Is television killing culture?
I don't think so. I don't think the classic arts are dead, or even dying. Clearly we have to be persistent and creative to reach people in today's media-saturated environment. But classical culture is so much a part of our deep selves that I think it's arrogance Ñ a kind of myopia where we're only seeing our own era Ñ for us to conclude that TV could kill the fine arts.
When I talk about classic art, I'm talking about something that reaches beyond its time and moves people decade after decade. I agree with the choreographer Mark Morris who thinks that things are classically beautiful when they both make sense to us and have a little mystery.
Like an archway. It's satisfying because there's a symmetry to it, a comfort that makes sense to our eyes, but it isn't clear to our eyes why it doesn't fall on our heads. TV can't stop people from responding to that kind of beauty. In fact, TV may dumb people down, but it goes both ways: TV also brings culture to people.
Our art form, ballet, is a direct descendant of something people have done throughout human history Ñ dance. When people say the classic arts aren't relevant, that they have nothing to do with contemporary lives, I ask: What does 'Pirates of the Caribbean' have to do with our lives? It's a classic story that speaks beyond its time, just as the ballet 'Giselle' never fails to move audiences, even though it's steeped entirely in the Romantic era sensibility of the 1840s.
But dance has a whole dimension beyond the accessibility of a story. Dance speaks with the body; dancers communicate 'thoughts' that aren't formed with words. Since movement isn't a language that has specific meaning, people in the audience have to decide for themselves what they're seeing. Watching can't be passive, like watching TV usually is. Dance might bring up all sorts of feelings about life, or responses that aren't verbal thoughts at all, but are less tangible. It's thrilling for audiences to experience this beyond-words communication.
Of course people can see the fine arts on TV and film, but recorded performances often have been manipulated. The action might not have been filmed sequentially, and because of multiple takes and editing, the audience never sees mistakes and imperfections. The greatest difference between filmed performance and live performance is that live performers are taking risks in the moment.
Part of the art is that we are constantly responding to what happens. No 'perfect' or 'definitive performance' is possible. When, in the moment, every cog in the very complex wheel of live production Ñ the dancers, the musicians, the production artists, the audience Ñ plays its part and the show comes together, there is a beauty you can't feel in a filmed performance.
And it might not be as expensive as people think to be in the audience. You can see the ballet for $7. That's less than an evening movie.
Classic art takes a lot of effort without immediate results. With ballet it takes 10 years to get good enough to dance professionally, and you can't speed it up, period.
Oregon Ballet Theatre just had 95 kids performing in 'The Nutcracker,' kids who had the time of their lives on stage performing for more than 40,000 people. They'll tell you the classic arts aren't dead or dying or boring or irrelevant.
Christopher Stowell is artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.