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


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#16 Helene

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 05:23 PM

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.

Those are very few exceptions to the rules of many decades in the life of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet. What seems to be happening today is a more prevalent pattern, and erring on the side of choosing too many for the mantle. Since both Nureyev and Sizova were from the same generation (born a year apart), I'm wondering if this happened to these two dancers because of directorship policy at the time or perhaps the overall political climate in the Soviet Union under Krushchev's government, affecting the political appointees at the theatre.


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.

In Imperial times and Soviet times, this was often the case as well. Displaying the future czar's jewels was as big a badge as the miltary medals worn by the husbands who had really good placement in the May Day parade. In the Soviet Union, not only was casting impacted, but also the ability to tour: only the reliable were allowed to go. (Nureyev again was the exception that proved the rule.)

How much is the company reliant upon touring? One of the pressures on artistic directors is to present the next new thing. I would think that the Mariinsky also has pressure to prove that the Vaganova School still produces star dancers and to show them off on these tours. I always wonder how often young, talented dancers are pushed as prodigies and "discoveries" to prove that a given institution or artistic director has it in him (alas there are few hers) to recognize the special ones. It doesn't have the same snap to advertise "The wonderful dancer in her mid-20's whose been carefully nurtured in the classical style and the nuances of presentation, and is now in bloom," as "18-year-old wunderkind jetes over the Oresund Bridge."

Regarding the corps in classical ballet, I think this may be the case of "you had to be there." It is such a different experience to see the corps of the Mariinsky or Paris Opera Ballet at their best, and how the corps dancers breathes life and is the core of these ballets. My analogy would be Casa Mila (La Pedrera) in Barcelona: static in photos, and organic and alive as a sea anemone in person.

#17 canbelto

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 05:57 PM

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?"


To get a little more historical, in 1958, four dancers were bumped from Vaganova graduates to principal: Rudolf Nureyev, Yuri Soloviev, Alla Sizova, and Natalia Makarova. (In Makarova's case I believe she was technically in the corps de ballet but started dancing solo roles immediately.) In fact there's a Czar's Box documentary about Soloviev that showed a brochure of the Kirov that year, and the soloists pictured were Irina Kolpakova, Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev, and Yuri Soloviev. What a fabulous year that must have been for Mariinsky audiences! Vaslav Nijinsky of course also never spent time in the corps de ballet, and neither did Anna Pavlova.
In other companies: Margot Fonteyn was dancing Giselle in her teens. The NYCB has a huge history of teen wonders: Allegra Kent, Gelsey Kirkland, Suzanne Farrell, Tanny LeClercq.
So ... I think there is a historical trend to bump tremendously talented individuals to principal very quickly if not immediately. The thing is though, as Natalia said, in order for this to work, the dancer has to be very very talented.

How much is the company reliant upon touring? One of the pressures on artistic directors is to present the next new thing. I would think that the Mariinsky also has pressure to prove that the Vaganova School still produces star dancers and to show them off on these tours. I always wonder how often young, talented dancers are pushed as prodigies and "discoveries" to prove that a given institution or artistic director has it in him (alas there are few hers) to recognize the special ones. It doesn't have the same snap to advertise "The wonderful dancer in her mid-20's whose been carefully nurtured in the classical style and the nuances of presentation, and is now in bloom," as "18-year-old wunderkind jetes over the Oresund Bridge."


I noticed this in the Bolshoi season in London. I read the reviews and reports religiously and the huge headline grabbers were Osipova and Vasiliev, all the time. Even Zakharova took second seat to the two youngsters, as well as the lovely company regulars like Alexandrova, Filin, and Lunkina.

#18 ngitanjali

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 07:13 PM

Thank you all for this wonderful discussion! This was exactly the reason I have loved this message board for so long, in a day, I've learned so much! My apologies for not responding sooner; I just moved into my dorm at college for the first time, so I'm adjusting to life with a roommate (who cannot stand ballet :) )

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#19 carbro

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 07:24 PM

Our thanks to you, ngitanjali, for starting this off! It is a fascinating topic.

