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Kennedy Center - Week 2


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#31 Hans

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 12:43 PM

Alexandra wrote:

Hans, I just have to ask. What is it that you hate about the choroegraphy for 4Ts? (I don't mean this as a challenge -- you're entitled! I'm just mightily curious.)

I don't hate it exactly...it just leaves me cold and bored, with sort of a distasteful feeling. The dancers seem so robotic, so soulless yet self-centered--and not in a charming way as in "Narcissus." They seem to inhabit such a bizarre, surreal world that is without meaning or emotion. Every time a dancer performs a step, I want to ask them why they did it...I think mostly what I dislike is the lack of a sense of purpose. What are they all dancing about for? What's the point of it? What, above all, are they trying to express? Maybe if the dancers had modern training it would help; there appears to be some Graham in the ballet. Even in abstract modern works there seems to be a reason for what the dancers are doing, but I don't feel it in this. It just seems to be an emotional void in which steps are dissected and bizarrely presented to us for examination, as if it's a weird science experiment on Ballet, reminding me of those movies in which a mad scientist puts a human head on a giant beetle just to see what it looks like and whether it will live. I do not like the mechanical, scientific approach to choreography, which is what the 4Ts looks like to me. I have similar feelings (esp. re: purpose) about many Balanchine ballets, even the ones with plots.

Note: This should not be interpreted as a dislike of MCB's dancing, which I thought was technically adept and for the most part quite polished.

#32 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 07:18 PM

Originally posted by Hans
. . .as if it's a weird science experiment on Ballet, reminding me of those movies in which a mad scientist puts a human head on a giant beetle just to see what it looks like and whether it will live.  


Hee hee. Looking at it another way, you've described exactly what I like about the ballet. For me, the work shows me the dawn of the age of technology. I look at it and I wonder what 1947 was like. In the same way, what you dislike as emotionless I love, for what I think was described as a sort of desperate humanity by Lincoln Kirstein. I find the ballet very emotionally moving!

No right or wrong in this one, so go figure!

#33 Hans

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 08:26 PM

Interesting point. Do you think all those creatures become human in the finale (which I admit I enjoy)? Or from another point of view, are they perhaps people who become ennobled by art and/or their struggles with the world?

#34 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 08:48 PM

I'm going to steal from myself to answer - this is excerpted somewhat mercilessly from an essay on the ballet written in '96

. . .the first theme, with its magnificent sphinx-like opening. I always think of Genesis in the ballet's first moments and the two dancers as Adam and Eve, the stage the known world. They give each other their hands, intertwine legs. The world is reduced to the unit of the couple; all the fragile protection we have is there. She begins to move, to rise on pointe and switch from side to side abruptly. The movements seem almost randomized, computerized. We are in 1946, at the dawn of the age of technology, and witnessing Balanchine's humane wonderment at its limitless vistas. The implacable gentleness of the movements, so inexplicable, but always tender, is so moving.  

This carries throughout the Themes. . . and in the great Third Theme, one of the most beautiful of all pas de deux. The movements lose their abruptness and become legato, sinuous. The maneuvering of the women continues throughout all the Themes, basic movements (entrechat into a split on the man's legs, repeated partnered spins in passé, the woman developé-ing through the man's legs) are amplified, altered, anatomized. We view a cellular universe.  

Sanguinic is a wild animal, alert and skittish, a doe or a greyhound. . . Interesting how the Sanguinic variation is Balanchine taking a traditional grand pas de deux and updating it...the Sanguinic ballerina must be up to those traditional challenges.  

. . .Choleric, fierce yet humane, in the manner of the "impersonal desperation" spoken of with regard to this ballet by Lincoln Kirstein. Her appearance and ferociousness is cathartic, and brings on the Theme women and [Sanguinic] to do what is called "The Devil's Dance", a particularly fast and difficult section, done well by all. This brings the ballet into its amazing conclusion, by which point I always feel cleansed.  


So it's less that I feel the dancers are inhuman or animal, but angelic, but in the way that the people felt about technology when it was still new: the machine as salvation, not as destroyer. Think of Balanchine and Agon, his "IBM Ballet". That's what I mean.

