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Going high when others go low

Posted on November 23, 2016

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I always planned my November blog to use the US Presidential Election as a departure point. I started writing this on the morning before the polls opened. I finished it on the day after the election result. My ideas about what I’d write this month changed radically as I went about my ballet business over those hours. Arts Policy did not feature in the debate between Republicans and Democrats, so how did this “history making” campaign expose any fat for me to chew on?

Melania Trump, the incoming First Lady, provoked criticism back in July after her speech to the Republican National Convention bore a heavy resemblance to words spoken by Michelle Obama in 2008. It came to light that Melania was not responsible for the plagiarised words – a Trump aide named Meredith McIver was. McIver spent many years on Wall Street, but some areas of the US media made continual reference to her early training at the School of American Ballet. The tone was irreverent: Vanity Fair wrote disparagingly of “a ballerina who read books in college”. Unexpectedly, the US Election revealed an attitude towards ballet dancers noxiously held by many. Dance Magazine’s Lauren Wingenroth wrote an interesting response online to the reporting, rightly concluding that these journalists had rather lazily relied upon inaccurate and outmoded implications attached to the word “ballerina”. I have indeed experienced such careless opinions myself.

In early September, Wells Fargo bank ran an advertising campaign that insinuated it was prudent for parents to encourage their children to become engineers rather than ballet dancers or actors. Perhaps fiscally so, but it again exposed the odious disregard for the importance of the arts, and buffeted the idea that any ounce of brain power is needed for such fairy-tale pursuits. This latent suspicion of “the disconcerting bohemian”, as Forbes Magazine put it, is nothing new in western culture. It struck a chord because it reminded me of the consternation some of my secondary school teachers expressed when I told them I was choosing ballet school over further education. This reiterates comments made in 2014 by the UK’s former Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan that studying arts subjects could “hold [young people] back for the rest of their lives”. Morgan was launching a campaign to encourage the study of STEM (science; technology; engineering; and mathematics) subjects. I remember much discussion on this and how STEM would be better packaged as STEAM (“A” being for “arts”) whilst watching The Culture Debate prior to the 2015 UK General Election.

The invigorating synergy that can come out of this “STEAM” approach is the future. Look at the work being done by Deborah Bull, former principal of The Royal Ballet, at King’s College London. Listen, too, to Sarah Lamb on Radio 4’s Front Row on October 18 speaking incisively about the Courtauld Gallery’s Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement exhibition. Just two examples in an ocean of others that dispel the “dippy dancer” myth. I will add here that I read Graham Spicer’s Talking Point in the November issue of Dancing Times with real, and urgent, interest.

So, is it full STEAM ahead in the US now? I have once already appeared this year in the pages of Dancing Times expressing my disappointment at political events. It might not be within the remit of this blog to discuss politics, but I did write in my very first Talking Dance that I wanted to offer a glimpse into what ideas are relevant to practitioners today. Wednesday was a pensive day for my colleagues and me, and we spoke of our feelings of dislocation and disbelief that the values we have might not be held in such high esteem by others. It was heartening to see on social media so many other dancers, artists and musicians expressing similar thoughts. We took heart, too, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but this incongruency with the Electoral College Results only exposes a problem in the US Voting System that not all votes across areas of the country are created equal. Watch the grace with which Clinton spoke in her concession speech – inspiring to people who practice an art form based on civilising harmony. I had a free hour between rehearsals yesterday and my heart opened when I heard Stravinsky’s Apollo drifting from a studio. Balanchine’s Apollo is a ballet about learning – the three muses teach the eponymous god how to reach his potential. My generation is learning powerful lessons right now; the best lesson to remember being – as Michelle Obama has said – how to go high, when others go low. I was left thinking “thank goodness I have art in my life”. How wonderful would the world be if everyone appreciated and learned from it?

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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