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carbro

Is It Still a Masterpiece . . .

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An interesting issue has arisen in the Royal Ballet forum.

From Kate Lennard:

Month, now I'm sorry, but I have seen every cast since 1975 and none and I do mean none has come close to Seymour ever. It's sad as I do feel that Month is a masterpiece, but I have never seen it live up to its masterpiece status without Seymour.

and Leigh Witchel:
In less-than-ideal Ashton, as so in Balanchine, I feel it's still possible to look past certain performances into the ballet itself.  (Although if it's bad, or wrongheaded or dead enough, a performance can kill a work, but this wasn't even close to that.)

Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Concerto Barocco are all acknowledged masterpieces which have been seen with second-, third-, eighth-generation casts that illuminate them. They've also been danced by casts that don't have a clue, making the ballets look dull, pedestrian, so-what. But if only the original cast can translate the masterpiece-ness of a work, if subsequent dancers can't find the key, is it still a masterpiece?

Back to London tomorrow am to see The Dream and Symphony in C.  As for Sym in C, I shall not worry or carp if they dance it at least as well as NYCB would do Symphonic Variations :)  I think they're safe.

I'd put money on it, if I were you, Leigh!

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Taking the question generally, aside from the specifics of the discussion in the RB forum -- and it's a wonderful question, carbro!!!! -- I'm one of the "there's a platonic ballet out there somewhere" school, and that's what I want to see in a performance. I want to see the ballet. NOT the ballet as it was in 1841 or 1946, since I don't know what it looked like then, but a performance that lets me feel that I've seen the ballet. So I would say a masterpiece is a masterpiece. You may not like it, you may not be seeing the greatest performance of the ballet ever danced, but hey, that's not the ballet's fault.

In the "I like what I see before me" versus "It is NOT as it was with the first cast" discussions that we've had for six years on this board, I'd say they almost always break down to: those who saw the first cast vote for the "It's NOT the same" side, and those who didn't see it with the first cast are quite happy to see what they're seeing, especially if they like the dancers. I've had these discussions with friends, too, and it's never failed to happen that eventually, one off the "First cast phooey they're better now!" people will see a ballet that they had seen with its first cast become something else when danced by others and come round to the "It's just not the same as" side... at least with that one ballet! ("consummate performer in the role" can also be substituted for "first cast", of course. I know people who saw Galina Ulanova's Juliet and that's that. (I never saw it live, but I don't doubt them.)

Balanchine, clever fellow that he was, gave his ballets away to so many companies that alternate versions of the truth abound. As long as the steps are there and the structure is there -- and his scaffolding is made of the same material as the stone from which Arthur pulled the sword -- and at least a recognizable version of the Balanchine style is there, you see the ballet.

Ashton, who really truly wanted his ballets never to be danced by anyone except his first cast except, of course, he wanted his ballets to live :helpsmilie:, is harder. I wrote on the RB discussion that I got a jolt the first time I saw different bodies, and especially different feet, in Ashton's "A Month in the Country" (one of a very few Ashton ballets I saw from their first casts) because Ashton is such a textural choreographer -- one of the "ballet is a moving painting" school -- that if you fiddle with proportions, you're wrecking the painting. Yet you have to "wreck it" for the ballet to live, and in ballets like "La Fille Mal Gardee," which have been danced by many different bodies, one can still enjoy the ballet.

There's a good book on this -- Selma Jeanne Cohen's "Next Week, Swan Lake," which gets at the "what is the work?" issue. (Concept, steps, score, story, style.)

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Now that I have just seen, alas, The Royal Ballet in a Symphony in C that lived down to everyone's expectations I may have to rethink my position on this issue.

It was just absolutely, utterly wrong. They danced under themselves. They never went off their legs. And most bizarrely of all, the men acted like they were in Swan Lake, even crossing one arm across their chest while they waited (that was the point at which they needed to restrain me from getting on the stage and screaming)

I wonder if this is how British balletomanes feel when they see us do Symphonic. But then again, if no one in the US ever did Symphonic, I never would have seen it until I got here. So what to do?

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What a wonderful description :helpsmilie: I once saw the Kirov do "Lilac Garden" and it was absolutely unrecognizable. First of all, the spacing wasn't taut; there were holes the size of small oceans between the characters. More importantly, the ballerina was a Grand Tragic Diva AND, best of all, the Lover's concept of his role was "Great! Three solos!" I've never seen a ballet so happily distorted. These were all fine artists, and of course, the Kirov is a great company, so no flames, please :wub: It just wasn't Tudor.

But "Lilac Garden" is still a masterpiece :)

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Maybe what makes them masterpieces is that something beautiful still survives even when they aren't done correctly?

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Some styles translate better to other styles as well. In literature, German usually survives translation into English reasonably well, and Russian does not. The French seem to produce a more tolerable native version of Balanchine (it isn't American, but it isn't antithetical) than the English from the little I saw - maybe this was a fluke, but maybe the English and American styles don't translate as well as the French and Russian and the American?

