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Home > Dance Events Review

Five Things I Hate About Ballet

I'd like to revisit this controversial article written by now former LA Times seasoned dance critic Lewis Segal. So many were insulted by this article, but I think we can use it as a guide to better the art. He makes a few good points. I love ballet, it's my personal passion - regardless I do see where he is coming from on some of his comments. Such as; technique versus heart and soul. I think ballet has gotten so incredibly competitive that often, more emphasis is put on the technique then the spirit. I mean, think Margot Fonteyn; she didn't have the best technique but you couldn't take your eyes off of her... Please post your thoughts on this article in our forum! -Christie

Five things I hate about ballet

A repertoire that's decaying, danced by the disenfranchised. No wonder audiences are dwindling. It's not our fault.

By Lewis Segal, Times Staff Writer

Right now, there's no major ballet event on the Southland horizon, and instead of a disappointment, that's a blessed relief.

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.

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. But ballet has cultivated an intimidation factor that acts like a computer firewall. If people hate ballet, they frequently feel guilty and assume that it's got to be their own fault, that they're not educated or sensitive enough. If only they went more often, read more essays and program notes, joined a company support group …

Forget it. Most ballet is every bit as bad as audiences secretly suspect — and it's not going to improve until companies stop conning or shaming us into accepting damaged goods. In the meantime, guilt-free hatred of ballet is reasonable, maybe even necessary.

The first step (as always) is understanding that you're not alone — that audiences are dwindling everywhere, that ballet is largely invisible in the mass media and that nearly a century after impresario Sergei Diaghilev reinvigorated the art in Europe and America with a transfusion of new, high-quality choreography and passionate dancing, companies are desperate to try just about anything else.
So perhaps now is as good a time as any to consider the state of the art as a whole: all the skill in the world and so little else worth celebrating.

A history lesson: The tutu as icon — and armor

Ballet intimidation largely depends on making you believe that Moses carried a tutu, tiara and toe shoes with him from Mt. Sinai along with the Ten Commandments — that classical ballet as we know it has been a pillar of Western culture as long as classical music or the classics of world lit.

Wrong: Next season, Los Angeles Opera will perform a work that dates to 1642, and Shakespeare's heyday was even earlier. But the oldest ballets you're ever going to see originated in the 1830s and '40s — and most of them have been revised so often that the original choreographers would scarcely recognize them.

Bad enough that ballet largely ignores the present, but it also falsifies its past. The problematic "Sleeping Beauty" that the Kirov Ballet danced at the Music Center last season credited 19th century master choreographer Marius Petipa, but it dates from 1952. And the so-called traditional versions of "Swan Lake" danced by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were premiered more recently than the radical Matthew Bourne modern-dance adaptation — the one with the male swans.

So don't let the myth of ballet's ancient primacy and long hold on Western culture keep you from openly dissing all that's dreadful in the contemporary perversions of 19th century classics that companies keep merchandising. Forgeries, fake antiques, compromises between the look of then and the technique of now: Whatever you call them, they're the products of ballet's eternal bait and switch, intimidating only for how much millennial moola is spent mounting them again, season after season.

Poisonous exoticism: The serpent among the flowers

For beginners, the easiest thing to hate about ballet may be the way so many 19th century story ballets depict non-Christian, non-European, nonwhite people. Happy slaves, lustful Muslims, murderous Hindus: They sure don't make 'em like that anymore. But why are we watching this stuff — surely not out of nostalgia for the racism and xenophobia on view? It's not the same thing as viewing a movie from a less enlightened age, it's more like remaking one: enlisting the finest dance stars and stage artists of our time to reanimate a corrupt vision.

Classical music still shakes us to the core. Classical theater speaks of the eternal issues that define our lives. But too much antique Western classical dance doesn't even function as metaphor — it simply buttresses a sense of white Euro-privilege by dramatizing how colorfully nasty things are elsewhere. And as the audience for this kind of ballet continues to die out, so should the works dramatizing this offensive world view.

When they're gone from the repertory of major companies — available for study on film or video or reduced to their formal pure-dance sequences, they'll no longer be the living embarrassment they are now. In their place, a new, powerful, inclusive classicism or neoclassicism just might emerge. Worth trying.

Perpetual adolescence: Ballet of the living dead

It used to be that only slaves and children were known by just their first names, but with slavery long abolished, dancers seem to be the sole adults on the list. You can find this practice throughout the dance world: on the current TV series "So You Think You Can Dance," for instance, where judges and choreographers always get full identification but the dancers remain just "Donyelle," "Travis," "Heidi," "Benji," "Allison" and the like.

Thinking of dancers as beautiful children might seem harmless enough, but in ballet it's part of a system that denies young people any real choices in their lives. The best foreign training processes and company structures develop distinctive artists through career-long mentoring relationships. Ours, however, too often turn out obedient classical athletes by imposing rules about where to be, what to do, how much to eat, whom to believe in and when self-esteem is deserved or not. It's even worse for the ballet women who starve themselves to match a skeletal ideal and then stop menstruating for the length of their careers. Talk about arrested development.

For the audience, this system produces something well worth hating: dancers forever young (because there's always someone new to replace them when they age) who don't really know themselves but have learned how to move skillfully and energetically while thinking critically about how they're doing — not what. It may be a minority opinion, but a life lived by someone else's counts is the ultimate unexamined existence, and it gives an audience nothing when set to music.

Because this system works like an assembly line, automatic and unyielding, it also breeds chore

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