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Ballet cliches: what are the ballet ideas and images

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There are good cliches and bad cliches. Having recently revisited the ABT "Swan Lake," I submit the May Pole dance (which I like).

Just to be clear, "cliche" is usually used pejoratively. Wikipedia defines it as "a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. The term is most likely to be used in a negative context"; and, ""Cliché" applies also to almost any situation, plot device, subject, characterization, figure of speech, or object—in short, any sign—that has become overly familiar or commonplace." I wouldn't thus class the maypole dance as cliched, but conventional or traditional. (Do beloved conventions or traditions = "good cliches"?) I suppose it creates an image, though, that might make some wince! Not me. Unless it's in Carmina Burana.

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Classical: Bored courtiers sitting or standing motionless (catatonia?) while the principals and soloists do their variations. To be fair, some of the men do occasionally walk a bit to a new location.

More than 10 penchee arabesques in a single variation.

The belief that Spanish or Neapolitan character dancers are most athentic when moving frantically and grinning manaically.

The Russian practice of interrupting ballets for frequent curtain calls ... which go on and on as long as even a handful of people in the audience continue clapping. The expression of faux surprise and modesty -- "Who? ME? You love ME? But I do not DESERVE such adoration"-- makes it even worse.

I do have to mention though that I am rather tired of the plot convention of the Beautiful White Lady (Sylvia, Medora, Nikiya, Raymonda) menaced by a male dressed in a cliché middle eastern manner (usually complete with an entourage of people who dance with flexed feet and splayed fingers).

That does it--these two postings just described most of the plot and action in Raymonda. :clapping: And I wonder why this ballet isn't performed that much in the West in complete form, in my humble opinion....

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Remember, anything that passed through Russia may reflect the nation's traditional attitude toward the Ottoman Empire and its constituent suzerainities. They frankly didn't like one another. Once, in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great was campaigning against the Poles, he found himself entirely in the air tactically, but the Sultan in Constantinople, whom I recall as "Sulieman the Silly" rejected a plan for his army to capture Peter, saying, "If I were to capture the Tsar, who would rule Russia?" :clapping:

Given the realities of today's world, I'm only a little surprised that no one has mounted a Raymonda of massive political incorrectness, with a vile, vile, Abderakhman, and a Virgin Mary-surrogate White Lady restored. :clapping:

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Given the realities of today's world, I'm only a little surprised that no one has mounted a Raymonda of massive political incorrectness, with a vile, vile, Abderakhman, and a Virgin Mary-surrogate White Lady restored. :clapping:
:clapping:

Who say's ballet's irrelevant? :cool:

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Much of communication is theater and performance arts like ballet will resort to stereotyping to convey messages "shorthand". Obviously stereotpying is hardly accurate as noted above, both in plot lines and national characters.

However we somehow need them when we want to refer to "groups" and need to extract "some" common quality. We do this for cultural elements and even entire cultures the "spanish", the "arab" and so forth right down to people; the "heroine", the "soldier" and so on.

When you attend ballet you have to go with the flow or else you sit there thinking it's all silly and ridiculous. And of course we must remind ourselves that most ballet was created more than 100 years ago when stereotypes were a bit different than they are today. My own take is that modern writers of plays, cinema and so forth are less bound to using the tried and true stereotypes, though obviously Hollywood hasn't caught on because they feed us a continuous stream of stereotyping and formulaic plot lines which seem to appeal mostly to children.

We can't seem to not resort the the language of stereotypes in communication and ballet seems to be a victim of this same trap. For me the stories lines are really very unimportant as I attend to see what I call "the beauty of humans in motion". I am way too old to believe fairy tales like Swan Lake, but the beauty of the ballet is something I will never tire of experiencing.

We discuss the "acting ability" of dancers at time and we do this because conveying emotions is part of being a character on stage in a performance. This too involves stereotyped gestures to a certain extent and is required to make the plots understandable, I suppose. Without good acting the ballet would not stand up so even though the plot lines are ridiculous, we need our dancers to have this talent as well as being geniuses of movement. I suspect some ballet dancers would make excellent actors for stage or screen.

What isn't irrelevant?

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Modern dancers as strong, powerful and independent thinkers and ballerinas as the complete opposite. Enough already!!!

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Modern dancers as strong, powerful and independent thinkers and ballerinas as the complete opposite. Enough already!!!
Now that's a really good addition to our list. Important, too. Especially since this is a stereotype generally wielded against ballet people by those on the outside.

