Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Beatles, Dancing, and Elegance

Beginners in the martial arts often have kung-fu movies as their ideal. They expect lots of jumping and leaping and spinning; wide kicks; large, flashy attacks and blocks. In many styles, especially at the beginning, students learn a lot of that kind of thing. But eventually they start watching the experts at work. And they notice that the true masters don't really do any of that in practice. In fact, students fairly quickly start to notice that the better the practitioner, the smaller and more subtle the movements. The very best work in such subtle ways that outsiders don't really even see what they're doing. But it's much more effective than the spinning kicks of the beginner, and knowledgeable observers can easily recognize the elegance and simplicity of a master. The leaping and jumping look great from a distance, but they're not effective for actual combat. In the fighting arts, ornamentation is generally regarded as impractical and a sign of inexperience.

Ornamentation tends to be clumsy, the work of amateurs. It's true in almost any field of endeavor. In writing it's called "purple prose", and is generally regarded as the province of hacks and beginners. In music it's called "overproduction", and is considered the work of producers who don't know exactly what they're looking for -- or who think that a hundred tracks of drum-machine effects and electronica will balance out bad singing and poor songwriting. In software design, ornamentation gives you Clippy. Ornamentation is also relatively easy to do. I notice this every time I bake cookies with my nephew and niece, ages five and three. My sister Cindy and I make the dough and form the cookies, and Alex and Amelia do the decorating. The sprinkles and sugar on top are easy to do -- and also easy to overdo. We, the grown-ups, have figured out that a tiny sprinkling of sugar improves the cookie, but that a pile of sugar is worse than none at all. The kids, amateurs at everything, haven't figured this out yet and pile on the jimmies.

Elegant simplicity demands a lot more art. Go to a nice restaurant and see how your expensive meal is presented. The chef arranges your food in a pleasing way, and also (usually) a simple way. It would require no artistry to throw your food on a plate and heap it with garnishes; twisted lemons and parsley and carrot shavings mounded on your food would seem awkwardly done compared to the work of an expert chef. And it would also distract from the meal.

I was thinking about elegance versus ornamentation after watching Dance Kaleidoscope's Beatles show last night. I would love to write a comprehensive review of the show, but I really can't. Imagine that I were to show you a video of a car wreck. Then I turn off the video and ask you to describe the people waiting at the bus stop in the background. You probably couldn't; the crash would likely be all you would remember from the video. That's what the Dance Kaleidoscope show was last night, and the costumes were the car wreck. Most of the show was essentially a costume parade, with the dancers taking a back seat to the garish, wildly-ornamented clothing they wore. There might have been some gorgeous choreography, some graceful and powerful movement, but for the most part I really couldn't tell; the costumes were often bulky and overdecorated to the extent that you couldn't get a clear sense of the movement going on under them. Costuming is supposed to be part of the music/movement/choreography/lighting/costume synergy that makes a show greater than its parts. Last night's show had no synergy -- the show was exactly as bad as the sum of the costumes, which overwhelmed everything else on stage.

I think Laura did a good job lighting the show; she did some interesting things with her moving lights, and if there were an awards category for Best Use Of Templates, she'd win it easily. And I also quite enjoyed the last half of the second act. The costumes were much simpler and prettier and actually allowed the audience to see the dancing, and the music went well with the movement and the lighting. It was a bit of a thematic break from the rest of the show, in terms of choreography as well as costuming and lighting, and it gave the dancers a chance to be elegant and beautiful. It lacked the drug-induced trippiness of the first half of act two, which is a good thing. And, not surprisingly, these were the costumes donated by a sponsor, not made by the costume designer.

The show had a number of low moments. Maybe the worst was the hideous white dress at the end of act one. After the show Laura told me which dancer was in it; I wouldn't have known otherwise. I also spent a chunk of the first act hoping certain dancers wouldn't trip on some of the billowy/dangly bits on their costumes. It made me wonder if the choreography had to change so the dancers wouldn't be actively endangered by their costumes. And I was trying to picture the design aesthetic that would let someone look at a costume and say, "Do you know what this really needs? A hundred fifty feet of fluorescent-colored feather boas!" The end result didn't look good.

It also didn't help that I don't appreciate most of the music. I consider the Beatles to be perhaps the most overrated band in history. Not bad, necessarily, just overrated. They were a mountain of hype and fame and personality with some music sprinkled in, and it let them get away with a lot. Hell, Yoko Ono managed to sell millions of records largely because of her Beatles cachet -- and it's generally accepted that her music is pretty bad.

And I think that the aspect of the show that's most irritating is that I'm sure the costumes will get an inordinate amount of positive attention. They're garish and overdecorated and all about the ornamentation, and I'm sure people will love them. They're probably the same people who bury their cookies under a mound of chocolate sprinkles.

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