Selling the Classical Arts and Ballet

August 5, 2011
Kansas City, Missouri

Underlying factors and basic analysis reveals the most compelling reason to buy into the classical arts and ballet is because they are not about money. 

Over 500 years ago the art forms that have become known as the classical arts - operas, symphonies and ballets - had their origin among late middle age and early renaissance artists.  This movement of innovation and creativity gained it's energy and inspiration from a study of the arts of the ancient world, where stunningly beautiful images of the human form as well as extremely compelling works of sculpture and painting had been done repeatedly by masterful artists.  With the breakdown of the Dark Ages and the resulting collapse of education and learning amongst nearly all the population of Europe and North Africa, a nearly thousand year long drought of artistic innovation and creativity persisted until the early 1400's.  But once the minimum economic and social stability needed for artistic progress began to take hold an absolute boom of innovation and creativity erupted throughout Europe.  One of the places this "big bang" of art renewal took place with particular energy was 15th century Italy which saw the birth of both opera and ballet.

It is in the reality of Renaissance thinking that the stark difference between the classical arts and what is known today as "pop art" or pop culture exists.  Today, hip hop, rap, street funk, even basic rock-n-roll, is all about finding the next craze or fad or "slick" (or even "sick") sound so as to earn street credit or, more precisely, earn millions of dollars in record or track sales.  This is reinforced by a pop culture that values above all else being in on the latest neat thing among social circles.  Vanilla Ice walked away from his recording contract with $30,000,000 after "Ice Ice Baby".  While this sounds like a great thing to wish for your child, consider that he also had death threats, got beat up, stabbed, sued, and endured all sorts of pain for this apparent pay off.  That was also nearly 25 years ago - today, the outright vulgarity and grossness of the hip hop/rap scene is legendary and hard to imagine as something any conscientious parent would wish on their child, particularly given the obscene objectification of women now present in nearly all modern art. 

500 years ago it was the ultimate high tech experience, much more akin to how we think about Star Trek or some epic action adventure, to be able to have the outright luxury of spare time or leisure time (what we think of today as our week-end) not taken up all day long with harvesting crops, making bread, tending the farm and fighting invading armies so as to stave off starvation; to have spare time and be able to use it in the pursuit of a description or depiction of the beautiful, the symmetry, the poetry in motion, of the human form.  In a world still filled with daily challenges just to make the food you need, keep your clothes on your back, avoid catching a fatal sickness, and dealing with any encroaching army trying to steal what little you have managed to store up, an exploration of beauty in either music, sculpture, painting or ballet was an exquisite respite from a very grim reality.  Ballet did not exist in the Dark Ages, but make no mistake the later Middle Ages and the early Rennaisance were still, by today's standards, extremely difficult, challenging, and deadly times.  Only about 50 years prior to the first recorded use of the term "ballo" circa 1390 Italy, the Black Death or Plague had killed 50% of Europe's population.

So the classical arts and ballet are built on a type of hard, simple honesty: the need for the human spirit to explore and understand the concept of the beautiful.  The human body itself is beautiful, and the body in motion when used in precise ways can create moving images and a type of living sculpture that aids the human spirit's quest to understand the beautiful symmetry or "golden ratio" that it is itself built on.  This is the origin of the massive disconnect between most every modern art form created centuries after the forbidding, grim and mortal challenges left over from the Middle Ages had been eliminated by the rise of the industrial and modern eras and the classical arts which were forged together when the very spare time itself needed to make a creative process possible was extremely precious.

Today, there is a dichotomy between ballet and the classical arts and nearly all modern art forms.  The modern art forms do a much better job at being loud, flashy, and yes even more accessible than the classical arts and ballet do.  The modern art forms are much, much easier to make a lot of money with due to contemporary society being a balance between the regular drum beat of the work day and the modern state of getting regular pay for regular work - an idea completely alien to the Renaissance - and the need to have essentially a sound track for this regular, even reality that sparks on commonly shared experiences from love to bad work places to random silly business.  Even during this recession the modern world is far, far more stable and less fatal than any time during the Renaissance.  But these modern art forms and the reality of modern living are notorious for lacking the one thing money has never, ever been able to buy: meaning.  Or, more specifically, understanding of the human condition.  These are the things for which the classical arts and ballet were specifically created to explore.  It is no accident that some of the most famous modern art works either reflect or at least echo the composition and balances of classical arts such as Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven, a large part of which sounds nothing like modern rock at all but more like a medieval minstrel tune.

With regard to education and cultural benefit, the classical arts and ballet are still irreplaceable.  Consider that throughout Central and South America the Latin and Hispanic peoples have become world famous for generating world-class ballet dancers who can perform amazing feats on stage; China, Japan and of course Russia are also renown for having excellent classical arts from symphonies to ballet companies; there is even a ballet company in war-torn Iraq making ballet a truly world-wide dance form.  Ballet is particularly well suited to be a global art form because of it's pursuit of the universal human quest - understanding beauty, balance, and form.  It is perhaps no accident that in countries where economic conditions are hard and life tends to be challenging, ballet does especially well: Columbia (which is also war-torn), Venezuela, Cuba all regularly produce excellent ballet dancers as well as other classical artists.  Dance Theater of Harlem and Alvin Ailey among numerous other American companies demonstrate that African American and Native American artists participate in a very profound way through classical ballet.

There is certainly a place in life for both modern arts and classical arts.  As you drive into work listening to the haunting symphony of Giselle through the drone of traffic noise is probably not all that practical.  A constant diet of Eminem, Lady Gaga and Vitamin C is also very likely to leave the spirit in need of something more profound with which to gauge the process of life.  The one area where there is a very distinct choice to make, however, is in your child's education.

The focus being on understanding and innovating based on beauty, balance, and harmony puts the classical arts and ballet in a very effective, very useful position to greatly assist in the education of children.  This is because there is really something there.  Ballet is itself a complete movement language for the human body with which almost any story can be told in a compelling, exciting way.  This level of technique automatically stimulates the mind in terms of mathematics, memory, creative thinking, and communication.  The repeated studies by universities from Harvard to Columbia and beyond over the last 30 years have repeatedly shown measurable impacts in childhood development from involvement in classical music and classical ballet.  The deep satisfaction a student gets from mastering a difficult classical arts presentation is truly a wonderful gift to give and is perhaps the most fun and enjoyable activity of them all.  Any classical artist will tell you that the reason they do their art is very much because of this deep satisfaction they get when doing it right.  And that is something that money simply cannot buy. 

Matthew Reinschmidt is the Executive Director of Ballet North; his wife Laura Reinschmidt is the Artistic Director of Ballet North and founded the company in 1977.