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Balanchine's Ballets -- Has Performance Quality Dropped?

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Balanchine at NYCB is NOT in a state of decline since Peter Martins took over for the simple reason that if it was, it would have become NOTHING by now! The critics have been complaining about this 'decline' forever.

Personally I think we need new critics who aren't so hung up on the past. :)

Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, 23 September 1990, pg. 9, Robert Greskovic interviews Peter Martins:

"Pointe-Blank With Peter Martins The man now in charge of New York City Ballet answers his critics as he gives new direction to the Balanchine legend"

"Q: Does the Balanchine repertory being performed today look better, worse, or the same as it did under Balanchine?

A: OK, I'll open myself up for attack. I think it looks better. Given the circumstances, given the dancers, and I'm not saying I prefer the dancers who dance his ballets today to the dancers who danced them when he was around. I'd say better without a doubt because there's much more attention than was given to them when he was around. He'd take "Symphony in C" off the shelf two days before and give it 1 1/2 hours and put it out there and it'd look like a nightmare. And, by the fifth performance it got pretty all right. He could get away with it. We realize we can't. We simply put more time into Balanchine ballets than he ever did."

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1990 was a long time ago. There were several ballets danced in Washington this season and last that were very noticeably below the level at which they were danced during Balanchine's day. It's not just a comparison to the past, it's a comparison to a standard. There are performances at different companies that DO meet the standard. The dancers are different, and the ballets may be danced very differently. For example, no one is like Merrill Ashley in "Ballo." No one has that texbook crispness. But there have been many satisfying interpretations of that ballet, and performances by the cast as a whole that meet the standard of technique, musicality and all the unquantifiable things that go into making a ballet.

This is a discussion that's difficult to have amongst people with different experiences with the company. If you saw NYCB regularly before 1980, you may well see a difference now. If you came to the company after 1980, and love it, you may say, "Oh, it's just fine" and then obviously anyone who disagrees must be "wallowing in nostalgia," "have an agenda," or "memory problems" (they must be OLD, mustn't they?) :) But one thing that I've seen happen over and over and over -- on this forum, and in real life as well -- the first time you see a ballet that you know well danced poorly, then chances are you understand what other people are saying and will find yourself saying the same thing.

I think Rachel Howard said it quite well -- and I'm not "outing" her as a young critic, because she has a picture on her web site :ermm: It is possible to come to Balanchine 25 years after his repertory was alive and under his hand and see the differences. It's also easy to get used to what one sees regularly as "the ballet" and not be aware of changes in levels of performance, until one sees something that either jogs a memory or makes something one read make sense.

I shill for this out of print book regularly. If you're interested in Balanchine, keep an eye on www.alibris.com or other used book sites for Nancy Reynold's "Repertory in Review." It covers the entire NYCB (and predecessor company) repertory until 1976, lists the original cast, has extensive quotes from NY and other reviews, interviews with dancers, etc., all to the purpose of getting to what was the work, what was the intention, what did it look like when it was new, and how did it change.

Edited by Alexandra

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One difficulty I have with this ongoing and often rather testy debate about whether or not the NYCB has declined/is declining in the Balanchine repertoire is that it would help to have some analysis of specific areas in which the company has or has not changed since the Balanchine days.

During an interview published in the latest Dance View, former SAB soloist and current SAB teacher Susan Pilarre, refers to several Balanchinian qualities. Among them are SPEED, LIGHTNESS, ELONGATION ("move big"). I would add, from my own experience of the NYCB in the 1950s-70s, a wonderful theatricality, engagement, and stage presence. (The Martins Swan Lake, as broadcast on PBS several years ago, is certainly the dullest most pro forma version I have ever seen, despite excellent dancing.)

It would help those of us not fortunate enough to know all the current dancers and repertoire intimately if posters would refer specifically to WHAT aspects of the current NYCB are worse than/better than/the same then/ or merely different from dancing and staging the Balanchine ballets today as compared to the previous generation.

