The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on May 6th, 2014

I was at the ballet a few nights ago, and as the evening progressed I couldn’t help but reflect on the changing notions of appropriateness regarding audience ovations for such events. Three pieces were performed. The first was a very fine pairing of music and movement, the second had adequate music but some serious conceptual problems (including men in black tights dancing against a black background so that their intricate leg movements were rendered nearly invisible), and the last work, created by a youthful rising star in the world of ballet, needed some thoughtful reconsideration of its choreography, length, and musical score. Fortunately, each work was danced with great aplomb by the dancers. But regardless of which piece was being performed, the audience response was vexingly similar--- enthusiastic to an exaggerated degree. Standing ovations were in excess, along with frenzied applause, whistling, hooting, and appreciative clapping after every moment of particularly athletic endeavor. And while we can all appreciate the tremendous effort, artistry, and prowess involved in executing the more vigorous balletic moves, they are not the only things we should be looking for at the ballet. Historically, ballet has not aimed primarily to mimic gymnastics or replicate thrilling circus stunts, although it has certainly come to influence both of those activities considerably. Looking around at the audience it seemed as though many spectators were easily impressed by, almost waiting for, the more superficially spectacular aspects of each production rather than trying to detect, absorb, assess, and feel the expressive content of each work. The set decoration (which wasn’t really that dazzling) and the costumes were met by unwarranted “oh-h-h-hs” and “ah-h-h-hs” whenever a change occurred. A dancer had only to perform a few pirouettes or leaps in a row and peals of applause would drown out the music. So it went throughout the evening.

I can only attribute this excessive and apparently uncritical audience response to three possible factors:
  • Unquestioning devotion to the “home team”
  • A general level of ignorance with regard to the established conventions and traditions of ballet
  • Changing societal attitudes regarding excellence

Let’s look at these points one at a time:

By all means let’s throw all our support behind our local ballet company if it is a really fine ensemble (which is true in the case I am describing). Devotion is a good thing as long as it is balanced by reasonable discrimination and judgment. However, we must keep in mind that ballet is not a sporting event, it is an art, albeit a very athletic art --- first and foremost intended to be an expressive medium. Unlike sports, art is always to be assessed in terms of how successfully it achieves the aim of delivering an expressive message, not just on how amazingly the performers are able to accomplish their almost superhuman tasks, although that must certainly be taken into consideration. When a dancer takes the stage and executes his or her choreography with breathtaking technical precision, grace, and finesse, we are bound to respond and should feel free to do so. In the effort to achieve expressive eloquence, however, it is extremely rare for there not to be both successes and failures in conception, staging, and execution in many productions. Few performances are flawless. But the failures need not diminish our enthusiasm for our “team” and its efforts any more than momentary setbacks do with regard to our favorites in the realm of professional sports. We can maintain our unflagging devotion. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that it is mainly the success or failure of the communication of the expressive purpose that should be reflected in our applause, not just the extreme demands of the required athleticism and effort.

My father used to say that there is nothing to be ashamed of when you find yourself guilty of ignorance unless you do nothing to improve the situation. So I hope what I am about to say, which applies not only to ballet, but also to classical music concerts and live theater, doesn’t offend anyone.
Clapping is good. Performers love it. But they especially adore it when they know that the audience accurately recognizes the excellence of their efforts. This requires that the audience be knowledgeable regarding the aims, techniques, and demands of the art. Clapping is not so good when it occurs promiscuously, interrupting or detracting from the concentration of the performers and that of other audience members. At the ballet, for instance, inopportune clapping is a distraction and it momentarily obscures what is going on in the music. For those reasons, it’s not advisable to bring jazz club audience protocol, in which it is entirely appropriate to applaud after a performer’s solo, into the ballet, concert hall, or theater. Instead, in those venues applause has traditionally been saved until the end of a whole work or section of work… except for those extraordinary moments that so surpass our wildest expectations that we audience members are transported beyond all possibility of restraint. The saving of applause is not an unfriendly or withholding gesture on the part of an audience, but an act of courtesy by individuals to those sitting around them and to the performers. So it’s fine to express our full appreciation, but maybe just not quite so often.

Standing ovations seem to be de rigueur these days, but they really shouldn’t be. Standing ovations are meant to show exceptional appreciation for experiences that go far, far beyond the level of the ordinary. They are saved for performances that are so outstanding in their excellence that we are seized by an irrepressible impulse to leap to our feet and applaud wildly. Such moments are actually quite rare. Not every performance contains work worthy of such an extreme response. Routinely rising to our feet at the end of every performance tends to devalue the gesture both for the audience and the performers. Under such circumstances, performers will never have the satisfaction of knowing that the standing ovation was an accurate recognition of exceptional work. This type of ovation should be saved for something unequivocally marvelous.

