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Hierarchy?What happened to the corps staying in the corps?


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#1 ngitanjali

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 07:40 PM

I remember reading somewhere that Altynai Asylmuratova spent 4 years in the corps, which she considered valuable. Now, I see Alina Somova jumping into roles like Kitri, Aurora, Odette/Odile. She's not the only one, obviously, however, she is one of the more prominent ones.

I've noticed this all around with many companies, but as I do enjoy following the Mariinsky, I was just wondering why the focus is on the corphyees dancing the principal roles....I understand moving up through the ranks, but some things are a bit extreme.

is it just me? What do you think?

#2 canbelto

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 08:21 PM

If I'm not mistaken AA made her debut in Swan Lake while still a corphyee, while on tour in Paris. She was such a success she got promoted to Principal. (I *think* that's what happened).
But the MT is currently kind of odd, in that it has principals who rarely if ever dance (Nioradze, Ayupova, Makhalina) but haven't retired yet. Of the women principals, only Lopatkina, Vishneva, and Pavlenko dance regularly. So many of the leads are danced by the first and second soloists (Tereshkina, Novikova, Obraztsova, Osmolkina, Somova).

#3 Cygnet

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 09:10 AM

If I'm not mistaken AA made her debut in Swan Lake while still a corphyee, while on tour in Paris. She was such a success she got promoted to Principal. (I *think* that's what happened).
But the MT is currently kind of odd, in that it has principals who rarely if ever dance (Nioradze, Ayupova, Makhalina) but haven't retired yet. Of the women principals, only Lopatkina, Vishneva, and Pavlenko dance regularly. So many of the leads are danced by the first and second soloists (Tereshkina, Novikova, Obraztsova, Osmolkina, Somova).


Altynai Asylmuratova spent five years in the corps de ballet. She was one of the last to fully
come through the Soviet system. Another great, Tatiana Terekova likewise spent five years in the
corps de ballet. Zhanna Ayupova also spent a few years in the corps. Daria Pavlenko and
Uliana Lopatkina each spent about two years in the corps, but both came up through the ranks to
Principal Dancer - Pavlenko more painstakingly. Unfortunately, this is a tradition in the Maryinsky that has gone sideways since 1994, which was the end of Vinogradov's administration.

The corps is the place where a young dancer can really learn their craft, and internalize the ballets and the roles they aspire to. It's also the place (besides the Vaganova Academy), where potential talent can be scoped and cultivated. Corps work, and a number of years of corps work used to be mandatory for all in the Maryinsky. This doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Here's some examples. In 1995, Vishneva skipped the corps completely. She went from her graduation performance to Kitri and Principal Dancer instantly. In 1996 Zakharova did no corps work either, and she received top billing. Volochkova was in the corps for a hot minute, then received top billing. During the previous decade, ballerinas such as Zhelonkina, Dumchenko, Tarasova, Ayupova, and Pavlenko received little exposure, and rare appearances onstage at home or on tour. There's much to be said for extensive behind the scenes nurturing, intense coaching/drilling and stage experience in supporting roles - before giving dancers center stage and the central assignment. IMO what we see now are inconsistent, and/or mediorcre performances of leading roles in the classics, that never used to be the reputation of this company.

Alina Somova's case is inexplicable in that the management sees something in her, whereas the connoiseurs do not. Her teacher was Ludmilla Safronova, one of Vaganova's last pupils. Somova has seemingly thrown everything she learned (for graduation), out the window in favor of her own
personal style. Somova is the new 'basket' into which they're putting all of their eggs. She's their new campaign; their new focus. They're putting all their energies into making her a star, putting the full weight of the Maryinsky's name and reputation behind her. And this, regardless of the fact that she's not star material. Her mistakes are legion, and yet they go unaddressed. Her Kitri debut in July was an artistic and technical disaster. True prima ballerinas are born - they can't be the management's 'construction project.'

IMO of the other first and second soloists, Tereshkina and Obratzova are the most consistent. Osmolkina is consistent but she's afraid to take authority onstage, and Novikova is a budding soubrette. In ballets like "Giselle" and "Romeo & Juliet," she working on consistency. Tatiana Tkachenko made an excellent "Raymonda" debut in January this year. But Somova? She's outranked and outgunned by all of these women - including the corps de ballet. Yet she is given opening nights on important tours, and she's booked as O/O for the first "Swan Lake" of the new season in St. P in about two weeks.

