Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Comments on "Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist"

As I mentioned in my last post, I was intrigued and excited about Bravo Channel's first season of "Work of Art: The Search for the Next Great Artist." This mellow, low-key show was addictive and entertaining. It had a low-budget feel to it, as first season programs often do, but if the show catches on we may never return to the quiet contemplative style the producers seemed to cultivate. It's cousin, competitive dance show, "So You Think You Can Dance," discussed in the previous blog, is flashy and often appears highly over-produced.

The producers never explained how the 14 artists were selected; we were just to assume that they were the best emerging artists currently working in the country. However, it quickly became apparent that a few were already known in the art world, e.g., Trong, Judith, and Nao, who were older and more established, but were quickly eliminated. In each case, they seemed unable to adjust to the weekly "challenges." Ultimately, these three did not successfully create work that was true to their own aesthetic, which would also meet the requirements set forth by the host, China Chow, and mentor, Simon de Pury (for example, Judith was eliminated for creating a book cover with the title written in reverse). This actually may be a testament to the artistic vision they have cultivated throughout their careers or it may indicate that they don't have artistic chops. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the work of the aforementioned artists, and I preferred the artists who were willing to test their own values and experiment in the studio. But, I prefer sponteneity and adaptability in people generally.

I am pleased to say that my favorite from the beginning, Abdi, actually won the competition. Some of his pieces early in the competition made him a front-runner for me; and then he seemed to suffer from an identity crisis midway through the competition. When the artists were asked to create a piece inspired by nature, Abdi returned trimphant with an amazing self-portrait/baptism piece inspired by the body of water visited by the artists and rendered in charcoal that he mixed with gravel obtained during the visit to the woods. With the wind at his back following his win, for the final challenge, Abdi created an entire show devoted to studies of the body based on his "baptism" piece (see above). Meanwhile, in the finale, two other artists, Miles, who had generally succeeded in each challenge despite the fact that his work, for me, was largely cold and mechanical and Peregrine whose work was generally moody and often childlike, and whom I had thought would have been eliminated in an early round, also created a show for the Phillipe de Pury auction house.

With this program, Bravo let us peek inside the studio to observe the artistic process, watch a gallery opening unfold, and later hear the "crit" of the artwork by the panel of judges. Many find the artworld largely impenetrable and are particularly baffled by the gallery process. Although, as I stated earlier, the show has been met with quite a bit of criticism, the opportunity to peel back the layers and find our way inside the hearts and minds of the artists was really a joy. Most of the artists were proud and excited to be a part of the process and their genuine love for art helped lure the audience in. Although a few of them accused one another of being "too art school," they generally got along and helped each other develop as artists.

Once again, as I stated in my earlier blog on "So You Think You Can Dance," I believe these two shows are all about accessibility. "Work of Art" could stand some retooling, and the greatest criticism I have for it is that I would prefer the camera work be improved. It was very hard to get a sense of the artwork on the screen. But what I think SYTYCD and WOA offer is merely a chance to sample an appetizer. SYTYCD gives you two minute dance routines, and WOA, an incomplete view of how the work must really come across in person. However, despite these shortcomings, these shows will probably have a positive effect on the artworld generally. Might people who love SYTYCD be more likely to take the time to check out a production by their local modern dance company, and may WOA fans decide to spend an evening gallery hopping? I conjecture that the answer must certainly be "yes!" Sure, there is a chance that the new audiences might bring new expectations with them, such as a desire to be entertained and an interest in hearing the opinions of judges; but wouldn't this suggest a greater emphasis on audience development, such as a chance to mingle with the dancers and artists or talk backs with the choreographers? And couldn't that be a good thing?

Although both shows have their detractors, I am happy that they are on the air, and I hope WOA is renewed for another season. In a medium largely dominated by melodramatic reality programs and a constant barrage of news, I am grateful that these thoughtful and highly engaging programs about the arts have found an audience. I also hope that these shows will help struggling dance companies and galleries grow their audiences as well.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The arts on reality TV

So, I'm going to confess that I am a diehard fan of "So You Think You Can Dance" and now "Work of Art." This week, we have reached the finales of both shows, so I'd like to talk about the relative merits of programs like these, despite their controversies. I plan to write about these shows in the next two blogs (the first will focus on "SYTYCD").

