Ballet Lessons For the Orchestra

On the bottom shelves of antiquarian bookstores that I have frequented all my adult life sits a row of exquisite photograph books in immaculate condition, pencil-marked on the cover at an affordable price of £5, sometimes less.

From one visit to the next, the books lie unmoved. None is ever sold, stolen or smudged by a browser’s thumbprint. The books are the last witnesses to a lost history, relics of a bygone fusion of music, movement and mind.

They contain some of the most famous names of their day: Karsavina and Lopokova; Markova and De Valois; Lifar and Massine; Fonteyn and Nureyev; Balanchine and Martha Graham. For half of the 20th century, roughly between the Bolshevik and the sexual revolutions, theirs was the art form that appealed to the broadest public.

Ballet was the all-in-one art. It offered the glory of a skin-tight body in motion, the ear-pricking appeal of new music by great composers, the exquisite refinements of stage design and, often as not, a monumental underlying idea. When Frederick Ashton choreographed the Symphonic Variations of César Franck at Covent Garden in 1948, he seemed to address many of the major postwar confusions — from the role of the individual in a collectivised society, to the loss of pastoral England, to the lures of faith and forbidden sex.

Ballet was, in its heyday, the focus of an intense intellectual preoccupation. Its chief cheerleader was the cleverest man in England — the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose love for Lydia Lopokova initiated state funding of the arts. But Keynes was not a lone mind. The Royal Opera House bristled with Oxbridge brains on its board: the historians Isaiah Berlin and Noel Annan, the economic pessimist Wynne Godley. And similar cerebral power would be seen at the ballet in Paris, Berlin and New York. It was, at the time, socially and intellectually unacceptable not to be familiar with dance. More than the tainted Ring of Richard Wagner, ballet in the mid-20th century exemplified the Gesamtkunstwerk, the union of all arts in a single form.

And that’s without accounting for its  sexual allure. Ballet was an art that satisfied diverse proclivities and exalted those who were felt to be, in certain inexpressible ways, champions of sexual performance. Margot Fonteyn may have looked demure but, behind her genteel pliés, men and women of the most humdrum respectability sensed and empathised with an explosive temperament that they could never hope to emulate. When Rudolf the wild Tartar snatched Margot in his arms and waved her aloft, the world witnessed a consummation beyond fantasy. For half a century, ballet was the supreme fulfilment of suppressed desires.

And then it died. Not the art itself, which continues to draw full houses for Christmas Nutcrackers and the contortions of Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp. Ballet is alive and well in 2012 and more daring than ever before.

What died was its place in the sun, its ability to command the conversation. Today, it is as reasonable to admit that “I never go to ballet”, as it is to express a lack of interest in Marxism, Esperanto or stamp collecting. Ballet has become esoteric, a minor sideshow. Even when a Hollywood star like Natalie Portman plays a dying swan, the critical response is “how quaint,” rather than “how important”. Compare the reception of Black Swan to that of Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes of 1948 and the gulf is a measure of how far ballet has receded from the centre of our culture. This, perhaps, is the way an art ends, not with a wham but with a simper.

 Or does it? The cause of these sombre reflections is a drizzle of bad news all summer on the orchestral front, especially in the United States. As I write, Atlanta musicians have had their pay stopped, Indianapolis players are being put on half-time, those in St Paul, Minnesota have been told to take a 67 per cent trim. Minnesota is silent and there is worse to come. The public will to support an orchestra is fading.

The parallels with ballet are epochal. America spawned orchestras and concert halls after the Second World War when GIs came home with a right to a college education and an acquired taste for art. By 1960, John F. Kennedy was astonished to learn that more Americans attended symphony concerts than baseball matches.

No more. This summer, America’s most successful living composer, John Adams, told me that few of his academic friends and neighbours have any idea what he does. Classical music has fallen off the map of mass perception. It is a minority sport, like bowls, with an ageing attendance and no relevance to the daily concerns of men and women struggling to feed their families in a deep recession.

The trend is spreading to Europe. Orchestras in Spain and Italy face extinction. Even Germany, the heartland of high culture, is slashing orchestras. The confident supply of classical concerts can no longer be taken for granted.

And yet, amid the gloom, I do not believe the art form is on its deathbed. Renewal is possible, and the role model is ballet. Shorn of stars in the 1980s, ballet reinvented itself in an ever-widening plurality — global franchises like the Riverdance troupe at one end of the barre, one-man wizards like Hofesh Shechter and Akram Khan at the other. Dance today is no longer a unified art form but a web of multicultures, each with a discrete character and a devoted attendance.

Concert music must emulate it. For far too long, orchestras have clung to an outworn format, the three-piece concert with something for everyone (except everyone has moved on). The menu needs to change, as well as the shape and size of the orchestra.

“Death to the orchestra, long live the community of musicians!” Twenty-five years ago, the far-sighted Los Angeles Philharmonic manager, Ernest Fleischmann, hurled down a challenge to the art form to do as ballet had done — to fan out into smaller groups, each aimed at a specific demographic, late-night quickies for under-25s, house concerts for the well-heeled, esoterica for ethnic groups. His appeal fell on deaf ears in a time of smug prosperity. Now is the time to take up Ernest in earnest. The orchestra must adapt to survive, if it is not to end up on the bottom shelf.

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