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Bart, I think what you, Ms. Pilarre and Ms. Howard above have said pretty much do it :) I think it's important you the performance let you see the ballet clearly, see the choreography. Sometimes critics will write about the "architecture" -- especially of one of the leotard ballets. Because the lines have to be so vivid and so accurate, like a building. And, like a building, if they're not, the structure (be it building or ballet) will sag, collapse, crumble.

I will give one example. The "Theme and Variations" that I saw here a few weeks ago was just plain soggy. I got no sense of courtliness or grandeur. The women in the corps looked raw and green. And in the two performances I saw, they did not have the technical strength to dance it. They didn't have the speed, they didn't have the strength to have the speed, they didn't dance the steps cleanly. The decline in technique is something I've been told by former dancers with the company.

I think when you have the opportunity to see a lot of ballets throughout a season, or across seasons, it's easier to make accurate generalizations. It's hard to know causes. Schooling? Company classes? Lax attitude by ballet masters? Not enough rehearsal time? Miscasting? Differences among stagers and coaches? All of the above?

The Robbins ballets we saw looked very well-rehearsed and very clean. I could quibble with some of the casting, but I could see the ballets, and I don't ask for much more these days.

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In the Balanchine lore, one of his most frequently cited quotes is, "What are you saving it for?" During his day (I started attending regularly around 1973) (YIKES!), the performances were often raggedy, arms were often fly-away (or fly every-which-way), and unison seemed to be an accident. In his one-act Swan Lake, you could see 24 different girls doing 24 different things at 24 different times, but it always looked alive, spontaneous to the moment and important.

The first thing that Martins did was tidy things up. Arms were more controlled, unison was imposed, and while this was, to a degree, an improvement, it also robbed the performances of the sense of immediacy. In a few years, the dancers looked drilled. They were like machines executing steps, and the dance quality was gone. In addition, no one on stage looked particularly happy to be there.

My attendance plummeted from 3-4 times a week to 3-4 times a season, and I was refusing to see some of my favorite ballets, because the poor performances they were given just broke my heart.

In the past three or so years, there is new life at City Ballet. I am back several times a week (as programs and casts warrant), and while some performances can be underrehearsed or flat, or some look tired, the general level is pretty high. Do I miss the old days? Yes. But less than I did.

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I remember raggedy performances from the '70s, but not in every ballet. He's on record on the PBS biography, in the voice over talking about "Divertimento," that in that ballet he wanted clean lines (and the dancing, while not the best I've ever seen in Divert, is very clean, very classical). He didn't want a regimented corps in the sense of a neat corps, like the Royal Ballet in the 1960s, where every arm and leg was at the same angle, I agree, and in the fast finales, especially, you could see an exuberant messiness. In other works, especially, again, the Stravinsky ballets, there was a geometric rigor. (I also remember some dismal performances of "Serenade" in the mid-'70s, but then a year or two year the ballet was renewed; there was always a sense of one person overseeing things.)

Like Carbro, I remember that the dancing "always looked alive, spontaneous to the moment and important." The performances I've seen in New York the past few years have been more mellow than exciting. Spontaneity is very hard to maintain for 25 years. I'm with those who see as one of the differences that once the company was dancing to please someone -- i.e., Mr. B -- and now that's gone.

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....I shill for this out of print book regularly.  If you're interested in Balanchine, keep an eye on www.alibris.com or other used book sites for Nancy Reynold's "Repertory in Review."

Hope I'm not distorting, by editing.

Alexandra, you had me running for the dictionary – shill –(noun) a decoy who acts as an enthusiastic customer in order to stimulate the participation of others; (verb) to be false, to be dishonest. Who are we talking about?

