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Seen from the outside, what if... or did he?Balanchine helping define American style ballet...


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#1 Amy Reusch

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Posted 29 July 2008 - 08:52 PM

Considering Americana and Kirstein's goal of developing an American Ballet... While far from Americana (except perhaps a few like Stars & Stripes and Western Symphony?) I've often felt Balanchine created the quintessentiallty 20th Century American ballet style with works like Agon and 4 Ts... but isn't peculiar that this so "American" style should have been developed by a Russian?... is it really American or is it really Russian American?

But thinking about how Balanchine could see a dancer's capabilities and tendencies and create just for them... how he might create something very different for a Suzanne Farrell or an Allegra Kent than he would create for say Violette Verdy... got me to thinking that perhaps it's easier for an outsider to see what the American accent in movement is... perhaps it's transparent to those grown up in it (what? do what? I'm just doing the step... ).

It makes me wonder... if he had settled somewhere else, say in Denmark... would we have ended up with the same repertoire?

What are Balanchine's ballets that reflect the styles of different Nationalities? (and do they?)

I guess we've got Jewels that covers 3.

What others?

#2 Mel Johnson

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 02:57 AM

The works for which Balanchine is most famous, "Agon", "The Four Temperaments", "Concerto Barocco", and the rest of the "leotard ballets" are really Neo-Classicism, which both subsumes and transcends national identity. Had Balanchine's year in Denmark turned into a longer commitment, his Neo-Classicism might have ended up looking very different, but then, as with all propositional history (what if...) he would have been dealing with many other forces of his environment (What would a Balanchine in Europe during World War II have done?) which did not act on him in America. As to the "national styles" within Balanchine's oeuvre, there are oddments as "Donizetti Variations" (Bournonvillesque), rescensions of older works like Nutcracker, his Act II Swan Lake, and "Harlequinade", which were his takes on the Petipa/Ivanov mode, and experimental strangenesses like "Electronics" and "PAMTGG" which, to me, beat Gene Roddenberry to "Space...the final frontier" by years and light years, respectively.

#3 Amy Reusch

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 07:09 AM

Perhaps it's entirely me seeing things into them... but it's really hard for me not to see New York City's imprint on 4Ts and Agon, etc., with it's modernism, skyscrapers, big broad American daring new movement... I wonder if neoclassism in Paris would have looked the same. Is there a difference in the neoclassicist style of Apollo to the later works? There is a discerinble style in different nation's modern art, dispite the abstract intentions of the artist, don't you think or am I way off base? Did he create anything on the Royal Danish? (I have this approximation of a memory that he was there for a very short time... my apologies for not having a sharp memory)

Attempting to continue the national flavor list...
Tarantella...


Do we know anything about the inspiration for Donizetti Variations? Was only the music?

#4 EAW

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 07:27 AM

If you ditch the "Flower Festival" costumes and restore Donizetti Variations' original tutus, I think the Bournonville connection weakens considerably. There's a lot more bold bravura than bouncy charm to the choreography when you can see more of it.

#5 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 04:04 PM

is it really American or is it really Russian American?

both. (e.g-Was Bujones just american...? No, he was Cubanamerican.)

#6 bart

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 04:56 PM

The term "American" has tended to suggest different things at different times in history.

When the NYCB first toured Europe after World War II most people seemed to be looking for a sharply defined contrast between "American" and "Everyone Else. Balanchine's neoclassicism and his dancers seemed to embody this.

Reading the press reports of NYCB's tours in Europe from that time, I have the impression that "American" wasn't defined in terms of something ethnic or a specific cultural content, at least not as compared to "French" or"German" or Russian.". "American" suggested a look, style, and spirit. It encompassed youth, energy, cleanness, leanness, speed, bounce, flexibiility, freshness, iconoclasm, hope. People from lots of places and backgrounds could aspire to become "American" in this sense.

Today, of course, these distinctions have blurred around the world. Many of them have disapeared, in life and also in ballet. When you see the Kirov or Paris dance Balanchine, is the choreography perceived as "American" any longer. You could ask the same question about the way any US company, including the NYCB', dancies Balanchine today.

