“Wait, you do ballet? Teach me something!!”
The request is a familiar one, along with demands to prove that I can actually do the splits. I don’t mind, especially if the person asking pronounced the word correctly, as ballet and not balleT. The crucial point that many fail to see is that ballet takes much, much longer than a spare five minutes to learn.
In response to the request, I could probably get the person doing a decent waltz step in a short amount of time, but if I wanted to get technical about the movement at all, it could take days. To be precise, I’d have to insist on the details: turnout, musicality, arms soft but strong, head inclined the correct way, coordination, pointed feet, solid plie, and the list is endless. To be fair to my student, I should probably start with something simpler, like just standing in first position. And yet, even that has an endless list of corrections: heels together, pull up the hips, keep the abs engaged, don’t let the feet roll in, etc.
This high level of specificity to the technique contributes to ballet’s status as an elevated art. When people cannot tell a grande rond de jambe jete from an entrechat quatre, they may find it more difficult to relate, and thus more difficult to appreciate as well. If I see someone do five double piques in a row, I know how much effort went into that movement. I’m appropriately impressed. Yet your average person from off the street might just think it was a pretty bunch of twirls and turns. The disconnect between the ballet community and its potential audience can be major and concerning.
If there is a big enough gap, the effects can be drastic artistically and financially. In her autobiography entitled Dancing Away, Royal Ballet dancer Deborah Bull mentions this issue often. During her time with the Royal, the company experienced a large amount of turmoil as funding was threatened. Many people in high political positions did not feel that the people’s money should be used for something that not all people could participate in or benefit from. Bull pointed out, quite validly, that “we let [the arts] decline at our peril” and that as for the issue of funding, it is the “government’s responsibility to ensure the conditions exist in which they can thrive.” The importance of the arts, as Bull articulated, cannot be argued because “they challenge our intellect, deepen our emotions, and broaden our world-view. They humanize us, turning us from cretins into a civilised society.”
So yes, we need ’em.
Now the issue becomes how to make ballet more accessible, rather than elitist. Thankfully, the problem can be at least partially remedied. In fact, there has already been great progress made in this direction in recent times. While the efforts may not have been consciously undertaken with the purpose of making ballet accessible in mind, this goal was accomplished all the same.
A great effect can be achieved with subtle movements. For example, the choreography of Jerome Robbins often involves walking. The dancers take to the stage with a casual stroll or with a hurried and purposeful stride, but not the pristine “walk” on pointe of a Sugar Plum fairy or a princess in a sixteenth-century court. In the Robbins dance called “Glass Pieces,” the dancers walk across the stage as if in Grand Central Station, crowded together and moving along all in their own world. The walking pattern gradually transforms into more complex choreography. At first, a little turn is added to the stroll, or one dancer simply stops and looks around for a moment. Soon, the dancers progress to more balletic leaps and extensions for the rest of the piece.
Yet, the opening is important. As writer Wendy Perron articulated in an article for Dance Magazine, “when a performance starts with walking, we identify immediately with it because we all (or most of us) walk. Robbins knows how to take you from the simple fact of walking into a whole range of emotions…And so when the leaping does happen, we’re there, we’re with the dancers.”
The question of whether ballet is elitist or not has not escaped the attention of the wider ballet community. Earlier this year, a panel of distinguished guests discussed this issue at the Royal Opera House. Highlights from the debate can be viewed here.
So what do you think? What has your experience been with ballet (or opera), and do you think it’s an elitist art form? Let me know in the comments below!