Although it was once commonplace for ethnographic monographs to contain some discussion of the forms, roles, and social significance of art, anthropological attention to art has waned, and when present tends to focus on visual culture. Consider, for example, that of the 724 paper/poster sessions and special events listed in the program for the 2006 meeting of the American Anthropological Association, only four paper sessions plus one film screening are devoted to "art," two sessions to "music," one to "dance-dramas" (none to "dance," "drama," or "theater" independently), two to "performance," and five to topics related to the "visual." Yet, with Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity and Interpretation in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Anya Peterson Royce, an accomplished ballerina as well as respected anthropologist, refocuses attention on the performing arts of dance, music, and theater. She does so by way of a comparative analysis of genres from different cultures and time periods, in particular on the aesthetic principles, formal features, and performance practices that they share. Of particular importance is the distinction she draws between virtuosity and artistry. Defining virtuosity as the mastery of a codified technique, Royce persuasively argues that virtuosity in and of itself does not produce artistry, even though it is a necessary feature of artistic skill. Artistry, [End Page 277] rather, is the ability to produce an interpretation that appears inevitable, one that renders the artist transparent so the original work can command full attention. This argument is one to which Royce returns throughout the book.
Anthropology of the Performing Arts constitutes an ambitious attempt to identify aesthetic concordances across performing arts, from the most classical (e.g., ballet, Western classical music, opera, Japanese Kabuki, Indian classical dance), to the popular (e.g., commedia dell'arte, mime), to the traditional (e.g., Tewa ceremonial dance, Zapotec, Balinese, and Ju/'hoansi healing rituals). It is ambitious not only in scope, but in argument since Royce maintains that a similar purpose underlies them all: "What all performing arts share is their interpretive function…. This is their gift—reflection and interpretation" (9). In this, Royce takes her cue from Victor Turner (1986) and Richard Schechner (1985, 1988, 1993), who are credited with having first elaborated an "anthropology of performance" and who likewise argue that the power of performance lies in its ability to offer reflection on the social dramas that characterize human existence. "The goal," argues Royce "is to move the audience beyond itself to a place where it can dream or imagine—[this is] the goal of all art, shared by creator, interpreter, and most certainly by the people who come to see it" (232).
Artistry enables this reflection through the combination of technique (virtuosity) and style (interpretation). Royce devotes a chapter (ch. 2) to the discussion of virtuosity and the extra-technical elements that it commands, namely, dynamic variation, rubato and agogic, sustaining a phrase, and economy (by which she means the restraint artists employ in their performances to enhance focus on their interpretation). She also devotes two chapters to artistry (ch. 4 and 7), and the elements of style that it commands: impulse, phrasing, density, centeredness, simplicity, and transparency. In contrasting, as she does, virtuosity and artistry, one is reminded of Henry Kingsbury's (1988) ethnographic analysis of a music conservatory in which students were assessed on their technical (virtuostic) versus musical (artistic) abilities, with greater value falling on the latter but only if held in tandem with the former. Virtuosity, in other words, is a prerequisite of artistry, but the reverse is not always true.
A second major argument of the book concerns innovation and conservatism in artistic practice (ch. 3, 5 and 10). Royce argues that because an artistic genre generates its own technical vocabulary, which in turn defines it...