The Ballet and the Public: Notes from a Diary

Lincoln Center Council meeting. I was called to defend the New York City Ballet in refusing to be televised for “Live from Lincoln Center” programs. Since money involved is derisory and artistic increment nil, I was something less than polite. Other constituents feel this purely negative attitude is not only damaging to the notion of a cultural center, but also that conditions may improve if there is present participation.

I’ve never owned a television set; the few times I’ve watched local programs in hospital, in the houses of friends, or in bars, I’ve been amply confirmed in my distaste. I know British TV is better and BBC programs on “educational” networks appear as the best that can be shown. Balanchine has a rooted dislike of being dictated to by TV directors, but he has telecast our Nutcracker on several occasions; in 1958 for CBS he himself played Drosselmeyer. Even in those pre-historic days emission wasn’t much to boast about. Commercial TV directors and their staffs always start by admitting they know nothing about ballet, but are experts in TV, which means they know next to nothing about any visual aspect important to choreographers. What they know about are the conditions imposed by advertising, which is the sole reason and support for any cash one can earn by the medium, except token prestige occasionally thrown in to sweeten a smelly pot.

In a brilliant essay in the Times Literary Supplement (London), in June, 1976, Professor Edward Mendelson of Yale gave an extended surgical analysis of the conditions of television. I sent copies of the article to a dozen titans of the media. It obviously stuck in their throats, for I never received an answer, even in defense. Mendelson’s thesis was simply that nothing on commercial television, even by way of “creative” shows, can afford to compete with the advertising that pays for the program. Nothing produced by way of entertainment can consciously attempt to obliterate the drumbeat of the market message. Naturally, for the aim of TV is neither art nor education, unless it is thought that either as a pretext may sell more gas, beer, soap, or cars. This policy infiltrates the lowest member of the camera crew and makes the lens itself enemy to any essential integrity. Photography of dancing is a special problem, apart from any possible commercial exploitation, because of the built-in limitations of the very size of the TV box. Three-dimensional plasticity is always deformed through the lens, color falsified, and the angles and editing, promising to make ballet “more interesting,” are usually an irrelevant betrayal.

Also, since the nature of merchandising is to buy cheap and sell dear, there’s little money left for the likes of dancers, as opposed to the exorbitant rewards to popular singers or actors. The networks now occasionally propose an exposure of ballet, as enlargement of our audience, a popular or populist expansion. Ballet companies should feel lucky to be exploited by the wonderful people …

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