Dance Week: DG Q&A With Philip Gardner Of Oberon's Grove
Philip Gardner blogs about dance and opera at Oberon's Grove, a site he describes as the online extension of a diary he's kept since he was a child enamored with opera. To kick off Dance Week at DG, we asked him to share some thoughts about ballet and glamour.
DG: When did you first get interested in dance?
PG: As a child I liked dancing around the house and I always enjoyed social dancing but becoming interested in dance as an art form came about when I was in my 20s when - quite by chance - I spent a summer working for a small ballet school on Cape Cod. It was after that that I began attending performances, and it soon became a passion.
DG: Have you had training in dance yourself?
PG: At the above-mentioned school on the Cape I took class and danced in performances, and I took class for 3 years altogether. Of course I was in my mid-20s, way too late to consider doing it as a profession. It seems I had a natural affinity for it and if I had been aware of dance as a viable career choice when I was very young my life might have turned out very differently. But I grew up in a tiny town with no possible exposure to anything like dance classes. Now when I watch dancers in class, rehearsing or performing I am keenly aware that it's probably what I should have been doing all these years.
DG: How did you get started blogging about dance?
PG: Since I was about eleven, I always kept a very detailed diary. For many years it was mainly about the opera performances I attended; when I started going to the ballet I would write about that also. Of course at first I knew nothing about what I was seeing, only that I loved watching people in motion. When I finally moved to NYC in 1998 and began going to dance performances with great frequency, I would write about them on one of the internet dance sites. Meanwhile, Kristin Sloan of the New York City Ballet had started her blog The Winger and I became very intrigued with that. When I got in trouble on the site where I was posting (for being sarcastic!) I was inspired by Kristin to start my own blog. It quickly became far more successful and popular than I ever would have guessed and it has led me to meet several fascinating people in the dance and music world.
DG: How is the glamour of ballet different from (or the same as) the glamour of modern dance? What does glamour mean in each context?
PG: This may seem odd, but I think the glamour of the ballet comes from...toe shoes! Yes, the satiny pointe shoes have their own mystique and give the ballerina an elegance that is quite unique. There are other elements too which make ballet especially glamourous: the beauty of classical port de bras, the traditional style of costuming and make-up, the theatricality of it. Modern dance is usually earthier, sexier and less calculated. Also the music of the classical ballet - Tchaikovsky, Minkus, Adam - already has its own built-in sense of glamour. Modern dance choreographers tend to be far more experimental in terms of musical choices, which can often be very exciting in its own way. In the quest for finding beauty in music and movement, I think the two worlds (ballet vs modern) compliment one another very well.
DG: Onstage, dancers tend to seem quite glamorous. How much do dancers try to maintain their personas offstage? Has that changed over time? Or is it simply a matter of personality?
PG: Offstage, I find most dancers do not cultivate a glamorous image these days. For one thing, many of them are very young and they like to dress and behave like other young people when they are not onstage: meaning ultra-casual dress-down style - which in its way can be attractive. Some of the ballerinas, as they mature and rise to the rank of principal, become more aware of projecting a sophisticated image offstage. When I look at old photos from the Diaghilev era of off-duty dancers in public settings, I feel there was more awareness of creating a persona. It seems to me that during the 60s and 70s there was a concerted effort both in opera and ballet to humanize the performers, to make the public feel that soprano x and ballerina y are just normal folks who happen to be talented in a special way. The high-profile glamour of a Callas or a Markova began to fade. On the other hand, I always feel when I encounter dancers in an offstage setting that they have their own internal element of glamour or elegance which runs deeper than just their clothing, make-up and hairstyle...their talent, passion and commitment give them their own brand of glamour.
DG: Your blog features many compellingly graceful photos of dance performances. Dance is all about movement, but the photos are stills. What makes a good dance photo?
I love still photos of dancers and I've come to know several dance photographers. Many of my favorite dance photographs come from rehearsal or class situations; I have always been intrigued by the process of creating dance and these photos can be very poignant because they show the work behind the finished product. Some of the best dance photographers are dancers themselves: Kyle Froman, Erin Baiano, Matt Murphy. In capturing dance in a still photo, timing is all. To catch the exact moment when a photo will give an illusion of movement must be extremely tricky. Paul Kolnik of New York City Ballet and Erik Tomasson of San Francisco Ballet certainly have the knack, as do several others. I think a good dance photo is one that makes you want to go see the dancer or the work that has been photographed. I spend a lot of time looking at dance photos both in books and on-line, hoping to find pictures that will enhance my blog. The photographers I have dealt with have all been extremely generous; they want their photos to be seen. And of course if you are trying to describe the look and feel of a particular dance piece, a picture is worth a thousand words.
DG: It has been said that part of ballet is creating the illusion of defying gravity, and that in contrast modern dance seems more grounded. Do you agree?
PG: In general, yes, though I seen some high-flying modern dancers and also ballets that seem heavier and more earthbound. Again I must say that it is dancing on pointe that seems the dividing line for me between ballet and modern. Watching the girls defy gravity as they hover and spin on pointe really gives ballet its special quality. It's certainly unnatural, and very intriguing.
Used with permission.
DG: You also blog about opera. How does its appeal to you differ from that of ballet or modern dance? What's similar?
