In olden days, two months ago, we attended live performances — dance, theater, and music. Along with movie screenings, that formed a vital part of my pre-COVID existence. At minimum three times a week, I’d gussy myself up in fashion-and-bling, and sally forth to one of our marvelous theaters in Los Angeles. There to see and be seen — without face masks! To circulate the crowd, winnowing out friends, frenemies, cool strangers, VIPS and celebs. All fellow travelers, all with shining faces in anticipation of a shared experience. An evening (I like matinees too!) that held promise: a jolt, revelation, transformation, a loving caress, a kick in the ass, perhaps astonishment, and way too often dis-ap-point-ment. Arranged in rows like little sardines — forced intimacy — the audience would chat (possibly disturbing neighbors); sit up tall (possibly blocking the sightline of those behind); laugh inappropriately, take selfies (or worse, videos), in essence, drive each other nuts. That tumult — the pursuit of arts nirvana — for me, beat staying home and firing up Netflix. And how I miss it now! Whether that feeling will ring true a year hence remains to be seen. Because ‘going out’ is more than a habit; it’s more than just something to do; it is a lifestyle. For the last many decades, it has been my life.
Enter COVID — and send in the ‘content.’ Ah, a dreary word, as flat as two dimensions can render. We are cajoled (it feels like harassment) that as real arts lovers we need to jump onto youtube and get our jollies there. Why get dressed? Why drive? Why spend the money? Why delay gratification? Just sit in front of your computer and do what you do all day long. Click and stare. Click and stare. You don’t even have to clap! Meanwhile: Be uplifted! Be inspired! Be healed! It’s a big burden placed on the arts.
An email just arrived from the Broad Stage in Santa Monica: “New Content with LA Opera and more.” Really? “Aida,” “Traviata,” “Figaro” and Wagner Gesamtkunstwerk — the repertoire of L.A. Opera — reduced and promoted as ‘content’? Where do I stagger and collapse? Where do I weep? Where do I mourn? Protest or push back — to halt this ‘artistic’ onslaught.
And from the dance world, desperation. Not a week after the shock of watching the performance calendar preemptively close and disappear, in marched the on-line content. A deluge! That was the week of March 10, in which every American theater director discarded, like a takeaway food container, his or her lovingly constructed season; refunding tickets, those little stubs of paper representing hard-won, if inadequate, revenues; and increasingly, laying off staff. Dancers got the call: “See you in six months — perhaps? Stay in shape!”
Within this cataclysm, this unprecedented debacle, our dance companies proffer no strategy more compelling than to pummel dance fans with “free content.” Take just one example. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on March 30, 2020, sent a cheery note announcing that as an “anniversary gift to you” the company would post (of course for free) the company’s crown jewels of creation, beginning with Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960).
Now this is symbolic — of vast short-sightedness. During the company’s endearing national touring, “Revelations,” Alvin Ailey’s most enduring masterwork, is the closing work on most programs; as such, it is a ticket tickler. This is a tradition for which audiences repeatedly sign on: “Revelations,” the work to enjoy with a friend, or must-viewing for the kids. Unique in the concert repertoire (not just in the Ailey rep but beyond), “Revelations” is a visceral experience. It gives ’em goosebumps, even rapture. It sends ’em home revived, revitalized, optimistic, inspired. And this happens in real-time, in boomerang fashion, spread like a “good” virus. The audience, infected, erupts in back-talk, whooping and clapping, their own dancing, their own joy. The superlative Ailey dancers, in return, ‘up’ their game — and that is saying a lot.
So why spurt the entirety of “Revelations” on the Internet? Why do that? Why yank “Revelations” from its live, 3-D kingdom bathed in sweat, transformative lighting and sound designed by top professionals, and offer it in a 2-D clutter of pop-up ads? And why the rush? Why not give it a rest? Why not let audiences cope with a pandemic the scope, scale and destructiveness of which none of us has experienced before? And why not face reality: concert dance is not part of the cycle of life and death. It is not an actual necessity. It is instead a beautiful luxury. It is not medicine; it is not health insurance; it is not food; it is not a roof over your head. Dancers are not doctors, they are not even “healers”; they are dancers. God bless them, the world survives without them. The persistent pushing of ‘content’ that conflates live performance with canned video is turning this aficionado away from dance. Why not allow the dance audience to mourn and miss dance? And greet it warmly on its return?
Can we please lose the ‘content’ and cling to the notion that live theater is our end-game — and boldly bet the farm on its return? I know it’s tough; we are in anguish in the performing arts! To the moment when we can pile back into theaters, and theater lobbies. And have a drink and size up everyone’s fashion. And walk up to that guy — the one whose fat head blocked your view, he who laughed like a hyena when it wasn’t really funny, the creep who took selfies and videoed the performance — and give that guy a big bear hug?
I’ll see you at the theater.
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.