Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Modern Dance vs Classical - Bridging the Gap
I have mixed feelings about So You Think You Can Dance. On one hand, I identify with a dance show. On the other hand, I find the lack of ballet and other genres of dance frustrating. Yet, this is more than just a show in many respects. It helps define what young dancers perceive as dance. And that is, to me, its biggest weakness and strength. Because commercial dance has been seen more on TV, is it better than the more rigid world of concert dance?
And now, viewers have a chance to see the reality of what goes on behind the scenes in the concert world with Breaking Pointe and Bunheads. But I have to wonder whether this helps to unite dance forms or separate them further with their own rules, histories, aesthetics, and protocols and fosters a belief that concert dance is more of an art than commercial dance.
Dance has never been a particularly visible component of the American mainstream except for the occasional social dance phenomenon such as the Charleston, Lindy Hop,etc. There are those films that put dance – and dancers – front and center and became classics: Singin’ in the Rain, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, and Fame, to name a few (and there are really only a few to choose from).
Certain personalities like Gene Kelley, Fred Astaire, Madonna, and Michael Jackson made dance a significant part of their image. And a few decades ago, MTV came along and catapulted dance into homes on a regular basis through music videos.
Still, dance doesn’t exist in our cultural consciousness the way sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters do – least of all contemporary concert, or artistic dance, which as a concept is about as foreign to many folks as the concepts of string theory.
Then came along a little show with a long name: So You Think You Can Dance. Modeled after the successful show for singers, American Idol, that has spit out the country’s next pop idol (or at least pop idol wannabe) for over seven years, SYTYCD has taken the same “audience picks” formula and translated it to the unlikely art of dance.
This formula has been well received by viewers, widely watched across the country, much loved, and yet in many ways potentially problematic to contemporary concert dance and the performers who present it.
The format that forces the audience to pick their favorite dancer is what keeps the drama high and why they tune in each week. At the same time, however, they’re learning a vocabulary for dance and developing a personal aesthetic. In effect, SYTYCD accomplishes what I don’t think dancers have been able to do in the theater – make dance personal. And though the show is taped, the dances are performed live. On a stage. In front of an audience. Breaking Pointe and Bunheads help to make dance personal as well. But the element of viewer participation, of being involved with choosing the winner is absent. We remain looking at the artistic dance world instead of being invited to share our opinions.
As a TV show, a form of entertainment, viewer participation tends to fall short when representing an art form. Television is limited in what it can do (or what producers allow it to do), so limited views of complex artistic forms and skewed aesthetic preferences should be expected. Even though SYTYCD and DWTS are about dance, they will still always fundamentally be TV shows. And so will Breaking Pointe and Bunheads to an extent.
But maybe this is a real opportunity to have a national dialogue about dance in our society. To me, the focus should be on what these shows teach us about presenting cultural dance and the idea of developing a shared national repertory of dance works. Why can't there be a behind the scenes look at modern dance or have viewers vote in a reality ballet competition show?
Dancers are moving in and out of concert and commercial dance, no doubt partly out of economic necessity. Or maybe dancers are naturally daring people who like to try new ways of moving and work. Some of them only want to dance works that have been blessed by critics and historians as masterful. Others find masterful work in other venues. Artsy types need to let go of the idea that art happens only on the concert stage. Incredible creativity can happen anywhere; it is not the discrete domain of the concert world.
On Broadway, both sides meet. Multiple Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman has also created work for New York City Ballet. There is a long history of concert choreographers crossing over to the Broadway stage. Consider Agnes de Mille’s work in Oklahoma in 1943, George Balanchine’s handful of Broadway shows (including On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and, with Katherine Dunham, Cabin in the Sky), and Jerome Robbins’ huge impact on American musicals with On the Town, The King and I, and West Side Story, among others. Savion Glover has performed in concert halls worldwide and tapped on TV and Broadway.
There is ample evidence of crossover outside of Broadway as well. Many of the dancers in college programs today who are preparing for performance or teaching careers have been trained at competition studios. And according to their professors, they have benefited from that exposure.
Commercial Dance and Concert Dance Reality Shows need to start thinking outside of their own box. Dance is a big world with room for all forms of expression. The best way to keep it thriving is simple: mutual respect for wherever we find ourselves on this grand dance planet. Imagine a dance world where people can dance anywhere, in any genre, without being labeled. A world where all dance is appreciated.