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Leigh Witchel

POLL: Should NYCB do "Swan Lake"

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  1. 1. POLL: Should NYCB do "Swan Lake"

    • Yes
      30
    • No
      18

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38 posts in this topic

That's one of the reasons that regionals are so very important to the carrying on of the ballet business and tradition today. Many of the regionals have a sort of "Old-Joffrey" sensibility to them, reviving important works which have been ignored by others and giving them new life. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, and again, and again until somebody listens - the most revolutionary and iconoclastic thing that a major company could do right now is to mount a "traditional" Swan Lake instead of frittering away energy and treasure on New! Improved! everything featuring little more than Wretched Excess. My eternal gratitude goes to ballet masters who say to ballerinas, "Can you do a six o'clock arabesque and a 180º à la seconde? Good, now don't - this is 'Konservatoriet'!"

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I agree with Sonora and Mel's comments about the place for regional companies in saving "Swan Lake." Sadler's Wells was, in effect, a "regional company" when it first did the Petipa-via-N. Sergeyev versions from which most other Western productions derived. My only objection to small companies doing the Big Ballets is when they use them to catapult themselves into the "big time," advertise themselves as being "one of the world's greatest classical companies" and then put on a "Swan Lake" with 18, or 12, Swans and everything is cut down and cut rate. (This is a real life case: one major regional company brought a "Sleeping Beauty" here about 20 years ago with only four fairies (plus Lilac) in the Prologue. Not making a statement, they just didn't have enough soloists. So there's a balance between being able to do it, and being able to do it well enough to travel with it.)

But that caveat aside, yes. The "regionals" may yet save ballet.

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Earlier on the thread, Victoria made an interesting point that no one has picked up on yet and I think is worth discussing.

No, because to do a classical Swan Lake you need classically trained dancers. NYCB has neither a classical Swan Lake nor classically trained dancers.

This comment cuts two ways -- Victoria went on to say that ABT is the classical company, and so she's implying that NYCB can't do a real "Swan Lake," and some will agree, and others disagree, with that. But from the other side, NYCB has always been rather proud of the fact that they don't do that silly "Swan Lake" and that its classicism is totally outmoded and has been superseded by its neoclassical. To quote from Kisselgoff's review of the new Martins ballet this morning: "The three works summed up the City Ballet aesthetic: music is the springboard, and movement, as couched in an advanced neo-Classical style, is a formal value sufficient unto itself." A full-length traditional "Swan Lake" would seem to be outside of this aesthetic, and this aesthetic would seem to be antithetical to a full-length traditional "Swan Lake."

Can there be a neoclassical -- or nonclassical -- "Swan Lake?" (Of course, there could be a skateboarding one, in the sense there's no law against it, but that's not what I mean.) If NYCB does do a "Swan Lake," does it have a responsibility to pay attention to classical style? Russian reports on Kowroski's performance in St. Petersburg were not admiring. (What the hell is she DOING with those flapping arms????)

I think this gets to the part of Leigh's question that says, should the company be doing this. Is it good for the dancers? Is it good for the ballet?

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I voted "yes, " but, please, not the current production, which I consider an absolute eyesore. I found it as unredeemably ugly this time around as I did when it was first thrust upon us. Indeed, my deepest wish is to win big in Lotto (I may even rent a car and drive to a Powerball state) so that I can endow a new production and personally put a match to this one. (For the record, I also loathe NYCB's Coppelia. By the way, by "production" I mean sets and costumes, not choreography.) Actually, I think the front drops are rather nice; I found them reminiscent of the work of Joan Mitchell, who is one of my favorite artists. I would keep them along with the Act II backdrop to decorate a new ballet.

It's not that I require a traditional, fairy tale production -- it's simply that this one renders absolutely airless the environment in which the dancing happens. I have never seen the State Theater stage reduced to such suffocating proportions -- even though there is practically nothing on it but dancers. (By contrast, the sets for A Midsummer Night's Dream make it look as big as all outdoors.) The costumes, especially those for Act I, look ugly and cheap. Their colors, which might have been effective as an element of energy and emotion in a (static) painting, are distracting overkill when deployed in the service of actual movement. The sets and costumers for each of the acts need to provide the context in which we are to understand Prince Siegfried and his response to Odette and Odile; in my opinion, these sets don't really do that. Again, it's not that they are "abstract" or "non-traditional"; it's that they don't tell us how the (pastoral) place where Act I happens is different from the (magical) place where Act II happens or different again from the (courtly) place where Act III happens. Enough.

Now, why do I think NYCB should do Swan Lake?

