Leigh Witchel

Oral history

7 posts in this topic

If you've had the opportunity to talk to someone who was "living history," what questions did you ask? What did you wish you asked?

After a period of prodding people for recollections, I found it very interesting what I wanted to know.

I'm a details man. I want to know what was happening, when it happened, who was involved. I found something similar at tapings of the Balanchine Foundation Tapings. When Arthur Mitchell was busy spinning another captivating yarn (he is a great raconteur) I'd raise my hand and say, "Who set the ballet on the company?"

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You hear many older dancers saying of a ballet "That's not the way we danced it back then." I want to know what the difference is. Is it changed steps? Is the accent or tempo to slow, to fast? Not lyrical enough, not jazzy enough? These details facinate me. I would also ask when did these changes take place and why? Did the choreographer change them? Did the dancers or ballet mistress/master? I guess that's why I love to watch the Interpreter's Archives videos from The George Balanchine Foundation. In one Marie-Jeanne is setting the original version of Concerto Barocco on SAB students and she becomes increasingly upset at how lyrical and flowing the girls dance it. She explains it should be much more compact and jazzy. These insights are priceless.

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You hear many older dancers saying of a ballet "That's not the way we danced it back then."

Those are always very interesting views, like in the "Ballet Russes" film, when Mme. Baronova's friend -(Tamara Tchinara?)-talks about the use of the batteries back then, and how neglected these steps are being treated nowadays.

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Of course, when you interview lots of people about the same ballet, there are often different memories. When I was interviewing a lot of Royal Danish Ballet dancers about ballets from the 1940s through the then-present (early 1990s) I was also astounded at how many of them had absolutely no memory. Some would say that Production A was exactly the same as Production B, when it really truly wasn't -- many changes, in steps, tempi, dynamic, not to mention different characters. But it was "the same."

I always thought I'd asked the "right" questions, and then, after having spoken with two other people, I'd realize I hadn't asked what I needed to, or needed to clarify. I was lucky to be able to clarify, either going back to the original victim or asking the 5 "control people' who were very generous, and allowed me to check in with them about every 2 weeks and say, "X says this, and Y says that, and they're completely different. What do you think?"

It also took me awhile to learn that there are times when something -- a step sequence, blocking, a matter of style, something that I considered major -- was considered unimportant, while another change -- a minute change -- would be considered anathema. Having had the opportunity to compare those answers gave me a much deeper understanding of what that company considered important -- which helped shape later questions.

I have to say when reading several of the new hyperdetailed biographies published in the past three years, I'm disappointed that some are compendiums of contrasting quotations, with no effort made by the author to sort them out. If someone says something provocative, even if it doesn't make sense in context, or seems to be a real stretch in credibility, in it goes. For oral history, I guess that's okay. The point is to make a collection of raw tapes. But for print, I think there should be some attempt to find out what really happened.

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Marie-Jeanne is setting the original version of Concerto Barocco on SAB students and she becomes increasingly upset at how lyrical and flowing the girls dance it. She explains it should be much more compact and jazzy. These insights are priceless.

How true, how true. Perhaps it's because dancers were more 'compact' then. Having been introduced to the ballet by the performances of Marie-Jeanne, Mary Ellen Moylan, Ruthanna Boris and Patricia Wilde the long-limbed dancers give it a very different look. Also, the white costumes (as opposed to the black leotard) make it more lyrical.

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Recording "oral history" is a tough beat, because it's not totally history, it's evenly divided between history and journalism, with a little bit of sociology as a fillup. You can have a prepared list of questions, but you have to listen carefully for a lead to another subject. It's important to get that tangential information, too. You may have your agenda as to the data you want to collect, but your respondent has his/her data that wants sharing. You can't be in such total control of the interview that you end up quashing that information as irrelevant. It isn't. It often leads to more information that you hadn't considered when you constructed the inquiry.

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