This interview with Ririe-Woodbury Dance artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen appeared in the pages of our blog during the month of December.
Dance . . . from page 1
Salt Lake City offers a particularly rich vantage point to witness this epoch. Take any point on the progress of present-day dance charted by Homans and Gottlieb, and we have examples on display. One of the vital alternatives, modern dance, has strong proponents here. For both choreography and performance, consult Shawn Rossiter’s coverage of Charlotte Boye-Christensen and Ririe-Woodbury Dance (above). But the late phases of ballet are here as well. Consider the current season of Ballet West, as we were able to with a concert given late last year.
Many of us got our first taste of high culture at a Christmas performance of The Nutcracker Ballet, which may be combined with a first visit to Temple Square and the Hospitality Center. Such was the agenda laid out for me a dozen years ago when I first came to Utah, when at day’s end we made our way to the Capital Theater for the ballet. Whether seeking a silent film classic, the opera, another ballet, or just downtown parking, whenever I see the Capital I’m reminded of that evening, when winter’s gloom gave way to light, music, and magic. It may be an annual childhood travesty, as inescapable as fruitcake, and a fundraising warhorse for the theater community, but somewhere lost beneath those associations The Nutcracker is, along with Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, one third of what may be the greatest portfolio of dance music by a single composer ever. Just as it’s important to recall that Tchaikovsky didn’t intend his music to unleash the bathetic emotions many in the audience feel, but was trying to perfect the avant-garde art of program music, so it’s helpful to let Ballet West’s serious yet accessible presentation replace the sentimental, shopworn version that gradually accumulates in our heads. Part of witnessing the death or transfiguration of ballet is periodically reminding ourselves what is at stake, and why it’s worth paying attention.
It’s a dozen years later and, just before winding up the year with another inevitable Nutcracker, Ballet West offered two dance landmarks that speak volumes about the evolving state of ballet: George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments of 1946, set to music by Paul Hindemith, and John Butler’s Carmina Burana, created in 1959 and one of several ballet settings of the surprisingly popular score by Carl Orff. Performance of the first, an early experiment by a man whose death, 28 years ago, marks the effective end of ballet for many observers, exemplifies Homans’ “intense preoccupation with re-creating history.” The second is, of course, not a ballet at all. Although the composer, Carl Orff, wanted to create a theatrical form fusing choreographed dance, visual design, and stage action, Carmina Burana performed by choir, orchestra, and soloists quickly became the most popular cantata, or cycle of songs, of the modern era. The various staged interpretations may be justified by Orff’s wishes, but the urge to share in the popular success of a rare audience-pleasing 20th century work cannot be discounted.
Much of today’s audience is too young to remember how the music of Paul Hindemith once seemed the perfect expression of everything that felt new and contemporary about the 20th century. To one young listener, the sound of The Four Temperaments suggested Danish furniture and the boomerang-shaped designs of her grandparent’s era. Still, Balanchine’s strange, zoomorphic postures and intricate, Tango-like footwork, executed with brisk flair by Ballet West’s artists, proved dance just as capable of expressing cerebral states as emotional ones. In place of a conventional narrative, Balanchine provides an episodic structure in which pairs of dancers alternate on stage to establish the themes, followed by ensembles that diminish in number from seven to five, then climax with a solo, after which the entire force performs a finale recalling what has preceded. The four temperaments are shown to be emotional predispositions, their measured, almost diagrammatic presentation disproving the Romantic idea that passion is the only truth. Balanchine and Hindemith are neoclassical paragons, with the emphasis—appropriately for Modernism—on the neo: on the presentation of old wine in new bottles. Like Joyce’s use of the Odyssey to lend resonance to Ulysses, The Four Temperaments uses medieval pseudo-science to structure its psychologically-based exploration of how character influences human interactions. If anything, the expression of a humor (today we might say a hormone) reveals more about itself than about the situation wherein it acts (or, as the Classical Greeks said, character is fate), and perhaps the most emotional moment here is the one where the viewer realizes that ballet is not just bewitched princesses (sometimes replaced by courting cowboys) or sylphs adrift in gauzy mists. There remains unexplored territory that towards which Balanchine’s direct approach pointed the way. But is this an open prospect or a lost cause?