For those who aren't familiar with these shows, they are both based loosely on the "Survivor" reality TV model, in which people are voted off the proverbial "island." On "Survivor," team-mates decided who should go home; on "SYTYCD," it is a hybrid of seasoned dance professionals who serve as judges and the voting public who ultimately choose "America's Favorite Dancer;" and on "Work of Art," a panel of judges composed of art-world professionals and guest artists narrow the field to find "America's Next Great Artist."

Each week, the dancers and artists are put through a boot camp of sorts, either learning new choreography outside their own style of dance, or, on "WOA," artists are given a short time period, usually approximately 24 hours, to create a work of art, based on a weekly challenge, that will be worthy of gallery exhibition. "Be inspired by children's art" or "find something in nature and create a work of art," or the weirdest, "drive through downtown Manhattan in rush hour, end up at a luxury car dealership and then create something based on that experience!"

I have to admit, I almost gave up on "WOA" after the whole car dealership fiasco; but the amazing thing is that if you get enough talented people together, they do the work. The cast of these shows are, for the most part, so skilled and so hungry for success that they tend to pull off what seem to be nearly impossible feats. No matter what the producers of these shows throw at the dancers and artists, they seem to be capable of transcending the madness of the world of commercialized television, to, in many cases, create work of astonishing genius.

These shows, however, are not without their fair share of controversy. "SYTYCD" and "WOA" are widely derided by professionals in their respective industries. For example, at last year's Ringling International Arts Festival, I attended a panel discussion of choreographers. I sheepishly decided to put my arts cred on the line by asking the panel their impressions of "SYTYCD,"and was met with as polite an eye-rolling as they could muster. They agreed with me, as a general matter, that a show focused entirely on educating the public about the world of dance probably does do its fair share in terms of audience building. Yet, they felt that training audiences to watch two minute routines diminishes the work of choreographers and dancers who spend months developing lengthy performances that demand a greater depth of understanding from viewers.

I agree, to some extent, in principle, that there is a danger that the screaming teenage fans of "SYTYCD" who are implored to vote for their favorite performers may become fickle audiences seeking pop art, that is basically delivered in sound bytes for the soul. However, I have been a very devoted follower of modern dance and ballet companies for over twenty years, particularly while living in Manhattan; and as I have declared above, I love the magic that the "SYTYCD" dancers bring to the stage in Hollywood each week. There is no question that the dancers who ultimately make it to the final rounds of this show are at an elite level; in fact, this season, a principal dancer from the Miami City Ballet, Alex Wong, gave up his position with his company to audition for the show. The joy that he brought every week to each new dance style (including a masterful performance of a hip/hop number that brought the audience to their feet) demonstrated to me that he felt that he had thrown of the shackles of ballet to feast on the whole world of dance. In the weeks before a dramatic injury to his achilles heel, I was convinced that he would soon be headlining a new dance company. Only time will tell if I am right.

Last year, I got tickets to the "SYTYCD" tour with a dear friend who is a dancer, and I wore her like protective armor. I felt guilty to be at a dance performance where I could buy a cheese steak sandwich and a soda; sit with my feet up on the row in front of me; and scream like a banshee for my favorite dancers; but lo and behold, she was doing it too! It was an amazing evening where my id was fully in charge. No propriety was needed at the St. Pete Times Forum. Keep in mind that I have spent years buying tickets for dance performances, dressing up, going out for dinner, waiting for intermission for a beverage, and sitting quietly in the dark in a theater surrounded by people twice my age. Add to that, the fact that I have been to only a handful of sporting events in my life; because I find them incredibly boring. Granted, I have tried to display team spirit when I watch a game, but it just doesn't come naturally for me. All of a sudden, at the Forum, I experienced what it was like to cheer to my heart's content out of the sheer joy of watching virtuosos perform.

