Box Office Is Not Enough

Choreographer and ballet dancer who was invited to Covent Garden to dance in two of her own works,Rodeo" and “The Three Virgins,” this summer, AGNES DE MTLLE has long been a leading and spirited figure in the American theatre. Last year in one of the most memorable performances of Omnibus she told of the origins of ballet and of the remarkable collaboration between the musician and the dancer. Now she reminds the spectator of how vulnerable the American theatre is in these days of rising costs and shrinking patronage.

by AGNES DE MTLLE

IT is casually supposed that the theatre, because it is generally liked and attended, must generate spontaneously from the people. Nothing could be further from the truth. The theatre has always been the child of intense patronage, first by the Church, then by kings and princes, and then by the State. And even when popular entertainment consisted mainly of wild beasts tearing people apart and the attendance far exceeded that of any arena we can fill today, the gate receipts did not begin to cover the costs. There were large items on the Imperial household accounts for catching and shipping the stars and for rounding up the straight men.

The costumes, machines, and effects which graced the later theatre were paid for by either the nobility, the wealthy guilds, or the Church, and given to the public as a free gift. The people supported these shows with delight and that is the only way they supported them.

This is contrary to all that we are now led to believe in regard to the theatre which today exists by appealing to millions; but this is historic fact. Sometimes the masses responded quickly, sometimes slowly. They applauded what they liked; and once taste was roused, agents and touts always appeared, ready to exploit enthusiasm; but the men who invested the money, and who chose the artists and determined on the project, aimed to please themselves — and were willing to pay handsomely for the pleasure of doing so. A popular paying audience is an influential part of any theatre, but never in its initial stages. A popular paying audience cannot be expected to grasp immediately what is brand-new, there being always a certain reluctance on the part of the majority to respond to anything strange. That is why the popular theatre alters slowly and why the experiments are instigated and supported by a gifted minority. Before spectators are summoned, someone with zest and courage must appreciate the opportunity; someone disinterested and incorruptible must take the risk; and that someone must not be dependent on the outcome for his bread and butter. General recognition will come eventually to what is good, but not always during the lifetime of the artist. It is, however, during the lifetime of the artist that the works must be created. And the artist needs a certain amount of looking after. He does not always get it.

Swan Lake and Carmen were failures at first; Tannhäuser was hissed off the stage; The Afternoon of a Faun and The Rites of Spring evoked a killing press. Debussy and Bizet could wait for fame. The theatre artist, however, cannot. For the actor there is no posterity; the theatre is now. And since the performer must, like other craftsmen, be furnished with working equipment and guaranteed sufficient peace of mind to keep his wits on his job, and since he further requires an audience assembled under auspicious circumstances, there must be a plan and a sponsor.

Copyright 1956, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

In this country the theatre producer’s or patron’s function has come to be considered a form of gambling; it should in reality be nothing of the sort. A patron is before all else an amateur, and an amateur by classic definition is a lover. His activity involves taste, instinct, daring, and faith. The true amateur, like the true lover, cannot be bought or corrupted. The amateur, like the lover, asks no return but excellence and is willing to hazard everything on the mere possibility of this. His recompense is the joy of participating. Without a patron few geniuses could have survived. We owe nearly as much to the one as to the other. They stand side by side in history with the men who shaped our thinking. They are not agents; they are creators.

For the middleman who makes money off other people’s passions, we have various names; in the contemporary American theatre he is called a manager. And as we are set up with neither dowers nor heritage, we cannot do without these marriage brokers. But it is never the business manager who discovers and nurtures genius.

2

THE princes of the Renaissance, the great building Popes, the monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries realized that with power went responsibility, not just to police and govern, but to furnish spiritual and emotional sureties for their people and to cherish the gifts that were so astoundingly present even amidst the poverty and restriction of their subjects. They did not rely on historic or popular sanction, but spoke out for themselves, bringing unstinted enthusiasm to contemporary projects, underwriting the talents of untried beginners; it was fourteenand fifteen-year-old apprentices they took under their wing and to whom they gave lifelong employment.

