The Most Vulnerable Artists

In case you missed it, last week the Ovation Channel presented their “Battle of the Nutcrackers Dance Off,” broadcasting five different versions of the holiday classic.  And different they were.

There are all sorts of possibilities in watching five different versions of a story.  One could compare the direction, choreography, and/or interpretation of the five productions. One could talk about how each production was a product of its time (ranging from 1989 to 2009) or country of origin, or director, or principal dancer.  One could consider the quality of each individual production and the ideas it presented.

The Nutcracker Ballet was not, as you probably know, created whole, but has always been an interpretation. The story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” was a written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman, and was revised (see my last post) 28 years later by Alexandre Dumas, whose version has provided the basis for most ballet interpretations. I’m sure that neither author expected his work to be interpreted and reinterpreted in ballet. But it was, in 1892, with a score by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Later versions do not necessarily attempt to copy this first production. And even though current productions continue to use music by Tchaikovsky, each ballet is an interpretation of a revision of a story that was meant to be read, not danced.

Musing on this interpretive aspect of the work, what struck me was the vulnerability of some artists—those who depend upon others to complete their work. These come in two classes: one class gets to influence and maybe even supervise the work of the others who finish their work: stage directors (already mentioned here), choreographers, scenic designers, and costume designers. The second group is comprised of those who create and then send their work into the world never knowing how the work will be interpreted. This group includes playwrights and composers. Compare these sorts of artists to those who create end products directly: painters, photographers, sculptors, print makers, actors, musicians, dancers, performance artists, writers.

How could the relationship between the artist and the final art work be more different?  In the former case, the only relationship between the artist and the finished product is the outline or blueprint of the end product, which can be interpreted in various in various ways. In the latter case, there is no separation at all between the artist and the completed work. It’s as though the artist can speak directly to his/her audience, while the more remote artist has to communicate through layers he/she cannot see, much less predict.

These “remote” artists are literally at the mercy of those who complete their work, which can be quite a strain. There is a (probably apocryphal) story that Tennessee Williams had to be hospitalized before every Broadway opening, so great was the stress on his system. Whether true or not, the story illustrates the intense vulnerability that such artists endure.  Unfortunately this inability to control the end product goes with the territory. Playwrights and composers are the makers of plays and musical compositions, not the makers of productions and performances.

And my guess is that they, like stage directors, and choreographers, have to learn to let go. They learn that by the time they release their work to the general artistic world, there is nothing more they can do. They are finished, and it is up to producing organizations to understand the nature of their art and pass it along to the audience.  Not only do they risk being misunderstood, as do all artists, but they put themselves in a position having their work interpreted, modified, and perhaps distorted (either intentionally or through oversight or incompetence). Because of the nature of their work, they may be the most vulnerable of all artists.

Date: Sunday, 12. December 2010 23:50
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