Are American Audiences or Productions the Problem?

(photo of Angel Corella taken from here)

So Angel quite nicely bookended my trip to Blackpool, which I’ll be writing more about — I’m doing a fuller report of the festival for Explore Dance and will definitely link to it when it’s up. This is ballet month in NY and I just don’t want to get behind on my ballet writing!

I haven’t seen much of Angel and I realize how much I’m missing. He danced Prince Siegfried in ABT‘s Swan Lake last night opposite the legendary Nina Ananiashvili as Odette / Odile. I was really looking forward to Nina’s Swan — and she was very beautiful; had lovely liquid arms which looked like she was moving through water, and at one point when she did a series of turns, fluttering about all the while, she really looked like she was about to fly away. Her beautiful feathery expressiveness made for one of the best Odettes I’ve ever seen. She was also very dramatic and acted the role well. I could see her trying to tell the prince of her plight and I felt her misery.

But as usual with the men of ABT, they stole the show. First Angel, who was the perfect boyish prince at the start not wanting to choose a wife and grow up, then turning into the mature, tragic hero who falls in love with Odette but allows himself to be seduced by her evil counterpart. Angel is one of the most charismatic dancers; he has these enormous powers of projection, he’s able to reach everyone sitting everywhere in that massive opera house. I don’t know how but he does it. And his dancing was, as always, spectacular. He did a series of fouettes / pirouettes and went so fast he was a blur. I’ve never seen that before from anyone. Those turns elicited the only, I felt, genuine moment of applause from the audience, which I’ll get to in a moment…

(in above photo by Andrea Mohin from NYTimes, Blaine is on the left, Marcelo Gomes on right).

And then, OMG, BLAINE! Blaine blew me right away! He danced the prince’s friend, who initially gives him the bow and arrow to go swan-hunting, and who has a few solos and pas de trois with the town women. He had such height on his jumps, and his form was sheer perfection. I couldn’t believe it was him. I’ve seen him excel at the more modern work the company does in the fall season, but never really at classical. But last night made me think he’s ready for larger roles. His acting was decent, I still think he needs to work on it a bit more, but his dancing is nothing short of superb.

I sat next to a man who writes for that website Ballet Co. He was really nice, introduced me to the press room and its free beverage service! (Apollinare would never go in there!) Said they used to have wine but now only sodas. Anyway, we were talking about the best dancers in each role and he said he found Veronika Part to be the best Odette / Odile, which made me all the sadder I had to miss her because of Blackpool. Anyway, I mentioned that I was really sad she was leaving ABT and the writer told me knew about that interview she gave in which she said she was leaving but he was told by ABT people she’s still on, at least for the foreseeable future. I hope hope hope he’s right. Please let him be right, please Veronika, don’t leave!!

So, the dancing last night was excellent, but the production … hmm. I don’t have much to compare these productions to, to be honest. Most of the classical ballets I’ve been introduced to through ABT, so those are the only productions I know and have nothing to compare them to. They seem fine to me — I care much more about breathtaking dancing and moving portrayals than sets and costumes, etc., but I know critics think too many story elements are taken out, which I kind of agree with, but don’t know what needs to be put back in exactly. Sir Alastair in his review of David and Michelle’s Swan kind of mentioned in passing that, though the dancing was stunning, this production lacked the necessary pathos and tragedy. But he didn’t really go into detail as to why.

At Blackpool I was talking with my friend who’s a ballet fan as well, and who is half Viennese, half Japanese, and she said there’s just something lacking in the American ballet. She couldn’t really say what but just that in Europe the productions are so much more grandiose, so much more thrilling, and celebratory of dance. As I was sitting there last night I began to wonder if it’s not the audience interaction with the production — or lack thereof in the case of the US — that she’s reacting to. Sometimes it’s just the noises made by your neighbors that makes you sit up and take notice of something and I feel like oftentimes American audiences are just dead, like they’re just there to be “cultured” and aren’t really engaged. Last night, all throughout Blaine’s breathtaking jumps not one word, not one clap. When the solo or pdd was finished and the dancers stood and bowed before the audience, people politely clapped, but not during the dancing, with the exception of Angel’s vision-blurring turns. And I feel like Angel’s such a star, people clap because he’s Angel and they know whatever he does is deemed “great”; when it’s someone unexpected people are too sleepy to take notice.

