As I scroll down my Instagram account, images of leggy ballerinas in and out of the studio, in and out of nature, splash across the screen, oversplit across bits of nature, sky, rocks, beach, waves, you get it. Same thing for any ‘balletomane’ Instagram. Leap, pirouette, grand pose in light filled background. Heart, heart, my blue emoji heart.
Question: what is image doing to the art? I suspect it is doing something to the art because of the sheer numbers of ballet dancers and ballet lovers on Instagram and similar image sharing social media, and of the age of people staring at the images on the screens. The future of the art is staring at an image of the art on a screen.
I suspect it is doing something to the art because of the lies it tells about the art. The image, the photograph, is not a depiction. It is not a representation; it neither depicts nor represents any more than writing about ballet and dance does. It is digital, it is ones and zeros, it is compression, light through a filter to form an image; it is a lie. It might be art, but in no way does it ‘capture’ ballet. We know this when we add a filter to an image and it changes it completely.
We look at these images as a promise; a promise of what someone will look like or be like in reality; so it follows that these images set up a certain expectation of what occurs at the ballet. From very far away, young women—although they strive to look like girls—posing in arabesque might give a vague impression, but what the images are really saying, really selling, is an attitude, a value system.
It’s not difficult to figure out which images will get the most ‘likes’ and they usually involve a fair amount of skin, youth, ‘line’ if you want to call it that, a single figure not a group, a woman, or a girl. The iconic ballerina in an oversplit, or dramatic pose, in black and white, in cool colours.
At the same time there has been a flattening of new work in ballet, an all-image approach to choreography. Moving bodies around on stage in a silky way; elevating a single woman or sometimes man; as though seeking that Instagram shot that is so popular. The dancers move around like a herd on stage, forming and dissolving eye-catching shapes, but devoid of intrinsic value. After all, an image is the corollary of movement—it is also dead, as dead as it comes. Never living, never changing, perhaps degrading very slowly over time, or as technology advances becoming unreadable, obsolete.
I have heard it expressed that ballet has become flattened itself, no longer distinguished as it once was by épaulement. Perhaps it depends on what ballets are being danced, but shapes have altered, as reconstructions of classics by choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky remind us.
Is it coincidental? Why would it be? Ballet reflects society; it can’t help it. It is young because its dancers are; it is trendy in spite of its archaic framework. Modern ballets predating smart phones in the 80s and 90s were not flat; racy, spiky, androgynous perhaps, but not compressed, not like watching something in a mirror. Image addiction is all around, personalised, internalised. And, if dance is being made to satisfy the image fetish, and in some ways I suspect a corruption of the vision of choreographers, then one can imagine dancing bending to the system, a misrepresentation, a lie.
If all you expect when you go to the ballet is the balletic image, coldly impressive for a split-second, and nothing more sanguine than that, the more human elements of experience, not even to talk about emotion, just the visceral quality of live performance will be sadly lost to you. You cannot ‘understand’ a painting from looking at a picture of it in a book, you cannot feel it. The ‘bloom of experience,’ to borrow from the existentialists, is ultimately not shareable. As Sartre reminds us in Nausea, ‘you have to choose: live or tell.’
The other day I was watching a new ballet performed by a trio of dancers in an art gallery. This was an experiment of form, and the audience was welcome to take photographs and use their phones, basically. Thinking of feeding my Instagram-beast, I pulled out the phone and tried to film a bit of the performance. It was nauseating. I realised I was missing it—that unquantifiable thing that happens when you experience dancing. Looking at the screen, even as I flicked my eyes back to the stage, stole my image—the one that should have gone to my eyes, was compressed and stored into the phone, in a shrunken, lame way. You traitor, I thought, and clicked the screen to black. The phone/computer is not your brain, and your brain is not a phone/computer. It doesn’t compress anything; like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Being an organ, it responds best to organic impulse. When the dancers came by, so close, people notice things like sweat, skin, the outer character, but more deeply, movement, the control of movement, the relationship between me and you, the dancer, the changes in space, the way you might feel caught up in the wake, or react moving out of the way, the way its difficult to hear both the music and see the dancer with equal intensity, how conscious of yourself, or unconscious you become.
There are a million details of which nothing but the light and shade remains when reduced to a picture or video, which isn’t to say images give rise only to negative or unwanted feelings and thoughts, not at all. Just that what is missing is so difficult to quantify, some may not realise they are missing it at all. Or not realise to what demands they are responding when creating that silken, empty phrase.
A crafty device, anyway, allowing your audience to use the phone, and them realising how counterproductive it is. I looked around and almost no one was; perhaps they were a habituated theatre audience, who knows. Part of the point of the performance was proximity, the intimacy between the audience and the dancer. The presence of a dancer is at the end a touching thing.