Slipping my pre-tied tie around my neck, I felt like a loser, about to roll solo to the City Ballet of San Diego's premiere of Leave the Light On, based on the music of rock 'n' roll survivor Beth Hart.
Regarding high-society art forms, there's an inherent fear in guys like me, a self-loathing that comes from being raised in a community built on the blue-collar principles of big trucks and Coors Light.
To compound my confusion, I wasn't sure it was appropriate to take a date to a ballet based on an artist like Beth Hart.
How would you invite someone on such a date? Um, yes, I think you're swell. Would you like to attend a formal dance routine about one woman's struggles with alcoholism and self-defeat?
Let's get this straight: I have no experience with the ballet and was previously unfamiliar with the story or music of Beth Hart. So not only did I walk in dateless and self-conscious, but also I walked in as one big, confused-but curious-tabula rasa.
My concept of ballet had been, up until now, extremely and happily stereotypical. I associated the art with Bernstein and Baryshnikov-all pointy shoes and anorexics who're afraid to get their heels dirty. To put that with Hart's music (which I had heard described as "anodyne Sheryl Crow") made me deeply crave the comfort of a Metallica mosh pit, or at least a nice, big ratchet set.
Upon finding my seat, a congenial gent in front of me offered a piece of gum. He then pointed at the name of a dancer in the program who, he had it on good word, was "damn hot." I had no idea who she was, but the exchange calmed me down. With my new friend-who sported a broken wrist, work boots and a baseball cap-I almost felt I was on a porch, gazing at the latest issue of Auto Trader.
The music began, romped for a little under a half hour, and was done. Painless.
The dancing was impressive. I can hardly analyze why, but it shattered my preconceptions of how strict and uptight the ballet would be. If it weren't already billed as ballet, however, I would have assumed that it was a tight, energetic, conservative jazz routine-one that almost literally embodied the self-destruction and recovery of Hart's lyrics.
The music was not a soothing, bland or "anodyne" version of Sheryl Crow. In fact, Crow is an anodyne version of Beth Hart, at best.
Hart's music has an edge, an intrinsic rawness; it has been said she channels the famed whisky-loving rocker, Janis Joplin. I wouldn't go that far, especially since the beauty of Hart's work is derived from both pain and recovery-the latter which Joplin never experienced.
As a survivor of alcohol and drug addiction, abuse, eating disorders and self-mutilation, the 32-year-old L.A. musician has worked through enough issues to warrant her own ward in Betty Ford. The power she found through bottoming out, coupled with the strength of her voice and piano playing, makes for powerful, well-crafted rock 'n' roll. It's certainly not your typical score for a ballet-the Sugar Plum Fairy would look quite epileptic trying to dance to it.
Maybe that's why Leave The Light On works, even if the dancing seems a bit too staged, too coached, too polished. It's as if director Elizabeth Wistrich asked her dancers to contain the music, instead of surrendering to its power. Then again, Hart spent the past decade of her life trying to contain and control her own personal dissonance. So the production rings true to the metaphor in this way.
As a catalyst for pushing aside the barriers between what is commonly viewed as highbrow and lowbrow in the art world, Leave the Light On is a sizable success. It makes tabula rasas like myself want to learn about ballet, even about that old kind with Baryshnikov and the pointy-shoed skinny people.
I left wanting to slip on that pre-tied tie again, grab my favorite baseball cap and check out Swan Lake next time it's in town-even point out that the prima ballerina is "damn hot."Leave the Light On was the first show in City ballet's new season. For future shows, visit www.cityballet.org.