I remember when I was in St. Petersburg 10 years ago now, I went to a Swan Lake at the Maryinsky. There wasn’t a moment of silence throughout the entire thing. People were cheering, clapping, literally screaming throughout — even when a dancer wasn’t doing anything particularly spectactular, people were going completely nuts. I remember being just as entertained by the crazed audience as the actual dancing. And in that Born to Be Wild video of Jose Carreno dancing in Cuba, it’s the same thing.

(By the way, happy belated birthday, Jose! — it was May 25th and it was a big one :D; photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

What is it about these formerly Communist countries where people value art so highly? Is it because they’ve been so deprived? I know ticket prices are significantly, significantly cheaper, and there’s inexpensive sparkling wine in the lobby — the ballet is just more of a celebration there.

I don’t know — what do people think: half asleep audiences who don’t know how to appreciate art, or lacking productions, or both? I just know it’s not the dancing.

14 Comments

  1. After reading Nureyev’s book, I think it has to do with the times. I think that nowadays people are caught up in the own lives and most of the American public does not care about dance. I think that’s the problem. It’s all about the money sports now like Football, basketball, and baseball which personally I find those sports really extremely boring. I find dance (ballet and ballroom mostly), gymnastics, horse racing, and softball way more exciting and personally I think those are more sports than football, basketball, or baseball.

  2. I hardly ever get out to see dance performances these days (what with two kids and dance and burlesque OH and a day job did I mention?) but I know for sure that the audience has a HUGE effect with burlesque shows. Thta in fact was the first thing I thought of reading your post. When you perform in a show that doesn’t have a great host (or worse, no host at all), the audience may not realize that they SHOULD hoot, holler, whatever it takes to make some NOISE. It is particularly noticeable when you have an audience that is almost all new to burlesque – they are so damn QUIET! As a performer that is very offputting – you keep wondering if they are not happy with what you’re doing, and it can even throw off your timing as you try and figure out how to fix this issue (even when later analysis from an informed audience member tells you it was not you at all, that it was definitely just from having a newbie audience.) I know whenever I am in the audience I make a lot of noise :-) even if I’m the only one out there cheering my ass off!

  3. I have to say that people screaming and cheering throughout with no silence sounds like a nightmare to me. I would stop going because I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the dancing and music and it would ruin things for me! I want to immerse myself in what is happening onstage, the world of the ballet and the beutiful music, not think about the audience all the time. I’m one of those people who only claps when there’s a break in the performance, but it’s not because I’m not appreciative–it’s because I can’t properly appreciate the art if I’m clapping and everyone around me is making noise. For me, if I’m doing things other than watching, it means that what’s going on onstage isn’t getting my full attention. If I want to listen to people yelling for a couple hours and want to have that crowd experience, I’ll go to a hockey game. :)

    I think that for people in the audience it might be more a question of how they watch than why they watch. My guess–having attended a good deal of theater in London, though no ballet–is that American ballet audiences are far more like British audiences than Russian or Cuban audiences. As for the Nureyev book, as Katrina mentions, it certainly does sound different then. :) I can’t help but think though, that when you have a huge star like that, many people cheer for the celebrity as much as the dancing.

    On the subject of the production, I think for me the problem with ABT’s Swan Lake, which is the only classical version I’ve seen, is that it ends so abruptly. Act IV feels so truncated that it’s like there’s all this buildup to nothing. And the swamp thing comes off as ridiculous and distracts me from the dancing, drama, and poetry of the ballet just when it should reach its climax.

  4. Oh, and reading this again I realized that I might have sounded a little judge-y about people clapping and cheering during the performance, and I want to clarify that I totally didn’t mean to imply that people doing that aren’t paying a great deal of attention or taking the performance seriously at the same time as enjoying it. I just think they’re better multi-taskers than I am.

    I think we all watch performances and feel involved as a member of the audience in different ways and that’s a good thing.

  5. The steady decline of ‘audience participation’ at the ballet and the opera in NYC over the past couple of decades has lowered the temperature at performances considerably. When I tell my younger friends about the endless curtain calls, bouquets thrown, and deranged fans at ballet performances in the 70s and 80s they look at me like I’m from another planet. At the opera when Tebaldi, Corelli or Nilsson was singing a half-hour ovation at the end of a middle-of-the-run TOSCA or TURANDOT was standard. You screamed until you went hoarse and you applauded til your palms were numb. The Met was in no hurry to turn up the houselights and send everyone packing. As long as the mob at the orchestra railing kept yelling the singers kept bowing. Stopping the fire curtain was considered the ultimate accolade and it happened a few times. Now there is the obligatory round of solo bows and everyone goes home.

