In all the years we’ve been debating the question of dance as art versus entertainment, no one has nailed it quite as succinctly as DANNY KAYE in WHITE CHRISTMAS. In a catchy little number called “Choreography”, Kaye playfully mocks the self-seriousness of modern dance artistes while lamenting the decline of good old-fashioned hoofers. “Chicks who did kicks aren’t kicking anymore,” he sings. “They’re doing choreography.”
By the end of the song, a group of unsmiling modern dancers is making like MARTHA GRAHAM alongside a flashy tap-dancing couple — a quirky pas de deux that highlights the differences between the forms while demonstrating their ability to coexist. A similar phenomenon is playing itself out today on television screens and stages across the country.
It’s no big news that reality shows like DANCING WITH THE STARS have sparked a craze the likes of which we haven’t seen since AMERICAN BANDSTAND. What’s interesting is that, instead of turning up their noses at America’s favorite guilty pleasure, members of the concert-dance world have been getting in on the act. Season four of SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE? featured guest choreographers DWIGHT RHODEN and DESMOND RICHARDSON of COMPLEXIONS CONTEMPORARY BALLET, as well as special performances by ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER and LOS ANGELES BALLET.
So could cheesy reality dance shows be a sort of gateway drug to concert dance?
Presenters hesitate to make that leap, but the fact is that dance companies sometimes struggle to fill 500-seat theaters while SYTYCD draws about eight million viewers per episode. So why shouldn’t companies reach out to an audience that’s primed to hear their message? In doing so, they’re demonstrating that what they do can be just as exciting as what happens on the show.
The necessity of delivering this message stems from dance’s lingering reputation as an elite art form. Dance tends to stir up anxiety in people who are afraid they won’t “get it” or that it’s going to be really boring. And yes, that stuff does exist — the kind of work that seems to contain little if any actual dancing and can sometimes leave even seasoned critics scratching their heads. Take the recent performance of TRAJAL HARRELL’s “QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME.” According the review in the New York Times, the 80-minute piece primarily involves “the performers changing and removing their clothes, walking on and offstage, kneeling and lying down.” Oy.
But concert dance generally doesn’t set out to alienate its audience. At its best it is both artistic and visceral; it’s supposed to hit you in the gut. It transcends entertainment because it moves beyond pure spectacle to communicate some kind of meaning, or at least has the intent to do something more than wow an audience. Dance can delight the eye and stimulate thoughts and feelings at the same time. All of the major mainstream companies do this; they wouldn’t be successful if they didn’t.
Look at TWYLA THARP. Her first work, 1965’s “TANK DIVE,” was an experimental piece in which she wore wooden, flipper-like shoes that kept her feet planted while she moved her upper body around. Though she had publicized the performance, she didn’t acknowledge the small audience that gathered to watch it. In turn, she was largely ignored by the press. But eight years later, when she created “DEUCE COUP,” a blend of classical ballet and funky movements drawn from teenage dancing, people took notice. Set to music by the BEACH BOYS, “Deuce Coup” was one of the earliest examples of mixing highbrow and lowbrow on the concert stage — something that has become par for the course today. At the time, not everyone was happy about the intermarriage of ballet and pop dance: The traditionalists thought it was too radical, and the radicals claimed it tried too hard to please. But that’s how art forms progress. What at first seems vulgar is often eventually regarded as high art.
By now, there has been so much blending of movement styles — not only ballet and modern, but also jazz, hip hop, ethnic forms, pedestrian movements, martial arts, etc. — that one would be hard-pressed to neatly categorize much of what we see on stage today. With that in mind, maybe it’s not so strange that Ailey is showing up on “SYTYCD.” Perhaps making distinctions is no longer important, and we shouldn’t fret when members of the elite mix with the riffraff.
Like “Deuce Coup” and Danny Kaye’s “Choreography” number, interesting things can happen when they do.
– Michelle Velluci