Virtuosity and the |
Easy Road of the Opera House Esthetic
Most of us think we're above it this cult of celebrity worship. For instance, the editing sequence of those 1997 "year in review" mass media images. Princess Diana comforting the visibly shaken entertainer Elton John at the funeral of the fashion designer Versace, victim of a serial killer, targeted for his high profile lifestyle. A French highway tunnel yawns like an opening to the underworld, revealing a mangled limousine which had tried to out-race story-hungry motorcycle journalists as if they were mythical furies, dissolves into an image of Elton John singing a song at Diana's funeral he says he'll never sing again. The queen knighting the entertainer Sir Elton John. Yes, real people have died. But what has so enamored the masses is the artificial bathos of it all.
If popular culture tends to make demigods out of celebrities so that people with weak self-images can melodramatically identify with the lives and deaths of high profile figures then high culture has a comparable affliction that I call "the opera house esthetic." It is a worship I fear that the art lover is just as prone to as the tabloid reader is to his or her celebrities. A worship in the arts of spectacle over esthetic integrity, of virtuosity of the performers over using their creative tools to the ends of genuine theatricality. A worship of flash and fluff over something that actively gets under your skin. Many arts patrons seem to want to avoid art works that may affect them in some deep way. These patrons appear more comfortable with surface illusion that they can applaud and then leave behind psychically expelling the experience once they've done their cultural duty by it.
Case in point is the HArtChaos performance at on December 4, 1997 at the Moore Theater in Seattle, Washington. You may not have been there but you've probably been to events like it. This Japanese modern dance troupe began its tour of the United States with a lot of hype pushing it. Dance Magazine named The Rite of Spring, directed by Sakiko Oshima and second entry on tonight's program, as its best new dance of the year and for the third consecutive year designated its principal dancer, Naoko Shirakawa (pictured above), as best dancer of the year. If you know Dance Magazine you'd take this hype with a grain of salt. The magazine only reviews large ballet companies and a handful of big-time modern dance outfits that produce work with the grandeur of classical ballet. But, still, perhaps you couldn't help but be somewhat intrigued and optimistic after reading the hype in your local arts rag. I was.
The evening was marred by unfortunate technical glitches. The curtain stuck halfway open, undercutting the opening effect of the first segment of the two pieces, Abyss. In a dry ice fog, a blond woman in white (Kumiko Kikuchi) emerges from the floral pattern of an arbor to heavy vocal music with electronic strings (music by Toshiyuki Ochiai). There is a cryptic agitation in her movements, more a shudder whose shifts register throughout the piece than any kind of full-bodied dance movement. In the severe side-lighting we see what brings on this agitation: three bald, half-naked figures of the night, skulking in the architectural backdrop, clutching bouquets of flowers to their bare breasts, donning businessmen's black suits and hinging the flat architecture together into whirling 3-dimensional phone booths. Now the blond woman jitters, thumps, and spins in a sleepwalker's doll-like movements, as if her joints needed oiling. Meanwhile the three night figures creep diagonally across the floor, leaving a trail of rice behind them like slug slime. This liberates the blond somehow, the jerkiness of her arms transforming into a subtle ripple of limbs that eventually elevate to the sky, as the once again stuck curtains try to close.
On the surface this sounds pretty interesting, right? Everything was set on the diagonal to give the piece a dynamic, off-balanced effect. The blond is the dreamer and her jittery vision is a kind of calligraphic poem in space, a very nuanced, refined agitation of the soul-spinning symbolic images into existence. I've seen it all before this night-mind stuff and so have you if you've been to many dance performances. It is essentially literary. I have seen better choreography of its type done by mediocre Seattle choreographers. The strain and turn of the blond's limbs does not counterpoint any strong full-bodied movement motifs. She merely walks, poses, does other zen-stuff which gives the jitter no edge. Similarly, the dynamic visuals do not get under the skin but are mere tactics of display. The fog, the screen architecture, the crawling figures, the rice trail, are like good movie effects applied to the wrong film. They don't integrate into the off-balanced psychic world, they merely illustrate it. This is bad theatricality, mere spectacle a ghostly vapor that could have taken on substance but never did.
