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Where is the comedy?Two guys walk into a barre ...


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#1 Cliff

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 09:29 PM

Reviews and discussions of two recent ballets, Kudella's Cinderella and Cranko’s Jeu de Cartes, mentioned something quite rare: comedy. Romantic comedies are a staple in film, but dance remains deadly serious. Why is this?

Do all the major choreographers just happen to lack a sense of humor? Even when a Jester appears in some versions of Swan Lake there isn't any humor. Maybe the long years of training stamps out humor in dancers. The aristocratic traditions of ballet could preclude comedy. Except that with the radical changes of modern dance in the 20th century one would expect some loosening up. A non-verbal art makes humor more difficult, but pantomine and slapstick are still available. Do women, the majority of the audience, dislike non-verbal comedy?

#2 carbro

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 10:03 PM

I beg to differ with your premise, Cliff. I think there has always been humor in ballet, at least as far back as the 18th century's The Whims of Cupid. We have Coppelia and La Fille Mal Gardee -- maybe not quite in their original forms, but near enough to see that they were conceived with humor. Don Q, when you get down to it, is a comic ballet. But I think the reason so few comedic ballets have survived or are granted the status of the tragic ones is the same reason why so few comedic films get awards -- they are deemed "less important". Or perhaps the actor's saying applies even more strongly to the non-verbal form: Death is easy; comedy is hard.

Too bad, because both laughter and tears are both essential to emotional health.

I don't think women dislike non-verbal comedy per se. Speaking as only one member of that demographic, though, I rarely laugh at slapstick. Visual comedy need not be slapstick. Have you seen Robbins' The Concert?

#3 bart

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 12:35 PM

This is a topic that I hope will bring out comments from the experts. Please!

Maybe if we develop a list of works, roles, and especially portions of choreography that have truly made us laugh, we can get somewhere.

Story ballets tend to pursue comedy either by means of plot or characterization. However, as countless performances of grimly unfunny buffa operas can attest, this approach depends very heavily on the ability of individual performers. I personally have never found anyone who could make, for example, Balanchine's Coppelia truly funny. Or Jeu de Carte, or Fille Mal Gardee, or the party seen in Nutcracker. The Stepsisters (as played by Ashton and ??) were funny for just a few minutes, IMO, after which they became rather tedious.

Choreographic wit (including the ability to distort and provide a commentary on standard balletic movements, or undercut our expectations of what is going to happen next) is quite another matter. Balanchine has many such moments that are genuinely funny. The first time I saw a Balanchine flexed foot when I expected a pointed toe I laughed aloud.

#4 sandik

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 12:51 PM

Ashton's Wedding Bouquet is full of fun (both laughs as well as smiles) as much for the visual humor as for the Gertrude Stein text.

And there are some very funny bits in his Facade. (the milkmaid...)

#5 dirac

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 02:22 PM

Thank you, cliff, for starting a very interesting topic.

A non-verbal art makes humor more difficult, but pantomine and slapstick are still available.
True, but not, I suggest, as living traditions. The pantomime comedy tradition that produced Ashton’s Ugly Sisters isn’t available to us in the same way it was to Ashton when he was brought up. Slapstick is still with us, sort of, but the music hall performers and vaudevillian virtuosi who perfected it are not, and this shows when most contemporary comedians try their hand at true physical comedy.

More comments, please!

#6 atm711

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 03:13 PM

Maybe if we develop a list of works, roles, and especially portions of choreography that have truly made us laugh, we can get somewhere.





Off the top of my head---

Helen of Troy (Lichine/Offenbach) featured an apple munching Jerome Robbins as Hermes, a combination MC and Greek Chorus.

Tally-Ho (DeMille/Gluck)

Gala Performance (Tudor/Prokofiev)

---and any Eifman ballet :beg:

#7 Hans

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 04:00 PM

"Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet" is hilarious, and I second carbro's mention of "The Concert."

#8 Helene

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 04:11 PM

I add a third to The Concert, my favorite ballet comedy, although Fancy Free, which isn't a comedy, per se, but has enough funny elements to be one, comes close.

Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow has a lot of humor in it. Push Comes to Shove (Tharp) and before (Adam) have a lot of humor as well; I guess Haydn scores encourage it. I got the impression that some of the parts of Tharp/Robbins collaboration Brahms-Handel was deliberately humorous in parts.

There are a lot of ballets where people laugh, even though it's not supposed to be humorous. Often first-time Serenade-goers laugh when the corps opens into first position at the beginning of the ballet.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 04:25 PM

There is John Cranko's peerless "Jeu des Cartes" and "Pineapple Poll", Ruthanna Boris' near-classic "Cakewalk" (gotta love Hortense, Queen of the Swamp Lilies), Robert Joffrey's 1965 (or "easy version) of his "Pas des Déesses", where the Great Ballerinas' hostility is just a mite above the simmering point, and of course, if we talk about the Great Ballerinas, Tudor's "Gala Performance" and "Judgment of Paris" have to be included in the top ten list.

#10 Cliff

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 08:58 PM

Have new choreographers introduced comedy into the Diamond Project? Or is it too risky? Then there is continual tinkering of story ballets, yet adding a little humor seems to be verboten. I think there is opportunity here. Certainly a Monty Pythons Spamalot ballet would draw a lot of newcomers.

#11 carbro

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Posted 06 June 2006 - 09:45 PM

I personally have never found anyone who could make, for example, Balanchine's Coppelia truly funny.

My most memorable Coppelias -- NYCB or otherwise -- are the ones in which the dancers emphasize the darker sides of the story. But even with that, Swanilda's Act I mime, with her imitations of the smitten Franz and the smiting "girl" are humorous. Much of the action in the Doc's workshop is funny -- his tossing the drinks over his shoulder, pulling Franz by the ear, Swanilda reading over the Doc's shoulder, etc. Of course, the culmination of the act is devastating. Categorizing it as a comedy may have been overstating it, but the score is so light and effervescent, it works against shattering of Coppelius' dream.

#12 perky

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Posted 07 June 2006 - 05:10 AM

I don't think women dislike non-verbal comedy per se. Speaking as only one member of that demographic, though, I rarely laugh at slapstick. Visual comedy need not be slapstick. Have you seen Robbins' The Concert?



Well as a woman I hate the Three Stooges but I love Monty Python with it's Ministry of Silly Walks. I guess I dislike slapstick if that's all it is. The old Peter Sellers Pink Panther movies had plenty of visual humor, but wasn't bang bang pie in the face kind of humor it slowly but humorously built to a raucous finish, ( I'm thinking of the Inspector, Cato "practice" fights in his apartment.)

As far as humorous ballets, I pick the above mentioned The Concert as being one of the best. I also remember a visit to New York in the late 80's where I saw a murder mystery spoof ballet at ABT called Murder that I enjoyed. I think personally I prefer the subtle humor of Balanchine's Union Jack, Tzigane and Western Symphony.

#13 Treefrog

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Posted 09 June 2006 - 03:02 PM

Cranko's Taming of the Shrew always has me rolling in the aisles. Here's what I said in my review when the Joffrey performed it several years ago:

Davis Robertson was commanding and powerful as the caddish Petruchio -- and also amusing as the drunk, denuded and debauched Petruchio. Did I mention that this ballet is simply a hoot? I can't remember ever laughing so much at the ballet.



#14 Amy Reusch

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Posted 09 June 2006 - 08:04 PM

It's been a while since I've seen these, but I do remember there being humor in them...: (truly laughing or just giggling, I'm not so sure now)

Filling Station
Graduation Ball
Stars & Stripes
Western Symphony

Lesser known:
Just One of Those Things (Christopher d'Amboise)
The Elevator (Leigh Witchel)
In a Nutshell (Gordon Peirce Schmitt)
The Scrapple Divertissements (Elkins) - Now this one I do remember truly laughing!

#15 sandik

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Posted 09 June 2006 - 09:23 PM

The Scrapple Divertissements (Elkins) - Now this one I do remember truly laughing!


Just the title is making me giggle!

I know that the subject here is ballets which are intentionally funny, but you might want to consider the Trocks -- even though Go for Barocco is a parody of an existing work rather than cut from whole cloth, it is quite funny.


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