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What are the 5 or 10 "best" ballet companies?

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All comparisons are odious, they say. And all rankings are subjective, they also say. But we do tend to think in these terms from time to time. :devil:

If you were forced at gunpoint to list the 5 best companies in the world (OR the 10 best, for those with a lot of experience who want to take on a more difficult task), which would you put on your list? How about just in North America?

A related questions: what variables go into making a company one of the "the best"?

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Any list that doesn't include your local company, Miami City Ballet, is, IMO, incomplete. None I have seen can match its combination of passion, integrity and graciousness.

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Thanks, carbro. Actually, I wasn't thinking so much about Miami as about the general legitimacy making such lists. My post was triggered by seeing an ad for a regional company (not Miami) which bills itself as "One of America's 20 best ballet companies." What could that possibly mean in practice?

Perhaps I should have put the question differently: how do you measure "the best" when it comes to ballet companies.

We have had posts on this topic before, but there never seems to be agreement. What are the variables we include when we think about a company as one of "the best"? Size? Budget? History? Breadth of repertoire? Number of performances? Extent of touring? Critical reviews? Consistency of performance level? Having a recognizable company "style"? Just because we see them a lot and get to love certain individual dancers? Because they issue dvds for world-wide sale?

A couple of names on one of the most common top-five lists -- Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal, Paris, NYCB -- have been questioned recently. Top five in North America? NYCB, ABT, NBof Canada, San Francisco... and then what?

And how about the big-/ medium-/ small-company divide? A smaller company, which does fewer performances of fewer ballets a year, actually has to perform "better" (in the sense of more consistently) than vast companies with huge schedules which can afford to throw away a certain number of performances a year for whatever reason. If you buy 3 tickets a year to one of those large companies, and each performance is an off night, is it a "best" company for you? (We certainly have seen plenty of reviews in BT recently about NYCB, ABT, the Royal, the Kirov, and no doubt others which have fallen into that category.)

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Any list that doesn't include your local company...

I think Carbro is right, but in the extended meaning quoted. A very important aspect of ballet pleasure is watching the same ballets and (especially) same dancers frequently. My home company is NYCB, which in many senses is great anyway. But even on its (too often) worst days I can come home enriched by some dancer's growth or new magic, that I might have missed but for context created by familiarity.

Any of the Big 6 (the above five + RDB), can be transcendent or crappy on any given day. They are worth seeing because of what they can and might do, and one great value of BT is that it can help guide you as to what to see to maximise the experience. A careful reader in DC would have known to give Bolshoi's DQ with Osipova/Vasiliev a look, for instance. Of the Big 6, I suspect the Bolshoi, since a year or two ago, is most likely to give a great experience to many people. It is my choice for #1.

But, speaking locally, NYCB's recent Gergiev night delivered the goods. Not only Bouder's already hyped Firebird, reaching a new high (one might have seen the chance, with the combo of her musicality and a specialist in Firebird conducting), but also that local thing, discovering that hot young dancer Sara Mearns, debuting in a Farrell role, had (not before noted) great footwork.

As for American Top 5, how can one not include PNB? From what we can read on BT, it has a remarkably high batting average.

Sure, see the Big Guys if you can, selectively, but support your own company and you can find great pleasure too. Rankings are just numbers, and the only way numbers count is that the dancers get their counts right.

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My "top ten" invariably includes the State Academic St Petersburg Ballet Theatre (what a mouthfull!). Not Tatchkin's theatre, by the way. Their technical proficiency, professionalism and beautifully executed choreography seem to me to warrant this.

On what basis to decide if a company is "great"? I think one should add the number of famous individuals the company boast/ed. This is not necessarily fair on the actual company, but I think it has a great influence on how the company is percieved by the public.

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So far I've read about companies that should not be left out, but I've yet to see a list! There's a number one, but no further numbers. After ruminating the considerations put forth in the preceding posts, it is hard to come up with a list, I agree. Is there someone gutsy enough to put their neck on the line and produce one?

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Generally the Big Five (Kirov, Bolshoi, Paris, Royal, New York City Ballet), or six (depending on whether or not you count the Danes) are considered as such because they have a School (not the building, but an academy that turns out classical dancrs at the highest level, and a style, a unique and instantly recognizable approach to classical ballet); a repertory (created by a native choreographer in the company's style); have a great corps; and have survived more than one director. I'd also say they have to be able to dance what are considered "classics" on the highest level. As noted above, any one of them can have an off year, or an off decade, but until they totally collapse, they're going to be the standard and in the Big Five (or Six). You can't do it on stars alone.