#7 SandyMcKean

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 04:58 PM

Really, really great questions Amy.

The part I am most interested in might be stated as:

What is essential about Balanchine's choreography that would have his works be "American" (leaving aside the obvious "Stars and Stripes" pieces)......especially in these "leotard ballets" (as Mel termed them)?

I am too uninformed to comment myself on these questions, but I feel as if I am in Amy's camp emotionally.......even in the purely abstract, such as Agon, there is something American.

[later edit: bart's post, which I did not see until after I hit the send button, gives me a lot of insight into the question.]

#8 Quiggin

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 05:29 PM

The works for which Balanchine is most famous, "Agon", "The Four Temperaments", "Concerto Barocco", and the rest of the "leotard ballets" are really Neo-Classicism, which both subsumes and transcends national identity.


I differ with Mel a bit on this. I would say "Agon" and the "Four Ts" are works of High Modernism, like the corresponding artworks of Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. They do in many ways transcend national identity.

Neoclassicism, on the other hand, was more a local postwar reaction against the excesses of earlier Diaghilev works. Prokofiev reports in his diary that at the end of WWI the French, who had earlier madly cheered him, no longer had any interest in Stravinsky whatsoever. So Stravinsky had to reinvent himself--as a neo-classicist. And as Tim Scholl points out, Balanchine correspondingly turned Nijinsky/Dionysius upside down into Apollo. "Apollo" begins, Scholl says, where "Afternoon" ends. And Picasso went through his own cleansing-the-palatte neoclassical period.

So Balanchine on the whole is the great High Modernist, and Agon is pure on-the-floor, jabbing-into-little corners Russian Constructivism (strangely derived in a roundabout way from Braque via Tatlin).

Or that's how I've mapped it out for myself.

There's a lot more bold bravura than bouncy charm to the choreography when you can see more of it.


"Donizetti" is the loveliest and most satisfying ballet. I saw it twice last year or the year before at City Ballet. It has such a mysterious interweaving middle movement.


Added: Along Bart's line of thought above, maybe the Americaness of Balanchine's ballets is in their "speed" and "cheek." But don't forget the corny Americaness of "Filling Station" and other Lincoln Kirstein Americanist ideas for ballets, which must have made Balanchine cringe inwardly time and again.

#9 dirac

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 05:49 PM

So Balanchine on the whole is the great High Modernist, and Agon is pure on-the-floor, jabbing-into-little corners Russian Constructivism (strangely derived in a roundabout way from Braque via Tatlin).


As Balanchine said to Jonathan Cott, I dont create or invent anything, I assemble. This strikes a distinctly constructivist note (as Scholl also says, I think).

But don't forget the corny Americaness of "Filling Station" and other Lincoln Kirstein Americanist ideas for ballets, which must have made Balanchine cringe inwardly time and again.


They did, I'm sure. It seems as if Balanchine would listen politely to Kirstein's thoughts about a Pocahontas ballet or whatever and then do what he was going to do anyway. The result was often too Petipa for Kirstein.

#10 Amy Reusch

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Posted 30 July 2008 - 07:59 PM

Reading the press reports of NYCB's tours in Europe from that time, I have the impression that "American" wasn't defined in terms of something ethnic or a specific cultural content, at least not as compared to "French" or"German" or Russian.". "American" suggested a look, style, and spirit. It encompassed youth, energy, cleanness, leanness, speed, bounce, flexibiility, freshness, iconoclasm, hope. People from lots of places and backgrounds could aspire to become "American" in this sense.


I'd like to add to this, a slightly rough "openness", which is perhaps missing in the modern european interpretations (I see plenty of youth, cleanness, leanness, speed, flexibility these days...) but the freshness, the hope... is perhaps less there? I don't think the women were necessarily rough... but there was something to the energy then that's different now... Did Peter Martins hit this as well in his dancing, or did he fill some regality need, a pedestal off which to display Balanchine's "ballet-is-woman"?