Compare Abyss to a piece I saw later that same weekend called "Tsunami" at the Graduate Student Showings at the University of Washington's Meany Studio Theater. Minh Tran has been making a name for himself in Portland, Los Angeles and Seattle both for his chiseled performances and for his choreography which is as precise and various as the mathematics of fractals. "Tsunami" (to music by Ravi Shankar, performed by Philip Glass) throws at the viewer a complex of intersecting patterns where an aberrant gesture dislocates one dancer here, another there. From the uniformity of group movements, these errant gestures build a feeling of turbulence where nothing is ever quite in-sync, but fluttering with recognizable echoes of past movements or movements to come, building irrepressible rhythms, feeling both highly organized and irredeemably chaotic. Dancers, like two weather fronts, bump and roll and box against each other. They pulse and retreat, first one then many odd slightly off-kilter gestures intrude on each dancer's broader motion, dissolving larger motions into a flutter of gestures. Clump-like groups of movers individualize in this way, and straight-line group movement breaks of here and there into subtle curves. All this surge and flow runs with the music but (when I close my ears) does not illustrate it. And Tran's fractal patterns dazzle the eye but implant themselves beneath the viewer's layers of skin in doing so showing us how the beauty of abstraction in dance still lives because it attacks our nervous system straight on. This is not literary symbol-building. This is raw. This is the psyche in a social universe, this is motion in space stripped bare. This is choreography!
Raw choreography makes many uncomfortable. Since the rise of the commercial classes in 17th century Europe and Japan, the new middle class has always been unsure of its esthetic taste, seeking validation of what it takes as "art." A well known local arts organization is sponsoring it, so it must be good. Dance Magazine trophied it, so it must be good. The spectacle that it packages itself in looks great, so the choreography must be good. So let's give it a big applause.
This need to pre-validate art (see sidebar, Middle-Class Style, Some Historical Background) is what built the national art academies of the 18th century with their annual exhibitions to create standards for a "classical" art that was already dying. Similarly, the opera house arose to pre-validate musical theater. But in 1998, how many operas have you heard Luciano Pavaroti sing that were written in the last ten years? In the last 50? Today's large opera houses play hit Broadway musicals of bygone years or rock bands who cut their teeth years ago in small music clubs. Now, however, these acts playing large auditoriums are not enjoyed for their musical innovations so much as worshipped for being art stars. The music merely serves as an anthem of homage. If you saw and applauded this same performance of HArtChaos, my guess is that you were worshipping a packaged, pre-validated spectacle and not the mediocre choreography that you got for your $20.
The Rite of Spring was marginally better choreographed than Abyss. Which is to say, it pretty much followed the musical design for Igor Stravinsky's musical ballet that Nijinski's choreography helped make infamous when it premiered in Paris in 1913. Oshima updates the "sacrifice ritual" by setting it in a modern apartment with turned-over lamp, two lounges and a bathtub, and four long-haired "men" in suits. The "naked" (smock-cloaked) heroine emerges from a dry bathtub, and is driven largely by the anxious sensuate drive of the music around her space, which turns eventually to frenzy by the presence of men in her life, undergirded by whispers (about her?). The second half is driven less by the music than by theatrical gimmicks. The heroine has emerged in green dress and high heels, leg in the air and ready to party. Dangling in the air are puppet men and chairs, watching her social performance. They don't like her independence, so they try to attach a wire to her similar to the wires they themselves wear (another glitch: the wire never rose was it supposed to lift her from the harness attached to her dress? Or just lift out of sight once the this co-optation of her independence failed?), but they do eventually succeed in stripping her. Failing to control her, the suits drown her in the bathtub now magically filled with real water. But the heroine ruptures upward from under the water in a sudden red light, violently whipping her head, hair flying and a stream of water flings from it across the space, shimmering like the edge of knife. The End.
So beautiful was this explosive final image that the audience popped out of their seats in a standing ovation. The feminist revision of the ballet is clear. Men desire the heroine, but resent her for arousing their desire while maintaining an inaccessibility; they seek to destroy her because they cannot control her. She becomes a sacrifice to social (here, patriarchal) order. But even in her "rape" there is an awesome, indeed, terrible splendor. A stunning close! which would have been devastatingly so if everything that came before it had theatrically built up this one supreme moment. But instead it relied on the music (which it largely and merely illustrated with images and movements), staging gimmicks (instead of a sharply focused theatricality), and, ultimately, on Shirakawa's uncanny dancing ability (at the expense of the choreography).