I rcertainly remember hearing this in the old days. Is this stereotype still widely encountered? If so, where does it come from, do you think?

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Well, I think we have all seen a bunch of pas de deux's where the man throws the woman around, hoists her over his head, drags her on the floor and twists her around in pretzel shapes to show that love is war

ROFL. I just watched MacMillan's TRIAD for the umpteenth time on dvd. I like the ballet (love Prokofiev's 1st violin concerto), but your description fits! Every time I see it, I feel so bad for La Fosse in the PDD - he looks like he's about to collapse. I'd rather be the person being twisted into a pretzel. I think that would be lots of fun!!!

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Beginning a dance (and/or ending one) writhing on the floor.

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Beginning a dance (and/or ending one) writhing on the floor.
Yes! And isn't it obligatory at some point for the dancer to stretch his/her arm upward (possibly pleading for help) before slumping back into the writhing position? (A choreographer with time to kill will often repeat this stretching gesture throughout the piece.)

On the other hand, there's a marvellous photo in the Spring 2008 Dance Now that gives writhing a new twist. The choreographer is Maresa von Stockert. The piece is called Glacier. Here's a description written by the reviewer, Lyndsey Winship:

... [T]he stage ... has turned into an oil slick and the dancers end up like poor beached birds gunked in tarry black goo. There is definitely bold imagery here, and the show itself is a bold understaing from von Stockert, who may have found her calling in tackling real world themes -- it's certainly something not many choreographers do.

The photo shows a super-thin woman, body contorted, one arm raised, stuck to the floor and covered by a gooey black substance. It is, somehow, heartbreaking.

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If the curtain lifts to a lone chair on stage, you know you're in for a long night...

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Modern dancers as strong, powerful and independent thinkers and ballerinas as the complete opposite. Enough already!!!

Now, THAT' s a cliche. (What about just trying to mask the lack of skills to do strong, powerful and independent pointework...?)

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Silly use of props in ballets such as La Bayadère. I remember Universal Ballet's version from about 8 years ago at the State Theater (Lincoln Center). The sets and decorations were the finest money could buy, but what I remember best is the long row of seated parrot girls before (or after?) their dance, each with an identical plastic parrot sewn to the right shoulder of their costumes. They sat there motionless, like their parrots, feet crossed at the ankles, stretched to maximum arched point, seemingly oblivious to the feathered friends perched just inches from their heads. It looked ridiculous.

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If the curtain lifts to a lone chair on stage, you know you're in for a long night...

But if the chair starts to tap-dance, then you've really got something!

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One more: Spanish dances where the corps hammers on noiseless tambourines.

Which was the reason why I was REALLY surprised that in the Teatro alla Scala production of Swan Lake (2004 DVD release) during Act III, during the Neopolitan dance sequence the dancers were hitting tambourines that were the real thing. Even in the 2006 Mariinsky Ballet performance of the same ballet in that same exact dance sequence, the dancers didn't use real tambourines.

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One more: Spanish dances where the corps hammers on noiseless tambourines.

Which was the reason why I was REALLY surprised that in the Teatro alla Scala production of Swan Lake (2004 DVD release) during Act III, during the Neopolitan dance sequence the dancers were hitting tambourines that were the real thing. Even in the 2006 Mariinsky Ballet performance of the same ballet in that same exact dance sequence, the dancers didn't use real tambourines.

Someone quick, it's been too long since I've seen it live, but didn't the NYCB dancers in Tarantella have real tambourines? I thought I remembered McBride and Villella and then McBride and ??? banging tambourines, real ones.

This has been an incredibly entertaining thread and I must thank you all for making my day.

PS, I am on board with the cliches so far mentioned, and will add that courtiers faking conversations with each other between variations tries my already short patience for 19th century story ballets. It would be fun to know what they're *really* saying, although if my cousin, a former dancer with Chicago City Ballet and Hamburg is to be trusted, I might not really want to know.

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Yes, "Tarantella" has real tambourines in it, sometimes following where they are in Hershy Kay's orchestration of the original "Grande Tarantelle for Violin and Orchestra" (RO 259/Op. 67), and sometimes they are where they SHOULD be in the orchestration! Baryshnikov danced the boy's part sometimes. I also think that I can recall Bart Cook dancing it, also Gen Horiuchi.

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Rackon, if the courtiers are doing their jobs correctly (and they usually aren't because they don't have the training) their conversations should be mimed, thus allowing you to know what they are saying. :blushing: What usually happens is that the dancers just chatter to each other under their breaths, giving the effect that you're watching a silent film. I agree, it's annoying.

