I was at the Mirabeau Room with a martini and a young lady, waiting for the Atomic Bombshells burlesquers to take the stage. Their oily host, Vincent Drambuie, was making the rounds with his fez and pencil-thin moustache. "Good evening, sir!" he squealed toward our table. "Oh, you don't need to drink to make her look good," he said, eyeing my glass. "But ma'am, you'll want to finish his drink."
Drambuie hopped onstage to introduce the dancers, some of whom were trained by Bourbon Street stars from the '40s and '50s. Drambuie cajoled the crowd into appreciating the Bombshells more vocally. The acts were vintage—a sexy '50s housewife, a dominatrix teacher, and a delightful cowgirl routine with impressive pistol twirling by Honey D. Luxe—and a vintage audience would have been louder, boozier, and less lesbian. We moderns clapped politely and gave half-hearted hoots when asked. The audience was smiling and drinking, but oddly quiet.
I didn't realize how oddly until a few nights later at the ballet. Every one of the evening's four works—from old-fashioned ballerinas spinning on their toes to a barnburner contemporary piece by Marco Goecke—drew loud applause and those spontaneous cheers Drambuie worked so hard to solicit. (Goecke's Mopey entirely deserved them—a volatile, twitchy, and sometimes funny solo piece set to C.P.E. Bach, the Cramps, and silence. With his black hair, black pants, and tightly muscled chest, the dancer looked like a spastic Bruce Lee. Mopey was excellent and it brought the house down.)
Then there was the Miss Teen Washington USA 2005 Contestant Fashion Show—or whatever the hell they called it—in Pacific Place mall. Young contestants from Mill Creek, greater Tacoma, Des Moines, Puyallup, Woodinville, and beyond struck heartbreakingly nervous poses wearing the new Club Monaco fashion line. Between Miss Teen Washington events, energetic Mexican folk dancers jumped onto the floor, stomping and chirping and yelping in a manner that would have been reciprocated were we in a Mexican cantina and not the Mexico Cantina in a mall. In one number, four women danced in long robes with lit candles on their heads, but the crowd just smiled tightly.
Burlesquers can't get a wolf whistle but crowds holler at the ballet—what's going on? Was the burlesque that bad? (No.) Are audiences so high-minded that a Balanchine ballet from 1941 inspires more passion than pasties and a corset? (I doubt it.) Are they afraid of sex? (Maybe.)
Sadly, I suspect it's about ticket prices. Audiences want to feel good about themselves and pretend what they see is worth what they paid—which explains the surplus of unjustified standing ovations at regional houses and their scarcity in smaller theaters. Letting our dollars dictate our response to art is, of course, pathetic and an excellent way to stunt our cultural growth. And it leaves mostly naked dancers feeling unappreciated.