    I think it’s true that people are too self-absorbed, too much in a hurry to get out to the lobby & check their cellphones and then to hail a cab rather than staying and paying tribute to the artists. Also possibly the availability of ballet and opera on DVD has detracted somewhat from the thrill of being in the theatre. Some people probably think therel’ no reason to pay steep ticket prices, pay for parking, gas and dinner to go see GISELLE when you can watch Fracci and Bruhn at home.

    Certainly there is no reason to think the dancing is any less exciting than it was 20 years ago: people like Angel and Marcelo and David and Wendy and Ashley Bouder are as fabulous as anyone who’s ever danced on the NY stages. I think people have just become jaded and lazy. It’s too bad, because there’s a whole element of excitement that has pretty much vanished.

    There was a trace of it this year when I attended one of the Kirov performances of BALLET IMPERIAL and the audience rightly lavished a fervent ovation on Viktoria Tereshkina. She was called out several times and people were screaming and her partner gallantly stepped back to let her bask in the acclaim. But even so it only lasted 5 minutes; it should have been 45 minutes with people rushing out to street vendors to buy flowers to fling at her.

  6. I tend to be demonstrative but more locally at ballet and opera and my wife feels uncomfortable in my enthusiastic expressions during the performance. At the end I scream – bravos and bravas and clap and say YES! and I can’t contain my emotion at having witnessed something breathtakingly beautiful. She cried at Swan Lake, but I didn’t notice it. She told me on the way out.

    I have mixed feelings about demonstrations actually during a scene or dance whatever because I do think it can break the concentration not only of the audience, but more importantly of the performers. But they do suck it in when they go for the virtuosity.

    I do love the passionate fans who come equipped with lots of roses and toss them to the stage. What a beautiful why to express your love for the artists. I really love the whole rose etiquette and the enthusiasm at the conclusion of a performance.

    Of course not all moments are screaming ones either. Some are so touching that silence is all one needs to hear to know that every heart string in the audience has been pulled by the artists on stage.

    I know from reading Ballet Talk, many do cry at the ballet (as my wife), but that’s not something I can do. But I sure do feel emotional. And it’s so silly because I know all the stories and they are so “camp”, but we go along and they can get to us.

    I have witnessed a few amazing things on that stage and it wasn’t just virtuosity. I call nothing short of beauty personified. It really is on a whole other level.

    And to Philip; the CC is so much more intimate and when you sit at the side and front of the first balcony (can’t remember what they call it) you feel you can reach out and touch the artists as they take a curtain call. This is very different from the MetOpera. Viktoria deserved all the affection she received. She blew me away and it was such a surprise as I had no idea what to expect. What a night that was! The MetOpera is so large and “regal”… but really lacks the intimacy of the CC.

  7. The first paragraph in Meg’s comment describes my feeling exactly. I also only clap when there is a break in the performance/music and find it hard to concentrate on the performance if the audience is cheering/clapping throughout. A burst of cheers can be quite jarring (to me) and can take me right of the engrossed ‘zone’, especially if the piece is being performed to emotional/quiet/slow music.

    I prefer to show my appreciation for the performers at the end of the acts/pieces and during the bows. My palms are often numb from clapping after a great performance.

    Honestly it never crossed my mind that the performers would appreciate some feedback during the performances, I thought the cheers would be distraction for them. Maybe the dancers on “The Winger” could share their views?

    Tonya, I don’t post much but I do love reading your blog. :)

  8. I’m in agreement with those that dislike clapping during a performance; I too need to concentrate on the dancing. I hold my applause for the breaks between pdds and of course during the curtain calls. In fact, like Philip, I think the curtain calls are too short. I think the audience would continue to show their appreciation but the curtain is rung down quite quickly, especially at matinees. BTW, I mostly just clap because when I attempt a “bravo” it comes out sounding so high pitched and silly. Oh to have those deep resonant tones I hear around me. So I just clap my hands till they’re red. Oh, and I do have a decent whistle, so sometimes I throw that in too :)

  9. Thanks for all the great comments you guys! And thanks for the nice compliment, EM :) I’d love to hear from more performers, like Ginger, too. And Ginger, that’s really interesting because ballroom competitions are the same way — I think the dancers really get into it more when there’s more cheering, although ballroom competitions are almost like sports events (and, in fact, it’s considered a sport, although I personally see it more as an art), but people are cheering and screaming for their favorites from the sidelines of the ballroom floor throughout. It used to give me a headache when Pasha and Anya would dance at the local competitions because they had so many fans, I sometimes felt like my eardrums would be blown out. Don’t go to a ballroom competition, Meg :) I almost told someone behind me to please keep it down at the Ohio Star Ball / America’s Ballroom Challenge once. But I know Pasha ate it right up (though I’m not sure if it didn’t make Anya a little nervous). It probably differs from performer to performer. Also, another funny thing, now that I think of it’s the Russians who are the loudest screamers — you hear “Davae Pasha, Davae Anya, Davae so and so” more often than “Go Pasha”, etc. The Russian, Chinese, and Italians are loudest at the international comps.