That doesn't mean that in any given season another company can't be wonderful, but without hitting all the benchmarks, no matter how loudly people insist they're The Greatest Ballet Company in the World, they're unlikely to be considered as such by other than their fans. And even if you do have all the stars (and ballets) aligned correctly and a wonderful, inspired director, when he or she steps down, everything can disintegrate in a year or two if there aren't the pillars of native repertory and School to sustain the transition.

I think when you get to American ballet companies it's hard, because very few people see all of them, or even most of them. I often wonder, too, when a director says "We're going to be one of the Top Five companies" which liist s/he's referring to.

And then there are the choreographers whose press releases say "the internationally renowned Joe Blow...." or "We are pleased to present a new work by one of the world's most respected choreographers." Sometimes, as Andy Warhol said, "Art is anything you can get away with."

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I'd second drb : the Bolshoi would be my number one as well. Their summer season in London last year was extraordinary - the joy they show while dancing is totally infectious. And what a roster of extraordinary dancers : Maria Alexandrova, Svetlana Lunkina, Natalia Osipova, Svetlana Zakharova, Sergei Filin, Denis Matvienko, etc... Watching them was such a rewarding experience, and I'd definitely travel again to see more of this company.

The Paris Opera Ballet remains my "home team" though. It makes quite a difference when you follow closely the dancers and get to know them - some can get on your nerves, some will make you forget about their shortcomings after a while - and you get the excitement of wondering who will be promoted next, what the next season's repertoire will be like... I still think the company is having an off period, but it has much to do with artistic direction. Wonderful dancers keep coming in from the school, and things could improve very quickly.

The Kirov is of course another top 5 company, but I can't say I'm crazy about the hyperextension hype which now seems to rule in Petersburg. But again, with such dancers as Lopatkina, Pavlenko or the young and wonderful Evgenia Obraztsova, you can't go totally wrong...

I haven't seen NYCB and the Danes so can't comment.

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So I suppose that poor American Ballet Theater (ABT) doesn't stand a snowball's chance, as it does not have an academy that feeds young dancers to its company? But wait -- some of the so-called Top Five/Six employ an inordinately high percentage of dancers (especially soloists and principals) who graduate from academies all over the globe. I am particularly thinking about the Royal Ballets of England and Denmark. Yes, they have schools but employ about as many 'foreign' dancers as does ABT in the United States, i.e., non-Britons in Britain & non-Danes in Denmark. By that argument, American Ballet Theater is definitely in the top Five or Six troupes today.

If one wants to look to national purity as a benchmark for the Top Ballet companies, then only four truly-greats remain on this earth: Kirov-Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, Bolshoi and New York City Ballet, although every single one of those troupes has at least one 'foreigner' in its ranks. And hot on their heels are Chinese, Korean, Cuban and Japanese troupes that indeed retain national purity in their ranks, plus have wonderful academies. They fall short of the list only because they are relatively young, compared to the others. In the case of Cuba, the current economic situation is an additional problem...but don't count those Cubans out, in the longer run!

Edited to add my rankings (duh...):

1. Kirov-Mariinsky - The One, The Only, To the Manor Born by Imperial Decree of the Romanovs. There is only one Mecca in Islam and there is only one 'Mecca' in Ballet and it's an aqua-and-white building on Theater Square in St. Petersburg! :clapping: Just because an oddity (Somova) or two appear in the ranks every now and then is no reason to lower its status. Beyond the mystique is the Elegance & Carriage that the Bolshoi can't match. Never has - never will. Unparallelled corps de ballet in the classics. Amazing soloists that just keep bubbling up from the Vaganova Academy, year after year, century after century.

2. Paris Opera Ballet - fabulous precision, especially in the legs & feet. Best Feet Trophy! Wonderful mix of repertoire, too. To think that 30 years ago -- before Nureyev -- they were rarely on anyone's Top 10 or even Top 20 list.

