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Dance - A Layman's Estimate Of Conditions

( Originally Published 1924 )

That great dancing is a useful and desirable addition to human happiness needs no argument. Its power to delight the vision and expand the imagination; its value as an example and incentive to an exercise unsurpassed as an ally of health—these and other virtues are obvious. More completely, perhaps, than any of its tributary arts, dancing has the power to impart that indefinable mental well-being that great art aims to give its auditor or spectator. As music is refreshment for one, pictures for another, so the contemplation of dancing is the means of ordering and energising the mind of a third. We of the United States are a beauty-loving people in the main, and almost unanimously attuned to the message of action—so long as we understand its meaning. Once really established among such a people, dancing would take a position of importance second to no other source of national inspiration. In the meantime, there are unorganised cohorts of us to whom good dancing, like good reading, is something of a necessity; and we should like to know what we have a right to expect from the near future.

"The public gets what it wants," is the sophisticated comment almost invariably drawn forth by any discussion along these lines. Which comment exposes its own superficiality; the suggestion of the existence of any one public, in relation to the arts, is absurd.

Patronising dancing there appear, at the very first glance, two publics as widely separated as inhabitants of different planets; each public possessed of appreciations inconceivable to the other, and even contemptible. These are the public that applauds the buxom laziness which substitutes for dancing in the so-called "amusement" known as burlesque, as distinguished from the public that responds to the pure beauty of opera ballet or well-performed ballet pantomime.

Between these two extremes is an intermediate public that is the more or less innocent cause of endless confusion, and whose good nature is an obstacle to the betterment of standards. In the theatre, even when the chaff outweighs the wheat, it applauds everything. The next day Mr. and Mrs. Intermediate Public advise their friends that the production is stupid. Decreasing attendance may warn the manager that something is lacking: but what? As a criticism, absence is not very illuminating. Acts arc changed, cablegrams written and lines rewritten, this. man discharged, a woman rushed over from Paris. And when all is said and done, the performance perhaps continues to emphasise features that were the cause of bad impressions. For this confusion, the audiences are at least equally to blame with the manager. They owe it to themselves as well as to others to express themselves frankly.

Exactly what grade of dancing this intermediate public really wants is an unsettled question—and one of paramount importance, since it involves a good part of the potential support of good things. Managers infer, each according to his own disposition; and there is rarely material for the formation of inferences in any way exact. For one reason or another, no undertaking serves the purpose of exact experiment ; experience does not lead to any unavoidable conclusion. A few wholly good ballet productions have been given in the Untied States during the past few years; they have not been tremendously successful, up to the present, from the point of view of profits. The optimist, however, counts even small profits a success, in the circumstances. Here is an art that employs a language practically unknown to this country; yet it has not failed to impress. But the men who risked the money take another view of it. They consider that they have had a narrow escape from disaster, that the profits are not commensurate with the risks, and that they are well out of a bad affair. Augustin Daly, at the time of his death, was engaged in a course of instructing the public in the appreciation of pantomime, expecting to lose money on it for two or three consecutive years. But the present moment reveals no Augustin Daly among the potential managers of dancing in America. Few are willing to plant seed for a harvest long deferred. And in justice be it added that the equipment and maintenance of Pygmalion and Galatea or L'Enfant Prodigue, the vehicles of Mr. Daly's missionary efforts in the interests of pantomime, would be a small fraction of the expenses attaching to a first-class production of any of the great mimetic ballets.

The situation is, in all essentials, the same as that through which operatic and orchestral music passed a few years ago. Music lovers put their favoured art on a substantial basis by means of endowments. Any other course in relation to the ballet results in a matter of probabilities and possibilities, but not of certainties. The present interest in dancing, left to itself, may lead to great things. Or it may lead to nothing at all. The renaissance of interest that followed the Kiralfy successes in the sixties and seventies was killed by counterfeits. The same hostile possibilities exist at present.