I hope you find smooth sailing with your roommate. Who knows? Maybe a little gentle cajoling (but perhaps not yet) will yield a new balletomane by year's end!

And all best to you as you begin your college career. It's such an exciting time in life.

#20 bart

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 07:27 PM

This is turning into a rich topic with a number of ramifications. Thanks for raising it, ngitanjali.

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

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.

It's good to have those reminders. Although these values are less consistently internalized in western societies, they do seem to come to the fore at times of special challenge. Battlefield teamwork is one example. A legendary test like the Kingdom of the Shades scene is probably another.

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.

I always appreciate a little dose of reality when I get carried away by theory. :) Thanks, Leigh.

#21 Helene

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Posted 24 August 2007 - 08:19 PM

Thank you all for this wonderful discussion! This was exactly the reason I have loved this message board for so long, in a day, I've learned so much! My apologies for not responding sooner; I just moved into my dorm at college for the first time, so I'm adjusting to life with a roommate (who cannot stand ballet :) )

Luckily your roommate is not a spouse who cannot stand ballet :D

We've branched from your original question, which was why is the Mariinsky casting so many corps members in Principal roles, to those who skipped the rank of corps.

On the latter branch, Balanchine was known for casting out of rank and finding younger and younger future stars that he trained. I can't say if during the years that NYCB didn't publicize rank that no one ever went straight from the school to Principal status, but since ranks have been published, the two dancers with the shortest projectory to Principal under Balanchine were McBride and Kistler, who went from corps to soloist to principal in two years. And Kistler did dance corps roles even as Balanchine cast her as Dewdrop and 2nd Movement Symphony in C: as she said in the Dancing for Mr. B documentary, (paraphrase) she made a mess of corps roles, because her instinct was to move on the big music, the ballerina's music. Farrell noted in her autobiography that when she joined NYCB in 1961, she was thrilled when she danced Hot Chocolate, because she had been given the responsibility to set the latch Marie and the Prince's throne. It wasn't until two years later when Diana Adams was pregnant and had to pull out of Movements for Orchestra, for which d'Amboise cajolled Balanchine into trying out Farrell, that Balanchine payed much attention to her. Without that opportunity, who knows how long she would have stayed in the corps. Also, Balanchine dancers were dancing Balanchine and learning from and being coached by the Master. Farrell, especially, spent hours and hours with him on established rep and creating new roles.

It is quite a different scenario than dancing full-length classical roles with over a century of tradition and expectations behind them. Balanchine emphasized the "now," while classical ballet emphasizes tradition.

To the original question, perhaps a reason why there are more corps members dancing principal roles now is that dancers in the Mariinsky can vote with their feet. For an company like the Mariinsky, losing a dancer they've identified as one of the chosen and have nurtured since a child of eight is more of an institutional trauma than losing a student who's been at SAB for a handful of years.

#22 SanderO

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Posted 25 August 2007 - 03:43 AM

On a meta level, the structure of the Ballet "genre" has its roots in a era which very much was about more rigid structure in society and so forth. While there have always been prodigies who skyrocketed ahead of everyone, the vast majority in all fields seemed to confined to a system of "apprenticeship" before they could be considered "master" in their field.

Fast forward to today and the cult of personality and it is understandable why talented individuals want to be and are put on the fast track to "stardom". Circling back to ballet, it would appear that corp work (I don't know ballet history, just a guess) was the equivalent of "apprenticeship" and the base of the hierarchical structure of the genre. Hierarchies are pyramidal and require a vast base which support the structure above right on up to the pinnacle. This is a very simple and basic notion of structure and it is only in "modern" times that we have discovered other workable and cohesive structures.

So ballet needs the more classical structure to preserve it historical and formal appearance with many corps and fewer soloists and few principals. You can't have a tribe with all Indian chiefs, can you? It appears that the means to build the pyramid is not always aligned with the historical model... and driven somewhat by a worship of the cult of personality associated with youthful excellence. How talented and how young!

