Cowboy Boots and Ballet?
Those who know me well know that my two main interests are country music and ballet. But unlike my two favourite foods, cheese and wine, or my two favourite drinks, red wine and white wine, I don’t believe in mixing these two interests. So it was with great trepidation that I opened an email last week with the subject line “Cowboy Boots and Ballet”. Sure enough, it was an advertisement for an upcoming ballet based on Johnny Cash songs. Ugh.
Turns out the ballet is set to Cash’s covers of songs like “Four Strong Winds” and “If You Could Read My Mind” (oh, and also “Hurt”. Are we surprised? Get over this song, people. It’s only marginally better than the whole “Hallelujah” craze.) Still, ugh. I mean, it would be pretty bad if you had to watch dancers stumbling around to “Ring of Fire” or “Folsom Prison”, but this isn’t much better. So you don’t think I’m just being a jerk, watch the trailer:
The thing is, I normally trust the National Ballet. I mean, they are our national dance company. Everything I’ve seen them put on is good. I even studied there for a few years and the teachers I had were by far the best I’ve encountered in nearly 30 years of dancing. What exactly is the problem here?
Johnny Cash? Country music? The outfits? The dancing?
To me, it’s the dancing. It’s weird. Right? Not really ballet, but not really something that takes off from ballet in a natural way. Nevertheless, I’m also weirded out by the country music and ballet thing.
Let me take a few steps back. It’s funny that I write this today, the 100th anniversary of Nijinsky’s and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a ballet that changed the art form more than any other work. Stravinsky’s rhythmic innovations and jarring orchestral arrangements aside, this is a ballet that basically brought sex to the classical dance stage, stimulated the development of modern dance, and was flexible enough to allow for myriad stagings throughout the last century. Here are a couple examples (one is censored, so you have to sign in to youtube):
Believe me, I’m a big fan of this, so I’m not suggesting that ballet needs to conform to waifs in tutus killing themselves over a hero. Save that for real life 😉
Historical precedent for boots and ballet continued in one of Aaron Copland’s best-known works, Rodeo. Written in 1942, this ballet was at the height of efforts to discover – or create – uniquely American culture, especially in high art circles. Think Charles Ives symphonic compositions, Martha Graham’s modern dance company (of which Marjorie Guthrie, Woody’s wife, was a part), even Ford’s fiddle contests. All of these creations were the product of a displaced European population trying to locate their new national identity in the common man. And they’re good! I’ve always thought of these works as pretty carefully constructed and truly emblematic of how Americans must have felt about themselves at the time.
Fast forward to the early 21st century and another phenomenon developed, wherein suffering ballet companies started to use popular music as the basis for their new works. It’s the same thing as your local symphony orchestra programming a night of Star Wars music to supplement the usual program of yawn-inducing Brahms symphonies. Waning government funding, dragging ticket sales, and a plethora of other options for a night of entertainment means most of these classical dance and music organizations are doing anything they can to bring in an audience. In Alberta, the Alberta Ballet organized a show set to Joni Mitchell’s music for the company’s 40th anniversary, and it was so well-received that future works were set to songs by Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, and most recently k d lang (check out the interview with the Artistic Director in the December 2012 issue of Alberta Views).
But there’s a distinct difference, in my mind, between classically oriented ballet works being set to pop oriented, lyrical music, and boot-heavy dances being created for plodding Johnny Cash covers. More confusing is the motivation behind the boots and ballet work: to whom exactly is this being marketed? Johnny Cash fans? Longtime ballet subscribers? Are they two distinct groups (I’ve argued elsewhere that they are not)? But if the ballet aficionados are already heading to the show, then what of the non-ballet fan who throws on Johnny’s Greatest Hits every Saturday morning? Will some of those fans be heading to the show? And what will the response be?
It’s an interesting endeavour, in that ballet is still pretty alienating to most people, and to attract an audience beyond the core of dedicated fans, you really have to get them excited. For a sort of purist like me, though, in both the country and ballet sense, it feels…worrisome. Is nothing sacred anymore? Was anything ever sacred? Is this just an experiment that will pass by as quickly as it arrived, or does it herald the beginning of a new art form? Yipes.