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White Elephants - repost


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#1 Mel Johnson

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Posted 07 November 1998 - 09:32 AM

This is the other side of "Guilty Pleasures". You know that a work is of supreme genius, all your friends say so; all the critics and historians hail it from the rooftops; you can't stand it. Every time it comes onstage, you know the strong desire to go out of the theatre for a smoke, and you don't smoke! A friend of mine used to hate the daisy sequence in "Giselle" and thought that it was greatly improved when Violette Verdy seemed to eat the thing as a goof in a rehearsal.
My own least-favored ballet of this sort was Balanchine's setting of "Don Quixote" with music by Nicholas Nabokov, and decor/costumes by Esteban Frances/Rouben Ter-Arutunian (or was it the other way 'round?). Anyway, this balletic stuffed owl held a sort of morbid fascination for me - I had to see it at least once a year in order to assure myself that it was as bad as I remembered. I did like the "white scene" in the forest however, and Marnee Morris and Anthony Blum's variations were really very good. I did think that the palace set would go very well for somebody's production of Act III "Swan Lake", in fact, the sets and costumes were the best things about this turkey.
I did feel some justification a number of years after they had dropped it from the active repertoire, when a major NYC critic admitted in an interview that the opening night critics had colluded to give it good reviews even though they thought at the time it was wretched. They opined that had they given it the bombing it deserved, it would have killed NYCB, so expensive had the production been to mount - a real White Elephant. Anybody else have pet hates, great or small?

[This message has been edited by Mel Johnson (edited 11-12-98).]

[This message has been edited by Mel Johnson (edited 11-22-98).]

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 12 November 1998 - 10:00 PM

This is another half-remembered repost, but it was a good discussion, and I wouldn't mind repeating it -- and getting input from the newcomers.

How about MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet? It's not that it was declared a Major Masterpiece when it was new, although it was certainly encouraged, but now it's seeped into the repertory and become the Standard Version. And "Manon" is following quickly on its heels.

#3 Dale

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Posted 14 November 1998 - 06:19 AM

I find MacMillan's work so fussy. I've never warmed to it. But maybe it's a cultural thing (English vs. American).

#4 Mel Johnson

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Posted 14 November 1998 - 08:50 AM

Not necessarily, Dale! I once ran across an article in British print entitled "Revoke-a-Knighthood, or what WERE we thinking?!" MacMillan figured prominently.

#5 Jenny Delaney

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Posted 17 November 1998 - 07:03 PM

MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet definitely ranks up there. It's better than some other versions I've seen though - I sat through Derek Deane's version with my jaw somewhere around ankle level! However, I do have a glorious treat lined up for the New Year - the Royal Ballet are doing it on a TINY stage, and I can't wait for Igor Zelensky to run out of space (he did at Sleeping Beauty this year and nearly landed in my lap!). I'm in the front row, and thinking of packing a safety net just in case . . .

I'd axe a fair chunk of Act I of Giselle. And absolutely, definitely and finally the D'Jampe dance in Bayadere, which I loathe and have yet to see anyone do properly. Oh, and most of the last act of Beauty, except for the Bluebird and grand pdds.

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 17 November 1998 - 08:44 PM

Jenny, as with all the De Gustibus threads, You Are Absolutely Right! And you even seem to have a growing crowd of supporters in re MacMillan's R&J, and I'm at least in your corner about that bit of Bayadere!
I did think, however, that all the extraneous characters in the Cabinet de Fees made a lot more sense when I found out that the original production's final tableau was arranged around a large image of Louis XIV, in order to celebrate the joys of autocracy. That still doesn't help silly choreography, though.

#7 Jenny Delaney

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Posted 18 November 1998 - 09:52 AM

Mel,

were we separated at birth or something like that? It's probably something about "great minds" and we'll just ignore anyone who mentions fools . . .

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 18 November 1998 - 10:32 AM

Re Sleeping Beauty, just out of curiosity, what silly choreography?

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 19 November 1998 - 08:19 AM

Well, for openers, there's alway the pas de howmany? that comes right after the polonaise. Now I ask you, folks, what was the last time you said to yourself, "Gee, I really miss the Florestan pas de trois (freely cribbed by Nijinska from Swan Lake)" or "I really thought the Ashton pas de quatre is some of his finest small-ensemble work" or "that Hop o' My Thumb variation is the greatest"? Now the "Red Riding Hood" and the "Cats" parts are fun to *do*, but after the first time seen, I have usually found them tiresome, except when livened by especially talented dancers (Adix Carman is the only Wolf I can even recall since the sixties). One of the worst problems the last-act divertissement has is that we know it from the 1921 Diaghilev revival, where all sorts of liberties were taken with the thing, even to the introduction of characters well-outside the Perrault tradition, like Innocent Ivan and His Brothers from "The Little Hump-Backed Horse". (Whey were they put in? There are two perfectly serviceable principals to do the coda of the pas de deux) They even included numbers from Act II Nutcracker. It would be very interesting (for me, anyway) to inspect the Sergeyev Stepanov notation of this scene to seen if the original choreography were transcribed in any way, or whether other factors may have been at play in the way we know the "Aurora's Wedding" scene today, with all of its ad hoc throwaway choreography, which usually doesn't mesh all that well with the surviving Petipa. Pusey Library, here I come!