When you get on an airplane, you often feel more comfortable with a captain with a little gray on the temples, no? When your own safety is the issue, the notion of "experience" changes.

#23 ellen

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Posted 16 September 2007 - 02:26 AM

I'm just wondering why there shouldn't be more principal dancers in Mariinsky,they have plenty of excellent dancers. :innocent: Perhaps some of the principals are too old to dance frequently(Ayupova, Makhalina,etc) so they cast other soloists more oftenly.

I've just noticed that Anastasia Kolegova has been promoted to a first soloist and I'm expecting more promotions so that there won't be too many Odette-Odile in corps :)

Has anyone here ever watched Kolegova's performance?

#24 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 17 September 2007 - 09:21 AM

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?

Well, in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba's case, there is a historic rigid hierarchy within the troupe, and strict old rules for promotion are religiously practiced. The corps de ballet is divided into three levels - A, B, and C, after which came promotion to coryphée, and hence to the rank of soloist, second soloist, and first soloist. Main roles are normally given to the principal dancers, who, when they have proved their worth might be nominated étoile. The highest accolade is that of prima ballerina. Promotions are officially made every two years, but a coryphée can become a soloist in six months . Mme. Alonso :) always enphazises on the fact that it's very important for the younger dancers , no matter how brilliant they are, to learn the discipline which comes from being in the corps de ballet, and to know what's happening around them. She always states that she learned that the hard way from her years at Ballet Theatre on the early 40's.

#25 bart

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Posted 17 September 2007 - 09:42 AM

Thanks, Cristian, for that explanation. It's interesting that Soviet-based regimes have always been such sticklers for elaborate ranking systems, traditional titles and strict hierarchy. I can see the advantages for discipline, control, and training. But I would think it could also be a bit frustrating for some of the artists themselves. In your experience, have exceptions ever been made in this way of doing things? Have young corps members been allowed to dance major principal roles in the classics?

Another question: The Royal Ballet have apparently done away with the designation "corps de ballet" entirely, at least in their list of dancers. After Soloists come "First Artists" and "Artists". Is this a way of trying to avoid whatever negative images are conjured up by the term "corps de ballet"?

#26 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 17 September 2007 - 10:27 AM

In your experience, have exceptions ever been made in this way of doing things? Have young corps members been allowed to dance major principal roles in the classics?

No, bart...i haven't seen it happened. On the contrary, i've seen the other way around. I remember watching wonderful ballerinas getting older and dancing 2 Willis, Pas de Trois and the like their whole life without being promoted, and that was sad to watch...One of the cases was Lorena Feijoo, who was never promoted to Principal and never even got her chance to dance Odette/Odile in Cuba...If she wouldn't have left the island, she would had never gone to the top, where she is now, as a SFB Principal...

#27 volcanohunter

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Posted 17 September 2007 - 05:24 PM

Another question: The Royal Ballet have apparently done away with the designation "corps de ballet" entirely, at least in their list of dancers. After Soloists come "First Artists" and "Artists". Is this a way of trying to avoid whatever negative images are conjured up by the term "corps de ballet"?

I don't think this is an especially recent thing. A Royal Ballet program I have from 1981 does not use the term corps de ballet and identifies dancers as principal dancers, solo artists, coryphees or artists (who included Phillip Broomhead, Deborah Bull and Alessandra Ferri). It makes me wonder whether the Royal Ballet ever used the term corps de ballet.

#28 Legwarmer

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Posted 29 September 2007 - 11:00 AM

What an interesting thread! I have been wondering the same thing for quite some time now, but I was too afraid to post, since you are all so smart... (: I thought you might think me stupid for asking.

Now, I feel very... confused. Many things were said, numerous topics were discussed, but have we come to an answer? I guess there is no such thing as an "answer" to debates, but I hoped I'd have more on my hands after reading these (very informative) three pages.


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