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Looking at old films

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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 04:15 PM

In an effort to make good use of being semi-bedridden from flu, I've been going through my pile of unviewed (or long-unviewed) films at home and thought I'd offer some impressions:

Western Symphony, NYCB ca. 1956, Paris

Allegro - Herbert Bliss Diana Adams
Adagio - Nicolas Magellanes Melissa Hayden
Scherzo - Robert Barnett Allegra Kent
Rondo - Tanaquil Leclercq Jacques D'Amboise

Just getting to put dancing to these names makes this tape a treasure for me. Tapes like this (and the Agon kinescope of 1960) are fascinating to document what has changed in ballet, and some of it's what's changed in society around us. Yes, we now a great deal more priority given to turnout and to a clean position in retiré. As I've written elsewhere, I think that's just a matter of emphasis in training. Once, men were told not to stretch as it would ruin their jump. A profound change between the Western or Agon of the fifties and the one we see today is the milieu of popular dance surrounding the dancers of each time. The dancers have a totally different carriage to their body, the positions are less exact, but that's because there's this constant upward spring to the body and little emphasis on a pose. I don't think it's just because of what they were taught in ballet class. Unlike today, most of those dancers had danced ballet and on Broadway and even actual social dances. How many contemporary social dances codified with steps are there in America beyond the hustle and line dancing? And the watchword of today's social dancing is, to quote Madonna, "Strike a pose", and we even see that in ballet, the trend is an emphasis in favor of the sculptural over the kinetic. I wonder if that outside milieu has to do more with changing styles in ballet than we might allow. And quite honestly, I don't really want dancers to stop working their turnout or doing retiré at the knee, but I wonder if it would be possible to recover some of that upward spring and lightness in the feet that was in these old performances.

Hayden's performance taught me something about the second movement role; one of the keys to putting it over seems to be a healthy sense of vanity. Hayden doesn't go for laughs at all, she goes for the Big Ballerina role she felt by rights was hers. It succeeds beautifully. Approach it like a Big Ballerina, and nobody, but NOBODY should be able to sway you from that conviction. Without risking injury, at least. Watch Kent in the third movement to be reminded of what a jumper she was. And in the fourth movement as That Girl in That Hat, Leclercq is a Life Force, with or without That Hat on. Watch all the men for their timing, which is almost anti-classical, but it makes sense here. Everything seems like a soft shoe. Was Balanchine using what was available, or was that in fact his intent? I don't think that question can be answered for certain (although one strong piece of evidence to the contrary might be that the timing was not maintained.)

I also watched the Dance in America recording of Allegro Brillante with Farrell and Martins. There's Stephen Caras, Heather Watts and Renée Estopinal in the corps. There's also Joe Duell and Tracy Bennet, both gone too soon. The difference between the young Farrell and the older Farrell is just fascinating - it's also fascinating that she still uses a mid-calf retiré in certain partnered pirouettes. By the time I was studying in the 80s that was on its way out. Victoria, can you comment on how teaching the position of retiré evolved?

#2 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 08:48 PM

Leigh, first let me say that I'm sorry you are ill, and hope that you are recovering quickly!

As to the retiré, I really don't know much about it's actual development, but I remember that many years ago a lower position was used in supported work, assumingly to protect the partner wink.gif That seemed to change over the years and the partners just learned to adjust to the higher position and keep their distance! When I first began learning pas de deux I was taught to lower the leg a bit from the regular position of pirouettes, but by the time I was actually performing that had already changed. So, in my professional lifetime, the retiré position has been the same, except that now I am seeing some people actually place the foot ABOVE the knee, which I find quite unattractive! It breaks the line, and no one can do it well without sickling the foot. Makes no sense, because they are still being taught to do it at the barre in the right place, and then they come to the center and do pirouettes with it at a higher place. What is that all about? I find this happens particularly with the male dancers who are Russian trained. Have no clue as to the theory behind it, but I do know that it does not work!

#3 Sonora


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Posted 07 March 2002 - 09:15 PM

Is it possible to find those films anywhere? Particularly those from the 50s - 60s...?

[ March 07, 2002, 09:16 PM: Message edited by: Sonora ]

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 March 2002 - 09:47 PM

Sonora - they were given to me as gifts. There are people out there with amazing collections.

#5 Sonora


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Posted 07 March 2002 - 11:10 PM

Hmm. I wish I knew some of those people!

#6 Guest_leggs_*

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 08:14 PM

Does anyone out there know where I can find the old ballet film"the unfinished dance" (1947)? I really want to watch it. I've tried all the oldie sites I could think of not to mention most of the video sites including ebay and half.com. Please help.

thanks, leggs


#7 Mel Johnson

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Posted 04 June 2002 - 03:14 AM

Save your time and money: The Unfinished Dance, although a Hollywood remake of Mort du Cygne, is one of those movies so dreadful that it exercises a sort of fascination on the viewer. "Oh, no they won't do THAT! Oh, Lord, yes they did!" My movie index book isn't close by, but if memory serves, it starred Cyd Charisse, Claire Bloom, and Danny Thomas?! Margaret O'Brien was the little girl, or was it the other little Margaret, O'Sullivan? It's one of those stuffed owl movies, like Girl of the Limberlost, so horrid you can't stop watching it. It's one of my candidates for a Rocky Horror audience participation showing, where the audience is invited to shout rude rejoinders to the dialogue and throw things.

#8 katharine kanter

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Posted 04 June 2002 - 08:20 AM

"Strike a pose", and we even see that in ballet, the trend is an emphasis in favor of the sculptural over the kinetic. "

You've said it in a a nutshell, Leigh ! that is our problem ! We've forgotten that dancing is supposed to be about dancing. Could we not leave sculpture to the sculptors ?

As for the low retiré, as you all know, in the Bournonville school even today the retiré is at ankle height for pirouettes.

If one sees the dance as something fluent, tripping off the tongue as it were, why not ?

Whereas, the high retiré is indispensable to a harder, jerkier, more spectacular style of dance. It fits into a mode where we have abandoned the "pas taquetés", the terre-à-terre and in-between steps, for the Biggies and the Punchies. We have been in the latter mode for a long time now Can one imagine Forsythe having retiré at the ankle, or at mid-calf ?!

And scraping the retiré up even beyond the knee is coherent with That Thing, the Hyperextended développé.

Again, by moving the retiré higher, as you all know, one gets greater impetu, and hence, more pirouettes. Being able to toss off multiples is an Absolute Value nowadays. Personally, I would have thought that two nice ones is gud n'uff, and then get on with the dancing bits, but I seem to be in a crowd of one, most of the time.

Would love to see that film footage you've been reviewing. Lucky you...

#9 dirac


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Posted 10 June 2002 - 10:43 AM

Ah, The Unfinished Dance. Another bullseye in MGM's ultimately successful crusade to waste the talent of Margaret O'Brien, the only child actor (apart from Haley Joel Osment) I ever had any use for. Briefly, ballet student Margaret idolizes Cyd Charisse; when a visiting prima, La Darina (Karin Booth), looks to be depriving Cyd of the lead in "Swan Lake," Margaret seeks to play Jeff Gilooly to Cyd's Tonya Harding, and plots an accident to take Darina out of commission. The accident winds up destroying Darina's career, while the undeserving Cyd goes on to fame and glory. Margaret feels bad.

leggs, I'm not sure if this was ever available on video. The only thing I can recommend is to keep checking eBay, just in case, and I've also found unexpected rarities in the Blockbuster discard bin from time to time. As Mel indicates, however, you're not missing anything, unless like me you have a thing for low camp. :(

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