Recently I saw Swan Lake at the Royal opera House and a few people were really into what I did to entertain myself while trying to get home when the northern line was closed (see twitter @boyandpen). Since then I’ve chatted to some pretty swanky people from the ballet world about engagement and new audiences for ballet and I've got a few things to say...
You can probably tell I didn’t grow up with a huge access to art. When I got my own computer I began to explore the art world a bit more but it mainly extended to thinking Lady Gaga’s Marry The Night music video was peak goals in terms of artistic output (still OBSESSED). I only got involved in the arts because I thought I fancied this girl who had chosen GCSE drama at school so I chose it too so I could hang out with her more. Ironically two years later that drama teacher told me to read Angels in America and hey presto I strutted out of the closet with a pride flag as a cape and never looked back. You could argue that my cultural engagement was entirely accidental but actually my cultural engagement began a lot earlier, I was just engaging with a culture that a lot of (well-off) people wouldn't recognise as "art". I remember seeing singers and comedians on holiday in Ayia Napa and Ibiza and my grandad used to sing this song about cheese constantly that eventually my entire family sung together. These experiences are often not recognised as "art" or "culture" because they're so low brow but these were my foundational reference points I would use to engage with art in the future. I vividly remember the first piece of theatre I really engaged with properly, it was The Tartuffe in a production by Belt-Up Theatre in York and it had the opening rap from The Fresh prince of Bel-Air in it and I stood up at the end of that show and applauded my little heart out because I felt like I owned the place because I finally knew the right reference points to "get it".
Ballet on the other hand was entirely absent from my childhood like it is for a lot of people. Only 4.3% of adults saw a ballet in 2015 / 2016, for context 77% of adults engage with the arts so ballet isn’t forming a huge part of the artistic engagement of the UK right now. This is not a statistic that entirely surprises me considering I didn’t go near a ballet (Billy Elliot film not included) until a few months ago and I'm 24. I am not part of that 4.3% but I am part of the 77%. I engage with a lot of music and theatre (thank god for closets) and I write plays so I have more or less a daily engagement with art despite being a bit of a late starter with it all. I think part of this is because I found that first entry point, and after I had my "Get it" moment with The Tartuffe I could then use what I learnt there to understand the next thing I saw and so on and so on.
I don't think I ever lacked the intelligence to understand ballet but people I grew up with didn't see Swan lake. I probably heard the famous duh duh duh duh duh song on an advert somewhere but I can’t watch it and think “oh this is like that one time I saw Swan Lake and they did x with it”. I was quite a curious kid so if I had gone to ballet I might have researched the story at the library like I did with The Tartuffe (Doncaster library does not have a copy) and tried to figure out what I had just seen but there was no ballet-going culture. There was also no adult in my family who already liked ballet who could take me and explain to me what I was watching let alone why I had to wear an uncomfortable suit (which I didn’t own as a kid) and sit in absolute silence despite the fact I wanted to engage with the piece. This is what I mean when I talk about people who didn’t grow up with artistic access, we were never indoctrinated in the codes of behaviour or the practices of going to a ballet house which I think ultimately reside in people more like muscle memory than conscious effort. If your brain isn’t trained for these experiences you have no muscle memory of it and therefore it feels like conscious effort to go into these ballet houses. This seems like a lot of barriers I'm throwing up here and it is but I somehow overcame them and ended up working in theatre, so I have recently begun thinking why I didn't overcome them in ballet.
After I went to see Swan Lake some lovely people took me to breakfast and we chatted about what ballet was and things I didn’t know about ballet and I think the weirdest thing I learnt was that people choose what performance of a ballet to see based on who is performing. Basically, they want to see the characterisation and how an individual specifically adapts that role, however if I’ve never seen a ballet before I’m not really sure how I’m supposed to make this choice. I have no previous experiences of ballet so I have no way of comparing any one performance to another to understand the nuances. This is the thing I learnt from that chat: the reference points for major ballets are nearly all from other ballets.
The main reason I went to a ballet was to make my mum feel fancy for her (still unspecified) birthday. I thought the art form would be impressive and spectacular and have nice costumes but I didn’t expect any engagement beyond a quick Instagram post and some tweets. How could I expect anything more? All the reference points I needed were unavailable to me because they were all in ballets I hadn't seen.
This brings me on to the word "engagement" which is a word we throw around in the arts all the time while normal people think we're tossers. Often people think engagement is about making the reference points for a piece of art understandable to an audience, but there is still the expectation that the audience will do the work of trying to engage with these inaccessible reference points. I think this model is more like marketing than engagement. The other kind of engagement is where you support a potential audience in giving the piece reference points they already understand (gifs of Star Wars), then an audience aren't having to do the work of assimilating into a cultural knowledge they're not interested in. This is accidentally what I did in the back of an uber a few weeks ago, I saw that in Swan Lake there was very little I could use to understand it so I filled in these holes with pop culture I understood. Once that framework existed around it I finally "got it", there were enough dots I could connect to access the emotion and the drama of the show, it's just a shame it happened when I had left.
Being able to sit in a theatre and watch a "significant" piece of art and feeling like you understand the reference points is about ownership, that thread meant I felt like I owned a piece of the ballet world, like I hadn't spent 24 years excluded from it because I could see the framework around it. If I went to see Swan Lake again now I have my version and I have the version at the Royal Opera House to draw upon so I imagine it will be even clearer.
Engagement is not a pandering outreach scheme where someone who has no ownership over a space is invited to teach some young people who also have no ownership over a space to access a piece of art they don't care about. Art has to be given to people to own. The other choice is that people will at some point march in and claim it and then people get unhappy, I learnt in that breakfast about the amount of people who aren't fans of "ballet sport" (ballet for fitness) because it feels like someone has stolen their art form.
I would argue that if you want to preserve ballet as an art form with a thriving audience then what you need to do is give it to people to own or eventually they might just come along and take it and then you've lost the ability to have a conversation with them.
Ballet needs to urgently give itself away to new audience before audiences ignore the keepers and take the art, or ignore the art and leave the keepers without jobs.
As the queen herself said "I don't consider my own clothing to be outrageous. The truth is that people just don't have the same references that I do. To me it's very beautiful and it's art, and to them it's outrageous and crazy". Don't seem crazy, be more Gaga.