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Five things I hate about ballet

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 choreographers skating over the contours of major scores as if only half-listening, along with ridiculously expensive high-culture events that speak more about the burnout of an art than anything else.

Those pretty maids all in a row may well satisfy an appetite for order, but that satisfaction comes at a high cost. We’ve given up conventional circuses because we don’t want to subsidize the abuse of animals. Isn’t it time we extended the policy to the dedicated young men and women at the barre?

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Stardom and conscience: The great divide

When we talk about the finest young actors of the moment, we see how they balance commercial and artistic priorities in their careers -- doing a studio action film followed by a risky independent drama, for instance, or maybe a stage project. But what recent star dancer has thought the same way other than Argentine firebrand Julio Bocca, who performed conservative rep for ABT in the U.S. throughout his career, then subsidized very different contemporary projects back home in Buenos Aires. 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’ ”? Does responsibility to the art and audience extend beyond dancing well?

There’s a moment in ABT’s pop pastiche “Within You, Without You,” when one of the company’s most popular male virtuosi has an opportunity to ask himself some of these questions and reconsider why he dances. He performs a shameless audience-courting solo at the beginning of this multi-choreographer showpiece and later, as he waits in the wings for his final entrance, the loudspeakers throb with the George Harrison title ballad -- the one about people who gain the world and lose their souls. “Are you one of them?” the song asks, and what would this hotsy-totsy ABT star answer? Is he even listening? Are we?

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Beauty vs. prettiness: To have and have not

“Beauty” is a term devalued by overuse in our culture -- and in ballet it shouldn’t be thrown away on every ballerina with high cheekbones or every women’s corps identically dressed in white tulle. Beauty in ballet should be something unique, luminous, even mysterious: dancing that embodies a physical and spiritual ideal, a profound, expressive act rather than just a refined technical feat. But prettiness is relatively easy, a matter of symmetry, smoothness, good taste and a sense of dancing as a form of decoration -- of a score, a story, a metaphorical image. And it can be cloying as beauty never is.

The distinction is like the one that choreographer William Forsythe drew at a Dance Critics Assn. conference years ago between dancers and people who’ve learned to dance. Beware of people who’ve learned to dance -- especially when they spread prettiness like a virus.

In 1992, the Kirov Ballet performed “Romeo and Juliet” in Orange County, the same 66-year-old ballet that the same company will be dancing in the same place in October. In the final scene, one of the dancers cast as Juliet obviously wasn’t worried about killing herself for love or reaching out for one last embrace before her death. No, you could see her focused on the process of adjusting her limbs on the bier to make the prettiest stage picture. Star-cross’d body design. If that isn’t worth hating, what is?

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When all else fails ...

The late John Daugherty was a locally based dance critic of remarkable generosity and good humor in the face of bad ballet. But even he understood that there are moments in the theater when a hapless audience has no alternative but the power of prayer.

To those he mentored, he left behind this mantra for such occasions: “Gentle Jesus, descend and save us now,” with the last word murmured or whispered with the greatest of urgency.

Non-Christians and those moved to anger rather than despair by wretched ballet choreography or dancing should try staring at the top of the proscenium arch and repeating words written by George Bernard Shaw: “Fall. Fall and crush.”

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