How ’bout Hershel?

25 Nov

The Washington Post recently ran an article Breaking Pointe, which kind of trashes The Nutcracker cash cow and you know I’ll like any article that shoots it down.  I have to say though, for those who cherish The Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, please continue to do so.  I just have some Scroogian issues that make me a little cranky, and sure I’ll complain about it but I would never try to convince someone that they should stop going to go see it, because it’s any and every audience member’s right to like what they will (although secretly I’m convinced many people don’t like The Nutcracker as much as they think they do, or would like other ballets much more instead!).  Regardless, I wouldn’t want someone trashing my bizarre and unconventional holiday traditions (it’s a long story, we’ll talk about it never) and even I will admit some of Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet puts a little bounce in my step, like the ubiquitous Russian Dance.  And speaking as a flute player, the Dance of the Reed Pipes IS fun to play.  Sure, many professional flautists roll their eyes and groan at the tune, but hell, I’m a person that is not afraid to admit that I enjoy Pachelbel’s Cannon.  I’m fearless (sort of).

At any rate, I was on board for much of the article, and agree that it’s somewhat regrettable that The Nutcracker is necessary to please the masses and make money.  However, at the same time, I don’t think pleasing the masses is all that awful of a thing to do.  For many, it’s nice to know that a familiar ballet rolls around every year and because that’s generally something that would make me sick of it, I’m glad it’s a ballet that isn’t all that great that occupies that spot.  Although it would be nice as the author pointed out, to have some more diversity in holiday activities.  Although I’m sure she’s thinking more contemporary, daring works, I’m a little more basic…like why not have a Hannukah ballet?  Personally, I would love it if someone with an Ashton-esque ability to work with costumes would do a ballet to Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.  For reasons unknown to man, this has been one of my favorite books dating back to second grade, even though I’m far from Jewish.  Or even a different Christmas themed ballet would be a welcome change…but Nutcracker has such a vice grip on the holiday season there’s no way any company can take that kind of risk.

Is anyone up to the challenge of turning this story into a ballet?

Taking risks was one of the author’s points in the article, noting the economy is backing companies up into their safety zones.  I can’t remember if it was last year or this year, but ABT was planning one of the most unimaginative season lineups I’ve ever seen.  It was all war horses.  But this was where the article got weird for me and segued into things that I really didn’t think The Nutcracker was responsible for.  Like American dancers being held back from principal roles in favor of foreign born dancers.  That was an unexpected turn that made me run into a wall, but after thinking about it I found the undertone of the article to be a little unnecessarily defensive and whiny.  What the author calls “outsourcing” (poor word choice, in my opinion), the Royal Ballet would call “principal guest artist.”  I fail to see the problem in hiring the right person for the job.  In fact, if anything, I would say the US is OVER-networked, where far too many people are getting hired based on connections and who you know rather than ability (which is one of the things I love about dance…everyone can audition.  It’s much more democratic.).  The author then talks about grooming American dancers…but that’s the point of the corps-soloist-principal progression?  A principal is to be tweaked, not groomed.  It was oddly contradictory for the author to encourage diversity in ballet companies, but then promote the idea of favoring American dancers.  I certainly don’t define diversity as Americans and _____-Americans.  I don’t think the “field lacks commitment to its own dancers.”  I think America in general lacks commitment to its dancers.  After all, ballet is treasured in Cuba and Russia.  As someone who has been to Asian countries many times, I have seen first hand how classical arts are highly valued in those societies (which has its merits and demerits unfortunately).

For me, I agree with what Carlos Acosta had to say about “the issue.”  For many dancers in other countries, there’s a sense of desperation that comes with the job, because they don’t have a plan B, whereas an American dancer can go to school later or even make an okay living just working any full-time job.  For Americans, dance almost always starts out as a hobby that might turn into a job, but for a Cuban child entering a ballet school, the circumstances are much different.  I don’t think American dancers are held back at all; in fact, there are many fine technical American dancers.  But perhaps it is that lack of desperation, the “art is a hobby” philosophy that is so unfortunately ingrained into American culture that has left many of these dancers kind of dry of passion and artistry.  It’s like when I get complimented on my dancing, it’s not because I have great lines or an ability to execute virtuoso maneuvers, because I have neither of those things; I’m complimented for my expressiveness (and it feels SO damn good!).  For those who know me more intimately, they also know I’m one of the nuttiest and most “desperate to dance” people they have ever met, so I would absolutely say that desperation is a big part of what makes me enjoy the opportunity to dance, which translates into the completion of a movement itself.

The author also discusses segregation in ballet, and although I am a huge proponent of role models and visibility, I think claiming ballet to be the most segregated of the arts is…a “misdiagnosis.”  Surely there are racist directors and audience members, but I don’t think the institution of ballet itself is racist (well, maybe the enforcing of pink tights could be considered racist).  After all, Acosta was the Royal Ballet’s first black Romeo and Miyako Yoshida was probably their first Japanese Ondine.  It’s not always rosy, since former NYCB dancer Aesha Ash did mention in some article that she felt certain castings she got were in favor of a particular “powerful” image, but I still think the opportunities are there in many companies.  There is often an argument that money is what prevents many black people from experiencing ballet and certainly ballet does cost money, but it costs money for everyone and doesn’t discriminate.  Now poverty on the other hand IS a result of racism and perpetuates wrongful stereotypes that prevent mobility.  But poverty is a separate issue from racism in ballet.  Call out racist directors but be weary before labeling ballet, which is merely a dance, as being segregated when there really isn’t any intention of segregating anyone.  It may very well be for reasons I don’t comprehend, but I have a tendency to believe it’s people that are always at the root of a problem, so there’s no need to generalize.

So as much as I would like to blame everything in life on The Nutcracker, the truth is, it isn’t the root of problems facing ballet today.  Those are much more complex and require great minds to change.  Not mine…I mean, what do I know about getting into a ballet company?  All I can say is, those who know their place, find it.

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2 Responses to “How ’bout Hershel?”

  1. Eric Kimmel January 27, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    I agree. I’d be thrilled if someone came up with a ballet for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I wrote it.

    Eric Kimmel

    • youdancefunny January 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

      This, so rocks my world. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your book! The due date stamps on my elementary school’s copy were mostly thanks to me.

      Thank you for commenting, and I truly hope an ambitious choreographer takes on Hershel’s story someday! (sooner would be better than later).
      -Steve

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