‘Content’ is such an ugly word for the arts 11

Dance · Ideas & Opinion
Everyone is doing the best they can in a pandemic. But will the rush to provide online content serve dance well over time? Pictured: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in ‘Revelations’ photo credit Paul Kolnik

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!”

Really? You’re thrilled to do that? I respectfully disagree with this approach.

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.

11 thoughts on “‘Content’ is such an ugly word for the arts

  1. Shea New May 11,2020 10:23 am

    Tears…yes are in order. But artists are problem solvers. We will find a new way! We will also be there when live is live again. Right now words and images will connect us.

  2. Marie Rabey May 10,2020 8:34 am

    I appreciate the efforts of dance companies who are reaching out and providing artistic food for our souls. They may not be first responders, but as a dance teacher, I find it inspirational and hopeful to see that dancers are still dancing. It makes me want to stay in shape and keep moving, and we all need the arts any way we can get them. Otherwise there’s just a lot of bleak news and for us, a stay-at-home order until the end of the month. Check out the Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan and the “Virtual Hug” dance they choreographed, and then tell me that dancers should take a break until we can see them again on stage. Inspirational!

  3. vnathan May 9,2020 6:47 am

    Thank heavens finally a sensible voice amidst the onslaught of “digital content” parading as surrogates for the “live experiences” be it in art, sport or classroom instruction. I watch my dancer daughter take this time to breathe.Watching her gives me hope, one day when she returns to live performance she will truly be an artist, ready and mature and ‘aged’ like fine wines and cheeses with fully developed subtleties of movement.
    Let the performers take this time to breathe and hibernate and emerge as exquisite artists.

  4. debra levine May 8,2020 4:08 pm

    Gosh, Grover Dale!

  5. Grover Dale May 8,2020 2:53 pm

    Debra. The Universe wanted us to see, read, and absorb your words. Some of us got lucky. We did more than see, read, and absorb. We decided to take the journey with you. With you at the wheel, we’re a little less fearful of the outcome.

  6. Julie Kasperson May 8,2020 12:58 pm

    We are navigating through an event, a worldwide crisis, that we’ve never experienced before in our lifetimes. The dance community, left without an audience, is scrambling to find ways to be relevant in our eyes. To show that they matter, to be heard, watched, appreciated.
    I live in Las Vegas, where this crisis has decimated our service economy. Some of our local artists, singers and performers have gone on programs on the Internet to raise funds, for themselves or other charitable groups. I believe it’s a way of validating themselves and reaching out to us: we matter, we are here, don’t forget us.
    The world we return to will never be the same.

  7. elise bernhardt May 6,2020 1:59 pm

    I appreciate the author’s thoughts. I also find the rush to put “content” online is perhaps…just a kind of panic at the loss of audiences, income, a sense of the future. It will be interesting to see who actually chooses to watch dances and theater online (besides the people who are already part of the enterprise.) In general, the creative class always finds inventive ways to solve all kinds of problems. Right now we are in “triage” and eventually will come to “transition” and then hopefully “transformation.”
    What I have noticed that surprised me in a positive way is all the dance classes that have exploded online. From Gaga to Ballet barres, and everything in between. Perhaps people DOING dance will eventually lead to greater appreciation OF dance – and hopefully that will transfer to the in-person experience. Whatever that might be.

  8. debra levine May 6,2020 8:49 am

    Thank you, Anne, for this thoughtful comment. I think you can actually read my essay in a few ways … beneath my admittedly pointed critique is a eulogy for a world I fear may not return. Debra

  9. Anne Hamburger May 6,2020 6:31 am

    I’ve had four parents pass away. And if I’ve learned anything it is that there is no “right” way to experience and express death. We are experiencing death and I say that it is foolhardy to pass judgment on the actions that people take to cope at this moment. It is traumatic, depressing and worrisome beyond belief. For those that have the luxury to sit back and wait, god bless them. For those that need to stay sane, have at it. Will some of the efforts to create be misguided. You bet! Aren’t they always however? When this first began I was super critical of all the zoom playreadings and thought they were basically ineffective. I’ve watched our community become more and more successful at operating online vehicles for getting out programs. Most of all, however, there is a deep-seated need to connect and look into the deepest reaches of our souls to find kindness and understanding.

  10. Hilary Cartwright May 5,2020 7:08 pm

    So so very true. Dance needs to rest in order to revive properly and fully. Thank you

  11. Tom Mossbrucker May 5,2020 12:49 pm

    Thank you for this Debra. I couldn’t agree more. Beautifully written.

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