Liner Notes: Inverted Ballet

I am not sure how many of you are aware, but there is a new ballet running in San Francisco that is choreographed entirely to music by The Shins. It has been playing for about five weeks now and has received some fairly strong reviews. This is precisely the cross-fertilization of traditional music genres that I am personally glad to see these days, despite my disdain for ballet, as musicians and choreographers seek to remove the limits of what is expected in separated music mediums.

As for me, my personal interest in this particular crossover can be tied to the fact that it is: a) a band I happen to like very much; and b) a form of musical representation in which I really have no time for. So I wonder which of the two will dominate my subjectivity to taste? I also wonder: Why The Shins? Or more specifically: Why Oh, Inverted World (the Shins album to which the dance is performed), and why ballet?

To place the performance in context for those who enjoy details, the world premiere of Oh, Inverted World – the ballet, is choreographed by Trey McIntyre as part of San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet’s fall/winter program that runs October 1, 2010 through February 27, 2011. This isn’t the first time that McIntyre has flirted with pushing the boundaries of Smuin’s bill. According to one reviewer, “McIntyre has proven time and again that he can create innovative work set to any music.” Just this past summer, “McIntyre followed Felix Mendelssohn’s Wedding March with Queen at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. His company performed Wild Sweet Love, choreographed to a medley that also featured The Partridge Family, Lou Reed and Roberta Flack. McIntyre is as comfortable with Beethoven as he is with Beck and The Beatles, or in this case, The Shins.”

The Shins

I have not seen the ballet as it is only being performed on the West Coast and I live on the East. Therefore, despite the look of its nature, this week’s Liner Notes is not a review of musical performance. Rather, my focus here is to comment on how popular music (or indie music, or rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it) fits into traditional bourgeoisie musical representation. What is San Francisco’s Smuin Ballet Company trying to tell its audience by performing a ballet to music recorded nine years ago by a very well known indie band from Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or conversely, what are The Shins saying to their fans by allowing Smuin to go ahead with the project? Perhaps they are trying to say nothing, and academic analysts like me look way too long and hard at this sort of stuff. But I doubt it. What’s the point of musical performance if there is no artistic message?

My initial reaction to reading this piece of ‘noteworthy popular music news’ was to try and avoid, “the endless opportunity for cliché” (I phrase I stole, it should be mentioned, from Stav Ziv–the ballet and dance reviewer for The Stanford Daily who wrote the only good review on the performance). I too, like Ziv, often “cringe” at these crossovers between rock/pop and traditional European dance performance. To be completely honest with you, I am not a giant musical/dance supporter in any form, and the mixture of rock in theater usually leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth (for example, American Idiot by Green Day. Ugh, “shudder”). But the reviews of Oh, Inverted World have me second-guessing my own musical snobbery. The Smuin Ballet Company, it is reported, has “distinguished itself with energetic, playful and accessible choreography.” Ziv goes on with his praise: “The program is worth a trip … even if you’re not a bunhead yourself” (I had to turn to the urban dictionary for this one. A “bunhead” is term for a ballet dancer, either affectionately or used to imply a degree of snobbery).

I feel that indie meeting ballet, ahem, dances with the line of the contrivable. Is this Smuin’s attempt to tap into the youth market currently caught up in today’s reality trash television programs like So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With The Stars? Or is it an honest attempt by choreographer Trey McIntyre to express an indie album in fluid, body movement? Perhaps it is a bit of both (although I am sure McIntyre nor Smuin would ever admit to the former, even if it were true).

Regardless of whether I ever see the ballet performance or not, now knowing that the music has been put to a ballet, and watching a snippet of the performance on YouTube, I don’t think I will ever hear the album Oh, Inverted World the same way again. It does not surprise me at all that a band like The Shins would agree to the idea. After all, this is the band who lent a large chunk of the soundtrack to Zach Braff’s risky, and yet quite successful, endeavor Garden State back in 2004 when very few mainstream people had ever heard of them. But ballet just isn’t what I think of when I think ‘The Shins.’ And The Shins just aren’t what you picture when you see tights and pointe shoes.

Oh, what an inverted world!

Link to this article:

– Kory French


3 responses to “Liner Notes: Inverted Ballet

  1. I know that you were just making a point, but actually the dancers didn’t wear tights nor were they ever en pointe. The piece was incredibly moving and beautiful. Smuin Ballet is not a typical ballet company in that it tries to stay on the fresh and sassy side of dance. . . Last year they had a world premiere by Ma Cong, which was ASTOUNDING and got fab reviews. And the Stanford Daily didn’t write the only good review of “Oh, Inverted World.” The New York Times loved it.

  2. Smuin Fan,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to this article.

    Living in New York, and not being a large ballet fan, I appreciate your comments regarding Smuin and “Oh, Inverted World.” From what I researched and read, you are totally correct to describe them as “not a typical ballet company.” Hopefully, one day I will get to San Francisco to see them. They seem like the type of company I can get into. I was coming at the article from more of the indie music fan angle, rather than ‘bunhead’.

    Yes, the final sentence about tights and pointe shows was metaphorical.

    As for your final comment regarding The New York Times review, I apologize for my lack of clarity in phrasing. I didn’t mean the “only good review” in the sense of the only “positive” review. I meant that Stav Ziv of the Stanford Daily wrote an excellent, detailed, and informative review compared to the others I had read. But to your point–yes, all the reviews I read of “Oh, Inverted World” were good! So I apologize to the readers who misunderstood my ambiguous phrasing. Many other reviewers (all that I came across) loved the performance and recommended it.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to comment.

  3. Just to clarify: Stav Ziv is the FEMALE “ballet and dance reviewer for the Stanford Daily” 🙂

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