I saw American Ballet Theatre three weeks ago in its home town. Big-name soloists danced a witty Mark Morris premiere (“After You”), Twyla Tharp’s “Brahms-Haydn Variations,” short pieces by Fokine and Balanchine and Kurt Jooss’ antiwar masterpiece “The Green Table,” a favorite of mine.
I applauded until my hands turned red. But I noticed a curious thing: On neither night did the audience rise to its feet, though people clapped enthusiastically through curtain calls. They had just seen two excellent performances, but nothing life-changing. So they didn’t feel the need to stand.
Before anyone starts the chorus of “We don’t care how they do things up North,” think a minute: Isn’t this a more respectful reaction to a performance? Why should Charlotteans get to their feet after almost everything they see from one of the major arts groups?
It doesn’t encourage the people onstage, if they’ve done a job that’s less than great. (I have been in about 70 productions in my life, and we know how well we’ve acted or sung.)
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In those cases, it can even feel condescending, like parents standing up to applaud kids at a well-intentioned school play. At the very least, it suggests theatergoers and concertgoers can’t tell the difference between good – even very good – and great work, so they stand for everything out of vague civility.
A couple of years ago, I asked patrons sitting around me at the Belk why they thought people almost invariably came to a standing position – one couldn’t call it a standing “ovation” – for even passable performances.
“Well, it’s polite.” “Everybody does it.” “It’s the South, and people want to be nice.” Amid the baa-ing replies, only one sounded right to me: “I can’t see over people in front of me, and I don’t like to sit and look at someone’s back during the applause.”
In a sensible world, that woman wouldn’t have to. She’d be giving the violinist or tenor or prima ballerina full measure of thanks from her seat, as would everyone else.
The bottom line: If you view an art form in a new way after a performance, or if you’ve been introduced to a tremendous talent, come out of that seat as fast as you can. I did after the Charlotte Symphony’s opening concert this fall, because pianist Behzod Abduraimov made me feel differently about Beethoven.
But unless you leap to your feet, don’t straggle to them. There’s no middle ground for a standing O.