Olga Moiseyeva, Galina Mezentseva's (and Altynai's coach), said it best:

" ' . . . Mezentseva was in the corps de ballet for a very short time. She was one, no
two years before she became a great ballerina. Corps de ballet work is very important
for a young dancer. It cultivates discipline, it is the development of taste, one learns
fellowship, and learning those traditions that apart of this theatre. That is why everybody
has to go through this; even the most talented and most capable ballerina.' "
Source: dvd "Backstage at the Kirov" 1982.


#4 canbelto

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 09:40 AM

Corps work, and a number of years of corps work used to be mandatory for all in the Maryinsky.


Except for Rudolf Nureyev and Alla Sizova, who jumped from graduating from the Vaganova to principal immediately. At the Bolshoi, Maya Plisetskaya did the same.

As for Somova I've never actually seen her dance. :clapping:

#5 SanderO

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 10:02 AM

I haven't a clue how ballet dancers are trained. But it would seem to me that someone who studies ballet will be evaluated by their teachers and whomever may do the casting that a particular dancer is capable or performing some role. While it seems like there would be a progression up from the corps to soloist to principal it seems that the principal roles are often very different and require different skill sets as well as being able to "interpret" a role.

I am not sure how doing time as a corps member would always prepare a dancer to be a principal and might inhibit them. Do most dancers see a vector from corps to principal? Or are there many who have no aspirations for the principal parts?

I would suspect that a highly motivated dancer who shows that they are capable of a principal role could be "tested" before they are actually cast. Someone(s) has to make the decision that that dancer is ready for prime time and pulls the trigger and off they go.

And don't forget that dancers start their studies as young as 5 or 6 and by 18 or 20 they might have been studying for more than 10 years. This is much shorter than the preparation of an engineer before they can be fully qualified for the big time.

Perhaps some Ballet Talkers who are familiar with the culture can explain this process. Is it possible for some director to select a young student dancer and groom them to be a principal right from the get go? But even that, couldn't really be shorting the study. It seems that making a great dancer is a very long process.

I've seen some young dancers in principal roles in R&J at NYCB and they seemed quite capable in the roles... So youth is no impediment to greatness. hahahaha.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 10:28 AM

Lots of good questions! SandorO, it's different with different companies. In the old European companies, whether the dancers starts in the corps (mostly) or not, the company teachers and ballet masters know, from an early age, who is is likely to be a principal and who is a corps dancer, and train accordingly. A likely principal will begin to be groomed to dance principal roles at an early age. He or she may spend a few years in the corps for seasoning, but people knew that Asymulratova was going to be a ballerina. The Danes also promoted early -- male stars usually achieve principal status at 20, 21, 22; the women a bit later, in the mid-20s. (different roles, different traditions). And again, they've known who was going to be James or the Sylph by the time the student is 14, 15, 16, sometimes earlier.

Another way to do it was Balanchine's. He knew which 15 or 16 year old was ballerina material and often gave them big roles at that age -- different kind of ballets, different requirements. (To do "Sleeping Beauty" you need to be able to carry a three-act ballet, how to be the focus of attention for that period of time, how to build a role, how to be different from act to act. Many of Balanchine's ballets were, deliberately, made for sprinters rather than long distance runners, as it were.)

Being a good corps dancer does require different skills, and it is hard, I'm sure, to dance in a line for most of the month and then having to be an individual for a solo one day, and then go back in the line again. There was a very good TV film on the Royal Ballet School about a year and a half ago (on British TV) that interviewed corps dancers, soloists and principals about this.

#7 carbro

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 10:56 AM

The corps is the place where a young dancer can really learn their craft, and internalize the ballets and the roles they aspire to. It's also the place (besides the Vaganova Academy), where potential talent can be scoped and cultivated. Corps work, and a number of years of corps work used to be mandatory for all in the Maryinsky. . . . During the previous decade, ballerinas such as Zhelonkina, Dumchenko, Tarasova, Ayupova, and Pavlenko received little exposure, and rare appearances onstage at home or on tour.

In fact, during the Kirov's 1986 US tour, Ayupova, who was in her debut season, danced one of the solos in Chopiniana and a Shade variation on the same program most of the five nights I saw them. So she may have had corps status, but she was not confined to corps roles.

I think more dancers are damaged by being pushed prematurely than from being held back. Injuries happen when bodies are not yet mature or strong enough for the demands of leading an evening-long work. But the dancer with inate star presence is rarely a good corps dancer in a classical corps -- s/he is an eyecatcher who distracts from the uniformity of the whole, even before s/he's ready to be promoted out. It's a trade-off.

