Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why is Ballet-Watching More Participatory than Museum-Going?

This weekend, my daughter and I went to see a ballet, Don Quixote, at the magnificent Kyiv Opera House. Like many public buildings here, it’s an imposing place on both the outside and the inside. But to my surprise, I found a very different atmosphere here than in Ukrainian museums. In museums here, silence prevails. The watching babushkas shh your conversation and the approved method of museum going too often seems to be a sort of stunned silence. You don’t often see families in museums, and you almost never see kids having a good time.

At the ballet—completely different! Many families with both boys and girls; teenage boys in hoodies; older couples in coat, tie, and elaborate dress; dates in blue jeans. And the experience of watching ballet was far from passive: “bravas” were regularly shouted out, the entire audience clapped along to various musical passages and enthusiasts came onstage at curtain calls to present flowers to their favorites. At the intermissions, food and drink were available for purchase, but we saw one couple pull out a flask and chocolate to share, and others snacked in their boxes.

Why so different? Ukrainians, in general, are widely versed in classical literature, dance and the arts, far more than Americans. So perhaps ballet isn’t seen as “high” culture, but merely a part of culture and life in general (and it sure didn’t hurt that our 5th row seats, the most expensive, were less than $10). Museums here, I think, are often seen as the preserve of the intelligentsia and so perhaps not considered as accessible, even though they are affordable as well. Is music just more fun? Perhaps.

So I don’t have answers, but it was a great reminder to me that participation and interaction can mean being part of a group, enjoying an event, and showing that appreciation. Having had this experience also makes me more convinced than ever that change can come to Ukrainian museums and the ways they deal with audiences. That enthusiastic, relaxed sense I found at the Opera House, of all places, can perhaps be cultivated in museums.

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