Yesterday, The New York Observer ran a story called "The Crisis in Modern Dance." Dance companies have been trimming their seasons and their budgets; performing less challenging work that they believe will have a greater appeal among the "masses;" and even merging with one another. The idea of artists struggling for their craft really breaks my heart. I will always be an ardent supporter of live dance performances. But the dance companies don't have to reach me -- I've been in love with the art form since I was a toddler. As older dance audiences "matriculate," so to speak, perhaps the dance companies ought to take notice of the young audiences who are addicted to the pop art sensation of "SYTYCD." I do not, by any means, mean to suggest that this is a cure-all by any stretch of the imagination. I just wonder whether dance companies might begin to relish the audience development of a show like this and try to reach these new audiences who clearly have a thirst for dance. Where do all these fans go during the parts of the year when the show is not on the air?

There is no question, the "SYTYCD" judges are self-indulgent; and they overuse superlatives and generate bizarre phrases like "hot tamale train" and "that was buck" to try to compliment the dancers. They declare each new season, "the best season ever;" they beg people to vote as if this was truly significant citizen engagement; and they employ publicity stunts to generate audiences (but to be honest, I can't wait to see who tonight's "surprise" guest is going to be!) To his credit, though, the producer, Nigel Lithgoe, actually managed to get Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton to declare July 31st, National Dance Day; and people all over the country attempted to learn a hip hop routine in celebration. Furthermore, he and other dance celebrities founded the Dizzy Feet Foundation to provide dance education to young people who can't afford it. So, as cynical as I may often feel about the commercialization of dance, the show is making a difference in the world and bringing joy to their audiences.

Additionally, I must close by discussing a few of the pieces that have been so moving that sometimes I can hardly believe what is happening before my eyes on live television. There have been many memorable pieces throughout the seasons, but two this season have been particularly noteworthy. One dancer, Robert, had already shared with the audience that his mother had suffered many miscarriages and other health problems throughout his life. He was assigned to be choreographed by Travis Wall, who was a semi-finalist a few years ago. Wall's mother runs a dance studio where a few of the other dancers on the show have trained, including another semi-finalist, whom she ultimately adopted. Apparently, this beloved dance instructor is currently in poor health, and Travis wanted to pay tribute to her in dance. He choreographed a piece for Robert to dance with Alison, another dancer who portrayed Travis's mother, which they danced to the song "Fix You." The piece was an emotional roller-coaster with the son clearly in anguish trying to support his mother through the vocabulary of dance, and it climaxed with the son placing his mother's feet on his own trying to carry her through the air as she clawed toward the sky. It was a raw and searing journey into the world of someone caring for a loved one who is ill and a beautiful depiction of the bond between a mother and son. Everyone in the audience was stunned and moved by the piece, which unfortunately has been removed from You Tube, but will surely be repeated during tonight's finale.

The second piece that really stayed with me was "Mad World" choreographed by Stacy Tookey. The dancers, Billy and Ade, portrayed a homeless man and a business man, respectively. I prefer to think of Ade as a Goldman Sachs executive who comes across a homeless man in the street who is clearly suffering. There is no question that the way in which the character of the homeless man was developed by Billy played into some of the stereotypes of those who are homeless and panhandle on the streets. However, the grace and beauty of his dancing speedily transcended those stereotypes to allow the audience to delve into this man's soul. Meanwhile, Ade's executive tries to avoid the man but ultimately becomes engaged in movement with him and then peers into his eyes. There is a moment of recognition when the businessman realizes that he has confronted a childhood friend who has clearly fallen on very hard times. He seems willing to try to help him, but then as the music ends he steps over him and walks into the darkness. It was as if the businessman saw another side of himself, which made him very uncomfortable. The two dancers achieved such a spiritual level with their dance that they moved past the small story of this interaction into the greater story of where our current economic crisis has left us emotionally. They seemed to be indicating with their movement that there is a basic human need to turn away from the dark side of our own greed.
So there you have it -- I have come out from behind my television screen to admit to the world that I love "SYTYCD." I actually believe that it is an asset to the dance world and that a new and vibrant fan base is cropping up all over the country. I hope that I am right; because I'd love to see the dance community quickly move past this crisis to a shining renaissance. Now, I must go watch the finale!