#35 Alexandra

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 09:23 PM

I always thought of "The Four Temperaments" as a very humanistic ballet, and the structure one of the many ways Balanchine manipulated classical form (it was interesting seeing it on the same program as "Shades" for that reason. I'd never thought of it as related to machinery. (Which means only that, like a good abstract painting, one can read many things into it!) To me, the themes are the raw material of humanity, the temperaments have different bits of those themes, and in the end, when all the temperaments and themes are joined together, it is a moment of triumph and completeness. I referred to the nature of the temperaments above, I think. Croce wrote that Sanguinic was at the center of the ballet, Balanchine's chosen temperament, as it were, because they were mated. The other temperaments are solitary, unmated, and therefore incomplete.

Thanks for your post, Hans. Your objection is as much to the aesthetic as to the ballet I take it -- and your position is shared by many people. I didn't like "4Ts" the first time I saw it -- I don't remember why, just a general negative impression; I think I found it too stark, and although I got something out of it intellectually, I didn't emotionally, rather like you. Now, it seems positively lush to me. I have a different reaction to the ending every time. Sometimes the score has an undercurrent of menace to it, yet those huge supported lifts are triumphant. And sometimes I just feel the triumph.


It's useful to discuss this, I think. People are always coming new to ballets considered masterpieces, and will have different reactions to them. Better to question than just to take on faith!

#36 carbro

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 10:17 PM

Originally posted by Leigh Witchel
So it's less that I feel the dancers are inhuman or animal, but angelic,  

In these leotard ballets (and others, as well), I don't think Balanchine used his dancers to represent humans, animals or angels at all. I think he used them in much the way a painter uses the colors on his palette: green is green, not foliage, although it can be used to evoke foliage. So, by juxtaposing his dancers against each other and having them move in particular ways in relation to the music, he could suggest some aspect of the human condition that the viewer would respond to mentally or emotionally.

The first time I saw 4T's, it stunned me with multiple epiphanies -- musicality, choreographic structure, the ability of a dance to be austere and lyrical at the same time . . .

Loved it then, love it still.

#37 samba38

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 07:28 AM

I can't add to the analysis in many of the posts above but I can thank you all for bringing such interesting insights, particularly Hans's charming critique. I disagree with him 100% but I enjoyed his way of stating his objections. I've always seen 4Ts as simultaneously cerebral and passionate, like a brilliant piece of rhetoric or a Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilboa. While I'm up for a great Giselle or Swan Lake, it's like a candy hangover later (except for the occasional broccoli performance, green and wooden). While a great 4Ts leaves me energized for days.

#38 Hans

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 10:44 AM

Alexandra wrote:

Thanks for your post, Hans. Your objection is as much to the aesthetic as to the ballet I take it...

Yes, it is. Balanchine's aesthetic as I learned it was about physical daring and extremes (it's the original X-treme Ballet) but with a curious emotional detachment. It's energetic, but sort of a mechanical energy, as if gasoline runs in the dancers' veins instead of blood. Of course, when you get down to it, life is nothing more than chemical reactions on a cellular level--some refer to the human body as an incredibly efficient machine--but what sets us apart from computers is our emotions, which I feel Balanchine's aesthetic neglects (squashes...?) in its quest for more energy, faster movement, higher legs. His ballets remind me more of exercise than art. Instead of digging into his dancers' bodies to get at their deepest emotional impulses and thoughts and therefore seeing them as people as Graham did, Balanchine glorified the cellular, the automatic--those nervously flicking wrists; tense, affected arms that are so difficult to change; and fixed, staring eyes speak more of muscle memory than conscious thought. I don't know how his aesthetic was originally; I only know it as it was taught to me a few years ago, and it seems to me disturbingly detached from the realities of life, his dancer-mannequins moving mindlessly in a test tube, outwardly suggestive of human activity but internally, merely obedient (I feel this during many of his ballets--Serenade, La Valse, Scotch Symphony, Agon...). It reminds me of The Stepford Wives, and though I don't care for Jerome Robbins' choreography much either, I think with his emphasis on more personal relationships, he was a good complement to Balanchine.