Carmina Burana is one of those works that brings in people who don’t habitually attend “highbrow” culture. It and Ravel’s Bolero, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos, and Pachelbel’s so-called Canon in D have all made fierce, joyous converts, but sometimes their enthusiasm doesn’t extend far beyond those critical orphans. At the same time, the distance between popularity and informed opinion (one critic called Orff’s masterpiece “Neo-Neanderthal”) isn’t anywhere close to a straight line. Not every universally popular piece of music is trivial; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the Mona Lisa of music, after all. (And what about Leonardo’s smiling enigma?). And given the likelihood that one will leave the theater humming O, Fortuna, or find oneself faking scat-like medieval lyrics for days after, this may be the place where wise critics step out of doorways and try not to block halls.
Temperament appealed to Modern artists; Carl Nielsen built a symphony on them, while modal tunings and other harmonic schemes proliferated. If reason and instinct do battle in Balanchine’s domain, it’s youthful hormones that rule Carmina Burana. There is no storyline, the dancing is episodic, and soloists are required to act with their faces as well as their bodies. It’s a departure not just from pure dance, but from the ideal of dance. It feels like a hybrid of dance and film—or television. The source, a 13th century collection of lyrics, includes drinking and carousing songs, carnal celebrations of love, and verses mocking the church and conventional morality. That they are written in Latin or the evolutionary ancestors of modern German or French undoubtedly explains why the work’s huge popularity was not met by condemnation from the pulpit or government bans. If only the visual arts could disguise themselves so easily! But the language barrier also got Orff past his contemporary censors, who happened to be Nazis with a grudge against anything they considered “degenerate.” His success under their regime prevented the emergence of a critical consensus on a backward-looking musical vision that ironically, through stripped-down melody and percussive rhythm, sounds perennially new. Orff and Balanchine alike use historical materials—medieval in this program—to anchor their leaps into tradition-shattering new approaches.
There’s something draconian about Modernism: something that apparently leads to thinking that painting is dead, or the novel, and now finally dance. Yet it’s obvious that whether in the works of dancers who followed Isadora Duncan’s revolt against the artificial rigors of ballet, or on stage in more popular form, or debased on TV, or out on the street, dance as an art with skilled performers in front of an audience still comes about as close as possible to being a universal art. But the formal, mostly European stage version that is close kin to, and nearly contemporary with, opera—with its roots planted in courtly pomp and ceremony and its flowers among the masterpieces of the Romantic Era—lost its creative urgency somewhere in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet the performance, the facts rising up from the floor, is as urgent as ever to dancer and witness alike, and Ballet West continues to train and exercise the skills, ready to be called upon if, or when, genius strikes again.
Does it really matter what we call something? I doubt Romeo was thinking about linguistic theory when he pleaded with Juliet to forget the silly names keeping them apart, telling her "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet"; but his point, that a name is arbitrary and doesn't change the smell -- or other qualities -- of the thing it refers to is by now such an established notion that while reading this sentence many of you called up "signifier" and "signified" in your head. But are Romeo (and Saussure) missing something? Does Romeo's claim for floriculture extend to human culture?
Ride the virtual waves to most major newspapers and magazines across Europe and you'll find that the articles dealing with books, dance, visual arts, theatre, music and film are all classified under the rubric "Culture." It is as true for the Germanic languages as for the Romance, and even in England, the home of that gloriously wealthy hybrid of the two, the Guardian, Economist and Telegraph all classify these endeavors as culture. Catch the current back to our shores and you'll find that -- excepting a few, mostly East Coast publications -- American papers, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune included, classify the same activities under "Entertainment" (a few, like our own City Weekly, lie somewhere in between with the A&E -- Arts and Entertainment -- classification).
Words have power, and the names we give to our human endeavors have the capacity to affect those endeavors. What do we get with "entertainment"? Something its root, the Latin tenere meaning "to hold," suggests: we get something designed to hold our attention for a short period of time -- the ninety minutes of a feature film, the 3 and a half minutes of a commercially viable pop song, or the 140 characters of an online message -- before being forgotten. Entertainment is meant to be produced, consumed and discarded, the outcome of a disposable society.
Culture, on the other hand, with its root in cult, suggests a place one inhabits or worships in, a communal project, the type of thing that is saved and preserved, developed, a patrimony one passes on to the next generation.
Is it that we are talking about two different activities, and the problem is our publications have room for only one category? Why is it, then, that we overwhelmingly opt for the cheaper version?
I doubt Romeo would have cared either way. All he wanted to do was get up that balcony.
When he finally did, I wonder what happened? Okay, I know what happened, but what I wonder is, what did they call it? Were they "having sex" or "making love"? In our cynical and ironic age some of us find it difficult to voice the latter, but if we're always describing what goes on in our bedrooms with the passive and banal "having sex," maybe that's all we'll ever have. And if we keep calling the arts entertainment maybe that's all they'll ever be.