over — far too often, in fact. When such program machinations take place, I perceive the activity of the stuffed shirts who control the money in the form of substantial donations behind the scenes. When such things happen we see proposed summer festivals go from all Stravinsky to mostly Stravinsky to some Stravinsky, to maybe Stravinsky to who’s Stravinsky? What could have been extraordinary becomes merely pleasant but not innovative.
All the Discomforts of Home
My second disappointment was to arrive and find our seats squarely in the middle of row nine — some of the best in the house — but squarely in back of The Head from Hell, bolted to the body of a tall, broad man who sat squarely. Seeing over him was as hopeless as if I had been seated directly behind a pillar, and the seat next to me was not vacant.
During the first two ballets The Head listed somewhat to the right, which helped, but during the last work I missed the right third of the stage entirely except when I bobbed back and forth to see what was going on over there, which surely was annoying to the person in back of me.
Such things are nobody’s fault. They just happen, though it could be noted that in a sports stadium people never have obstructed views because of the steeper inclines of the seating sections. Given that they just spent a jillion quadrillion dollars rebuilding Symphony Hall to make it not much better than it was less than a year ago, I wasn’t pleased to have to strain to see the program because of a Goliath in front of me.
Finally, it was uncomfortably warm in the theater. I’m not the sort of person who notices small variations in the environment. But the high temperature in Phoenix was 111.9 during the day, it was still 104 when we left the performance at 8:30, and it was flat out too danged hot in there during the performance. An attendant told Suzy that the dancers like it warm. Well whoop dee doo. What about their gasping audience, which is not leaping around the concert hall wearing tights? Word must have spread, because during the third work the temperature dropped into the reasonable range.
Something that disturbed me throughout the performance was far too easily provoked applause.
There is a social protocol regarding when to applaud that people who regularly attend performing arts events readily learn. It differs depending on the medium.
At a rock concert the background noise, which includes constant bedlam and screaming, is high, but is usually drowned out by the deafening music, so it doesn’t matter when the audience stands, dances in the aisles, and sings along. This is hardly ever done at a Schubert song cycle recital.
In a jazz performance it is usually considered acceptable to applaud following an improvised solo, even though the music continues. Even at the opera it has long been an accepted tradition to applaud a soloist at the conclusion of an aria or soliloquy. Generally the conductor will halt the performance until it subsides. But imagine the impression that would be made if the tenor hit and held his high C and the audience went into a wild frenzy before he concluded his phrase.
In contrast, in the era of my own lifetime it has been considered inappropriate to applaud during the pauses in multi-movement compositions at classical music concerts, because the entire work is considered as a single entity. Mendelssohn hated so much the lack of sophistication in this regard on the part of audiences in his day that he wrote concertos in such a way that the first movements segued directly into the slow movement without interruption, so the audience would be unable to applaud. Slow movements take care of themselves. To applaud following a serene Adagio would be like applauding a prayer in church. (Though I hear nowadays this would not be unusual.)
Imagine instead what impression would be made if the audience were to break into cheering following each technically challenging passage. The pianist, grinding out an impossibly difficult arpeggio within some tired, overplayed concerto gets to the end of it to be met by hoots of: “Ooooh baby, PLAY that thing!!” It just wouldn’t be right.
So then, what is the currently acceptable Right Thing to Do at a ballet performance? What took place on Saturday night — on the part of others, not by me — revises significantly my memories of past ballet performances, prompting me to believe that things must have changed.
I was dismayed to find the audience to be applause happy. Every time a ballerina would catapult across the stage, going bouncety-bounce, twirly-twirl, deedly-deedly, kerthump, the audience broke into wild applause. The first time it happened I was astonished, and felt mildly embarrassed to be a part of such an unsophisticated audience — sitting among a bunch of hicks in suits. But it happened throughout the evening, and I was forced to conclude that this behavior has become the norm.
I asked myself: “What is this, the roller derby? The circus? Ted Mack Amateur Hour? An Olympic skating competition, where each triple toe loop is vociferously approved?” Where was the art? What had become of the sense of decorum, of the understanding of what was actually taking place on the stage, the unfolding of poetry composed in human movement?
To acknowledge a pleasing performance is a fine gesture, but the timing must be dictated by the context, which in the case of ballet should be determined largely by the structure and flow of the music, not by the astonishing physical trickery of the dancers.
