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What happened to the dramatic ballerina(o)?


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#1 bart

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 07:06 AM

I was reading the posts on the ABT/Week II performance thread and found myself thinking about something atm711posted. (I've put the key sentence into boldface.)

'Fall River Legend' looked very dated to me, or perhaps because I can still remember Nora Kaye's performance---her anguish was felt from the depths of her solar plexus and I saw nothing of that from Wiles, or last year from Murphy (in 'Pillar of Fire').....we just are not nurturing dramatic ballerinas anymore.


I;m thinking of work like "Fall River Legend," "Pillar of Fire," The Cage," "Lilac Garden," "The Combat," "Caprichos," Miss Julie," etc., Although I did not always see them when they first were produced, I was around when there still were dancers who understood the genre and could convey intense feelings feelings to a theater full of spectators.

Some of the dancers, like Nora Kaye (whom I saw in "The Cage" and "Pillar of Fire") were essentially dramatic dancers who had to work hard to acquire classical technique for more ocnventional ballets. Others, however, were supreme classicists. I'm thinking of Allicia Alonso (whom I didn't see in the original cast of "Fall River Legend") and Erik Bruhn (whom I did see in "Miss Julie.")

These dancers had the power to transfix an audience . I have strong memories of sitting in a hushed City Center, surrounded by people leaning forward in their seats, captivated by the image of Lizzie Borden's real and emotional imprisonment within her family home. There were no titters when she killed her stepmother and father, as I gather has occurred during the recent ABT performances.

Today, it's as if the dancer were trying to put on feelings as one would put on a costume or apply makeup -- carefully, thoughtfully, expertly, but from the outside. Some do it well, some do it poorly. Frankly, the thought of Gillian Murphy in Pillar of Fire is astonishing. What would she do, grit her teeth? In my limited experience with revivals of some of these works, this approach does not seem to absorb and move audiences very much.

It's probably unfair to expect 20-something dancers, many of whom have been developed in a protective world of schools and academies, to identify with these stories automatically. The generation of dancers who created the roles and for whom the ballets were made, lived through the Depression and World War II. What is more, they paid attention to those events -- felt them -- and learned from them. Somehow they were able -- either by nature or by training -- to internalize and then project feelings of pain, loss, frustration, entrapment, and rage in what was essentially a cold, cruel, , violent, and dramatically unfair world. Atm711 puts it very well when she talks about "expressing anguish "from the depths of [the] solar plexus" And those did it without awkwardness, embarrassment, or ironic detachment.

Have today's audiences changed so much that they cannot relate to such stories?

Are we no longer training our artists to inhabit such characters, make them their own, and carry along an audience as they do so?

Do these story ballets have a real future in the repertoire -- I mean, a future in which they live, breathe, and engage audiences deeply?

#2 chiapuris

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 07:52 AM

Have today's audiences changed so much that they cannot relate to such stories?

Are we no longer training our artists to inhabit such characters, make them their own, and carry along an audience as they do so?

Do these story ballets have a real future in the repertoire -- I mean, a future in which they live, breathe, and engage audiences deeply?


A very thoughtful post, bart.

The penetration of the postmodern ethos in the cultural fabric- ironic, deconstructive, truth-denying- is so deep that the questions you raise concerning the performing arts become a part of the larger picture: What do we seek from art?
How do we live a good life? How and with what do we create our values?

#3 popularlibrary

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 11:57 AM

May I suggest some other factors. There seem to be a reasonable number of dramatic dancers outside of the US - I can mention the recently retired, such as Elizabeth Maurin, Alessandra Ferri and Laurent Hilaire, or current dancers such as Carlos Acosta, Johan Kobborg, Mara Galeazzi, Maria Eichwald, Nicholas Leriche - and so forth. Manuel Legris recently had one of his greatest successes doing a largely dramatic turn as Charlus in the POB's production of Proust.

If there are few dramatic dancers here of the kind MacAulay misses, maybe his list of ballets is a clue. They are all a half-century or more old. Our critics, our more sophisticated audiences, and possibly our ballet academies, treat dramatic ballets as outdated, second-rate, unnecessary. ABT does them, but usually with an eye to the box office, not to engaging a major choreographer, with predictably unfortunate results. Surely Balanchine didn't want his influence to go quite this far. Choreographers here simply have little real passion for creating important dramatic ballets. What incentive is there? And dancers learn from working with creative people. If dramatic works are looked down on - and they are - if dancing them brings little or no respect, then there is no reason dancers are going to value them or learn the skills to do them well.

The vitriol that attends performances here of dramatic ballets created abroad can be truly startling. Kylian, Neumier, Cranko, Macmillan, Ek, Petit - never mind Bejart - are dismissed as Eurotrash without a second thought on the assumption that no person of taste could conceivably disagree; a thread on this board spends many messages trashing Macmillan's Mayerling at the same time it is having a triumphant revival in Britain, danced by just the kind of dramatic dancers Macaulay is lamenting we don't have. Of course we don't. The Hamburg Ballet, Neumeier's company, dances Jewels, but in the entire Sylvia-revival orgy it occurred to no one to even look at Neumeier's version as a possibility. The POB may do far too many modern works at the expense of the classics, but by God, it does have wonderful dramatic as well as classical dancers.

