The Arts Should Be Conservative
Sara Hamdan laments, in the current First Things, the decline of dance as an art form. Given the sustained conditioning required of dancers — and the sustained attention of the audience — the art form doesn’t lend itself as easily as other arts to modern adaptations that allow practitioners to maintain the practice as a hobby and fans to work enjoyment into their schedules. Time and money are the irreducible factors, and the dance world is finding it difficult to move enough of each to dancers to sustain a career.
Of course, there are the limited, intriguing developments, such as this variation on the modern trend of do-it-yourself mandates:
With arts organizations trying to focus their energies on redefining market strategies to attract younger audiences and make use of minimal funding, dancers themselves are directly affected. Tired of waiting for good news, Claire Sargenti and Lauren Zaleta took matters into their own hands. With two other Joffrey dancers, they started a ballet collaborative called New Bridges Ballet designed to put on low-budget shows in places where one wouldn’t expect to see ballet: in bars, in Washington Square Park, in a music video for a heavy-metal band. …
… Sargenti, Zaleta, and two other Joffrey students are doing experimental work with New Bridges Ballet for added training and exposure, and have been very well received. Together, the girls are learning how to fund raise, design costumes, advertise, choreograph new works—and make mistakes—completely on their own. Basically, they are learning how to run a dance company from the ground up.
It’s the dance version of self publishing — of blogging, from a certain perspective. Unfortunately, the other predictable reaction to changes in modern life is to excise those factors that require long attention spans:
… popular forms of dance performance have become more about competition and moves and less about narrative or story—like sports set to music. Television programs such as “So You Think You Can Dance” demonstrate that “successful” dancers are those who can display physical talent; these shows do not showcase dance works based on profound observations or that express something beyond the merely physical.
Having watched an episode or several of “So You Think You Can Dance,” I’d rejoin that the show’s choreographers do give admirable thought to message and story, but they’re dealing in bite-sized segments that must, yes, showcase the physically spectacular. Obviously, “physically spectacular” has layers of implication, including the raw bodies of the dancers, and it seems that they move a little closer to total nakedness every season.
That factor, to me, relates more directly to the essential problem than does the reliance on daring leaps and spins. Partly owing to the gimmickry of modernism, partly owing to the pervasive secular, libertine leftism of their practitioners, the arts in general have moved away from their core value proposition: meaning. In some respects, one could suggest that artists — having turned away from their bases for profundity, not only God, but also a respect and sympathy for the long-developing traditions of humankind — have sought to supplant message with technique. But divested of the religious impulse, audiences won’t sit through a two-hour ballet for the same reason they don’t sit through a forty-five-minute Mass.
If they want jolts of “wow,” they can get it in small, convenient doses on television and the computer. If they want opportunity for lurid ogling of taut bodies, they no longer require the cover provided by dancers in leotards.
So, it would be plausible to suggest that the keepers of dance, specifically, and art, generally, should begin to consider a move toward conservative dispositions. For their survival, the time is past due to push the envelope back in the other direction — where the meaning lies in wanting to be tantalized but not sated and in actually believing that sensations of awe and yearning are not merely biological instincts honed by human evolution, but indications of the natural draw of something real and profound.