The Mozart Divertimento No. 15, performed first, is a suite of five movements, the second being a longer movement consisting of a theme and variations. In a contemporary concert performance one would applaud only after the end of all five movements. A divertimento, as the name implies, is a diversion, a less formal piece than a symphony or sonata, so perhaps in Mozart’s day it was appropriate to applaud between movements.
Used as the background for ballet, it seems somewhat acceptable to me to applaud at musical pause points — between movements, possibly even between variations in the second movement. But certainly not following every Big Jump. To do so interrupts not only the music, but also the ballet, which must go on without interruption.
Saturday there was some applause at some spectacularly inappropriate moments. In music there is what is called a I-6/4 (pronounced one-six-four) chord, a tonic (main key) chord in second inversion. In the classical era a harmonic progression into such a chord typically was the gateway to a cadenza, which means cadence, a harmonic formula that ends in a resolution back to the main key; it would be followed by an opportunity for a soloist to enjoy a truly self-indulgent moment in the spotlight. Cadenzas are invariably crowd pleasers because of their pyrotechnics, but in the hands of lesser composers, of questionable musical validity. But that’s another discussion.
My point is that it is not the I-6/4 chord introducing the cadenza that reaps audience ecstasy, but what follows. Think: “Shave and a haircut —” (Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap …) “Two bits!” (More of the same.)
Yet such is exactly the point at which the audience applauded on Saturday night — a moment that was followed by a brief violin cadenza, although the containing work was not in concerto form. I’ve belabored the point, but my conclusion is: Well, that was just really a dumb and imperceptive thing for them to do.
But it got worse: We even encountered wild, enthusiastic applause on a fermataed diminished seven chord.
If you don’t understand all the musical explanation here, never mind. Trust me — these are not proper moments to applaud a ballet performance. But that’s what they did.
During the first intermission I noted that the audience was about three to one female, a fact that I personally enjoyed. Many of the ladies were young and trim, probably including many who had taken dance lessons themselves and therefore had cultivated a degree of appreciation for the art form.
One thing that has always puzzled me about dance is why such a disproportionate number of male dancers are gay. One would think that being a male ballet dancer would be a good way to pick up babes for someone who is inclined to do so. (Not that I’m recommending it!) Female dancers are usually gorgeous, always in fabulous shape, athletic, artistic, and highly disciplined, and soloists work together with their male counterparts in a state of constant physical contact. Yet the ladies tend to find themselves hurled through the air by leaping sweeties in tights with bulging codpieces.
I’ll add the caveat that of course there are always obvious exceptions, and that I know absolutely nothing whatever personally about any of the male dancers associated with Ballet Arizona. For all I know they all shoot pool and watch NASCAR after hours.
Oh dear, I’ve digressed again.
Say — What About Those Ballets, Anyhow?
My personal preference in dance is for modern and contemporary dance — Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailee, Twyla Tharpe, Merce Cunningham, and others — over classical ballet. George Ballanchine bridged the gap between eras, revolutionizing the world of ballet, with some of the most poetic expressions in movement I have ever seen. His work suits my taste magnificently, and to my eye Saturday’s performance was flawlessly performed by Ballet Arizona.
I have mentioned already Divertimento No. 15, set to Mozart’s music, largely an ensemble piece with relatively little solo dancing.
The concluding work was Serenade, based on the work of that name for string orchestra by Tchaikovsky, a lovely piece, particularly in its grandly dramatic opening and closing bookends.
By far the highlight of the program was Apollo, with music by Igor Stravinsky, written and choreographed in 1928, a transitional period for Stravinsky, after the big ballets that made him both famous and notorious in his earlier years, and before he found neoclassicism, but on his way there. According to a quote in the program from Balanchine himself Apollo also represented an important change for him. “Apollo I look back on as the turning point of my life …”
Apollo is a magnificently subdued work of restraint, using only seven dancers, only one male, in the title role. The introduction was danced from a seated position atop a high staircase by a lone woman. Most of the remaining sequences were performed by Apollo and three female partners representing the Muses Terpsichore, Polyhmnia, and Calliope.
To describe motion is beyond my journalistic ability, so I won’t attempt to do so. The overall effect was deeply moving, responded to with an appropriately timed standing ovation on the part of the audience, and was worth the price of admission all by itself.
My only gripe is still that I missed seeing Agon.