THE VIEW FROM DOWN HERE – THAT’S [GLOBAL] ENTERTAINMENT

A quick note to start. At this stage I don’t think I’ll be following a regular format. This column will be whatever it is on any given week. Sorry for that. But I hope you enjoy anyway.

One of the biggest problems with being a wrestling fan is the constant comments about how low brow it is. You know the sort of statements: “It’s the sort of entertainment that appeals to the lowest common denominator, it has no appeal beyond its hardcore audience, it’s meaningless.” Although it must be said that often the abusive words used don’t employ quite so many syllables.

 I counter that, no matter how low brow it is considered, it is an art form. A true art form. And I further counter that it has become an American art form that has been exported to the rest of the world. And, more than that, it is an art form with a very distinct parallel to another American art form that has been similarly expanded beyond national borders – the art of movie and televised dance. Neither has their ultimate origins in the USA, but it was there that they gained the form we know, and it is this form which is recognised across the world. Bear with me.

Dance started as a religious rite in ancient civilisations – a means of showing to the powers that the people believed surrounded them how much they were indebted to them for everything. From the fertility dances of ancient Greece, the whirling dervishes of Persia, the corroborees of the indigenous Australians, the so-called rain dances of the Native Americans, all civilisations had their form of dance to celebrate, commemorate and show joy. It was a pure form of expression, utilising only the body.

Wrestling started as a means of proving to the gods who was the strongest, and proving to others who the gods favoured most. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Babylonians all depicted wrestlers in their arts. In Central America wrestling style fights took place as rites of manhood. In Japan they were a part of a young warrior’s training. The art of grapple and hold to overcome an opponent was seen as a pure form of fighting, utilising only the body, pleasing to the ultimate powers that watched over and protected all men.

As the centuries moved on the religious connotations faded and dance became an entertainment form. Be it in the classical ballet, the burlesque shows, the erotic dances – the original means of giving thanks became a means of entertainment. The aims of the entertainment may have been different, but that was all dancing was reduced to – an entertainment. In theatres, clubs, smoky halls, it was an entertainment.

As centuries moved on the purely martial origins of wrestling faded until it became a sport, a one-on-one contest between two men trying to best one another. From the structured rules of Greco-Roman or Turkish wrestling, the more flowing movements of freestyle, or the brutality of back street fights, it was a sport performed in front of crowds, many of whom paid to see it happen. In arenas, clubs, smoky halls, it was an entertainment.

Then, with the advent of movies, the techniques for staging the dance changed. From live venues to a subject of the media, dancing was altered. Moves and choreography were devised that could only be appreciated through a movie lens. Subtleties of movement that were long seen as the realm of aficionados became common knowledge. Dancing became something different.

Wrestling changed again with the advent of professional wrestling, where outcomes were pre-determined, further taking it away from its martial origins. Then, with the advent of television, the techniques for staging wrestling changed. From purely live venues to a subject of a media hungering for cheap product, wrestling was altered. To have a back-story to a match was a matter of a recorded interview. Characters became more defined. Actions had to become more realistic because television picked up ever nuance of movement. Wrestling became something different.

For a long time that was how things stayed. People had their favourites, but there really wasn’t any one person who the people could flock to. Enter Fred Astaire. Originally chosen to partner leading ladies, he soon outshone them all to make his own name. He was flashy, using tricks and branching out even into films where he did not dance, and to recording albums, he was the first film superstar of dance that had people everywhere talking. And movie dance went from being popular to being huge and completely entwined with the popular culture.

Wrestling remained the realm of a certain part of the populace, there to cheer their heroes and boo the villains and not think about what they were seeing. But there was no one who was out there who had captured the imagination of the culture at large. Enter Hulk Hogan. Originally cast as a bully bad guy, under Vince McMahon Jr he used his flashy appearance and all facets of the media to become a pop culture sensation that went beyond wrestling into films and television and into the very core of pop culture itself.

But there were others. They might not have been as flashy, but they were there and had their own fans. Men like Gene Kelly, a more versatile dancer, able to put more emotion into his performances and able to dance well into his twilight years, as his scenes with Olivia Newton-John in Xanadu (1980) showed.

But there were others. They might not have been as flashy, and might not have had the world-wide exposure at the start of their careers, but they were there. Men like Ric Flair, a more versatile and athletic performer, able to tell a much better story with his matches, and able to perform well into his twilight years, as his match against Mick Foley on Impact! in October of 2010 (the Last Man Standing match) showed.

But not everyone could be the great star, and with more and more wanting their spot in the sun, the ensemble films came to the fore, culminating in the superb West Side Story (1961). There seemed to be dancers and dancing everywhere in films, and while later versions of this sort of film (e.g. Fame (1980)) may not have lived up to the original, it is still a wonderful way to showcase many at once.

But not everyone could be a great star, and with so many wanting their place in the wrestling spotlight, the multi-man matches came about, culminating in the brilliantly realised Royal Rumble and WarGames matches. While later editions may not have lived up to the early expectations, it is still a wonderful way to showcase many at once.

