On Saturday, a friend and I attended Pacific Northwest Ballet's annual school show at McCaw Hall. At intermission, just before heading off to the ladies' room to beat the crowd (she didn't) she said to me: "I can't remember when I've ever cried so much."
I'd been crying pretty steadily myself. If you've ever gone to one of PNB's school shows, with "level" after level of students each getting their shot at the spotlight, you know how irresistibly cute the littler kids can be. This time, though, the tears sprang up even while we smiled. A stage full of 8-year-old girls in orangey pink, kneeling, smiling, and gently waving arms that were as perfectly curved as those of Dresden figurines — in style, in ensemble, their port de bras was beyond what one saw in adult professional dancers when I was a kid. Chechetti himself would have wept.
Well over two hours later, the graduating students had their moment. The vehicle was Chaconne, a 1976 staging by George Balanchine to music from Gluck's 1774 version of Orfeo ed Euridice. Within a few moments, a stage full of children made one forget that this work was created for one of the greatest dance ensembles in the world, the New York City Ballet, its climactic pas de deux performed by Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. Let me emphasize: children, none older than 18, on stage and in the pit (the Youth Symphony was brought in to accompany).
The matinee house was sold out except for the top balcony. I assume the evening performance (same program except for the works performed by the tiny tots) was sold out too. To whom? Well, friends, parents, siblings, well-wishers, of course, who paid $45 apiece to watch the show.
But the point is that the show they watched was worth $45, in quality, in artistry, in sheer soul-nourishing loveliness. (From his "kids" SYSO conductor Stephen Rogers Radcliffe elicited one of the most convincing interpretations I've ever heard of Gluck's stunning score.) The second act of the show (which also included a new work by PNB's Kiyon Gaines and the Men's Regiment movement from Balanchine's Sousa ballet Stars and Stripes) is assured of being among my half-dozen most vivid arts memories of the year any medium, bar none.
Assuring the survival of that amorphous thing called "the arts" is a worthy goal in the abstract, like ensuring the survival of the human race. But the best way to ensure the survival of any art is to produce art worthy of survival.
I've always been dubious about the standard model of arts support, here and elsewhere in America. In my experience, it's usually not cost-effective, meaning not that it costs too much but that its product is substandard, by the only measure worth attending: quality, as measured in tears, cheers, and elevation of soul.
Remember Garbo's comment to her commissar brethren in "Ninotchka" when asked how the purge trials are going? "Very well," she says. "There will be fewer Russians . . . but better."