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The Balanchine discussion is really interesting, especially as an American who now lives in the UK, and who only ever got to see the majority of B's ballets on tape, at a young age... I'm still a relatively new balletomane (whether I'm slinky or not is another story...)

That said, people here *love* the RB's Symphony in C, (at least the people I know), and many have also made it the reason to go to the current triple. When it was playing earlier this year, with Rhapsody, is when I saw it, with a very different cast, and I thought it looked spectacular. But, due to my lack of fluency in Balanchine's ballets, I probably wouldn't have noticed the differences the Leigh did. As I mentioned to Leigh, I really want to spend some time in NYC at some point, just to watch (now accepting donations to the ami1436 travel fund... :( )

I'm trying to think what other Balanchine I've seen the RB do - Agon (with a fab Zen Yanowsky), Prodigal Son, and Apollo... probably some more but those are the ones I most clearly remember. I really enjoyed all, and enjoy the full-length Apollo! But, then again, there are probably some differences that I'm not trained enough to notice.... And now I wish I'd gone to see this cast in S in C, just to see if the casts performed it differently as well.

I've also never seen another company do Symphonic, or Enigma Variations, etc... There's some Ashton and MacMillan that I just can't imagine on another company. I even thought there was a huge difference between the Five Brahm Waltzes that BRB did for the Ashton Celebration last year and the performance of it that I saw here with Tamara Rojo... I didn't enjoy it at all the first time around, and loved it with the RB. (Or maybe just with Tamara?). What else might compare? K-Ballet and the RB do Rhapsody *very* differently... At the RB it's more subtle. I think Alexandra's comment on the texture of Ashton holds true there, and also for Wedding Bouquet.

All this to say that I've enjoyed what I've seen, and it would probably take a lot of convincing to make me think that what I've thought were masterpieces (to me...) weren't. But then, I also usually like certain casts in certain things, and forever end up doing the comparison as well. Hmm. And as Leigh says, that I'd also rather see things then not... Even if it's not by the 'proper' company or 'proper' dancers, I'd grab any opportunity to see something I haven't. So, do I find things masterpieces simply because I don't know better, or, because, as Mme. Hermine says, something is inherently beautiful about them? I don't know... I think I have to think some more!

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Like Ami 1436, my most recent viewings of Balanchine -- and other major choreographers -- has been filtered through performances that have been generated far from the original source. In my case, this involves an excellet American regional company

I suspect that Alexandra is right when she speaks about a platonic ideal underlying the greatest choreography..

Balanchine, clever fellow that he was, gave his ballets away to so many companies that alternate versions of the truth abound.  As long as the steps are there and the structure is there -- and his scaffolding is made of the same material as the stone from which Arthur pulled the sword -- and at least a recognizable version of the Balanchine style is there, you see the ballet.

I also find myself agreeing at heart with Mme. Hermine ....

Maybe what makes them masterpieces is that something beautiful still survives even when they aren't done correctly?

It certainly helps to have seen other, beautifully done and authentic productions first. My early memories of Apollo -- d'Amboise (late 50s and later, and still my favorite :( ), Villella ((1960s) Baryshnikov (NYCB days), Peter Martins (early 80s), and others tucked away just beyond reach of memory -- actually helped me to appreciate so many elements of the role, the relation of steps and music, and the larger structure when I saw it live a few years ago with 2 different, younger, and less experienced casts at Miami City Ballet. (Of course, that's a truly great ballet. And it WAS produced by Edward Villella's company with restaging by someone from the Balanchine Trust --so the authentic "scaffolding" was definitley there.)

I don't know what I'd think about about the Royal's Symphony in C -- surely one of Balanchine's ballets that has had the widest dispersal to other companies (of different sizes and quality) all around the world. I guess I'd ask: was it well danced despite that? How far removed, really, were the stylistic differences from the original? Enough to sink the entire ballet? Was the ballet itself still beautiful, joyous, heart-lifting despite the deviations in style? Did the dancers appear to be enjoying themselves (a bit requirement, I think, for this ballet). I hope these would be the tests for me.

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If the only dancers to really do A Month in the Country right were the original cast members, then I would say "yes" resoundingly. Even more than Symphonic Variations, which I could recognize as a great work, even if it didn't move me, I was floored by A Month in the Country. It was performed by Sandra Conley as Natalia Petrovna, David Wall as Beliaev, David Drew as Yslaev, Douglas Howes as Kolia, Gillian Kingsley as Vera, Derek Rencher as Rakitin, Jacqui Fallis as Katia, and a dancer whose last name was Conway as Malvei. (I think I've written either "Ch" for Charles, or "A") The ballet was performed during the Royal Ballet's 1981 tour to New York.

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