3. Bolshoi - Excitement Factor. Trophy for Best Overall Improvement during the last 3-4 years.

4. New York City Ballet - general unity of style & incomparable repertoire outside the classics.

5. Royal Ballet of England - currently the best among a group of companies that I call "The Eclectics" -- those that draw dancers from around the globe more than from its feeder schools AND employ a huge number of International Competition Winners. ABT and RDB are the others - and they round-out my Top Seven.

Among American troupes that I've seen, I'd definitely add the Joffrey to NYCB and ABT to round-out the Top Three, due to the Joffrey's wonderful repertoire and high-quality in dancers who represent many body types and styles. I've also admired, recently, Pa Ballet, Boston Ballet and Miami City Ballet. I suspect that San Fco and Pacific N Ballets also rank right up there, from what I've read and heard.

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So I suppose that poor American Ballet Theater (ABT) doesn't stand a snowball's chance, as it does not have an academy that feeds young dancers to its company?
It has, on and off over the years, and it does now. See?

I don't know if, in its latest incarnation as JKO School, it will ultimately provide most of the company's dancers, but most of the the promising corps dancers who've joined after a year or two in ABT Studio company have attracted a lot of attention. Among principals, Cornejo, Hallberg, Wiles; soloist Salstein and former soloists Tidwell and Erica Cornejo (now of course a principal at Boston Ballet).

The academic thing should not be a barrier to ABT's inclusion.

The quality of the stagings of the touchstones of the international repertoire? That should exclude ABT, along with (these days) a most of the aforementioned biggies.

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It has, on and off over the years, and it does now. ....

I know - I know, Carbro. But has anyone really taken these 'ABT School' ventures seriously? One of its earlier incarnations was basically a school for Manhattan socialites or other fans to pay & say that they were taking classes with so-and-so stars; hopefully the JKO is much more serious than that. And not to be argumentative -- because I'd do whatever I can to help raise ABT's status -- but almost all (if not all?) of those Studio Company dancers that you cite come from academies not affiliated with ABT, such as Kirov Academy of DC, Central Pa Youth Ballet, No. Car Dance Theater, Harid, etc. I almost consider those schools as the 'UNofficial-official feeders' to ABT. Just as in the 80s, the DC-area's Maryland Youth Ballet and Washington Ballet Schools were the 'unofficial feeders' of young dance talent to ABT.

I'm all for the JKO School rising above the other attempts at creating an official ABT feeder school.

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I'm unclear as to why the Royal Danish Ballet would ever not be included in a list of the best companies in the world.

About ABT, I mostly agree with Carbro. The lack of a consistent style at ABT is my main problem, but hopefully that will change.

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[H]opefully the JKO is much more serious than that. And not to be argumentative -- because I'd do whatever I can to help raise ABT's status -- but almost all (if not all?) of those Studio Company dancers that you cite come from academies not affiliated with ABT, such as Kirov Academy of DC, Central Pa Youth Ballet, No. Car Dance Theater, Harid, etc.
And while 90% or so of NYCB's dancers are SAB grads, few of them got all their training there.

Not being argumentative, either. Just pointing to the absence, in the US, of a real national academy -- or two -- as in Denmark, Russia, France and to a lesser degree, if I have the right sense of it, England.

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If there were a Michelin Guide for ballet, I could see where a lot of excitement and turmoil would be created if one of the top five companies were to be dropped one year. I think since Balanchine's death, this might have happened to NYCB once already, but the company improved and regained its place. In the current winter of our discontent, with all the comments about how "tired" the company looks, it is in danger of falling out of the top five again.

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In the current winter of our discontent, with all the comments about how "tired" the company looks, it is in danger of falling out of the top five again.

And I am going to go to them no more (with one possible exception...). I remember well the dread of what Gergiev might do in terms of not being sensitive enough to the dancers, and I obviously believe that the dance has to come first. But none of the fears of what the flamboyant Gergiev might do proved true; if anything, he was thoroughly heroic, life-giving and transforming. However, my ignorant bliss about NYCB's orchestra was all overcome when Leigh and volcanohunter informed me that NYCB is almost always dreadful; I figured it was just par for the course, mediocre compared to opera and symphony orchestras, but not worse than other major companies. It has been proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that people are disappointed with the tired company and the bored or half-competent orchestra. Knowing about the POB, RB and Vienna orchestras, this is now the last straw. I am not going any more till they fix their orchestra problem, I don't care if that's forever. There's obviously no excuse for it, and Gergiev proved it.