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 19 November 1998 - 09:36 AM

I'd like to second your two points, that dances are boring "unless enlivened by especially talented performers" and the fact that much of what we see today is not the invention of Petipa -- or a choreographer of his level. I don't know of an Ashton pas de quatre in Sleeping Beauty (there may have been one in a production I missed) but his Florestan pas de trois is something I would gladly see frequently, as I would any of his classical choreography, which I never find dull or inferior. (Sorry M & J; know Mel posted this as a de gustibus thread, and therefore anything goes. But since Ballet Alert's self-appointed mission is to Save Ballet, especially the classics, I just had to jump in. I'll be even some of those dances in Bayadere and Raymonda that look "silly" to us wouldn't look that way if skilled character dancers tackled them.)
There are people working on the Stepanov notation -- even in Russia. There have been reports in the Dancing Times for the past several issues about this. I think there are some people working on it in America as well; problem is finding a company that can dance it.
This is not to say that, when facing seven Sleeping Beauties in a week done by X or Z company, I would not gladly pay the conductor to skip Cats, because I would. But I don't think that's Sleeping Beauty's fault. (BTW, when the Royal Danes did Helgi Tomasson's Sleeping Beauty a few years ago, one of their leading critis found the whole thing a bore except for cats, which he said -- not an exact quote -- was the only sexy thing in the ballet. Guess it all depends on what you're looking for when you go to the ballet, not to mention how one defines "sexy things.")

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited 11-19-98).]

#11 Jenny Delaney

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Posted 19 November 1998 - 10:44 AM

I'm not sure about the pas de quatre, but Ashton did one for Swan Lake that was revived by the Royal Ballet School for its 50th anniversary gala - maybe that's the one?

#12 cargill

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Posted 19 November 1998 - 12:08 PM

Ashton did a pas de quatre for Swan Lake, which is one of the most elegant pieces he did. I remember reading that he based the women's variations on the twist and the cha cha, because Sibley and Park were so good at those dances (I think Park got the twist and Sibley the cha cha.) One of the most facinating demonstrations I have ever seen of how a great choreographer can develope classical steps was Park demonstrating the twist and then almost imperceptively turning it into a classical variation. On the other topic, I think maybe one of the reasons some people find the 3rd act of Sleeping Beauty difficult (I myself love it) is that dancers now don't really know character dancing, and there isn't enough contrast between those dances and the purely classical variations of the Prince and Aurura. I do tend to have a snooze during the cats, but remember when I first saw them on TV when I was young, was enchanted. Most people haven't seen dozens of performances, and the ballet is really made for them.

#13 Mel Johnson

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Posted 20 November 1998 - 08:01 AM

As with all De Gustibus threads, everyone is absolutely right! (Ya have to do a bunch of Anglican seminary to be able to reconcile all these apparently contradictory viewpoints!)
Another trip to the archives and I have the program to the offending production of Beauty. The pas de quatre of the Fairies in Act III, together with some other eminently forgettable material was contributed by a frequent subject to the "White Elephants" and other threads here - MacMillan! This production didn't last too long (1973-77) and had sets by Peter Farmer, which moderated, but did not totally replace, the wrong-headed rechronologizing of the opening scenes to about Raymonda vintage, i.e. the Crusades, rather than going from late Renaissance to early Enlightenment. I remember thinking while watching it, "I want Oliver Messel!"
But back to the Florestan pas de trois for a bit - the choreography there is not Ashton's, but Bronislava Nijinska (who apparently also added the "fish dives" to the grand pas de deux [thank you, Bronia!]); she also did the "Three Ivans", replacing whatever coda there was to the pas de deux. I like Florestan, too, but the entree is a real crib from the Act I pas de trois in Swan Lake. As Tom Lehrer used to sing in "Lobachevsky" - "Plagiarize! Eet's vhy God made your eyes, so dun't shade your eyes, but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize! - Unly remember alvays to call eet please 'research'!" Always worked for me when I was stuck for choreography!
As for the Swan Lake pas de quatre, I agree that it's terrific, but maybe not in Swan Lake! - it struck me as having a life of its own, best seen independent of a full-evening multi-act production.

[This message has been edited by Mel Johnson (edited 11-20-98).]

#14 cargill

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Posted 20 November 1998 - 09:58 AM

Speaking of the horrendous Peter Farmer/Macmillan Sleeping Beauty, I was there on the opening night. It was a gala, but not terribly expensive, so there was a real ballet audience there (along with the Queen), and they just refused to applaud. The curtain calls were painful--just scattered claps for Farmer and Macmillan, and rapturous cheers for the dancers. There was a group call at the end, to almost dead silence, and the usher brought a huge bouquet to Deanne Bergsma (the most perfect Lilac Fairy I ever saw), she stepped forward, and the audience cheered their heads off. She stepped back, and everybody stopped applauding. The expression on her face was unforgettable! It was a truly vulgar production, and desered to be hooted off the stage--which in effect it was.

#15 Mel Johnson

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Posted 20 November 1998 - 07:16 PM

Now there's a real White Elephant story! That production really lives on in my memory as the worst Beauty I ever saw produced by a major company. Now that I can look it up, it only was offered 73-75, and then was heard no more. I did have the good fortune to see Jennifer Penney as Aurora, but not much else good can I recall about it. Oh, yes, Wayne Sleep as Hop O'My Thumb - but for his dancing, not the dance itself!


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