Yes, Nancy’s book is a treasure. Had a hard time finding it. Do you know ‘Ballet Chronicle’ by B.H. Haggin (ISBN 0-8180-0402-9). Apart from the unique text, weekly, monthly, descriptions of performances, has 250 fotos, sequential of a dance movement. The Jewels sequence is superb: Verdi in Emeralds, McBride in Rubies “…’the goddamnest pas de deux ever!’… the seeming ultimate in newly imagined inflection of their body by sharp, perverse, grotesque thrusts, twist and bends, all contrived with and heightened the effect of, Stravinsky’s powerfully sculptured melody…”, Ferrell in Diamonds. An astonishing study of LeClerk and Magallanes in Le Baisér de la Fée.

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It seems to me that those who consider the NYCB to be in decline tend to be more specific and detailed in their criticisms than those who disagree, or who, like Carbro, think it has improved at least in recent years.

Partisans of Peter Martins, what do you actually SEE on the stage that makes you so positive about the way the NYCB dances Ballenchine today? What FEELINGS does this dancing evoke in you?

Those of us whose local companies are Balanchine influenced (passionately so, in the case of Miami) have a stake in this debate even if we can't get to NY as often as we like.

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balletaime, my use of the word "shill" was intended to be ironic -- I've recommended it so often I'm always afraid someone WILL think I have an interest in it! (Irony is hard to get across on the internet, of course! )Yes, I know "Ballet Chronicles," an interesting collection.

Bart, to be fair, I think it's always harder to point out specifics of WHY one likes something or thinks it's good. It's as difficult as trying to prove a negative. (Not meaning to discourage anyone from trying!)

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“my use of the word "shill" was intended to be ironic -- I've recommended it so often I'm always afraid someone WILL think I have an interest in it!”

It was successful! Since I did not buy it on ebay, your INTEREST seems benign.

Edited by Balletaime

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balanchine performances in the "really" early days left many of the audiences floating out of the theater on a ballet cloud, in a state of exhilaration

hard to explain, but the feeling was that all was ok with a world that had such things in it

addicts were created

i thought that as an "old" devotee, i had become jaded and impossible to impress

however, that old feeling does arise every so often, so i don't think i've changed -- it's the dancing that's changed

well -- i attend now mostly to analyze the choreography, since the dancing does not get my full attention -- and to listen to stravinsky, et al

not as good a situation as before, but i realize that i missed a lot of the choreographic structure while watching farrell, etc.

the newbies have missed city ballet's golden years, and -- of course -- don't know what they've missed -- they have my sympathy

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I found some neat videos of NYCB performances on the internet some are old some from just a few years ago, it seems they are being used as part of a college class in ballet appreciation.

So what's not to like about this Stars 'n' Stripes? It's wonderful! :)

Let me point out some moments I thought were interesting in the Stars2 clip...

Damian Woetzel from minute 2 through 2:30 shows a wonderful lightness on his feet which I found thrilling!

I love the saluting that Margaret Tracey does throughout she is so sweet!

From 3:10 I notice Teresa Reyes in the blue, my eye is drawn to her over the dancer in the pink there is something very elegant to me about how Teresa moved there, especially in comparison with the other girl.

When the flag goes up at 4:02 it is enough to wake the dead!

Do you think that NYCB did this ballet better in 1958? I've seen a film of d'Amboise

I don't feel he is any more interesting than Woetzel.

This post was edited to remove links copyrighted material.

Edited by Dale

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I only started looking at the company seriously in the 1980s, so I won't and can't dismiss the complaints of earlier viewers. But I also can't view the company with their eyes; I didn't live in that era; I wasn't viewing the dancers. I am watching these dancers, today. It's my job to know the criticisms; it's also my job to look at what's in front of me and there is plenty to be gotten from what is onstage, now.

I've looked at early tapes of the company. I only have a worm's eye view, but it seemed to me the dancers weren't better or worse. That viewpoint took time. As a dancer trained in the 80s, on initial viewing it seemed their facility was a lot worse. It took a few viewings to see what they had that my generation didn't. They're different. Things are emphasized in training now that were not then.