The above-indicated dependence of the dance on its ability to show immediate profits is only the first of its handicaps. That difficulty would not be light, even though every manager viewed conditions clearly and fairly, as some of them do. Unfortunately, however, there is in the profession a class that has succeeded be-cause of, or in spite of, a belief that good taste does not exist in America. To prove this, they shape every occurrence into an argument. In gathering "names" for the interest of their advertising, they engage a certain number of capable artists. If the productions employing these artists succeed, the cynical manager will construe such success as proof of American worship of reputation, and its power to blind him to a mess of accompanying mediocrity. If, on the contrary, failure at-tend the enterprise, it proves American inability to appreciate good work. For the success of a really good work of art, these pessimists will find any explanation except that of good work duly appreciated. Skilful publicity, novelty, a public affectation of good taste, the employment of Oriental motifs, any theory, so long as it acknowledges no taste superior to their own. These are the people who, if Madame Pavlowa's present tour, for instance, makes a striking financial success, will inundate the country with pseudo-Russian ballets, perverting everything, unable to see the need of beauty and artistry, bringing all dancing into disrepute.

Let it be clearly understood : these people by no means represent the manager's profession. But they are to an extent in control of the situation, and the person who wants to see dancing is more or less dependent on them as the source of supply. In the absence of any endowed institution, no ballet can be seen except under commercial management—and, as noted, commercial management that cannot or will not knowingly invest in an enterprise that is going to require time to be understood.

The manager desirous of staging a work of genuine choreographic quality finds himself confronted by a discouraging scarcity of even semicompetent material for his ballet—that is, here in America. To bring a corps de ballet from Europe, with guarantees covering a mini-mum number of weeks of work, transportation both ways, and other proper and just requirements, is commercially dangerous. No reasonable blame can be attached to the usual course of engaging such girls as are easily available, fitting steps to their limitations, insisting on the girls and evading the dance, and making much of draperies and coloured lights.

As a direct result of the scarcity of capable ballet people, dance-lovers not infrequently lose the services of a rare artist. No one artist can give a satisfying two-hour public performance of dancing. Saying nothing of variety as a desideratum in a programme, the question of physical endurance enters. To rest the premiere between her flights, a corps de ballet is indispensable. Without the latter, the former is to be compared to a commander without an army. But the particular case illustrates, where general statement only explains.

At the time of the Metropolitan's organisation, it will be remembered, the world's interest in ballet dancing was at a lower pitch than it ever had been since the dissolution of the Roman Empire; that is, about the middle of the Victorian period. Had the undertaking been no more than that of producing opera in a land already friendly to it, it would have been no more than natural if the Metropolitan directors had accepted the ballet's status as they found it in England. Their task being, however, the production of opera in a country almost hostile to it, a failure to simplify the problem in every possible way would have been bad generalship.

Not finding itself expected to take rank with the ballets of other great opera organisations, the Metropolitan's department of dancing has gone its comfortable gait. It has been under the direction of excellent ballet-masters; but they become easy-going, especially after proving to themselves that girls cannot successfully be asked to perform steps for which they lack the foundation of training. To other mollifying influences is added that of a slippery floor in the room dedicated to ballet rehearsal; a room so beautiful and a floor so perfect that to resin it would be a desecration. The dancers, in fear for the intactness of their bones, walk through their numbers as best they can, and ultimately perform them in a manner consistent with rehearsals.

As a step toward relieving the scarcity of ballet people, the Metropolitan founded, about five years ago, a ballet school—an enterprise from which, up to the present, the pupils have rather monopolised the material profits. The arrangement between manag ment and pupil is, in brief, that the pupil shall remain under the school's (free) tuition four years, at the en ~ of which period the Opera has an option on her service 3 for three years, at a salary of twenty dollars a week, a little more or less. If she appears in the corps de balet during her period of study, she is paid proportiontely. The school work occupies two hours per day, about nine months of the year. The atmosphere of both school and Opera is wholesome and good ; no fault r n be found with the arrangement on a basis of fairnes; but the number of individuals the school has added to the Opera's ballet is shockingly small. Every r vue, musical comedy, and other light musical production includes a collection of young women called a ballet ; and each year of increased general intelligence in da icing matters adds to the desirability that these ba: ets should justify the name. The pretty girl, plus colo fired lights, drapery, and lively cavorting, no longer connstitutes a perfectly secure grip on public approval (except always in burlesque, with which we are not concered). The result is an insatiable demand for girls who can even half dance. And that demand, in its turn, 's a steady drain on the Opera's school. Before she : as studied two years, a girl can qualify for a position it an outside concern—a condition of which she never remains in ignorance very long. She thinks it over. Two years more work in the school would insure her a position in the Opera, at weekly pay no greater than he present offer, for a comparatively short season each year. Now, if the Metropolitan ballet had great p estige as a choreographic organisation—a prestige like that of the Russian ballet, for instance—its more capable members would be sought after as teachers. A connection with it would confer artistic honour and material profit. Unfortunately, such prestige is one of the elements that are lacking. In resume: continuance with the school insures employment for about half of every year, beginning at a later time, with the chances of advancement almost zero. Whereas, musical comedy and the like offer the probability of employment the year round, minus the time of rehearsing new productions. Present profits are more attractive than the deferred kind; and, a consideration by no means unimportant, a pretty face and a pleasing manner are reasonable grounds on which to hope for a "part." Her contract? The young girl of the present generation has had her own way about everything since the hour of her birth. Experience teaches her that the worst penalty reasonably to be expected is a harmless reproof, soon ended. And her experience is a true guide in this case. As a matter of sentiment, no one likes to oppose the wishes of a girl. As a matter of business, it would be of doubtful ad-vantage for the opera company to take legal steps to enjoin its contract-breaking pupils from appearing in other concerns. Happenings connected with opera and the theatres have a high value in the newspapers; no motive is more popular than that of the persecution of the poor but beautiful girl; the publicity force of the musical comedy employing said girl would busy itself creating for her the role of victim. The opera management would find difficulty in securing a true and therefore comparatively uninteresting public statement of its case; indeed, it would be likely to be made to appear, in the eyes of the multitude, as a sort of ogre.