Nor did they confine their interest to what was durable. They encouraged also many transient and evanescent delights, music and pageants, and masques, decorations for parties and mummeries.

If at first thought a mummery strikes us as frivolous, even wasteful, compared with the achievements of the Renaissance architects, let us remind ourselves that it was a paid company member of the lord chamberlain’s men who wrote Hamlet and an actor in the king’s household who wrote Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Mozart was an employee of the Archbishop of Salzburg, and Haydn wore servants’ livery. Sometimes human breath occurs for eternity; these great hosts got their money’s worth even when not buying stone and plaster.

Possessive patronage is not perhaps the best way of supporting artists, but it is one way, and a reliable one. The works were composed as fast as they could be turned out and were performed handsomely. There may have been various ignominies involved, but the artists were not forced to waste years in waiting for attention, which is the most desperate and cruel ignominy of all.

We have men today in America as powerful and as rich as any Renaissance prince, as responsible in attitude toward public well-being, and every bit as sensitive to glory or, as we call it, public relations. But it appears to be more difficult for them to know how to channel their great resources. A few of the more enlightened give money to charities, colleges, and museums. Fewer still sponsor music. Very few indeed indulge in the profitable hobby of storing up guaranteed relics of canvas or bronze, patronizing with a fine show of artistic zeal painters long past helping, and hanging on their walls securities as negotiable as gilt-edge bonds as a warrant not only of their financial but of their intellectual status. Mainly they vacillate between supporting unprecedented kitchens and garages, personal adornment, gambling, or sports. And it is under the heading of gambling that they interest themselves in the theatre. There have been in all our history only a handful of millionaires who have supported to any reliable or effective extent theatre as a fine art. Otto Kahn put the Metropolitan Opera on its feet, Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg founded the American Ballet, now called the New York City Center Ballet, Lucia Chase founded and supported for sixteen years The Ballet Theatre, Bethseba de Rothschild has endowed Martha Graham, Julius Fleischman has made substantial donations to Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In the interests of international understanding, Blevins Davis has helped to export several firstrate groups: the Porgy and Bess company to Russia and Europe, Hamlet to Scandinavia, and The Ballet Theatre to Europe and South America. None of their large contributions meet the whole costs. But states and cities do nothing.

Were Russia or Denmark, let us say, to ask for an exchange of major ballet and opera companies, we would have nothing commensurate to send them. We have no traditional repertory theatres to compare with the superb foreign companies that have visited us recently— the London Old Vic, the Comédie Française, Jean-Louis Barrault’s company, and the Azuma Kabuki troupe. The theatres we are sending abroad under ANTA are privately maintained but not adequately, and in the case of the ballet companies only at the cost of real hardship and sacrifice. They remain, however, all we have to show. The government has at last recognized the value of theatre as a propaganda weapon abroad. It has not yet come around to thinking of theatre as a cultural necessity at home.

This is regrettable, but not altogether odd. We inherited from Puritan forebears the persuasion that all arts are unnecessary and somewhat frivolous; that the theatre is, more than any other art, luxurious and morally suspect; and that of all branches of the theatre, dancing is the least worthy. Reinforeing entrenched prejudice, chiefly about dancing, is robust ignorance. Most of our statesmen and many of our businessmen have never seen good dancing in their lives, and if they are not proud of the fact, at least they are content.

The men who drew up our Constitution were the Southern landed aristocrats and the Boston intellectuals, Calvinistic and caring little for any cultural expression beyond literature and architecture. Language travels fast; architecture begins to develop with the first rainstorm. So they had both, but little else. These wise and gifted gentlemen neglected to provide for a ministry of fine arts or even for a cabinet member who could supervise the cultural developments that were bound to come.

