In a summer in which I hardly left home artistic and cultural events provided occasional holiday diversions from domestic and other concerns.  Looking back over largely unplanned viewing what strikes me are extremes and questions of scale, from the largest to the most minimal.

For of course in this of all years the stand-out events for sheer scale – enormity of space, number of performers, size of audience (80,000 present and millions round the globe), marathon length and vaulting ambition – have been the opening and closing events of the Olympics and Paralympics.  They have combined grandiose historical, scientific and nationalistic themes, no expense spared technical and pyrotechnical wizardry with military co-ordination of hundreds of performers ranging from the unskilled but good willed to those from professional acrobatic, musical, theatre and dance disciplines.  Round the country Cultural Olympiad events, devised with a similar mix of symbolism and sentiment ideologically framed in euphoric and inclusive participation, have disseminated this entertainment genre beyond the vortex of London 2012.

These events have seemed to set a new norm for popular entertainment and spectacle.   They dwarf the glitziest of TV variety shows or West End musicals, and have thrown down a gauntlet to Rio to produce something even more crowd-pleasing and astounding in 2016.  In their broadcast versions breathless and reverential commentary signposted viewers through iconic quotations, mythic storylines and zany imagery, whipping up audience emotions.   Grand effects are designed to be seen across a massive stadium or long shot from a helicopter.  The broad gesture is all; although organised to zoom in on the lone singer or pan the smiling lines and masses to pick out in close up cheery individuals and quirky groups, there is not time for subtlety, detail, nuance or development.  Dancers are reduced to a pulsating background.  The relentless battery of cameras moves on, anxious not to bore, to encompass as much as possible.  Yet for all their advanced technology and post modern eclecticism these shows struck me as fundamentally old forms, the echoing arena of the Games inevitably reminiscent of Roman bread and circuses, the lavish portentous ceremonies with their whiff of propaganda and allegory also evoking politically symbolic masques from the dawn of opera and ballet.

If the nation as a whole was gorging on Supersized Big Mac crowd entertainment this summer, at the other extreme dance audiences in the South East were offered an ascetic fast, with the proverbial dancer diet of a lettuce leaf and a sniff of lemon juice provided by Hofesh Schechter’s Everyday Moments, “a sound installation for one audience member in a completely dark room”. For a week Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio was given over to this, offering individuals 15 minutes alone in the space with a podcast of the choreographer hypnotically intoning instructions against a nebulous soundtrack, to move and respond “without inhibition”. In 2004 I had visited the extraordinary sound installation The Dark at the Dana Centre; through being completely deprived of light and vision the visitor experienced a world and space created by sound and story alone, almost to the point of invoking touch and scent. I was underwhelmed by this summer’s palid dance-it-yourself imitation.  The only other audience members? participants? I met were both curious fellow dance professionals, neither of whom would have needed the podcast’s uninspiring promptings to have an intense personal dance experience alone in a space.  A dance event with no performers and no audience, it seemed somehow to symbolise the situation of dance in this summer of sporting hyperbole; unseen, unmentioned and largely absent.

You cannot expect a bargain basement £3 ticket to buy you much.   At over £100 a ticket a trip to Glyndebourne to see Purcell’s The Faerie Queen was at the other end of my ticket outlay spectrum; but still compared favourably with many Olympic events, and was worth every penny.  All talking, all singing, all dancing, this semi opera was 17th century popular entertainment, including within it almost the whole of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as wonderful passages of music, sung, orchestral and danced, ranging in mood from sublime melancholia through stately allegory to bawdy tavern songs and pantomime cross dressing, heartstopping beauty to belly laughs.  Kim Brandstrup provided choreography for the dark winged fairies in their austere modern dress; although there was fluid partnering and sensitive musicality in more contemplative passages, the contemporary mode often seemed earthbound and unable to match the tripping light-footedness of Purcell’s rhythms.  But dancers and singers melded in a lively and shifting ensemble, and we were bowled over by energetic comedians who suddenly blossomed into gorgeous voices with virtuosic accomplishment and ease.  Bravo!

Live transmission in a small local cinema also made it possible to enjoy another Glyndebourne production at a far more modest price, and admire not just music, performances and production but the skill of live editing involved.  Here Ravel’s naughty but nice farce L’Heure Espagnole benefitted from the camera close-up, making it possible to get the best of both worlds, capturing all the intimacy and small scale detail of comic interaction alongside the magic of large scale orchestral and vocal colour.  The fantastical L’Enfant et les Sortilèges began by playing visually on extremes of scale – its opening image a tiny boy struggling with his homework in the darkness at a very large table, scolded by a gigantic looming mother.  Particularly effective among the objects he mistreats which come to larger than life were the salacious singing teapot and cup and saucer, also a sad chorus of monochrome shepherds and shepherdesses torn from the wallpaper and moving stiffly in flattened poses.  These nightmarish extremes of size proved difficult to sustain when the action moved to the night garden, and the piece ended a little disappointingly in more conventional scale.

Throughout the Olympic season the Proms, the world’s largest music festival, continued in London, seemingly drowned out by public sporting fervour and media clamour.  I was unexpectedly transfixed by the electrifying performance of Leonard Bernstein’s bonkers but brilliant Mass performed by a huge cohort of musicians from Wales.  Children from six Welsh primary schools joined the BBC National Chorus of Wales and a vocal ensemble of talented graduates from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, along with the BBC National Orchestra and Youth Orchestra of Wales, to rock the joint with Bernstein’s great jazz and gospel inflected choruses – I can still feel their swaying and clapping.  Yet the work manages also to include the still small voice of plaintive flute and clarinet as the central celebrant softly reflects, and the unforgettable song of a pure lonely treble – you could have heard a pin drop.  This music was larger in every way than the interminably banal pop which dominated the closing ceremonies of both Olympics and Paralympics.  Perhaps now that the British public’s pride in the achievements of its sports men and women has been so thoroughly awakened, we may also be able to pay attention to, take real pleasure in, and similarly support, our achievements in the arts and our many admirable and equally dedicated performing artists.

Susie Crow

10th September 2012

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