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Ballet for the masses

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Esther Cepeda
June 26, 2011
— The London Evening Standard called it a triumph of nerve and talent. The Financial Times’ Clement Crisp, who’s seen just about everything in his near-80 years, said it was an amazing sight.

The Daily Telegraph’s Mark Monahan gushingly summed up the Royal Ballet’s recent performance of “Romeo and Juliet” in London’s cavernous, 20,000-seat O2 Arena with the question, “Who could possibly object to such rousing, heartening proof of the art form’s broad appeal and complete accessibility?”


I do.


I guess time will tell if the performance, with its cheap ticket prices and football game atmosphere, actually forged any lifelong balletomanes. But how in the world could anyone in the audience have perceived the nuances of delicate hand and head gestures—much less hear the shuffling and tapping of dancers’ shoes—in an enclosed stadium where a crowd has arrived for a spectacle with beeping smartphones, hot dogs and pint glasses in hand? How could the delicate string work of Prokofiev’s score have prevailed?


Well, for one, the music was amped—which you’d expect at an AC/DC concert, but live symphonic music is made to be heard au naturel. And both audience and critics at the O2 Center reported that the three enormous big screens were unavoidable to the point where one couldn’t help but ignore the far-off stage action to focus in on the projected images. Heck, if it’s going to be like that, anyone can watch ballet on video or via YouTube at home for free.


One blogger didn’t mind the late-comers, smelly food and loud soda-slurping as much as she did the perplexed and bored spectators during the ballet’s crucial high points.


This is the thrill of watching live dance? It shouldn’t be.


The last two years of Great Recession belt-tightening has forced symphony orchestras and theater and ballet companies to find new ways to get people to donate money and buy tickets. Still, the biggest concern of every classical art venture is the successful cultivation of future audiences who will support, preserve and champion the art.


But while putting a classical art form in a unique venue or incorporating uncommon artistic decisions creates awesome buzz, it doesn’t necessarily inspire future artists or secure lifelong patrons.


For a time I served on the board of a midsize symphony orchestra that frequently made headlines by being innovative and different. One year they spent considerable resources putting on a free concert in the park that included a performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” accompanied by stunning, authentic video footage of the solar system.


Impactful? Sure, the reviews were good. But the takeaway for many in the audience of nonclassical music concertgoers was that the multimedia experience was great—not necessarily that the music was moving or well-played.


Other art forms are ripe for being re-imagined for a digital age and younger audiences. For instance, Michelle Paul, a social media and the arts expert, and co-author of “Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century,” recently attended an interactive play called “Dreams from a Dead City” at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.


“They specifically tried to blur the line between the marketing of the show and the whole concept of the play,” Paul told me. “We were encouraged to tweet during the show and at one point someone performing on stage actually replied to me on Twitter.


“The drawback was that having phones on was inherently distracting and once I have the ability to check my email…” she trailed off politely. “Still, I’d rather see failure in trying to connect to new audiences than see organizations dismiss any ideas upfront.”


That’s an excellent point. And I know I should be thankful that the Royal Ballet is taking the dance to “the people” in order to gain new fans, but I hope promotion never trumps the art and its aesthetics.


There are certain truths about ballet and stage performance I’ve learned from practicing swan-like movements for hours and years in nerve-deadening pointe shoes: Creating art is painful, spiritual, excruciating work that deserves respect.


Art truly must be both by and for the people, but not at the expense of the art or the artists themselves. Expecting paying audiences to arrive on time, sit quietly and give their undivided attention to those performing their hearts out on stage is not too much to ask.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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