It is possible, of course, that some of the enthusiastic standees are attending live ballet, classical music concerts, or theater for the first time and are so thrilled that they are genuinely galvanized into spontaneous action, but I fear that is most often not the case --- and that brings me to my third point:

We happen to be living at a time when the general concept of excellence has been considerably watered down. Oh there have always been, and will continue to be, individuals who are so great at what they do that they stand high above the rest of us in their level of talent and accomplishment. Most of us would agree on this point when it comes to, say, the Olympic Games. The feats of those Olympic gold medalists clearly outshine those of most of us who make up the common run of humanity. Their equivalents in the world of the Arts are people like Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova in ballet, Sergei Rachmaninov or Carlos Kleiber in music, and Sir Laurence Olivier or Dame Judi Dench in drama. The excellence of the work of Olympians and great performing artists is not arbitrarily determined. It is not merely a matter of the personal preferences of the spectator. Work is recognized as superior by an acknowledgement of the standards to which everyone in a particular field aspire and a comparison of an individual’s efforts with those of others in their field. The question that really needs to be asked, then, when determining the greatness of a performance is… great compared to what? When it comes to the performing arts, technique, expressivity, and charisma are the major factors taken into account in making this comparison. Discrimination, education, and experience are necessary in the beholder to make intelligent comparisons of this kind. And, just as in the Olympics, the outcome of such deliberations inevitably reveals some winners and some losers. This is true in both the assessment of individuals and the quality of performances overall.
For some, the feelings of inadequacy and disappointment that can accompany this critical discernment process do not seem fair or tolerable. So, in a well-intentioned effort to mitigate any suffering, they have proposed the notion that everyone is great as long as he or she is giving an endeavor full effort. But while such an attitude fits the objectives of the Special Olympics, most of us would have to admit that it is inapplicable to the International Olympic Games. While we may happily give a complimentary standing ovation to our children for their effort and performance in a grade school pageant, or to our friends and neighbors participating in a community theater event, it does not follow that we should do so at a professional event. Professional performing artists work in a rarified world not unlike the Olympics in some ways. Everyone has been exhaustively trained and gone through a winnowing out process. Everyone is trying to be the best of the best, and each individual is trying to give his or her own personal best. But in the professional world, brutal as it may seem, trying alone is not enough. There’s just not enough room at the top to accommodate everyone’s wish for supremacy in the field. There are lots of fine athletes who do not triumph at the Olympics. We feel for them and applaud their efforts generously. But we usually save our most enthusiastic applause for those who triumph over the pack. Similarly, there are a lot of fine performing artists and performances out there that are worthy of our wholehearted praise, but only a few that warrant a true standing ovation. The routine standing ovation does a disservice to the whole idea of applause for a performance, cheapening its value and its validity. It also opens the door to a world in which standards of excellence in general are obscured and confused, a situation that launches us into the vast ocean of diverse experience without a compass.
So here is what I propose as two initial steps we can all take to increase everyone’s enjoyment at the ballet:

Explore its expressive aims and objectives. Find out something about its history, conventions, and traditions. Become familiar with its moves and gestures.
The internet now has so much performance film footage available in places like You Tube, that anyone can watch the performances of many of the “greats” of ballet, theater, and classical music. Watching these resources helps us develop a broader view of what is possible in terms of imagination and excellence in the realm of performance, helping us to develop a yardstick with which to measure what we experience in the future.

I will be adding resources to the Learning Center on this website to provide some starting points for the type of exploration outlined in the above two steps.

Armed with the information and experience gleaned from this kind of education and assessment, we can go into each new live performance with a better idea of what to expect and how to estimate what we see and hear. Undoubtedly, standing ovations will still be part of that picture, but they should be deserved, based on our sound judgment and informed assessment of each performance. Most professional ballet performances these days are very, very good, and there is no gaucherie involved in showing our full appreciation by remaining seated and clapping at the appropriate time until our hands hurt. But let’s save the standing ovations for those performances that are so supremely sublime that we are carried beyond ourselves in our enthusiasm.

Posted in BALLET, GENERAL ARTS    Tagged with ballet, ovations, applause, standing ovations, dance, arts criticism


Leave a Comment