Ballet of the Speedway

Last night the Roanoke Ballet Theatre presented NASCAR Ballet. Their website explains it best:
“NASCAR Ballet centers around 20 ballet and modern dancers (who represent cars) who circle a forty foot horseshoe track that banks around the corner complete with break away railings.”

When I read the story last week in the Toronto Star, my first thoughts were akin to the Penelope McPhee accusations I quoted earlier this week– I felt it was an example of dumbing down the arts. I may have agreed with Ms. McPhee that this was an attitude that needs to be discarded, but I also admitted I recoil at anything that smacks of dumbing down as well.

Of course, I caught and scolded myself for not giving it due consideration before I denounced the idea. Since I haven’t seen the show, I don’t know if it was a good idea. Reading a bit about the development process and the way they intended to execute the concept, I must say I was a bit intrigued.

Good concept and execution or not, it does present a good test of the shift in attitude Ms. McPhee espoused. NASCAR probably represents the antithesis of the arts, at least stereotypically. The reality of NASCAR demographics probably conforms to a “sophisticate’s” perception as well as a “plain folk’s” concept applies to arts attendees.

The company has done some other non-traditional pieces in the past so the regular audience won’t be totally taken aback by the show. I imagine, though, that a traditionalist might be scandalized by “gauche” elements of production which include: three huge monitors. One presents a sportscaster calling the race and interviewing drivers. The second shows the “pit” where dancers/cars bedecked in sponsors’ logos are serviced. The third presents commercials by the show’s sponsors.

When I really got to thinking about it, I couldn’t see why a contemporary subject like death defying racing was any less proper a subject than courage in the face of enchantment is in Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

The company seems to have acknowledged the reality of their situation and embraced the outlook suggested by McPhee and the creative communities monograph I recently cited.

“We are hoping through this production to expand the traditional dance audience to include others who may never have experienced dance. The race is represented in a fun, wholesome environment and respect for the sport is at it’s heart.

“In order to keep the arts alive, it is up to us to produce higher quality, exciting, never-before seen extravaganzas. We have to entice the audience in, we can no longer just expect their participation. By opening up our thematic interests, we open ourselves to a whole new segment of potential dance lovers…We need to keep experimenting, keep inventing. We have to be willing to take risks. We can’t be scared into thinking small.” says Jenefer Davies Mansfield, Executive/Artistic Director of Roanoke Ballet Theatre. “These elements are integral in keeping the arts alive in a fiscally conservative environment.””

I wish them good luck with this and future events and will be interested to see if what they are doing becomes more prevalent.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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