    Anyway, it is interesting about ballet though. I think Angel and Marcelo are two who really appreciate applause. I feel like I can see on their faces when I sit up close that they are eating up the cheering when they do something spectacular — like Angel with his super fast turns and Marcelo with his one-handed assisted pirouettes (when he dances with Julie Kent). And I can tell they seem disappointed when they come out for curtain call and the audience throughout didn’t seem all that into them — they’re polite but seem a little dejected and don’t do their usual hammy thing. But then others may not be the same way. David might get more nervous — maybe, I don’t want to put words in his mouth but he seems a bit more sensitive. And when I sat next to Millepied the other night he made a noise when people began clapping too early one time, as if to shush them so as not to destroy the dancers’ concentrations. But I could have misinterpreted the sound he made as well. Maybe I’ll ask dancers at the Intermission, if I can ever find my password…

  10. Oh and Philip, that would be so cool to have endless curtain calls like you describe! I wish so much I would have seen that era. The only huge curtain call I’ve ever seen like that was at Julio Bocca’s farewell.

  11. Yes, when I am watching salsa or other ballroom stuff, I always cheer loudly as well LOL. (I am the one that mentioned taking classes with Roula in an earlier comment btw!) Though come to think of it, I would also probably be one of the more restrained ones during a ballet performance, saving my applause for the end of a piece. I didn’t really perform enough in ballet to tell you which way I would prefer it as a performer! Now I’m going to be mulling this over for a while lol.

  12. I went to the stage door after a Marcelo Paloma R&J to thank them personally. I had never done that sort of “fan” thing and at my age it felt odd standing there amongst some very lovely young girls with their mommies wanting to see the dancers.

    Both Marcelo and Paloma were so gracious and humble and I think my comments to them really were appreciated. Applause is one thing, but to make a personal gesture is quite another.

    Regardless, we need to show our appreciation for their hard work and magnificent artistry. They deserve it.

  13. Just briefly: I have found dance fans at City Ballet and especially ABT to be more enthusiastic and demonstrative than at other performing art forms like classical music and theater. During a classical music performance you are virtually expected to remain silent until the end; during ballet it’s perfectly acceptable to applaud during the performance as the music is felt to be secondary to the dancing. I remember the frenzy for Julio Bocca’s farewell too. I can’t speak to dance quite as much, but on the whole I don’t think today’s classical music artists are reaching the level of those in the 50s and 60s, and there’s less frenzy there. I did experience some of the old-time frenzy when pianist Martha Argerich gave one of her rare solo appearances at Carnegie Hall some 6-7 years ago. Paradoxically though, even though I’m less impressed by a lot of today’s musicians, the standing ovation at the end seems to have become de rigueur, whether deserved or not.

  14. That’s interesting, Larry. I didn’t know there had been a decline in classical music as well. I definitely think the dancing if just as good as it was; I can’t imagine that Baryshnikov was better than Angel Corella, but I think maybe the dancers aren’t getting a lot to work with. I heard the new Tharp is not so great, and I’ll make that judgment for myself later in the week when I see it, but I haven’t seen much really enthralling new choreography lately. And maybe the classics have just been too messed with.

    I went to Alvin Ailey last night (they’re having a special BAM season in celebration of their 50th anniversary) and there was a lot of applause all throughout, especially during Revelations, I guess since everyone kind of knows that work. (And almost all of their music is recorded, so it’s not going to distract musicians). People cheered at the feats like Alicia’s slow, one-footed turn with the developed leg during Fix Me Jesus and the jetes during Sinner Man, but there was a lot of applause even at the beginning of each section where dancers were simply standing holding their hands in the air. People just recognized that section as being something that has moved them over the years so they cheer when they see it begin. And I don’t seem to be hearing that kind of thing in the Met right now… I’ll see as the season progresses though, how audience reaction is with the other ballets. Maybe it was just the truncated fourth act of Swan Lake, like people are saying.

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