#8 bart

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 11:22 AM

I think more dancers are damaged by being pushed prematurely than from being held back. Injuries happen when bodies are not yet mature or strong enough for the demands of leading an evening-long work. But the dancer with inate star presence is rarely a good corps dancer in a classical corps -- s/he is an eyecatcher who distracts from the uniformity of the whole, even before s/he's ready to be promoted out. It's a trade-off.

That's about as clear and succinct a summary of the issues here as I've ever seen. Thanks, carbro.

Sometimes I wonder about the limited rep for the corps. The choreography in big classical ballets is circumscribed and limiting. So much effort seems required to do relatively little -- with the real work being doing it as an ensemble. And there's no corps work at all for so many 20th century and contemporary choreography.

I know that some corps dancers under Balanchine stayed on for the excitement of working in proximity to such genius and creativity -- and also because there was just enough demi-solo and even solo work to make them know that they were appreciated. My heart does go out, however, to those beautiful young dancers fated to go on dancing an apparently endless rep of swans and wilis and happy peasants, season after season. It's marvellous -- and something I notice and appreciate very much -- when they do this with grace and the appearance of being delighted to perform. I always applaud louder and give a few bravos when a corps like this takes its bow.

#9 Natalia

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 11:40 AM

To set the record straight, Somova did one year in corps and two years as coryphee before being appointed 2nd soloist but, of course, was pushed into Odette/Odile within her first year in the troupe. Ayupova graduated two or three years (84?) before we saw her on that 1986 US tour.

The fact of the matter is that, very often, dancers like Somova are pushed into principal roles prematurely due to (perhaps IMO) political connections, sponsors, and such, and not necessarily due to talent. However, we rarely lament this practice when the dancer happens to be a spectacular talent, such as Diana Vishneva, who danced Kitri while still at the Vaganova Academy! Did anybody complain then? Did anybody complain when Nureyev and Sizova were sky-rocketed into principal roles? Did anybody lament Darci Kistler or Suzanne Farrell being instantly pushed into principal roles upon graduation from SAB? How about Osipova and Vasiliev at the Bolshoi? No - because they are genuinely gifted and bring great joy to us in the audience.

So the heart of this discussion should not be the all-inclusive concept of pushing young dancers into principal roles. Let's face it: our problem with Somova and similar cases is "Why the bloody-crap were THEY pushed?"

So there. Have a nice weekend, everyone!

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 11:45 AM

I think more dancers are damaged by being pushed prematurely than from being held back. Injuries happen when bodies are not yet mature or strong enough for the demands of leading an evening-long work. But the dancer with inate star presence is rarely a good corps dancer in a classical corps -- s/he is an eyecatcher who distracts from the uniformity of the whole, even before s/he's ready to be promoted out. It's a trade-off.

That's about as clear and succinct a summary of the issues here as I've ever seen. Thanks, carbro.

Sometimes I wonder about the limited rep for the corps. The choreography in big classical ballets is circumscribed and limiting. So much effort seems required to do relatively little -- with the real work being doing it as an ensemble. And there's no corps work at all for so many 20th century and contemporary choreography.



I agree with carbro -- today, too many dancers are being pushed prematurely. Sometimes a dancer is very right for a part (this might happen by accident :) ) and the artistic staff decides s/he's principal material and puts them in everything. The art of developing a dancer, which used to be part of the job description of artistic director, is one of the many things that are lost.

Bart, I can't agree that "the choreography in big classical ballets is circumscribed and limiting." I know that many people think this (and that's fine!) but there's also the view that the corps work in "Giselle" Act II, "Swan Lake" and "La Bayadere" is the heart of the ballet, and that the classical corps is the heart of the company. It's very difficult, as you say, and I guess it's in the eye of the viewer whether it accomplishes a little or everything.

Bart's point -- "And there's no corps work at all for so many 20th century and contemporary choreography" -- is quite accurate, I think. And the revolution that is going on in ballet now is getting rid of the corps. Rather than small companies trying to become great ones by acquiring the great Russian classics (the old Royal Ballet model) they're after an eclectic repertory (meaning all kinds of dance) danced by a company of soloists (the old Harkness Ballet/Joffrey Ballet model). This is appealing, and much much much less expensive, but the problem is, where do the soloists come from? These comments are really OT for this forum, because the Kirov isn't going down this road. Yet. It's calling card is its corps.