1. I believe there IS a place for a neo-classical treatment of the material -- just as I believe there is a place for a "romantic" approach to the performance of Bach in addition to a "historically informed" approach. I like Bach played on a piano as much as I like Bach played on a harpsichord, but I expect the pianist to approach the material differently from the harpsichordist because their instruments offer different possibilities. For lack of a better term, NYCB is a different "instrument" than, say, the Royal Ballet. I don't believe that this means that NYCB should therefore be barred from dancing Swan Lake; I do believe it means they need to dance it in a way that true to the expressive possibilities of their style. I wouldn't want the NYCB "transposition" to supplant other versions, of course, just as I wouldn't want Bach played on a modern grand piano to replace Bach played on a harpsichord. I think there's room -- indeed a need -- for both.

2. It's Tchaikovsky. NYCB has a powerful tradition in Tchaikovsky. The music is too wonderful to get locked up into a single artifact.

3. It provides the dancers with a different set of challenges and helps them explore the varied materials of their art.

4. Martins gives us a jester! ;-).

5. Heck, I'd like Wheeldon to take a crack at Giselle. ;-D

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I don't think you can separate neo-classical and classical as if they are hard and fast categories that have no interpenetration. Neo classical and Classical are not dichotomous or opposite catagories. The one contains the other, that is, Classicism contains Neo-classicism as a subset.

I never saw NYCB under Balanchine. But I see his work as a constant dialogue in, about and with the elements of Classical style and Classical Training, a particular vision of and distillation of classicism if you will. I take Victoria's statement as being slightly partisan. Works such as Theme and Variations, Serenade, Symphony in C, Jewels, Baiser de la Fee ... the list could go on almost ad infinitum ... are Classical by any definition, whether formal delineation or of the Grandmom-at-theater-seat-of-the-pants type of judgment. So what do you call a company built to perform them?

I also do not think that NYCB must be strictly a formalist or a modernist company. Those terms also are not dichotomous with Classicism. I think it is fine for them to perform Swan Lake, only make it a good one please.

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Yes, neoclassicism is part of classicism, as demicaractere and character are part of classicism, but you can definitely separate them. They're different approaches, but also different aesthetics. The quote from Kisselgoff is, I think, an accurate description of City Ballet's aesthetic. It is very far from the aesthetic that produced "Swan Lake." (Although I think Kathleen made a very interesting case for a neoclassical "Swan Lake.")

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We haven't yet discussed NYCB's traditional (for them) mode of operation vis a vis casting--that is, that the company does not have "stars," although it has principals, and that casting is only announced at the end of the week previous to the performances. A ballet like Swan Lake does not lend itself to such a system. People tend to want to see particular casts. (For instance,ALonso and Youskevitch.) Philosophically,NYCB has been repertory driven rather than personality driven. Does anyone want to see that change? NYCB has a fabulous neoclassical Swan Lake already, choreographed by George Balanchine. It would be interesting to see it in the rep in the same season as the Martins pastiche, or ferrago, or whatever you call it. I don't think a company presenting Christopher Wheeldon is really strictly formalist and neoclassical. He's something else. Even when he works in those modes he brings in something more. When he works in his story ballet mode, there's nothing neo about him at all.

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What Kisselgoff describes as NYCB's aesthetic is only part of the story. Don't forget that Balanchine's Nutcracker probably accounts for more than one third of a year's performances. You may wall that off and say that Nutcracker isn't their "real" aesthetic, their "real aesthetic" is something else. But however you choose to define it away, you've still got to deal with the fact that Nutcracker is nearly half of what they sell. Martins' Swan Lake is very much in NYCB's Nutcracker mode. They do it to sell tickets I think.

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Michael do you mean when you said they were in the same "mode" that you feel their Nutcracker and Swan Lake bring in more people than their other programs? :confused:

Does anyone know if NYCB's ticket sales for Swan Lake are really on par with their Nutcracker season? Perhaps I'm really not in the know, but I'd be shocked if this were their second big ticket production.

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Wheeldon is going to produce Swan Lake for the Pennsylvania Ballet next year. Then one can gauge where his sensibilities truly lie - with Petipa, Ashton, Balanchine or Martins...

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Thanks for this news GWTW, and you'll be there to give us a full report! :) Perhaps I'll make a trip down there for this new Wheeldon one.

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A Wheeldon Swan Lake?!?! Now *that* is what I want to see, especially on a company like Pennsylvania Ballet. Looks like I'll be making a trip to Philly to see that one. :)

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Oh, goody! People to do my advance work. ;) I'll be looking for everyone's comments.

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