What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls?
By Debra Cash
California’s Diablo Ballet is crowd sourcing its next dance. As Huffington Post writer Hannah Bricker pointed out, “Don’t know the difference between a grapevine and a grand écart? No sweat. Those who can’t do, tweet.” Seven hash-tagged suggestions will specify the emotion of the dancers (happy, sad, etc), the mood of the entire work (intense, lighthearted), and at least some of the signature dance moves. Cybercitizens can vote for a musical score—there are audio samples of Bach, Vivaldi, and Sibelius on the company’s YouTube site, as well as an early recommender’s tweet promoting Led Zeppelin—but apparently, Diablo Ballet reserves control over casting and the number of dancers.
The dance company’s marketing director calls this, in Bricker’s ghastly but I’m sure accurate paraphrase, “part of Diablo Ballet’s larger efforts to democratize forgotten art forms.” They’re going to throw this baby together in two weeks, after which it will premiere on a program alongside legitimate works choreographed by Trey McIntyre and by former Houston Ballet and Broadway dancer Sean Kelly.
The Diablo Ballet is billing this “merging [of] dance and technology” as “the first dance work developed from suggestions made on the internet,” although the company is informed enough to recognize it is hardly the first to share work on digital platforms or augment live performance with internet-based elements. By announcing this populist game, Diablo Ballet has already gotten the requisite bang for its marketing buck. Staging Balanchine wasn’t going to get the company mention in The Huffington Post.
It is, perhaps, one of those routinely revived philistinisms that the classical arts require salvation through timely infusions of popular taste (in the mid-1990s, the Joffrey Ballet pulled itself out of a budgetary crisis by touring a work set to music by Prince), but the real sting is Diablo’s assertion that the ballet needs to be “democratized.” I’m all for in-the-moment improvisation that responds to audience’s suggestions. I relish participatory cultural events. But Diablo Ballet’s crowd sourcing initiative is a kind of internet-generated dance karaoke.
The stunt reminds me of Komar and Melamid’s brilliant, 1993 “People’s Choice” opinion poll-driven painting project. The former Soviet dissidents—their work had been bulldozed by the authorities in 1974—endeavored to discover the nature of a “true people’s art” by hiring a professional market research organization to conduct a 120-question telephone survey about the Most Wanted Picture in America. The statistically accurate, “scientific” result was an aggregation of aesthetic cliches that resembled a nineteenth-century, romantic landscape with a portrait George Washington and a couple of deer plunked down in the middle of it. There were fluffy clouds, a big tree in the foreground, and a lot of blue.
What kind of culture is produced by a society that lives and governs itself by opinion polls? This was Komar and Melamid’s canny conceptualist question draped in the faux naiveté of a couple of refugees from an authoritarian state. I knew it lived on, unacknowledged and uncritiqued, in the form of television competitions for pop musicians and even dancing celebrities, and I knew that politicians have tacked their policy to pollsters’ winds. Still. I guess I didn’t think that a legitimate ballet company actually could be proud of the fact that it had succumbed to choreography by 140 characters. #dancedowner.
Debra Cash, Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance, www.bostondancealliance.org, is a founding Senior Contributor to The Arts Fuse and a member of its Board of Directors. In 2017 she was honored as Champion of the Arts by OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center.
c 2012 Debra Cash