But their mistake, and it was their only serious one, has been gradually corrected. All schools and colleges are now endowed; few schools today try to subsist on tuition fees. Every city and town boasts a public library; most sizable cities have museums and art galleries, some ranking with the world’s best. Roughly one hundred cities support symphony orchestras, and these are not considered an extravagance but the ornament and pride of the community. They are, however, privately, not civically, supported. Three cities, New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, maintain four large repertory opera companies. (There are listed forty-eight opera companies of minor importance and insecure status.) But for any kind of repertory theatre (outside of amateur community or small semiprofessional undertakings — as, for instance, Robert Porterfield’s Barter Theatre endowed by the Du Ponts) there is no help. Only the largest ballet companies receive a certain amount of private endowment, but they are compelled each year to beg for life. The contemporary theatre in all its other branches is left to fight its way through in chaos, beset on all sides by the hijacking tactics of quarreling unions. Obviously the theatre can function this way no better than any other undertaking.

3

THE Broadway theatre meets the problem by organizing one production at a time at great cost and playing it with the least change and to the exhaustion of any possible audience. If it pays off, fortunes are made, and it is on this chance that it supports itself, operating very much like a lottery. The underwriters seldom invest because of any preference in style; they lay bets and they usually do so guided by the past performances of the professionals involved and not by taste or knowledge. If the show fails, fortunes are lost. In either case, when the play closes, a piece of living theatre is doomed. The scenery and costumes are sold or burned, the company dispersed, all action — including the dances — forgotten.

Ballet companies must, of necessity, function differently. They sustain a large repertory covering roughly a hundred years of composing in five or six different styles. (The Ballet Theatre maintains thirty ballets in its current repertory. It plays on each tour approximately twenty and these require two and a half baggage cars for scenery. It has in its sixteen years of life mounted and produced eightytwo ballets plus six pas do deux.) Obviously the amount of rehearsing involved is enormous and the schooling is lengthy. Eight years are needed to train a corps de ballet dancer, four times the period required for an aviation pilot. It takes, granting the talent, fifteen years to make a star.

Furthermore, whereas operas and symphonies have a classic repertory to draw from, finished and waiting in the public domain, ballet companies depend on human labor in all things, even for remembering and training by rote. Each company, therefore, presupposes a school and a staff of experienced régisseurs to protect and maintain standards. The composition of a new ballet done by unionized living bodies costs in America at least $8000. The mounting and producing ranges from $20,000 to $40,000, depending upon the physical production, the copying of orchestra parts, and the rehearsals with musicians and stage crew. In contrast to our plight, the Sadler’s Wells rehearsal time and new productions are paid for by the State, and the same is true of the chief ballet companies in France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Russia. As a result, the scope of their productions and the number of them are superior to anything we can show.

Neither opera companies nor symphony orchestras here or abroad have ever been expected to pay for themselves. But ballet companies, like legitimate plays, are expected to be self-supporting in the United Stales, and because of the low salaries of dancers and choreographers and the enormous popularity of the ballet (approximately three million paid admissions for dancing performances last year in the United States, approximately four and a half million regular students), they very nearly do pay for themselves. They can with effort just manage to meet running expenses. But they cannot mount new works, which with rising labor prices grow more costly each year. Each year we come face to face with the possibility of bankruptcy, because dancing is foundering in this country, not for lack of appreciation, but of financial help. The two, alas, do not spell each other.

So we are forced to ask ourselves to what purpose we struggle for the support of this special branch of art. Perhaps it would be more sensible to put our energies and wealth to some more easily maintained or profitable theatre form. What would be lost? Why, very much, I believe.

Of all the great moments we have known in the theatre, the times when our hearts have been touched and our spirits fired, how many were supplied by dancers! Recall what our theatre was like at the turn of the century before Duncan, St. Denis, Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky, Fokine, Graham, Wigman, Markova, Humphreys, Tudor, and Ashton had been seen. Before Diaghilev and the great choreographers had impressed designers and playwrights and had commissioned scores of composers. The prevailing style in design tended to he Belasco’s taste, opulent and realistic. Planned and unified productions, productions in which the scenery and costumes were designed with the thought that they were going to be seen together at the same time, and in which action and music were also considered in the scheme, came with the dancers. Color, sound, suggestion, symbolism, virtuosity in light, mobile architecture, also came with the dancers. Yes, and simplicity and above all else movement. When we think of the enormous influence of Reinhardt and Gordon Craig on American theatre, we must remember that it was an American dancer in Europe, Isadora Duncan, who transformed their ideas. Diaghilev brought color to the Parisian and Italian theatre and to England as no one before had. “Before the Russians,” said an English lady, “we simply did not know color in our lives. We did not use it in our clothes, our home decorations, or in public rooms. We did not dare. Our eyes were filmed over. You have no conception what the Russians did: they gave us our eyes.”