The Metropolitan school furnishes a complete and conclusive test of the possibilities of an opera organisation, as such, in the province of dancing But even if the Metropolitan ballet were right now Lt the highest conceivable pitch of perfection, a radicaI change of policy would be necessary as a preliminary i ) giving the school its proper power to hold its pupil allegiance. That is to say, the opportunity to appear in an occasional divertissement is not sufficient to he d an ambitious and capable young man or woman t rough long years of study. In St. Petersburg, the Imperial Opera House dedicates two nights a week to minetic ballet. The dancers' art on those occasions is sub ordinate to none. The dance is the thing; and the ancers, according to ability, are given the opportunity to interpret character and motive. In short, the are given the opportunity to express their art as individuals.

Now, one or another of the American opera companies might be willing and able to duplicate the above conditions—conditions without whose aid( no ballet reaches a high plane of development. The undertaking, however, would have at least twice the weight of the administration of either ballet or opera alone; it would be accompanied, too, by a risk that he twofold interest would result in confusing or displesing a portion of the music-lovers who constitute opera's support. The creation, development and maintenance of standards of a great ballet is a combined task and )opportunity for dance-lovers themselves, and an end to be reached through the medium of a ballet institution. It may be added that the Russian regime puts mush and ballet under the charge of two distinct and separate institutions.

Opera companies whose traditions have been formed during recent years have naturally felt the force of the renaissance of dancing; they have invested their ballets with an importance that would have been considered disproportionate if their formative period had coincided with the mid-Victorian period. The Philadelphia-Chicago company has had a better corps de ballet than could logically be expected in view of the limitations of American material; credit is due Sr. Luigi Albertieri, the ballet-master. As premiere danseuse the same company for some years has had Signorina Rosina Galli, a delightful little product of la Scala. In 1913 Sr. Albertieri took the post of ballet-master of the new Century Opera Company, with Miss Albertina Rasch, formerly of the Vienna opera, as premiere. The public's readiness to recognise good work was demonstrated during the Century's first presentation of The Jewels of the Madonna. After the act in which the Tarantella is danced, the audience demanded that Miss Rasch respond, with the two principal singers, to the curtain-calls.