#39 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 05:48 PM

I tend to think very much like Hans in most of this discussion, but I just have to say that, no matter how you think of it, it is a lot of fun to dance! It is challenging and interesting. But, that is how I felt about all of the Balanchine works which I danced. They were, for me, always a lot more interesting to do than to watch.

#40 Alexandra

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 07:07 PM

Originally posted by Hans
 I don't know how his aesthetic was originally; I only know it as it was taught to me a few years ago, and it seems to me disturbingly detached from the realities of life, his dancer-mannequins moving mindlessly in a test tube, outwardly suggestive of human activity but internally, merely obedient (I feel this during many of his ballets--Serenade, La Valse, Scotch Symphony, Agon...).  It reminds me of The Stepford Wives, and though I don't care for Jerome Robbins' choreography much either, I think with his emphasis on more personal relationships, he was a good complement to Balanchine.


I think if you look at photos from the 1940s through the 1960s, at least, there are no empty eyes -- Diana Adams, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams....The "just dance it, dear" robot eyes approach came later, I think.

#41 carbro

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Posted 19 March 2003 - 09:51 PM

Originally posted by Victoria Leigh
They were, for me, always a lot more interesting to do than to watch.


But wouldn't that have been true with most ballets that were musical and devoted to dance (as opposed to, say, dramatic) content? And isn't that why you chose to be a dancer?

#42 Hans

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Posted 20 March 2003 - 02:46 PM

Once you take out all the mannerisms, Balanchine's choreography is fun to do and much more enjoyable to watch.

Alexandra, thank you for the clarification.

Carbro, I don't see why a musical, plotless ballet can't be just as interesting to watch as it is to dance. Personally, I didn't become a dancer because it was merely fun, although that was part of it. Good dancers don't just dance pretty steps for their own fulfillment; they communicate with the audience. Whether the ideas, images, and emotions they communicate are originally theirs or someone else's, dancers must understand and interpret them, and this requires an active, open, imaginative mind.

A choreographer may ask a dancer to portray an emotion, idea, or concept with which the dancer has no experience. The dancer must then rely upon the choreographer and outside sources to gain an understanding of what that concept is like, to imagine it for themselves. This is why all dancers are creative artists, whether they choreograph ballets or not. They are the ones who make ideas come alive.

#43 Ray

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Posted 20 March 2003 - 03:43 PM

I'm responding, in part, to Alexandra:

I think if you look at photos from the 1940s through the 1960s, at least, there are no empty eyes -- Diana Adams, Tanaquil LeClercq, Diana Adams....The "just dance it, dear" robot eyes approach came later, I think


Another telling passage of dancing to look at is the film of the corps in Square Dance (from one of those awful, cramped, made-for-TV things): The couples actually *look* at one another--which the epaulement of the steps allows one to do. I think it is interesting that as Balanchine embraced lyricism more overtly--think of all that hair let loose after Suzanne returned!--there was sometimes more of an impersonal quality in the dancing--at least in the interactions on stage. Perhaps it began with the move to the big austerity of the State Theater?

There were some great exceptions, of course--recall for instance the frequent Agon pairing of Rene Estopinal and Wilhemina Frankfurt in the early 80s.

#44 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 20 March 2003 - 03:54 PM

Ray, the feeling I got from interviewing dancers was that Balanchine was evolutionary and contradictory. It was a 60 year career and it depends on when you got him. Barbara Walczak
(40s and 50s) recalled times when Balanchine taught that he wanted everything en face with no epaulement whatsoever, and when everything was counted. By the time Pat Neary recalled him rehearsing the same ballet, he was actively against counting the work. It depended on the dancers and the time.

#45 Ray

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Posted 20 March 2003 - 04:03 PM

Absolutely, Leigh--and I admit I was generalizing. Of course, part of the current-day problem is that the heirs of Balanchine remember very specific things that he told them. And the higher up the food chain they were, the more idiosyncratic his advice was--advice that doesn't always translate into good training or coaching.

And--just to be silly--I love that you put "epaulement" and "Pat Neary" in the same paragraph--she was the mistress of the cocky headtilt!


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