PG: I loved opera long before I discovered dance as an art form. Opera was the companion of my dark, unhappy teenage years where I found solace in the passion and beauty of the human voice. The last great heyday of opera in New York (the 1960s thru the mid 1980s) was a thrilling time for me. Going to the opera nowadays can still be exciting but the atmosphere has changed and there are surely far fewer interesting vocal personalities around. Dance I find to be on a steadier trajectory in terms of holding its appeal. For me, everything is emotional. I'm not sure I believe in intellect, really. I simply want to be moved or thrilled by people doing something I cannot do. Both opera and dance can provide this: in a way it's replaced going to church for me. It's spiritually nourishing.
DG: You've written a couple of recent posts about bad audience behavior at both ballets and operas--all sorts of things that break the spell for others. What do you think is going on? Has a substantial portion of the audience stopped seeing the performance as an immersive experience?
PG: Ah, my pet peeve...bad manners at the theatre! I should not get started on this but in brief I believe that the performing arts have simply become too accesible. Yes, I'm a snob. I do not think one can go to the opera or ballet casually, just to be entertained, as one might go to a film or a sports event. Of course the opera and ballet companies need to bring in new audiences but with that goes the need for people to learn how to behave. It's hard for me to imagine people paying money and making the effort to attend and then squandering the opportunity by talking, eating, checking the cellphone. It seems that people are too self-absorbed, too accustomed to being spoon-fed their 'culture' without making any real effort to connect with music or dance beyond the surface realities. Opera and dance can still be immersive, but the viewer must be willing to be immersed. That means being attentive and putting aside other concerns and distractions while the performance goes forward. In general I think many people have simply never been taught how to behave in such a setting; I learned how to sit still and be attentive by being taken to church for many years by my parents. What it comes down to is: common courtesy. That seems to be a forgotten concept.
Photo by Kyle Froman of New York City Ballet. Used with permission.
DG: Do you find that the audience for dance dresses more casually now than when you first started attending? Do audiences for ballet tend to dress differently than audiences for modern dance?
DG: Yes, things are far more casual now in terms of dress but I do not think that being well-dressed necessarily enhances one's enjoyment of the performance. However, it does make the event more 'special' in a way. Both ballet and modern dance audiences tend to dress for comfort mainly - gala nights aside, of course.
PG: Since you have been following dance for some time, do you sometimes find that a change of performers seems to change the content (meaning) of a dance (even when the choreography remains essentially the same)? If so, does this change of meaning surprise you? How do you react to it?
PG: I have always loved to see (dance) and hear (opera) many different intrepretations of a given work. It's exhilirating to find a dancer giving a new slant to a familiar piece and I always find it intriguing how even a change of one dancer in a cast of - say - twenty can alter the tone of a ballet. In the world of Balanchine's ballets, where I spend so much time, self-styled purists often get upset when they feel the boundaries of a given work are being pushed by a given dancer. My feeling is that only Mr. B could say if something was right or wrong, and everything I have read about him makes me feel he would always have been open to a fresh approach. (I also get the feeling he was far more adaptable about altering steps for individual dancers in a given ballet than his advocates today are...he never seemed to me to be writing in stone.) What keeps ballet alive is the ever-changing casting as the years pass by...so that Mozartiana for instance never became 'fossilized' for me in Suzanne Farrell's interpretation but rather I looked forward to dancers like Kyra Nichols, Miranda Weese and Wendy Whelan dancing it...and whoever will dance it next! It's almost like a new ballet every time. For me, that's the best tribute to Balanchine's genius: it's the music that we are seeing and the dancer is the vessel.
DG: Can you say what is it about ballet and modern dance that can bring you back to see works performed more than once? Do you have any thoughts on what makes dance so compelling to you?
If I like a ballet or dance work, I will want to see it dozens and dozens of times. Invariably it is the music that is the primary appeal of a piece. Some works - like Balanchine's Serenade or Tudor's Jardin Aux Lilas - are like a drug: you feel an urgent need to see them whenever they are on offer. I like to be moved, to weep and be transported by the music and by the beauty and poetry of the human body in motion. Dance is very sustaining and elevating for the human spirit; in a way, dance and music are my religion.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Elegance and self-assurance.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Maria Callas
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? A luxury.
4) Favorite glamorous movie? The Age of Innocence
5) What is your most glamorous moment? Watching the chandeliers rise before a performance at the Met.
7) Most glamorous place? Metropolitan Museum of Art.
8) Most glamorous job? Prima donna or prima ballerina
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't? Most of today's so-called celebrities.
10) Someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized? Pauline Golbin
11) Can glamour survive? Yes.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? No.
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate!
2) Paris or Venice? Paris!
3) New York or Los Angeles? New York!
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Grace, of course!!!
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Beijing!
6) Boots or stilettos? Toe shoes!
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Deco!
8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Jag!
9) Armani or Versace? Armani
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Vreeland
11) Champagne or single malt? Both!
12) 1960s or 1980s? I prefer the present!
13) Diamonds or pearls? Pearls!
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Neither.
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Both.
[Photo of Philip Gardner by Roberto de la Cruz. Toe shoes by Flickr user .Dianna. under Creative Commons license.]