In Canada, the influence of the times may be noted in the Canadian Royal Opera Company's engagement of Madame Pavlowa and her company to provide the ballet portion of eight performances. Of present interest in the dance throughout North America, there is no manner of doubt. It is perfectly clear that appreciation of choreographic beauty and discernment of skill are rapidly advancing. London has shown its capacity to support four great ballet attractions through the same season, and that a long one; the United States is influenced by England's taste in entertainment. Dancing exhibitions and pageants are now a part of the entertainments of smart society. A masque produced by Mrs. Hawkesworth, in one of the pri ate gardens of Newport, was of a nature to recall the historic festivals of Catherine de Medici. And the nation's taste in entertainment is influenced by smart society. All signs point to a continued and even growing interest in dancing. And it is possible, without their aid or guidance than that interest in dancing in general, that dancing as a great art, an art of deep e notional interpretation, will take its proper place in the land. But, with the multitude of forces of vulgarity, get-rich-quick commercialism, and heedlessness opposed to it, it is doubtful. At the present moment, the sigh art of dancing is pleasing, and its emotional me sage partly comprehended. If it were fully comprehended, that art would be an indispensable source of refrreshment to the American mind. Consistently repeated, for a few years, its idiom would be familiar to a large part of the population. The conditions which this chapter has analysed show, however, that the sufficient and adequate repetition of ballet drama is by no means ce tain. And this chapter's motive is to emphasise two things: first, if American lovers of dancing wish to insure for themselves the continuous opportunity to see fine representations of that art, they must found a ballet, id an academy upon which it may depend for its artists; second, for such a step no time can be more propititous than the present.

If the vision of an endowed ballet institution in the United States seems lacking on the practicaI side, it is not amiss to recall a few facts of America I history in its relation to music—than whose ambition . of yesterday nothing was thought to be less practical. Thirty years ago the attitude of the United States (particularly the West) toward classical music was less indifferent than scornful. To confess a liking for orchestral or operatic compositions was to brand oneself as queer. Anything connected with music or musicians was deemed a fair mark for newspaper jokers; and they knew their readers. Inevitably, organisations that ventured a tour did so at their financial peril.

Individual singers and performers were protected somewhat by their lesser expenses and their preparedness to render popular ballads; but they too knew well the look of empty benches.

Theodore Thomas pointed out to a group of Chicago people that never, under such conditions, would the adequate performance of great works be other than at rare and uncertain times; that, without fairly frequent hearing of those great works, public taste never would improve. Obviously, the programmes that Mr. Thomas proposed to give, and the manner and frequency with which he proposed to give them, brought up the prophetic vision of considerable money loss; but the funds were subscribed. The result is the Chicago Orchestra: a source of unending happiness to lovers of good music, just pride to the city, and material benefit in no slight degree. Chicago finds itself the place of residence of several thousand music students, and a centre of at-traction for many more thousands of occasional pilgrims to the Orchestra's concerts. Lastly, as though to show that idealism is not the idle dissipation that it seems, the Orchestra was reported several years ago to have reached a basis of self-support.

The same history has been virtually duplicated in perhaps a score of cities, needless to enumerate. Even "practical" people admit that most of the o chestras so endowed, though they may have passed through a period of begging people to accept passes to concerts, are now paying their own expenses. The general history of the Metropolitan Opera has already be n outlined. Opera in other cities has gone through mu, h the same train of events, slowly changing indifference to interest, and having now arrived at the stage of independence made possible by a demand that grows steadily in volume and intelligence. The number of performances in each city shows a consistent annual growth.

Certainly the taste for dancing of a high class is no less worthy of indulgence and cultivation than to the taste for the sister art of music. If music's dependence upon endowment was once more evident than is that of dancing now, then so much less is the difficulty f financing a ballet institution; proportionately less, too, are the hazards and delays to be undergone before the institution arrives at a paying basis.

For the organisation and conduct of such an institution, the Russian ballet and Academy suppoes a model that could be followed in most details. American sentiment probably would rebel at so complete , separation of children from parents as the Imperial Academy re-quires; but a less complete separation would not necessarily be detrimental to results. For actual technical work in dancing, plastic gymnastics, pantos time, music and other courses more than a few hours , day would be beyond the strength of very young pupils, leaving half of each day to attend common school. As the pupil advances, his hours per day in the academy could increase; he could acquire general education after his technical education is accomplished with just as good results as accompany the present reversal of that sequence.

The weak spot that appears in the plan is the possible interference of parents with the school's discipline. The training of a dancer involves hard work and a great deal of it. Although the work be demonstrably beneficial in all ways, the American parents' attitude toward that work and the accompanying discipline would be the question to be settled. Boys, to be sure, are sent sometimes at an early age to military schools, and there brought up under a more or less exact regime. But public sentiment favours the indulgence of the girl in all her wishes. It would be a matter requiring adjustment, and probably susceptible of adjustment. Far greater difficulties have been overcome.

Against the prevailing tendency to abandon the training in order to accept outside engagements, by which the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet has been too often victimised, the academy could protect itself by requiring each pupil to file a bond as a condition of entrance, the amount to be forfeited if the pupil violates his agreement. Questions of payment, ranking of performers, amount of pensions and the like are details needless to consider in the general plan.

