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Lewis Segal on
Ballet into the 21st Century



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Ballet into the 21st Century Conference Ballet.co magazine coverage

Ballet into the 21st Century forum... to link with the second Ballet Artistic Directors conference. Go and have your say in where ballet should heading.

Introduction to Snape Conference

Lewis Segal reviews

Los Angeles Times Homepage




A letter from Lewis Segal, Dance Critic of the Los Angeles Times


December 2002

Dear Mr. McCarthy,

Thank you for your invitation, but I think I may be the least qualified professional critic you might have chosen to write about ballet in the 21st century. For starters, there is no genuine, full-time professional ballet company in Southern California, only pretenders to that rank. More significantly, the majority of our citizens come from lands and cultures where either ballet doesn't exist or is primarily a diversion for expatriates and their circle. These citizens often enjoy forms of dance far older than ballet, with far different (and usually deeper) expressive values than most of the best-imported ballet on local stages. And, once you've seen on a regular basis the kind of dance--including classical dance--that they enjoy, the preservation of ballet, as we know it becomes far less imperative than it obviously seems in ballet-centric societies.

Perhaps you've caught me at the worst possible time--between the Bolshoi Ballet "La Bayadère" last week and the American Ballet Theatre "Nutcracker" this week--but I can't see any reason for sustaining or extending the overwhelming hypocrisy of the ballet world. All around me, I find artistic directors desperately cramming 21st-century stunts into




“...I can't see any reason for sustaining or extending the overwhelming hypocrisy of the ballet world.”
Lewis Segal


     
what they misrepresent as 19th-century classics to get through one more season of the status quo. I find hard-sell athleticism marketed as high culture, standards of style, expressivity and refinement discarded because they're deemed too expensive to uphold and the best ballet-trained choreographers so disgusted with classical business-as-usual that they redefine themselves as contemporary outsiders.

The audience also plays a part in the current miasma. In Cuba, people the same age as the dancers can afford ballet tickets and the performances of the National Ballet are electric with their energy. In Russia, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet attracts family audiences to "The Snow Maiden" and a rock-oriented youth crowd to its very contemporary "Salome." In much of North America and Western Europe, however, ballet is prohibitively expensive and the people who can afford the tickets tend to be much older and more conservative than the population as a whole. Do I suggest that




“...I'd much rather that governments subsidize the best contemporary dance within their borders.”
Lewis Segal


     
various North American and Western European government subsidize ballet companies to make the performances accessible to a wider audience? No, not unless the performances offer something other than dancing snowflakes and jumpers with padded crotches. I'd much rather that governments subsidize the best contemporary dance within their borders. At least until the generation that worshipped the golden calf is consumed.

In my opinion, the biggest ballet companies at your conference cloak themselves in a faked historicity to justify devouring more than their share of the dance world's money and attention. And for what? Increasingly distorted versions of less than a dozen ballets created during the 19th century. If there were less than a dozen antique symphonic masterworks in the orchestral repertory, could we justify public subsidy to keep the classical music establishment on




“...why not demand that the audience that keeps ballet shackled to a very short list of warhorses pay the full cost of their pastime and turn public dance funds to better uses?”
Lewis Segal


     
its feet? Of course not. So why not demand that the audience that keeps ballet shackled to a very short list of warhorses pay the full cost of their pastime and turn public dance funds to better uses?  

A century ago, major ballet in the West was largely a meat market sustained by a coterie and of interest to nobody else. But in a very few years we'll be celebrating the centennial of those who re-conceived and re-energized the art, took it back to bedrock purity of style and forward to unprecedented forms and subjects. I hope I'm still here and able to recognize (and review) the new Diaghilev, Fokine, Nijinsky and Nijinska, to watch them sweep away or marginalize most of what I find so deplorable--including the people and institutions at your conference who simply want nothing to change except the red ink on their year-end reports. To me, a sun-kissed Hollywood barbarian outside the gates, the key issue facing classical ballet is its lack of relevance to the culture we live in and the artistry illuminating that culture---including the best dance in our time. We can still listen to fine performances of Bach or Beethoven and not only get shaken to our very souls by what they composed but place them on a line of creative development extending to contemporary classical composers and into pop culture. But rare and cherishable is the ballet performance that delivers a classicism remotely as profound or life affirming. And until that begins to happen again on a regular basis, I frankly don't give a damn whether ballet gets propped up for another season or not. No, I'll stick with the awesome touring Flamenco and the gorgeous homegrown Lakon and Odori and Bharata Natyam on my schedule---plus the glories of modern dance--and be grateful for living when and where I am.

Sorry, I can't be more use to you,

Lewis Segal,
Dance Critic, Los Angeles Times


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