It was after Diaghilev that Granville-Barker and Gordon Craig worked. It was after him that Joseph Urban began reconditioning opera. Diaghilev brought the great painters into the theatre, Bakst, Benois, Picasso, Rouault, de Cericho, Tchelitchev, Dufy. After Diaghilev it was impossible to have a woodland glade or a palace hall painted at the local scene shop. After Duncan it was impossible to have dull realism and flat lighting from the foots. They both indicated the power of the human body and the function of costume, and they both reintroduced great music. Duncan opened the door to symphonies and their repertoire. Diaghilev commissioned new master scores. Igor Stravinsky was given to the world, it is instructive to remember, through his ballet Fire Bird.

4

IT IS dear that there has been a revolution and for fifty years the dancers have been where they always are, in the vanguard, the chief characteristic of great choreography being that it not only explores within its own medium but in others as well. The names of leading artists of all kinds will always be conspicuous on ballet programs. In the last twenty years a large number were introduced to our theatre and first found general recognition and livelihood in this country through collaboration with dancers: Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Brant, Aaron Copland, Morton Gould (in his non-jazz styles), Norman dello Joio, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Jerome Moross, Antal Dorati, Efrem Kurtz, Boris Aronson, Lucinda Ballard, Cecil Beaton, Eugene Berman, Mare, Chagall, Motley, Noguchi, Irene Sharaff, and Oliver Smith.

The Ballet Thentre alone gave first effective opportunity to Leonard Bernstein, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Zachary Solov, Nora Kaye, Alicia Alonso, and Eric Bruhn. Of these, unknown previously or at least unaccepted, three have gone on to direct Broadway plays, operas, pictures, and television. Seven have become world names.

None of these people was discovered or trained in our popular theatre or found his expression in its existing forms. Without the help of ballet companies they might never have had the chance to develop talents that have played such an important part in determining styles.

Dance theatres are run on a repertory basis and involve short works and can therefore afford a policy more adventuresome than that within the scope of any Broadway organization where a single work at a time is mounted and where funds up to $300,000 are required for each undertaking — a situation to breed conservatism. The commercial theatre cannot and does not produce the slowly trained, the slowly matured artist.

It is in ballet nurseries and dance studios and nowhere else that great dancers and choreographers are formed. It is in the repertory theatres that great works are preserved, and preservation is vital.

For whenever a break occurs in any living art, there follow serious and destructive results, especially where the form itself depends on continuity. The theatre ceased to function for twenty years during the English Commonwealth. On reopening it at the time of the Restoration, it was found that the entire Elizabethan style of acting, and with it much insight into the tonality and texture of Elizabethan drama, had been lost forever. When Shakespeare was at last revived it was done in the technique of the French court where the exiled English nobility had been attending plays. Similarly the commedia dell’arte is gone — only hints surviving in European clowns and in the children’s Guignols. If our ballet companies were to shut down for forty years, nothing of what we know as classic technique could endure. We would simply not know how to perform the steps or train for them. We would not even know what the steps actually were. If our native companies were to go out of operation for even so short a period as ten years —that is, for one generation of dancers, a single link in the chain — all the works of Martha Graham, Antony Tudor, and George Balanchine would disappear forever, there being no accurate record, and that, I submit, would be a cultural loss of very considerable dimension. For these choreographers rank with the leading dramatic creators of our time. It is conceivable that their contribution, being fresher and less derivative, represents the new voice in our theatre. If the sixteenth and seventeenth century theatre was predominantly one of language, and I believe it was, and the eighteenth and nineteenth one of music, the twentieth century theatre is indisputably a theatre of visual imagery and movement. And it is the choreographers and dancers who hold the bud and the seed in their keeping, who work at the core.

