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Performing Arts

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Every time this blog gets into one of these discussions about what it mean to be educated, somebody is sure to bring up “dance,” and to do it in a way that makes it clear (if only tacitly) that calling dance a major art we should all know about is just plain silly.

And here’s the thing–I mostly agree.

But I don’t agree because I think dance is in and of itself trivial, that is has nothing to add to the Great Conversation.  Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.  What I do know is that it hasn’t YET added much to the Great Conversation, and I know why that is.

Dance is about performance.  And performance–until very recently–has been ephemeral.

It’s not just dance that falls into this category, of course.  Acting does also, and so do actual musical performances.  Before the advent of film, those of us not in the audience who saw the performance had no way to judge that performance.  And future generations–the jury for whether something does or does not enter our cultural history–couldn’t judge anything but the audience’s reaction, which would at least be written down.

We’re told that Mrs. Siddons, and Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse were all great actresses.  We don’t any of us know what that means.  I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that we wouldn’t much like what we saw if we could see it. 

We therefore call the composition art, great or otherwise, but not the performance of it, except in the immediacy of the moment.  Bach and Beethoven are still with us, because their compositions were written down and could come down to us.  We’ve heard of various people who over the years performned those compositions well, but we can’t still hear them, and they pass out of the history.

The same is true of drama.  Shakespeare and Sophocles are down on the page.  The performances of the actors who performed them are not.

This is particularly true of dance, because–for whatever reason, over the years–choreography, although written down to some extent, has always been to some extent a matter of rehearsal.   Even if we could all read choreographic notation–and not even all choreographers can do that–we would still miss a great deal of what the choreographer taught his dancers to perform.  A lot of choreography is not down on the page.

So for dance, we have neither the performance itself, nor the schemata for the performance, left for even educated people to read.

But that was then, and this is now.  Now there is film, and recording, and even better, digital copying.

I can know what Itzhak Perelman sounded like when he played–I have a digitially remastered CD of at least one of those performances.  I can know what Clark Gable sounded like when he acted, too. 

With digital compying, performance can be preserved nearly forever.

Which makes me wonder a couple of things.

The first is what effect this is going to have on future performances.  Samuel Johnson wrote the first English dictionary and in the process standardized English spelling, something that changed the course of writing in English forever.  There’s a reason it’s difficult to read Shakespeare but not at all difficult to read Johnson himself, or Boswell, or any of the writers who came afterwards.  They all seem “modern” in a way that somebody like Edmund Spenser–or even John Donne–does not.

Maybe this is what will happen to performance–and especially to acting.  Maybe the wild swings of fashion will start to even out, so that the melodramatic emoting that was characteristic of the Jacobean theater and that wandered into the old silent movies will simply disappear.

Maybe we will begin to develop uniform standards for performance.  I would assume that such standards would differ across the different arts.  That is, there would be a set of standards for acting which would not be the set of standards for dance.

But until very recently, we were nowhere near establishing standards for acting.  Acting was “good” if the people of the time liked it.  Since it disappeared as soon as it was seen, there was nothing much else to  go on.

But the bigger issue for me is this–will the ability to  preserve performance lead to a situation in which we see the history of performance the way we see the history of the up to now more permanent arts?  Will people begin to approach performance the way they now approach, say, Michaelangelo’s David, as a permanent and timeless example of human excellence?

We go to the Winged Victory of Samathrace and the David, to the Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s interiors, to Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, and one of the reason we teach them to students or expose schoolchildren to them is so that we can say:  Look at that.  This is something actual people can do.  They can do something as amazing and unbelievable as that.

I’ve always thought that that was a major part of what should be going on in elementary and secondary schools–introducing children and teenagers to what Arnold would have called “the best that has been thought and said,” and to which I would add painted and composed, because such things represent a way of life almost entirely unknown in most people’s lives.

No, really, making more money and getting more stuff is not the only possible goal in life.  Making more money to get bigger credit card lines to buy more stuff and then end up so far into debt you can’t breathe really isn’t.

In other words, part of the purpose of art in this world is aspirational–it gives us a picture of the best we can be. 

Maybe performance will end up being more like literature–there will be so much of it, that we will find ourselves with an Official Canon, plus Genre Canons, plus obscure items that leave ordinary audiences cold but fire up the guts of the people who hope to be or already are performers themselves. 

The one thing I am sure of is that permanance will change the history of the art–the fact that we have access to prior performances will change both the audiences and the performers themselves. 

Whether this means dance will finally be a major and not a minor art–I just don’t know.

Written by janeh

April 13th, 2010 at 8:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Performing Arts'

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  1. Recording will change a lot of things–as has broadcasting. If Johnson pretty well froze English spelling, Edison may have frozen pronunciation, and helped the BBC and the American broadcasters standardise it. We’ve gone a long way toward wiping out English dialects since the invention of phonograph and radio. The situation is similar in German and French, and I’m seeing bits and pieces about Spanish-language broadcasting, especially in the United States, trying to find a “common” Spanish intelligible–and lacking double entendres–when heard by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

    Similarly vernacular and regional architecture isn’t (quite) dead, but it’s certainly taken blows from national building codes and manufacturing–and also from hundreds of millions of people seeing the same houses on television.

    The same thing is happening–is nearly complete–in sports. Soccer, Football, Baseball, Rugby, Cricket, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Everything else is going the way of bocca and the Central American ball game.

    Our current recording methods may make dance more influential in the culture. Personally, I’d rate it well below architecture. But if there’s anything quirky, unique or local about dance, I’d rush to record it before it’s gone forever.

    Genres? Some of us will still hear those faint unauthorised horns of Elfland–there’s a reason it’s called fairy chess–but it will be over the dead bodies of nine teachers in ten.


    13 Apr 10 at 4:16 pm

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