Mechanical reproduction means possibility to record something and play it again countless times, even faraway from the place it has been recorded. It can be done with video and with music. It’s a very well known mark of our modern times. The huge amount of things we can see and listen only by sitting in front a computer is a typical example.
How has ballet been affected by it? Obviously, a lot.
Ballet comes from an old tradition of oral (and body) transmission, with a peculiar french vocabulary helpful to denote steps and choreographies, but absolutely useless to describe them. If you want to know what a “fondu” is you have to practise it, with a teacher or with someone who shows you what it is and corrects you while you’re attempting to do it. It has been transmitted this way through the years only from teacher to pupil and so on. That’s why most of the repertoire ballets are not very old. Oral transmission is not so precise.
It’s plain to see that mechanical reproduction changed it all. Entire choreographies can be recorded and played again and again, saving details and rhythm and nuances. Video vocabularies of steps and movement can be (and has been) done. Now we remember very precisely every step without losing anything. At the same time every dancer can check himself thousand and thousand time, refining every detail. That’s one of the reasons why if you compare an ’80 Swan-Lake and a nowadays one, you see a dramatic change. From a pictorial dancing to a photographic dancing. From analog to HD.
Some may say it’s harmful for expression, some may say it’s good for technique. I think that we’re dealing with art, so it’s not about the mean, but how the artist uses it. Yes we’re losing fluidity, but we’re gaining in lines. Every artist has the duty to be expressive with the mean that his age gives him. And that’s what dancers have now. Some could hate it, but no one can’t help it.
We can now see Nureyev, even if dead. But we can only hear or read something about Nijinsky. Once this second form was the only choice, it’s imprecise but sometimes gives us a more poetic way understand things. Sometimes we try to become something that never existed and create something new. Paradoxically we can overtake our real model just because we thought he was better than he was. Seeing something on video is challenging. For two reason. First because reality is sometimes too hard to bear. A too good dancer can take us away the will to overtake him. Second because it’s not real. Video is closer to reality, but at the same time is a multiplication for infinity of a instant. An impression is good for that single moment, not to be replicated so often. Movement become a static paint. Movement requires fluidity, not everlasting perfection. So a good video performance could be not so good seen live for the first time, and the other way around. What are we looking for? A good DVD performance or a Theatrical one? A movie or a play? It’s a pivotal question in the contemporary dance. A good movie actor is rarely a good theatre actor.
And it’s just a part of the story. Recorded music changed also both education and performances. You don’t need a pianist in the class or an orchestra at the theatre anymore. This is not an economical issue, every experienced teacher and dancer knows how it’s different to dance with live or recorded music. Recorded music is a fixed cage you have to follow, which you can also lean on. Quickly you can anticipate it in your mind and your steps may become mechanical as repetitive as music is. Ok, not everyone can pay a pianist and an orchestra, this way recorded music is great. But sometimes young dancers grow and get on stage without ever being exposed to real played music. There’s a lot a good music for class all around, but usually people choose one favourite playlist and use only that one, again and again for years. Training alone at home, without real human interaction. Is it a good thing? Recorded music can really help, but you should change it, just check how many different playlist you can find on the web and how little they’re used.
The possibility to see yourself, or any other dancer, thousand times and to dance along the same music as long as you want can really change the way you approach to your training and performances. You can use it wisely or you can miss the sense of here-and-now that a theatrical performance should give, and fall into a reproducible approach, where you dance only thinking of how every single detail can be seen thousand and thousand times. Where you dance for yourself, or for an voyeuristic audience made by dancers. A ballet for ballet’s sake.
Ballet is a one night stand sensation, not a scientific body dissection.
Refining yourself seeing your own performances is a good thing, but if you miss the authenticity of the moment paying attention at tiny details only a few in the audience can notice, it’s a great loss.
If ballet still have a meaning in this reproducible world, is that it is mainly unreproducible. Every performance is a single performance. And that’s the feeling the audience wants to get. If not, why should I pay to be there in that moment? Why shouldn’t I just buy a DVD of that night (or one from a past performance)?
So mechanical reproduction not only means record and play with media, it also means mechanical reproduction of steps and movement with our bodies. We can choose what is our goal. A hic et nunc expression of an emotion, or a mechanical reproduction of something we have seen thousand times.
An inanimate Nutcracker or a charming prince? A cold Coppelia or a beautiful Swanilda?
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