POB's emerging as a great company is relatively new, isn't it? As of the 80's, mustn't it be? When I lived in Paris in the early 70s, I was aware of them, and saw them once, but I was not overwhelmed by 'Notre Dame de Paris.'

I am sure that the playing at the Kirov is a thousand times better than at the NYCB pit, and yet I now am stuck with impractical travel or tolerating disenchantment where I thought all was a more or less normal situation, however mediocre in some ways. The NYCB has become tacky in some ways: That's the one thing ABT can afford to do from time to time, but I don't think NYCB can do it indefinitely, as it quits being the NYCB if it gets more and more infused with settling for what will 'just do.'

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-- I rag on the NYCB orchestra as much as anyone, but everyone realizes, I think, that most of the responsibility rests with the conductor. Yes?

-- I'm always a bit wary about calls for a national style, because of the underlying cultural characteristics that permit national style to emerge. Calls for consistent style are just as suspect. What does that mean other than physical homogeneity? The bigger question is: How can a company insist on a consistent or national style and respectably perform a diverse, international repertory? The Royal Ballet still ocassionally puts white wigs on everyone to achieve the desired homogeneity.

I'm no fan of Peter Martins, but I do credit him with changing the composition of the company to look more like regular humans. I question whether in the days of Balanchine we would have ever seen some of the pint size dynamos in the company today or even someone as tall as Reichlen. The company still looks somewhat wasp-ish. It's interesting to look at the collection of children in the Nutcracker each year, because it is far more culturally representative of New York than the company members.

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I'm unclear as to why the Royal Danish Ballet would ever not be included in a list of the best companies in the world.

Many people argue that it's got the School, and the indigenous choreographer, and its school produces world class dancers, but it doesn't have a great corps (and one could argue that if it did, it wouldn't be Bournonville's company) and it doesn't have enough Bournonville ballets to live on, and nothing of equal value created since the 1870s to stand with it. Others would argue that School, Bournonville and consistently produced great dancers is enough to stay In.

I think there's a difference between SAB using those trained outside the walls and other companies taking in outsiders late in their training, is that, with very few exceptions, the SAB latecomers have come from NYCB-related schools, and/or taken summer classes and will easily fit in, whereas ABT has always taken people from a variety of Schools (and many with no School but medals).

As for getting booted out, that's an interesting question. In the 1960s and 1970s, I can't remember seeing any British or American reviewer linking POB in the Big Five (very sloppy corps, no native repertory, School, and school, on the downhill slide) but now most people do. Was it just because we didn't see them and so out of sight, out of mind? Or because they had slid so far they were out of contention? BUT because they have a great School, and have made their School their raison d'etre, and produce world-class dancers, they're back In.

All of this doesn't mean that other companies aren't "better" -- don't give great performances -- on any given Sunday. Arlene Croce wrote something that made a lot of this make sense to me (and will make some of you pick up brickbats). It was meant to describe, and be complimentary of, the Joffrey, then New York's third company: "New York City Ballet is a third-rate first-rate company. ABT is just plain second rate. But the Joffrey is a first-rate third-rate company."

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If nothing else, I've seen all the companies in question, most of them in their home theaters, within the space of about half a decade - the company I know the least are the Danes and I've seen Paris less frequently in the last three years than I would like.

That said, I'm with Alexandra. The companies fluctuate within the top group, mostly dependent on who's directing them. I think it's less useful to rank them than to talk about the calculus of the company - where it's heading and at what rate.

The companies in a period of strength and consolidation are the Bolshoi and the Royal. NYCB is treading water, the Mariinsky is heading into a rough patch; it needs to resolve its leadership issues to regain itself. ABT has had a consistent identity problem - it has dancers but no viewpoint. I haven't seen signs of this changing. When I saw Paris three years ago they were impeccably trained (the best of all of the above) but still running on Nureyev's momentum. That will not last much longer as his dancers retire, but I don't know the present state of the company. When I saw the Danes in 2000 they were also in a confused period, but again I don't know the present state of the company.

The most important point is, change the leadership and it all changes. They all have excellent dancers. That's not a point of distinction between the companies. 90% is what happens at the top and that can change in a matter of months. Both the Royal and the Bolshoi came into their good periods from distinctly worse ones.

