BWW Blog: Stephen Campanella - An Open Mind and the Avant-Garde
In my last blog, I commented on variety in the repertory of a ballet company and placed a special emphasis on the preservation of older ballets and the importance of exposure to a variety of dance. I felt it appropriate to follow up this week with a double theme on the importance of having an open mind when watching dance and on the nature of the avant-garde.
What constitutes an open mind? To be open-minded does not mean you should like everything. To be open-minded is to be willing to go experience something new and not pass judgment upon it until you have had time to make a fully informed decision. However, you must not be afraid to form an opinion, positive or negative. As a corollary, you must acknowledge that good and bad are not necessarily dependent upon your likes and dislikes. I dislike Paradise Lost, but it is one of the most incredible pieces of English literature. My dislike does not mean the work is bad. In contrast, there are those guilty pleasures - works that we all like despite a lack of quality or substance. Therefore, you must also be open to accepting the tastes of others, even while reserving the right to think what you will of a given ballet.
Making up your mind about a piece involves both the head and the heart; you must analyze both the piece itself and your reaction to it. Art should speak to those who experience it, so think of what it said to you. On the intellectual side, there are three questions that I have heard attributed in various forms to various critics: What was the purpose of the piece? Did the piece accomplish it? Was it worth accomplishing? Those are good places to start, leaving aside the argument as to whether a piece needs a purpose or not. These questions should also give you a more objective idea of the quality of the piece. Then of course there is your visceral reaction. How did the piece make you feel? Whatever reaction the work in question provoked should go a long way to answering the much more subjective question of whether you liked it or not. Using these first thoughts as a base it becomes possible to further analyze the work by asking why the piece had whatever impact it did on you and by looking at how the choreographer achieved that effect. Thinking of a ballet in this way makes it easier not to judge prematurely as well as to keep balance in your opinion, separating the subjective and the objective.
It is very nice to know what an open mind is, and how to keep it that way when watching dance, but it would be perfectly fair to ask why you should bother. You are certainly under absolutely no obligation to do so, but there are benefits for both a dancer and a dance aficionado. First, like I said in my last blog, you cannot know if you will like something or not until you have experienced it. For the dance lover, the best case scenario is that you found your tastes and assumptions about dance challenged and ended up loving something you never thought you would. The worst case scenario is that you learn a little bit more about the limits of what you can tolerate seeing, and you have great material for at least one sarcastic conversation with friends. For the dancer, the more open you are to different kinds of work, the easier it is to get a job. It increases the number of companies for which you can audition, and the more you audition the more likely you are to get a job. It also makes you more valuable to a director if you are open to whatever variety of styles the company has in its repertory, and open to the specific details of the company look, even if they are at odds with your training or taste. Besides, it makes life considerably more pleasant if you wait as long as possible to decide if you hate a ballet you have to perform.