This latter dynamic was something to behold. At any given moment Shirakawa might be moving in one direction and, with a gesture, begin the transition into a contrasting movement type veering off in a new direction in space (a feat only the best dancers are able to make look effortless) and she magically carried this a step further suggesting a third potential direction of motion, which had the effect of seeming to pull her body apart. This generated a sense of chaos or explosion in the forward drive of the movement, a sense of extreme tension with sparks flying. It accurately seemed to indicate both the fractured tension of the victim and the core freedom of having options in life, tragic though they sometimes are. Our attention was glued upon Shirakawa the performer. But in the process the role she was performing, within the whole, got lost. And it only flashed back into focus in that culminating final gesture of defiance against fate, as she cast her life-fluids across the space. It is not merely that Oshima has not designed effective choreography for Shirakawa's body and ability it is more that the piece is too specifically designed as a narrative story and not as a sequence of potent theatrical moments (like kabuki or like the early modern dance of Graham and Humphrey). So Shirakawa has nothing to play her fractured tensions off against. Her performance becomes a tour-de-force in a void too solipsistic, too much like a bad dream to be able to take on real substance, to be able to make us feel something other than reverberations of phantoms that safely disappear when we awake.
To again make a comparison, I saw an experimental piece by Sheri Cohen the following weekend as part of a showcase called The Field. Unlike Minh Tran, Cohen is little known outside Seattle's dance community but is one of the city's most consistently interesting and emotionally profound performer-choreographers. Titled This Is Not Happening You Were Not There it Happened Then It Is Not Happening Now There Is No Danger The Danger Was Then, There (and set to John Zorn's tetchy music), this solo seemed to involve only two things: a posture, and a walking movement. She stood in an unbroken pose that descended into jitters not quite uniform shaking but some deep uneasiness which embedded itself deeply beneath my own skin my nervous system felt like that of spider inspected and held down by a pin. Cohen then walked, a purposeful, not quite awkward but highly fractured walk that equally injected its tensions into the tendons of my own legs like I was hesitantly walking the plank, silently and in total isolation, when what I wanted to do was run a marathon. Feelings arising within me were contradictory, yet so powerful, like a broken machine running at full tilt. Cohen's performance was as powerful as any theatrical event can be. It did not need a red light or chairs floating in space to lend it meaning. Nor did it need a highly-trained tour-de-force of a performance just an effective. Cohen was able to transfer powerful feelings straight from her nervous system to that of her viewers.
For all of Shirakawa's amazing technique, that dancer's performance existed largely as a showcase for her own virtuosity display of talent being the weak, traditional, fetish-like substitute for genuine theatricality. Opera house audiences are suckers for this kind of virtuosity. You go to a theater to see a star performer doing his or her thing, some heroic larger-than-life figure not someone scaled to your own life and its complexities who can impact you directly. That would be too frightening, too close. So when the final curtain closed at the Moore (this time without a glitch), HArtChaos received a standing ovation. Virtually everyone in the audience was "blown away" by the evening! Except, that is, for the members of the local dance community I subsequently talked to they thought it was appallingly bad! Now that is one hell of a cultural disconnect. How do you account for it?
This is how I did. It was "First Thursday," day of the monthly arts walk in Seattle when galleries stay open late and are crammed full of curious arts patrons, both seasoned and novice. Before I headed to the Moore Theater for the HArtChaos performance, I took in a few gallery exhibits. The Seattle Art Museum was displaying Leonardo Da Vinci notebooks in illuminated boxes as though they were religious relics. These notebooks had been recently purchased by Microsoft's Bill Gates, "richest man in the world." Why were there so many people there? To read the translations from Italian on how grass bends when the wind blows? Unlikely. They were instead, by and large, paying homage to "genius."
Americans are afraid to "buy" anything (art or ideas) unless there is a label on it, preferably that of a well-known brand. In opera house esthetics, that is what happens an artist is labeled "a genius," "a hero," "a master," or perhaps "a virtuoso." It is only then that people overcome their cultural inhibitions and come to see them at work, to safely pay homage to their semi-deified status without quite perceiving the core of that significance, and without the ability to judge whether that significance is in fact warranted. This is high culture in America, and in the industrialized world so very similar to the worship of popular culture celebrities.
High culture as practiced is as thoroughly superficial as it is "low." What get lost in the typical middle-class practice of culture is the base-level core of art which few but the artists themselves have any genuine interest in. Mark Tobey only became an artist of international status rather than a Northwest regional anomaly after he moved to Switzerland and began showing regularly in Paris. Only then did Seattle start talking about its "native son" as a "genius," having a Europe-validated label to pin on him. Jimi Hendrix got remarkably little local support as a teen in Seattle. His reputation as being an innovative musician came after a stint on the East Coast and festival gigs in Northern California. Only then was he claimed as a home-grown "virtuoso" rock guitarist. Once safely labeled, wealthy fans such as former Microsoft mogul Paul Allen can build museums to him temples. Because what most people really want is to worship him. Or the Grateful Dead. Or Beethoven.
Peering down into the very core of modern culture takes too much work, generates too much anxiety. It's so much easier to be enslaved to spectacle, virtuosity and the easy road of the opera house esthetic.