For all things flower from gesture. Before everything, before thought or speech, there must be breath. The eyes open, the head lifts, the hand is stretched out. Dance is germinal. The dancers are initiators. The theatre is admittedly the mother of the arts, but dance is the mother of the theatre.

5

CAN we be satisfied with our wasteful way of doing things? Are we not rich enough, well-fed, wellhoused, and well-vehicled enough, to risk some of our fortunes on keeping intact the environment in which young talents can best develop? Must we impose conditions that no artist, has ever subscribed to — namely that a work must meet a budget compounded with overhead costs, with taxes and union rates, with the fearful expenditure of rousing a corrupted and glutted public? Under our general setup, the young artist risks starvation or conformity. In art as in all human behavior, conformity is a breaking down of the will. It is, in fact, death.

The perception that recognizes the slickest in plumbing, the smoothest in car upholstery, the easiest in light switches, is not necessarily the perception that recognizes metrical rhythm or color or tonality or any of the means of evocation. It will build an icebox. It probably will not inflame the heart. It will ensure the painting of scenery as real as any background in a natural history museum. It will guarantee the exact reproduction of a violin tone so that one can have a Stradivarius wherever one likes, even traveling at seventy miles an hour. But what it plays or how it plays is not guaranteed. And as long as the theatre is linked inextricably with large-scale merchandising, all this is inevitable. But this is exactly the negation of ideas, because art is concerned not with reproducing faithfully what has been seen before, but with inventing something that has not. Art is the expression of human personality and therein lies risk, each personality being brand-new and of no sure market value.

’Theatre is as direct as personality, and as inexpensive. It occurs whenever a living actor speaks and a living ear listens. It is found where attention is caught, where one says, “I feel,” and the other replies, “I share.” This has nothing to do with costs or mechanical technicalities or publicity. Theatre is beyond all these and it must not be hampered by them. And wherever enormous cost, enormous technicalities, terror regarding popularity and conformity warp the artist’s intent, it can exist only in an alloyed and weakened state. Fine work does develop in the great merchandising centers, in Hollywood and in television, but always by running a gantlet of unseemly hazards — and very, very rarely is money risked on either unknown talents or untried ideas. The current norm, the safe bet, is what is recommended.

When N.B.C. television put on the Sadler’s Wells Ballet for an hour and a half sustaining show, the ballet chosen was Sleeping Beauty, seventy-five years old and Russian in origin. The performing company was foreign and had taken twenty years of other people’s time and money to build, and the production and transportation had been paid for by the British government. The same holds true for Peter Pan, which had been written and produced with no help from television, but which nonetheless made history for the medium. And while it is inevitable that television and advertising will in time produce original and special art forms as the screen has done (in this respect Omnibus and Camera Three must be complimented on their daring and perspicacity), the process will be slow and wary because of the money involved. It is assumed, although tacitly, when men with big reputations let themselves be drawn into television or pictures, that their best, their first and forthright efforts, the efforts on which their reputation depends, will be reserved for other media.

Now since the living theatre is the proving ground of all theatre artists, it would seem not only logical but profitable for the business concerns who exploit the theatre’s products to guarantee the source of supply by helping with the theatre’s financial burdens. The Winnipeg Ballet Company is supported by the merchants of the city as well as by civic levies. It is being built by the city for national and international advertisement. It is the only company, not excepting Sadler’s Wells, to boast a royal charter. For t he sum expended on twelve months of television time, one of the great corporations could endow a theatre for twenty years. The sponsors would ensure world-wide and lasting publicity, public relations in the great tradition. They would achieve what amounts to true fame. We, the citizens, could have a theatre, either lyric or dramatic or both, that would match anything Europe or Russia can show —just such a theatre as we have not got. Our theatre could be what it always ideally was before, a compendium of the finest in language, music, and the visual arts; a place of reaffirmation; above all, a place for sharing. And the standards of choice would be laid down as in all other publicly cherished institutions: not by touts but by teachers and lovers. We could work in this theatre with joy and effectiveness because the fear would be lifted from our hearts — the daily, weekly, annual fear of total disinheritance.