Proper equipment would represent a considerable expenditure: a modern theatre, or the liberal use of one; drill halls, music rooms, gymnasium, baths, etc. As to instructors, the right kind are available. At the out-set, ballet-master and most of the dancers would have to be engaged from outside, their number decreasing as the school's products reached the proficiency to take their places. The employment, at the beginning, of finished dancers, would be of advantage i i establishing standards for students. Scenery, costumes and orchestra are to be had at the cost of thought and money. Medical and other expenses, taxes, etc., arc minor considerations. Now to returns. In considering which, it is understood that such an undertaking m y not make expenses at first. But it is not impossible that good management should reduce the losing years to a very small number.

Assuming (say) thirty performances in the home city during the first year: the prestige of that number of performances, kept up to a consistent pitch of excellence, would be nation-wide. As a result of that prestige, a long tour and several short one; would undoubtedly return an excess over salaries and costs. Bear in mind that a commercial undertaking of the sort must figure on recouping a heavy initial ex pense, and transportation of a company from Europe and return.

Special engagements of artists, in groups or individually, would net the institution a greater or less part of the receipts, according to the terms of individual contracts.

Considering conditions as they are, and looking at the history of music as a fair analogy, it would be safe to assume that local interest in dancing and he mimetic ballet would increase steadily after the instilition's first year, increasing income proportionately. C i the other side of the account, expenses should begin o decrease after the third year. A wardrobe and a stock of scenery would have been accumulated, their cost reduced to upkeep and occasional additions. More important, pupils by that time would begin to qualify for the ballet, decreasing the pay-roll of European dancer. In eight years, if the institution has been reasonably fortunate, it should have a ballet recruited principally from its own school. These alumni, of whatever grade, it would have at low salaries; salaries at the same time satisfactory to the recipients, whose popularity as private teachers would be about in ratio to the quality of work with which they identified themselves in performances. Stated hours of exemption from duties connected with the ballet and the school would open the way to such extra revenue. The pay of the premiere danseuse of 1'Opera of Paris is small, in relation to the requirements of her position; but teaching and outside performances arc said to yield her a comfortable income.

Pension payments would represent a loss more apparent than real, since many pensioners could, with adjustments, serve as teachers and aides in various capacities.

So far as can be learned, the foregoing covers the principal elements of expense and possibilities of revenue. The difficulties would be heavy, but less so than those that have been met and overcome. The ballet institution, achieved, would be a contribution to the fine arts no less glorious than any this country has yet received, an organism whose service to broad aesthetic cultivation has been equalled by few.

On the score of both public education and its correlative, the steady increase of the ballet's earnings, too much emphasis cannot be laid on the advantage the institution would have in its facilities for repeating great works at frequent intervals. We have seen how ground gained by the first Russian season in America was partly lost, through conditions that made it impossible to follow up victories. The choreographic idiom once understood in its fulness, and its pub is having found itself, the changes of fashion in popular taste would be powerless to affect the dignified status of the art. Under commercial conditions, let the general leve of taste sag, or appear to sag, and fine expresion is no more. The thousands who have half learn d to love the good give it up, and revert to the medic :re; while those who are wholly in sympathy with the good say nothing, stay away from the theatre, and are supposed, by managers, not to exist. Good taste never cries out; it only appears to. The amalgamation of the aristocracy of taste that would be effected by the proposed institution would, in itself, have a tremendous it importance. Any basis for computing the potential support for good and honest attractions would be of the utmost advantage to their proprietors. Disclosures of a substantial demand would encourage tours of the best i i Europe, while a reliable measure of the limitations o such demand would be no less valuable as a warning against reckless expense. Certainly it is to the interest of the art that good attractions shall be materially profitable.

As to the thought of any tendency of such an institution to take the practice of dancing away from the laity, and confine it to paid exhibitions, the effect would be to the contrary. It would, however, make for a rise of standards. Dancing clubs and pantonime clubs that a little fertilisation would bring to light would find in a quasi-public ballet an inspiration and a guide; and the good to public health and spirits, in t to way of such clubs alone, would be pronounced. Also, prevalent impressions concerning the relationship between cleverness, "individuality" and genuine workmanship would be modified, to the betterment of what is known as the American spirit.

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