The dancers in the 1960 tape of Agon available in the library don't have the turnout or extension of dancers two decades or more later. Nor the feet (pointe shoes are better now as well). However, the later dancers tend to emphasize positions rather than movement for this very reason. The dancers in the 1960 tape had a completely different musicality with an emphasis upwards, and also did not emphasize the pose at the end of the phrase. I prefer the musicality of the earlier dancers, but the physicality of later ones, even if overbred. I'm not sure you can get both in the same body - that quick light upwards response may only look right a less flexible, more wiry body.

I don't think current dancers are technically inferior to earlier ones, nor the reverse, though I do believe facility has improved and the overall level has risen through competition. The demands in classes have changed. Ashley Bouder, a wonderful dancer, didn't have the initial stamina to get through a brief variation Balanchine choreographed for Leda Anchutina in 1935. (In fairness to Bouder, she also tried this after three hours of rehearsal and filming). But it probably looked different when Anchutina did it.

When setting a ballet, I think the ballet master needs to take all of this into account, especially when teaching company classes. If you're doing La Bayadere, you need to develop the strength in your corps to hold those arabesques down the ramp, and you do that in class. That strength will also get you through Les Sylphides. It doesn't make sense to try and set the ballet only in the rehearsal studio. That effort needs to be coordinated with company classes. But blaming this on the dancers is unfair. That's the job of the artistic leadership.

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Leigh may have hit it with the distinction between emphasizing position (recent and current dancing) v. emphasizing movement (older dancers).

Fans can admire the former; nostalgics like me can long for the latter. Different priorities, not necessarily better or worse in some ultimate sense.

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Leigh may have hit it with the distinction between emphasizing position (recent and current dancing) v. emphasizing movement (older dancers). 

Fans can admire the former; nostalgics like me can long for the latter.  Different priorities, not necessarily better or worse in some ultimate sense.

i don't think the dancers are the problem: whelan, soto and boal are peerless

overall artistic quality of the productions is not good

thus, the lackluster "jewels", "orpheus", et al; the miscasting; the sense that dancers are just "doing steps", etc.

some small companies, such as suzanne farrell's and leigh witchel's groups seem to "get it" and therefore put on marvelous programs, using what they have most wonderfully: why can't nycb, with all its resources?

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I have been watching NYCB for a number of years, and I do think there has been a recent, and puzzling, loss of what I can only say is a classical rigor, including demeanor. I see it most in the Petipa and after-Petipa ballets. Peter Martin's Sleeping Beauty was really quite wonderful the first year (despite some of the flaws in the production); NYCB had some very good Auroras and some wonderful supporting dancers (though the music was TOO FAST). The last time--a couple of years ago--NYCB did it, they could barely struggle through it, falling off point, or just falling in general, not to mention not being able to keep in some degree of unison. They just looked weak overall, as well as stylistically completely at sea. Since Petipa was the basis for Balanchine, I don't think it is surprizing that some of their more classical Balanchine looks raw some of the time.

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cargill, would you like to tell us which years you've been watching NYCB?

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charlieloki:

"overall artistic quality of the productions is not good" :rolleyes:

Let's not have sweeping generalizations, could you be a little less insulting to NYCB? :P

Leigh:

"The dancers in the 1960 tape of Agon available in the library don't have the turnout or extension of dancers two decades or more later"

This causes me to prefer the dancers today and look upon the old days as lacking sophistication, the 50's and 60's I mean. The first NYCB performance I went to was just a few years ago!

Bart:

"... distinction between emphasizing position (recent and current dancing) v. emphasizing movement (older dancers). Fans can admire the former; nostalgics like me can long for the latter. Different priorities, not necessarily better or worse in some ultimate sense."

This is why I think new critics are needed the 'dinosaurs' are constantly looking for the obsolete style which is not 'better.'

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nycdog - if you take my quote and say it shows that the dancers from the 1960s lack sophistication, than I have not at all made my point.

Facility turnout, extension, natural turning ability) is only one aspect of a dancer, but a prodigious one. In the wrong hands, it's a blunt instrument.