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 11:49 AM

Natalia, I'm sorry. We were posting at the same time -- very good points (especially about the political considerations, which do happen :) ) I agree. We don't complain when it works!

#12 carbro

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 12:26 PM

Ayupova graduated two or three years (84?) before we saw her on that 1986 US tour.

Second year in the corps, then, and a de facto soloist, if the Phila. & Wolf Trap casting was any indication.

However, we rarely lament this practice when the dancer happens to be a spectacular talent, such as Diana Vishneva, who danced Kitri while still at the Vaganova Academy! Did anybody complain then? Did anybody complain when Nureyev and Sizova were sky-rocketed into principal roles? Did anybody lament Darci Kistler or Suzanne Farrell being instantly pushed into principal roles upon graduation from SAB?

Well, I am not going to advocate that it isn't thrilling to see a new youngster shoot up. Especially when the promise is abundantly fulfilled. But as to Darci, don't you wonder what her career might have been if she hadn't had such serious and time-robbing injuries at such an early age? Of course, there's know way to know for sure that her youth was a contributing element, but there's no way to know for sure that it wasn't. :)

And a nice weekend to you, too! :D

#13 bart

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 01:18 PM

Natalia, I have a question about the use of the term "pollitical," which I've seen before in reference to Russian companies.

Does this refer to actual power politics in the larger society -- that is, a dancer catching the eye or being related in some way to someone of influence in government, or in the larger cultural institutions? This certainly as a long and dis-honorable history in authoritarian regimes of both right and left..

Or is more a matter of competing cliques within the company -- teachers, regisseurs, administrators, coaches, or even current principals who have their favorites or non-favorites?

Or something in between -- or entirely different?

Bart, I can't agree that "the choreography in big classical ballets is circumscribed and limiting." I know that many people think this (and that's fine!) but there's also the view that the corps work in "Giselle" Act II, "Swan Lake" and "La Bayadere" is the heart of the ballet, and that the classical corps is the heart of the company. It's very difficult, as you say, and I guess it's in the eye of the viewer whether it accomplishes a little or everything.

I should have explained myself better. The corps as a unit has an enormous role in the total picture of a ballet. The individual member of the corps has a huge responsibility -- and this is very difficult indeed -- of supporting the larger picture through individual movement, gesture, expression. It is the range of movements, gestures, expressions allowed to these individuals -- not the importance or the corps -- that is circumscribed, it seems to me.

Now that I've taken ballet for a couple of years -- and am, therefore, of course a great expert :) -- I realize that someone in the corps of a great company is trained for so much more than what they are given to do as individuals. Doesn't ballet training tend to work primarily on developing the individual's gifts and strengths? After a while, while you're chugging along down the ramp in arabesque, trying hard not to bump into the foot of the dancer who is chugging along in front of you in an identical pose, it takes a remarkably disciplined and committed artist to sustain herself with the thought: "But think how moving and beautiful this looks from the audience's point of view."

"Bravo" to those who can do that!

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 01:59 PM

Bart - we're talking with a viewpoint very much of our time and our upbringing, which assumes that anything individual over anything collective is ipso facto superior and more fulfilling. Not all cultures and eras think that way (it seems the generation below ours in the US is being noted for its teamwork over rugged individualism). As you implied, if choreography were only about what was interesting for the dancer we'd have even less good new choreography. (OT, but this is my beef with contact improvisation. It's a dance form that is so interesting and fulfilling for the dancer in its process that most people doing it completely forget to take the audience into account when they make a dance.)

And frankly in Bayadere, which is hard as hell to do, I think most of the women are just trying to pace themselves to do 37+ slow sustained arabesques.

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 04:37 PM

Thank you for the clarification, bart -- and my apologies for misunderstanding you! I've discussed this issue with students, and (not surprisingly) they're divided. Some don't want to dance in the corps and others are thrilled at the prospect, and aim for companies that do "Swan Lake" because they want to dance "swans." Whether they expect to dance Swans for life, I can't say :) But I think Leigh is right -- in cultures where the collective is the norm and not individualization, it's a different story. I saw a clip from a film about Korean gymnasts, focusing on a young girl who was an Olympic medalist, and she was training for a mass showing (I think one of 10,000, or was it 100,000?) with the same intensity that she applied to her Olympic training, and seemed genuinely thrilled to be a part of the celebration.


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