What price virtuosity, or the (body) image problem.

I used to see opera and ballet as two sides of the same coin. I understood them in terms of an obsession with power & fluidity, accomplished by ballet’s bodies, and by opera’s voices.   The dancer’s movements were what mattered above all, a manifestation of the body.  And while the singer’s voice was a comparable obsesssion it was a vessel that seemed to exist independent of the body.  Singers could be fat, and often were so large as to compromise the dramatic illusion.

See why i saw them as opposite sides of the same coin?

“Obsession” is a word meant to suggest an unhealthy preoccupation, one that comes with a price.

I believe opera has actually begun to break free, even if the change is regretted by the older generation of opera fans, the ones who speak of wanting to close their eyes and listening.

Two recent phenomena brought this back to me.  The first was Studies in Motion, currently showing at Bluma Appel Theatre.  After watching a few perfect young bodies choreographed by Crystal Pite, we see a few not so perfect bodies.  I was reminded of the casting of Pina Bausch, who was transgressive in showing us average bodies, moving without the customary virtuosity of dance soloists.  Indeed, as I read about her online –and the apparent lack of respect for her legacy– I can’t help but think that she was so far ahead of her time that nobody (except for Pite?) seems to have picked up on the possibilities she offered.

The second is a controversy swirling around a negative review in the New York Times.  Alastair Macauley said

Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.

Does it matter that Ringer is recovering from an eating disorder?  I feel  dance is trapped in a perverse time-warp.  Macauley seems to speak for the core values of the dance world, a place inhabited by wraith-thin women and men.  The deconstructive power of a Ballet Trocadero gets its counter-discursive torque from the rigidity of the culture they have been mocking for so long.  But while people laugh at the “joke” nothing seems to change.  Dancers are still super thin and –excuse me for bringing this up — don’t resemble anyone i have ever met.  They make fashion models –one of my touchstones for the bizarre– look like people.

Pardon me if i seem to be down on ballet. I love ballet, really i do.  I am preparing to take my grand-daughter to her first Nutcracker.  I find I am interrogating the medium the way i might stare down her potential suitors.   Instead of asking when he might bring her home, I want to know what this ballet culture is prepared to offer her when she picks up on their endemic dislike of adiposity.  I hope she doesn’t internalize it.

Opera seems to have broken away from the kind of rigidity seen in dance, emulating a similar break made decades before in the realm of spoken theatre.   Brando & the Method were all about rejecting or at least concealing their virtuosity.  While purists are still reeling, there’s no denying that opera has problematized the old categories.   Sometimes opera looks great while sounding merely okay, a change that hasn’t gone over well in some quarters.  I would argue that this problematic approach is at the heart of the current love affair with opera, one that has made opera more able to live up to its dramatic promise.

In contrast, as far as I can tell, the prevailing discourse in dance is still captive of virtuosity.

Popular music has deconstructed the nonsensical fascination with chops-for-the-sake-of-chops, that used to entrap serious music in its own complex requirements.  As so many from Louis Armstrong to Frank Zappa have shown, simplicity does not preclude profundity. Mozart, Mahler & Debussy got it, even if modern music seemed to lose its way for much of the past century.

I don’t claim to have the solution, but I find it fascinating to look at the questions.  Fat ladies are no longer de rigeur at the opera: and too bad.  Opera has at times bought into the same excessive behaviour seen in ballet.  I have to wonder if some of the heavy-weight opera stars of the past would be able to make it today.  Measha Bruggergosman and Jessye Norman, and Deborah Voigt have all lost a lot of weight, as did Ben Heppner; pardon me for sounding like one of those obsessive people, but i felt the voices were better when they were fat (if i may be forgiven for using that scary F word).  I merely wish we could see a happy medium, of dancers who aren’t waifs, singers who are neither fat nor thin.

Am I asking too much in demanding a theatre that puts real people on stage?

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