Watch the 1960 tape of Agon a few times. It's available at the NYPL. Those dancers are extremely sophisticated. When Arthur Mitchell coached his own dancers in Agon at another taping, the one thing the dancers could not achieve was his placement, and the weight of his body on the balls of his feet, yet pushing into the floor at the same time. I'm not sure they even saw it. It came from all the social dance Mitchell did, dances that have vanished from the lexicon.

In Rep in Review, Maria Tallchief, when discussing La Valse, talks about Balanchine asking her "for a German sort of plastique". The fact that this conversation would probably never take place today because the dancers haven't had an eclectic and far ranging enough schooling is probably the greatest loss of all.

Today's company is my company; these are the dancers I know. I'm not playing a dirge for NYCB, but to dismiss earlier generations is not to see them for what they could do and to be unable to learn from it.

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This is why I think new critics are needed the 'dinosaurs' are constantly looking for the obsolete style which is not 'better.'

Oh dear. As a critic, I would like to speak up for my colleagues.

While I know that some people are disappointed in the current state of ballet, and express that opinion often, I don't really think of them as engaged in a search for the obsolete. They may wish that certain works were still in active repertories, or that certain performance styles were still prevalent, but these desires come mostly from the knowledge that works not performed are lost -- that stylistic practices influence the guts of the performance. Critics are not all conservative by nature, but most are sympathetic to conservators -- those who work to retain the art already made.

We've all heard myriad variations on the "dance is an ephemeral art form" theme (I confess I have committed some of them myself), but it's no less true for being hackneyed. I know I'm always interested in seeing something done new, but I'm less excited about it if it supplants or replaces older work. I'm a greedy girl -- I want all of it, and many of my colleagues feel the same way.

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charlieloki is offering an opinion, which is what this board is for?

"insulting"?

not at all, just stating a perception arrived at from a background of budget-breaking attendance at nycb for over thirty years

you know, after a time, there is an almost mystical proprietary feeling about nycb -- sort of, "what are they doing to my company?"

does anyone else out there feel that way?

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I know that many BT posters, myself included, have that proprietary feeling about NYCB, charlieloki, but that doesn't mean that we all agree about the way the company is being run now -- or the way it was run in the past, for that matter.

The issue posed by this thread is, unfortunately, complicated by the feelings that some people have about Peter Martins. His personality, his conflicts with other Balanchine people, and the things he's quoted as saying in interviews have engendered a lot of animosity towards him, and some of those anti-Martinsites tend to heap blame on him for everything. It can be hard, in this polarized atmosphere, to evaluate his leadership objectively, to see both the good and the bad. But that's what we're trying to do here, both in this thread and in general. Emotion has its place in talking about ballet, but it should never overrule judgement.

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Bart:

"... distinction between emphasizing position (recent and current dancing) v. emphasizing movement (older dancers).

I may be wrong, but I thought the latter emphasis was considered an essential part of the Balanchine style, related the musicality that was as important to him. And wouldn't this distinction also explain the relative lack of abandon to be seen in the current company?

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The issue posed by this thread is, unfortunately, complicated by the feelings that some people have about Peter Martins.  His personality, his conflicts with other Balanchine people, and the things he's quoted as saying in interviews have engendered a lot of animosity towards him, and some of those anti-Martinsites tend to heap blame on him for everything.  It can be hard, in this polarized atmosphere, to evaluate his leadership objectively, to see both the good and the bad.  But that's what we're trying to do here, both in this thread and in general.  Emotion has its place in talking about ballet, but it should never overrule judgement.

You're so right, Ari. That's why I haven't joined in this discussion.

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kfw - the motion/position dichotomy is said all the time, but the changes that I saw happening to Agon, including a transition to what I see as an emphasis on positions, happened when the ballet was completely and solely under Balanchine's supervision. And the newer dancers were (metaphorically) bred to his specifications. You can't say it's not part of Balanchine style. The 1982 tape of Agon is admittedly late, but it's dancers that he chose and had been doing it a while, especially Watts. He taught her the ballet. They're still his dancers.

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