As the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zanes Dance Company returns to BAM with A Quarreling Pair, I was thinking that while I’m not a big fan of his work, Jones has been branching out in interesting directions in the past few years—not so much in the dances he creates for venues such as Lincoln Center or the aforementioned BAM, but in the less rarefied turf of musical theater. The choreographer won a Tony Award for his work on Spring Awakening in 2007, and in an article for the New York Times, he talked about the experience of switching gears for a different kind of show. He went on to direct and choreograph Fela Off Broadway, about Nigerian musican Fela Anikulapo Kuti (it closes October 4). Of course Jones had directed opera and experimental dance-theater projects before, but Spring Awakening has been his most mainstream project to date. What I find most interesting about this branching out—and the one of choreographer Karole Armitage, who worked on Stew’s Passing Strange and the Shakespeare in the Park production of Hair (reopening on Broadway next year)—is now so much how a vocabulary groomed in the arty, “downtown” sphere transfers to the mainstream, but how nobody even talks about “selling out” anymore. Is that completely dead as a concept?It wasn’t that long ago that the battle lines were deeply drawn: Back in the early 1990s, for instance, signing with a major label was perceived as betrayal by fans of indie-rock bands, and many acts only made the jump after much hand-wringing. Selling your song for use in a commercial was anathema. Now, a band as identified with the indie community as the Moldy Peaches allows its best-known semi-hit (thanks to the Juno soundtrack) to be rewritten for an Atlantis commercial, while the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (who, incidentally, has performed at Lincoln Center) sings a little tune for Volvo. Oh sure, some YouTube sage says that Merritt sold his soul, but really, nobody minds.
Meanwhile, an opera director like Francesca Zambello directs The Little Mermaid on Broadway, a path pioneered by Julie Taymor’s Lion King. Well, that’s only for recent history, really, because Disney has a long tradition of poaching the classical realm (eg, Fantasia, which reminds me that Mussorgsky-by-way-of-Rimsky-Korsakov’s Night on Bald Mountain also made the basis for David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain,” one of the nuttiest moments on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). And one can easily point out that the start of Carnegie Hall’s fall-long tribute to Leonard Bernstein is a perfect reminder of Bernstein’s disdain for artificial barriers between styles and audiences—it was only a year after his 1943 conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic, for instance, that he wrote the score for the Broadway musical On the Town.
You might argue that reaching a broader audience is a natural step in an artist’s career: As their work grows more familiar over the years, it sort of sinks in and the relatively small circles that go to experimental productions or classical concerts metastasize into bigger audiences. Being an optimist (well, most of the time), I tend to believe that artists don’t “dumb down” their work for mainstream audiences—it’s the audiences that finally make the jump. The Wooster Group has become increasingly popular in recent years, playing sold-out shows in larger venues, and it hasn’t watered down its work in the slightest; in fact, I found 2007’s Hamlet, which played at St. Ann’s Warehouse then at the Public Theater, to be a trial in endurance. One of BAM’s most popular regulars is choreographer Pina Bausch, whose Brooklyn engagements have become hot tickets in the past decade; I’d argue she’s been on autopilot for a while now, but to her credit she does what she does and doesn’t budge from her self-imposed aesthetic line.
All this kinda makes me appreciate even more those who resolutely stay on the fringe: Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater will probably never stray out of its niche, and it’s unlikely Japanese noise artist Merzbow will ever make it to the Billboard charts. There’s something to be said for reaching a small number of fans rather than an army of consumers.