But even with all the flash and technical trickery, some pure dancers still managed to make their marks. Men like Mikhail Baryshnikov, a ballet dancer par excellence, made the transition into filmed dance seamlessly, able to showcase his true talents in films like White Nights (1985). So no matter where dance had gone, the purest form was still there and accessible for those who cared to look, and presented to the public at large.

But even with the overt flash and production, some pure wrestlers still managed to make their marks. Men like Bret Hart, who came from a wrestling background where the fights were designed to be more realistic, slipped into the world of televised professional wrestling as pure spectacle without a hitch. His classic matches with Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin show just how well he did this, and yet he presented the public an excellence of execution which they may not have seen before.

Others came into dance from other areas of the entertainment industry. Michael Jackson, the boy singer, took the world by storm at the Motown 25th anniversary celebrations with his amazing live dancing act. His videos became state of the art dancing spectaculars. Many would argue that he had not been matched since in terms of his pure skill.

Other forms of the marital arts created stars. Kurt Angle, an Olympic Gold Medallist in wrestling, made the transition seamlessly into the professional wrestling world, putting on such mat classics as his bouts with Chris Benoit in the early 2000s. Real wrestling was presented as viable and as something that could mesh within the realms of professional wrestling. It has been said that his pure skill is unsurpassed in the wrestling ring.

However, times changed. The entertainment values given by dance were forced to accommodate a new form of viewer, one who had a short attention span, one who needed more and more in their viewing. Dance in movies became dance on television, and it led to the cultural shift which is seen in So You Think You Can Dance? and its performing athletes. Dancers had to not only have rhythm, but they had to be gymnasts, actors and be the focus of immediate praise… or revulsion, Dance had become just another extreme sport. It is something televised dance struggles with to this day.

In wrestling, the demands of the audience became greater and greater. Not only did they demand more realism from their fights – especially as UFC and MMA started to take an audience share – but they demanded more from their wrestlers. They had to not only be fighters, but gymnasts and actors and people able to withstand a ridiculous amount of punishment. Hardcore wrestling, X-Division wrestling all became the expectations of the public. They wanted stiff hits and yet they still wanted the show. It is something wrestling promotions struggle with to this day, be it going into PG territory or trying what worked in the past.

To counter this, dance has once more gone to the halls and theatres, as dance-based shows – a lot based on movies – once more hit the stage and draw large live crowds.

Wrestling has once more gone back to the halls and clubs, as local independent wrestling is hitting a resurgence in popularity across the world, drawing in crowds and garnering press not seen in decades.

But is it fair to compare the more modern dance films with those of the past? Are films like Saturday Night Fever, Footloose and Flashdance worthy of being compared to such classics as Bandwagon and Singing In The Rain? Maybe not, but they are all works of their time, of differing audiences and differing views of what constitutes entertainment. However, it is only by looking to the past that we can progress into the future. And that is why the stage is embracing its musical heritage and looking at the films, and not at television and the new dancers.

Is it realistic to compare the PPVs of the modern era with the PPVs of the past? Are Wrestlemania 26 and TNA’s Lockdown 2006 really as good as Wrestlemania X-7, In Your House: Canadian Stampede or Great American Bash of 1989? Maybe not, but with people like Ric Flair, The Rock, Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin once more (still) appearing and making waves, it may seen as wrestling embracing its past in order to discover its future as well.

Is wrestling an art? I guess that’s a matter of opinion. For example, I think the judges of the Turner Prize don’t know art from excrement half the time (and at times have even got the two literally mixed up), but that is my opinion. What makes something an art and what makes something not is just a matter of perspective in this day and age of instant media. But the similarities between mass media dance and professional wrestling would indicate to me that there may be something more to this than the ramblings of a middle-aged man.

 Oh, and a few notes. To dancing purists, when I compared Astaire to Hogan, it was not meant to be a slight on Astaire’s abilities. It was meant to be a comparison on what each man meant to the popularity of their respective artistic endeavours. Astaire is obviously a brilliant dancer. However, when arguments arise concerning who is the better film dancer, Kelly and Astaire are often mentioned with people falling on one side or the other. In wrestling circles, who was the greatest and meant the most to wrestling has similar battle lines drawn between Flair and Hogan.

 Also, while it may seem disparaging on modern PPVs or dance films, I should point out that I selected films and PPVs that I actually like in order to make the comparisons. In fact, apart from the TV show So You Think You Can Dance (which I cannot stand for the most part) I like every match, PPV and film mentioned in this piece (even Xanadu and Fame). And I enjoy watching matches by every wrestler mentioned, even Hulk Hogan at times.

 I am not saying that wrestling and dance can be compared directly… though there is something to the grace and harmony of human movement in a really well constructed wrestling match that can match a well choreographed dance routine. Wrestling has used choreography to great effect (see Randy Savage) while dance can also use free form and flow to the same effect.

 So…

 Wrestling is an art form.

A sort of sequel to this next time!

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