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PS, I am on board with the cliches so far mentioned, and will add that courtiers faking conversations with each other between variations tries my already short patience for 19th century story ballets. It would be fun to know what they're *really* saying, although if my cousin, a former dancer with Chicago City Ballet and Hamburg is to be trusted, I might not really want to know.
Many of those I've seen -- especially in European productions -- actually do seem to be "miming" in a wierd sort of way: "I'm bored." "I deserve a bigger part than this." "God, this pas de deux is endless." :o

Hans, your comment raises some interesting questions. Decisions about miming must be very difficult to make in these situations. For example, if everyone reacts to Carabosse's curse, you have an enormous amount of visual distration. On the other hand, if only a few respond, those who don't will appear to be drugged or even dead.

What sort of miming gestures are you thinking of? For instance, what should a trained courtier do in response to one of the major scenes in Sleeping Beauty, Carabosse's curse, for example, or Aurora's fascination with the knitting needles? And how should they be responding to the divertissements, long stretches of stage time which would seem to be a great challenge for those not actually dancing?

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Many of those I've seen -- especially in European productions -- actually do seem to be "miming" in a wierd sort of way: "I'm bored." "I deserve a bigger part than this." "God, this pas de deux is endless." :o

:rofl: (That made my morning!)

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Well, in the case of Carabosse's curse or something similar, such as Giselle's mad scene or Aurora with the needle, a lot of miming is not really necessary from the corps--just the appropriate facial expressions and a few simple gestures and body language. They're there more to help create the mood and emotion than specific mime 'words'.

During divertissements, you don't really want a lot of distraction during the dancing, but the courtiers should at least look interested, and mime gestures should be kept relatively small. The Mariinsky has its courtiers do things such as bow whenever the prince or other nobility dances by them in a variation, for example, but they can also have restrained conversations with each other.

The most important time to mime conversations is during the party scene in the Nutcracker. There isn't a lot of classical dancing going on, and everyone has to look animated as people would be at a party, not sitting there watching a performance. Then you can have more elaborate 'conversations' in the background, but either mouthing words or just plain whispering to one's partner does not come across well to the audience. Unfortunately I can't be terribly specific as I have no formal mime training, so I can't do it very well myself, but I know what it's supposed to look like. Once during a Sleeping Beauty rehearsal, Peter Martins gave an off-the-cuff demonstration of how to mime a conversation to a courtier, and it was surprising to see how much can be conveyed via mime. But you have to be trained.

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PS, I am on board with the cliches so far mentioned, and will add that courtiers faking conversations with each other between variations tries my already short patience for 19th century story ballets. It would be fun to know what they're *really* saying, although if my cousin, a former dancer with Chicago City Ballet and Hamburg is to be trusted, I might not really want to know.
I've noticed on more than one occasion, when a decoration falls off a costume or a prop is dropped, you can see the "telephone" line as corps dancers suggest that this one or that one remove it from the stage at the earliest opportunity and pass it on to the appointed dancer.

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"How about tonight Chinese we go?"

"God no, last night we did."

"How about first drinks, then we decide?"

"Ooo yes! I could a martini use!"

Etc., etc.

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Mel, I've gotten a start on choreographing the mime for your elegant conversation. Unfortunately, the software allows only 5 emoticons (love that word!).

The limitations on emoticomiming makes it okay for most classical part scenes, if we follow Hans's rule of thumb. But we definitely need more emoticons for the Nutcracker party guests. "Let's have a drink" is probably universal. But how do you express something as specific as a "martini"? Or "Chinese food"? Mimicking chopsticks might confuse people who have seen the knitting ladies in Sleeping Beauty.

"How about tonight Chinese we go?"

:o

"God no, last night we did."

:pinch::crying:

"How about first drinks, then we decide?"

:rofl:

"Ooo yes! I could a martini use!"

:P

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"Chopsticks" is easy. You only use one hand, unless you're really bad at using them, or using them as skewers to eat corn on the cob, so they won't be easily conflated with "knitting". Of course, the mime of using chopsticks even well could be mistaken for "knocking the ash off a cigar", so that would require some work. "Martini" could be trickier, as the shape of the classic glass in the hand will not read well to the house, and it could only be worse if you prefer the drink on the rocks. Perhaps there is something essential to the martini which contributes to mime. I recall the late Queen Mum, who loved her martini in the afternoon, and at the first sip would give a delighted little shiver at the gin shock! Royal Ballet dancers would be so good at this!

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