A Dysfunctional Family
by Alden LaPaglia
The dance world is in the midst of a depression. Audiences are declining and funding is scarce. These, however, are the symptoms, not the causes, of the problem. Some blame high ticket prices while others blame today’s digital obsessed lifestyle, but if we took the time for a little self-exploration, we might find that the problem is internal rather than external.
The dance world is one big dysfunctional family. Ballet is the condescending matriarch; “Uptown” modern is the self-consumed young professional, and “Downtown” modern is the still rebellious teenager. Jazz and tap are showy cousins whom the others disdainfully tolerate. There is a myth that contemporary dance is shaped by the melding of these various personalities. In a perfect world this would be the case, and in small companies outside of New York City, it is even becoming true. However, in the dance mecca of the world, with each drowning in its own narcissism, communication between these strong-willed family members is nonexistent, and the art is suffering.
Ballet is the all-knowing, unerring mother, the keeper of tradition. She is loved for her clean lines, grace of movement and mastery of illusion. From the romantic period’s sylphs and willies to the grand ballets of the classical period to Balanchine’s neoclassicism, ballet has a history rich in success. Herein lies the problem.
Like a fallen star, ballet relives her greatest successes time and time again. Fortunately, these moments–Giselle, Swan Lake, Apollo, and Rodeo, just to name a few–have timeless themes that touch us still. However, we can’t survive on leftovers forever. Thus, ballet choreographers seek to repeat this success by regurgitating the work of the choreographic geniuses who first captured it. The amount of generic Balanchine being presented as new work is appalling. You can’t take apart a puzzle, rearrange the pieces, insert some from another and expect them to fit together again just as you can’t string together classroom steps, flop the wrist, add some jazzy hips and call it a masterpiece. Ballet is in dire need of a make-over. It isn’t enough to arrange steps to prettily accentuate the music. Classical music is getting a face lift these days and so should classical choreography.
Uptown modern’s childhood was characterized by rebellion. In its infancy, choreographers like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey discovered a whole new way of walking, turning, jumping, moving. Arms, legs and torsos were turned in, rounded, inverted or otherwise contorted as these pioneers challenged the accepted standards of beauty. They carved through space in a way that made it not only visible but tangible. They emphasized movement rather than positions, thinking in phrases rather than steps. They played with the quality of movement so that a single sweep of the arm, done with three different intentions could appear to be three different steps. With hinges and rolls to the floor they added another level of interest and movement possibilities; the floor became more than merely a place to pose. The pas de deux was remade into the duet, shedding its formality and bringing the dancers together in intriguing new ways.
Content with the new effects, uptown modern took these innovative strides and crystallized them. It still feels young and fresh, but it now works within the parameters of its own vocabulary of steps. It remains vehemently anti-ballet yet clings to the technique it inherited as a means of justifying its validity. Essentially, it has become ballet with a different port de bras and its own positions of the feet. Even the floor work has become dated. The floor is used as a place to go to and return from, but rarely as a place to dance. Like ballet, uptown modern presents its choreographic masterworks repeatedly. Dance scholars have drained the work of its magic by dissecting it down to formulas for emulation. Thanks to these formulas and college composition classes, everyone is a choreographer, and everyone’s choreography looks the same. Formulas are recipes for stagnation, not success.
Seeing all of this, Downtown modern has done away with technique and convention entirely. Anything goes. There are no rules–except to break the rules. Downtown dance has run with the post modern infatuation with the pedestrian and seeks to show people dancing rather than dancers moving. It’s cool, offhand style is more reflective of today’s hip youth. Its love affair with the floor has led to new movement discoveries ranging from sleepy rolling to breath-taking athleticism that always hovers just above the ground. Partnering work is no longer reserved for two people and occurs just as often on the floor as in the air. The downtown trend of incorporating elaborate props and other forms of media adds a new playground for exploration.
Sadly, however, downtown dance has flushed the good with the bad, and there is no reasoning with downtown divas. I’m reminded of a magnet that I was once presented with, “Hire a teenager while they still know everything.” The superior tone in which these rebels forsake technique is founded in an intense anatomical interest and the desire to relieve muscle bound dancers through their new release technique. What they haven’t stopped to consider is that, without sculpting their muscles accordingly, there will be nothing to hold the sought after alignment. Downtown dance is completely self-indulgent, exploring what feels good at the expense of the audience and delighting in its ensuing mystification and antagonization. This makes downtown divas loathe to peel themselves away from the floor. Too often, when they finally do, their unbridled energy hides their movement with an abandon so wild that it is lost in a whirlwind of arms, legs and heads. In the downtown obsession with the pedestrian and fascination with multi-media possibilities, dance is being stripped of the dancing.
It’s difficult to say much about the jazz and tap sisters without being a part of their immediate family. They are the party girls, expert at packaging and selling themselves. They are just as self-indulgent as their downtown cousins, though in a very different way. Ballet finds itself equally offended and envious of the sexual charisma they exude. Despite the gifts that have made them so popular with audiences, no one in the immediate family takes them seriously.
The dance family is great at talking, but not so good at listening. When intrigued by another’s idea, they see and imitate rather than study and appreciate. Thus, instead of internalizing the idea and using it as a catalyst for their own growth, they add it as a bastardized accent. It seems false, out of place and does nothing more than throw the picture off.
Ballet needs to go modern. Choreographers like Lar Lubovitch and Igal Perry understand this. They have found fresh voices within the classical idiom and bring their work to life by adding dimensions to its classical foundation. They soften ballet’s crisp lines with curves, and refuse to restrict themselves to the traditional frontal focus. Their true mastery, however, is evident in their transitions. This is where the dancing lies. Instead of depending on defined transitional steps to carry dancers from one picture to the next, they create. Through their creations their choreography transcends the boundaries of ballet, modern, jazz, ethnic and social dance. It is with this open-minded vision that ballet will discover the role it can play in contemporary dance.
The chasm between uptown and downtown modern must be filled. There needs to be a little uptown in the downtown and a little downtown in the uptown. With a little bit of structure, the new movement coming out of downtown dance will not only read, but pop. With renewed curiosity and imagination, uptown dance will push past its current plateau and rediscover the spirit of its youth. There are choreographers working to reconcile the values of these styles for themselves, and they are presenting the most interesting new work. Sightings are spotty. Typically these artists are up-and-coming, struggling for financial means to present their work and unable to type themselves with either uptown or downtown choreographers.
Communication is the key to a successful relationship. Each dance style must get over its self-infatuation and become more in touch with both that of the others and audiences today. The future of dance lies in the new styles that will be born from the marriages of those that exist today. It starts with dancers who are multi-lingual, and continues with choreographers who have an eye for mixing and matching to create riveting new looks appropriate for the times. In a nurturing family, ballet, modern, jazz and all their relatives will continue to grow, the audiences will return, funding will follow and the dance family will live happily ever after.