We seem to have gotten overbalanced here. Chaipuris may have an excellent point about the culture, but I suspect it begs the question of critical/fan aversion to dramatic ballets. Or maybe it doesn't at that.

#4 bart

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 12:15 PM

If there are few dramatic dancers here of the kind MacAulay misses, maybe his list of ballets is a clue. They are all a half-century or more old.

atm711's original post was in the context of an discussion of the current ABT season. I expanded the list, though stuck mostly to works that were once, or still are, in the ABT repertory annd which I had in fact seen on stage. You are right that these tend to be older "contemporary" works. .

I blush :blush: to admit that it did not occur to me to further expand the topic to include present-day dramatic work not often seen in the US. But, when I think of it, why not?

I hope, however, we don't entirely lose atm711's original question about training (or not training) dramatic ballet dancers in the US.

dramatic ballets created abroad can be truly startling. Kylian, Neumier, Cranko, Macmillan, Ek, Petit - never mind Bejart- are dismissed as Eurotrash without a second thought on the assumption that no person of taste could conceivably disagree

This list includes choreographers with a broad range of styles.. Several have been highly successful in the US and even praised on this board and elsewhere in the US. Others have not. It's possible to enjoy the works of some -- or some of the works of some -- without accepting them as a package. Or dismissing them as a package, for that matter.

a thread on this board spends many messages trashing Macmillan's Mayerling at the same time it is having a triumphant revival in Britain, danced by just the kind of dramatic dancers Macaulay is lamenting we don't have.

I am one of those who does not like Mayerling. But I like very much -- and believe in the necessity of producing -- other full-length dramatic works by Cranko, Macmillan, Petit, Neumeier, not to mention the works I mentioned above. I agree witih Popularlibrary that ballet in the US is poorer for not having greater access to these ballets, and for not having more contact with the best of those who are still working in that tradition.

#5 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 05 November 2007 - 12:21 PM

Others, however, were supreme classicists. I'm thinking of Allicia Alonso (whom I didn't see in the original cast of "Fall River Legend")

And this is what Mme. Alonso :blush: has to say about working her dramatic skills in "Fall River Legend" with Tudor:
[font="Comic Sans MS"] [size=2]"I was lucky to work with him. He had a marvelous sense of theater; Agnes deMille was a strong influence on me, but I think my work with Tudor was more important. I was impressed with the way he approached a ballet, how he studied every detail. He taught me--- and Agnes did, too, later, to use my whole body to express emotion, mood, the drama of the moment. My Latin emotions had been centered on my face..."

Mme. Alicia Alonso[/size]
[/font]

#6 ggobob

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Posted 30 November 2007 - 08:09 AM

Just catching up with this thread...thinking that perhaps the apparent lack of dramatic abilities among today's ballerinas is more the result of shift in critical viewing away (at least in the US) from Tudor, Loring, DeMille, Ashton, Macmillan to a Balanchine ethos?

The support for ballets that are emotionally charged by the music rather than connected to a plot reached critical mass around the time Peter Martins took over NYCB and left relatively few survivors. (Survivors: Pitsburgh withTerry Orr and Colorado with Gil Boggs).

Alan Ulrich, the free lance critic for numerous outlets, wondered why ABT dances Fancy Free in a way that was vital and alive and was living in its story...when SF Ballet did not; and, yet both ballets had been set by the same NYCB dancer. One can suppose that the answer is that ABT still does dramatic triple bills that give some experience and has lived with this ballet for generations.

Maybe ABT needs some drama skill to sell its full lengths at the MET.

As one can easily read, I am all over the place in my reply. I do think that ABT needs to be encouraged and use its resources (e.g. Martine VanHamel) to keep at it.

Finally, I am led to think of Pillar of Fire and its breakthrough for the the dramatic ballerina a Americana. Tudor wrenched Nora Kaye into greatness, Nora coached many others in the role...one of the great ones who retired early was Lise Houlton. The resources are there is there is only the will.

And now having finished saying little, I will refuse to think about the dramatic dancing at NYCB or SFB.

#7 sz

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Posted 30 November 2007 - 10:16 AM

>I was around when there still were dancers who understood the genre and could
>convey intense feelings feelings to a theater full of spectators..... These dancers
>had the power to transfix an audience.

Oh, some of those dramatic-type dancers are certainly out there, waiting for the opportunities.
They're just beginning their careers. In time, I'm hoping you'll see a handful of these special
dancers even from USA companies! Yes, they are rare. And yes, it has a lot to do with the
training/emphasis at present. But sometimes, I've been lucky enough to watch a couple
of these broadly-talented dancers test out roles by dancing/acting them with very small companies/schools.


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