I’ve been so busy working on stories for the Chronicle and elsewhere, pushing forward on a novel, moving, and preparing to lead a writing workshop at the Parents of Murdered Children conference that I entirely missed Lewis Segal’s jaundiced wholesale disparagement of ballet in the L.A. Times:

“Ballet has given us visions of limitless human potential and a sense of grace as profound as anything we have ever thought, felt or believed. But all too often, it now commandeers a disproportionate amount of money and attention in the dance world and returns only an increasingly self-satisfied triviality.

Yes, Miami City Ballet looked mighty fine in two Music Center programs a month ago. But significantly, the only work created since the dancers’ infancy was borrowed from the world of modern dance. In this country, ballet simply will not address the realities of the moment, and its reliance on flatulent nostalgia makes it hard to defend as a living art.”

Here’s the full rant.

And here’s the New York Times’ John Rockwell’s reasoned response:

“Despite the absence of major ballet company in the Los Angeles basin, Mr. Segal has seen a lot of ballet over the decades. He surely knows that ballet is indeed trying to adjust to the modern world, to find new thematic and choreographic relevance without abandoning its technique and traditions, however shallow and distorted in Mr. Segal?s view. He could have made the same arguments about traditional ballet?s failings in a context supportive of contemporary ballet. Perhaps he has been soured by the hackneyed touring programs the big ballet companies take into Los Angeles.

?Does any star these days lobby artistic directors for better choreography or dare to say, ?I just don?t want to be seen in that ?Swan Lake? ?? Well, yes. Carlos Acosta, the Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theater star, is only the latest to call for modernization and for a de-emphasis on 19th century story ballets. Sylvie Guillem has done the same.

Dancers in Europe (as with the Kirov Ballet?s William Forsythe program) and the United States yearn for exciting new choreography, and artistic directors do their best to provide it. Mikhail Baryshnikov stands as a one-man symbol of ballet?s (and dance?s) quest for renewal. When it comes to new work (as opposed to fancily modernized new productions of old work), ballet is far more contemporary than opera. Ballet masters and administrators spend half their time searching for the new. Which is not to say that all new ballet is good ballet, but they try.”

Though he finds Segal’s disdain “salutary,” Rockwell’s ultimate outlook is one of appreciation for ballet’s enduring beauties, and optimism.

I have my own thoughts, of course: That I wouldn?t argue with Segal’s targets, only with the caustic way he’s chosen his examples. That it?s the form of ballet that makes it timeless, not its pedigree, which is what makes his argument about Shakespeare et. al. predating ballet absurd. That the ethnic stereotypes and soap opera plot of ?La Bayadere? may not, thankfully, endure, but does the formal beauty of that third act lay a claim to transcendence? Absolutely.

I see the same signs of decline that he does, but I also see such hope in the lush emotionality of dancers like Sarah Van Patten, the depth of coaching in Suzanne Farrell?s efforts. Ballet will go through ups and downs just as opera and classical music will, but the worth at its core will persist.

And I agree that naming promising choreographers is harder than naming promising dancers, but it only took one Petipa and one Balanchine. Haven?t audiences been just as conned by pretentious modern or post-modern dance performances, swallowed just as much ?cutting edge,? ?progressive? dance that was nothing but political ranting or obscure physical noodling in the name of edification? What?s worthwhile in any genre can be hard to find. I?d say Segal’s job should lie in helping his readers find it, instead of digging up his most egregious examples to turn them off the art form altogether.

I should add that Lewis Segal has seen more ballet and absorbed more encylopedic knowledge about it than I could ever hope to. Perhaps my position is one of youthful naivete. I prefer that to a reactionary denouncement of a form of art that has filled my life with inspiration and often awe.

I’d like to organize my thoughts into more of a through-written argument, but I think I’ll collapse from overwork first.

UPDATE: Leigh Witchel rebutts both Segal and Rockwell. Scroll down beyond a wonderful picture of the Balanchine ballerina Melissa Hayden, who died yesterday, and notes from a past interview with her. Incidentally, this obituary from Anna Kisselgoff has a stunning photo of Hayden in an uconventional retire, looking both commanding and glamorous.

SOME FURTHER DISORGANIZED THOUGHTS: The more I think about Segal’s rabble-rousing approach, the more I warm to it. I would like to see a dramatically cohesive “Swan Lake” in my lifetime, instead of cobbling together favorite bits from different productions in my head. I do prefer to watch the third act of “La Bayadere” on its own rather than suffer through hours of empty pageantry.

I’d say it’s a shame that Segal made his points in such hyperbolic style, but he has suceeded in the one thing he surely aimed for above all: kicking up a fuss. (Whether such a fuss will actually have an impact on the direction of ballet, I wonder. I think back to all that ink and fury expended over the Krissy Keefer “body image” debate, another expert provocation. After all that arguing, did the standards for thinness change much, or the unhealthy pressures placed on many dancers ease? I doubt it.) The ultimate weakness in most of Segal’s arguments is that they could be applied to most other art forms. “When other forms of concert dance ? not to mention movies, TV or the theater ? are this empty and useless, it’s easy to openly dislike or even despise them” he admits, then cites ballet’s “intimidation factor” as deserving the extra ire. But the only real reason he’s singled out ballet, of course, is because he loves it.

I hear whispers that Mr. Allan Ulrich may soon jump into the fray. I certainly hope so.

3 Comments

  • Jeremiah McNichols Posted August 9, 2006 4:47 am

    You or your readers might enjoy a rebuttal to Segal’s article posted to my blog this morning, “Bait and Switch: A Dance Critic Runs Amok.” The author, who was a ballet student through her teen years, takes up issues of ballet’s authorship, its so-called “intimidation factor,” and its relationship to the broader cultural forces affecting young people.

  • Jeremiah McNichols Posted August 9, 2006 4:49 am

    Sorry, the “Bait and Switch” ballet post critiquing Segal’s diatribe is at:

    http://thinkingpictures.blogspot.com/2006/08/bait-and-switch-dance-critic-runs-amok.html

  • lauren Posted August 9, 2006 6:44 am

    carlos acosta spoke recently in the guardian about the need for fresh work. while this is not part of this debate per se, it brings up some similar thoughts/issues. judith mackerell’s reply to acosta’s interview touches on the ballet vs. opera factor (the truth being ballet has produced more new works than opera etc.), which rockwell also cites.

    judith mackerell’s commentary is here:
    http://arts.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1835564,00.html

    carlos acosta interview:
    http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1835245,00.html#article_continue

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