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POB's emerging as a great company is relatively new, isn't it? As of the 80's, mustn't it be? When I lived in Paris in the early 70s, I was aware of them, and saw them once, but I was not overwhelmed by 'Notre Dame de Paris.'

To hear Clement Crisp tell it, the POB was a great company in the first half of the 19th century, it was great under Lifar and became great again under Nureyev.

But I remember hearing an interview with Yuri Grigorovich when, for some unfathomable reason, the POB decided to revive Ivan the Terrible. When asked about Nureyev, Grigorovich was dismissive of his choreography (fair enough) and downplayed his artistic leadership. According to Grigorovich, the POB is great because of its school, and if it's great today, it's because of Claude Bessy, not Rudolf Nureyev.

I'm not agreeing with Grigorovich, but I can see how a great school is the source of a company's resiliency. I remember when the Bolshoi visited New York in 1990, the headline of the Dance Magazine review read, "Bolshoi means big, bol'noi means sick." Yet quite of few posters have voted for the Bolshoi as the finest company in the world. Ratmansky couldn't have pulled that off if he didn't have excellent dancers at his disposal, nor could Nureyev have turned the fortunes of the POB around so quickly if he didn't have brilliant young dancers to do it with.

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-- I rag on the NYCB orchestra as much as anyone, but everyone realizes, I think, that most of the I'm no fan of Peter Martins, but I do credit him with changing the composition of the company to look more like regular humans. I question whether in the days of Balanchine we would have ever seen some of the pint size dynamos in the company today or even someone as tall as Reichlen. The company still looks somewhat wasp-ish. It's interesting to look at the collection of children in the Nutcracker each year, because it is far more culturally representative of New York than the company members.

What about Gloria Govrin? She was a tall dancer during Balanchine's time, as was Farrell (I know, 5'6" or 5'7" but at the time she was considered tall), Mimi Paul, Nina Pedorova, Diana Adams, Kyra Nichols, Maria Calegari, etc... Balanchine championed tall female dancers - "more to see," he said. As for the other end of the spectrum -- Suki Schorer, Nichol Hlinka, Gelsy Kirkland, Patricia McBride, and more.

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A school is essential, but you can look at companies that have floundered even with great schools to know that Grigorovich was wrong - and I've seen POB do Ivan the Terrible. Nureyev had a point.

Not only that but Grigorovich is discounting Nureyev's eye for talent. Bessy may have produced them but Nureyev developed them. Ask any of his "children", including Guillem. He may not have been a great choreographer but he was a better director than he gets credit for.

In the same way, Ratmansky is dealing with the same school his predecessor had. So why would it be the school that accounts for the improvement in things, and not Ratmansky?

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A school is essential, but you can look at companies that have floundered even with great schools to know that Grigorovich was wrong...

Indeed. The state of the Bolshoi towards the end of Grigorovich's tenure is proof positive of that.

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Baryshnikov on Charlie Rose just said that, when he was directing it, he knew ABt would never be a company at the level of Paris Opera because it couldn't afford to have a great classical academy. :clapping:

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Baryshnikov on Charlie Rose just said that, when he was directing it, he knew ABt would never be a company at the level of Paris Opera because it couldn't afford to have a great classical academy. :)

Yes, and that is more than just a school per se. Mr. Baryshnikov made the statement in the context of discussing his decision to bring in great modern dance choreographers while he directed ABT. I think in this context, ABT would never be at the level of POB in the classics. Ironic that ABT would make the all-too-obvious error of showing Bayadere to Paris! The same management that couldn't recognize the exposure of taking Kingdom of the Shades to POB's turf probably wouldn't know how to use products of such an academy.

It is good that ABT is recovering a little bit of its tradition in the Fall seasons. But even if it had an academy, would the young dancers from it ever get a chance???

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Excellent question, drb. ABT can have as many schools as it wants, but none is going to be successful unless it produces ABT-caliber dancers.

While I don't see a need for every country to have a "national" style, I do think each company needs to have its own style, and that has nothing to do with physical homogeneity. Style is about particular ways various steps are done, precise angles of the head and arms, and various "default" positions and movements for certain steps. It is also about the quality of movement used during various steps and about how the dancers relate to each other.

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