Is Serenade equally neoclassical?

Oddly enough, I don't find Stravinsky to express this same "American" thing.... though certainly Bernstein & Copeland & Gershwin... What is it?

As Balanchine said to Jonathan Cott, “I don’t create or invent anything, I assemble.” This strikes a distinctly constructivist note (as Scholl also says, I think).


And he assembled an American collage as a result... ? I can't say it feels constructivist to me... too minimalist in it's structure...

#11 EAW

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 02:45 AM

I would like to understand - seriously - what value the labeling of Balanchine's work as neoclassical, modernist or constructivist adds to our experience of his art. Can someone please explain that? I can see the interesting point of placing some of the ballets within a larger cultural context of their time, but how does that help when one is in the theater?

About being "American:" I think it's more the frankness and lack of affectation of Balanchine's ballets - and his dancers - rather than their subject matter that matters. I remember something Marcia Haydee once said that has stuck with me - a disdainful comment she made trying to shrug off U.S. criticism of some awful thing (by John Neumeier, maybe?) in which she had performed to acclaim in Europe. I don't have the exact words, but it was something like "This is a kind of theater and ballet culture that Americans do not know how to begin to understand." Maybe it's this proud lack of understanding, of intellectual trappings, that's intrinsically American - our ballet is about powerfully expressive dancing, not ideas about dancing.

#12 Mel Johnson

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 03:20 AM

Balanchine often resists pigeonholing in a particular artistic movement, but even trying to do so provides a context for his work that can lead to understanding for some in his audience. If not for you, that's fine, too.

Choreographically, I would have to separate the Balanchine ballet from the Balanchine dancer. Technically, they're all right, and some are very high-functioning, but NYCB has really been a hotbed for affectation and personal idiosyncracy for decades, more so than other companies. The choreography is clean. The dancers often are not.

#13 bart

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 06:02 AM

I can see the interesting point of placing some of the ballets within a larger cultural context of their time, but how does that help when one is in the theater?

I think the answer to this has to be personal. Speaking for myself, I've always found a knowledge of background and context to add to my experience of watching any performing art form. In the theater, I actually feel free to experience the performancee more directly and clearly. That may be because I know that, later on, I can try to understand what I've seen in the context of what I already know. Others I know feel differently and perfer to watch performance without distraction, approaching it as a sort of tabula rasa. Both methods have value.

Choreographically, I would have to separate the Balanchine ballet from the Balanchine dancer. Technically, they're all right, and some are very high-functioning, but NYCB has really been a hotbed for affectation and personal idiosyncracy for decades, more so than other companies. The choreography is clean. The dancers often are not.

This is a most interesting point, mel, and one which I hadn't really thought about. It certainly holds true for the period I know best ('57-'85). In fact, it was something I always liked, and I tended to think of it as a legacy of the days when Balanchine had to draw his dancers from so many different kinds of training, stage experience, etc. The SAB, as time went on, tended to produce more striking technique but also to smooth out the personal edges and idiosyncracies that I will always assosciate with NYCB in its first decades.

I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on mel's point.

#14 Quiggin

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 11:48 AM

The choreography is clean. The dancers often are not.

I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on mel's point.


For me dancers can be as free and idiosyncratic as they like, but the counterpoint has to be right on, at least at certain crucial moments. The hand-off of the choreographic figure between soloist and corps members (for each to develop and finish off) has to be clean and on time. If not, a lot of the Balanchiness of Balanchine evaporates without a trace.

For a nutshell look at variations in dancers styles, look at Merrill Ashley and Jeffrey Edwards in the Balanchine essays. JE varies the time of his moves infinitely and MA's are arrow shots from Sylvia's bow.

#15 Helene

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Posted 31 July 2008 - 12:19 PM

I think that Balanchine's "American-ness" is characterized in two ways: the America of movies, both Broadway and westerns and Fred Astaire, and the bustle and energy of New York City.

Reading the Kirstein biography, Kirstein was constantly and fervently writing libretti about "American" subjects for Balanchine, and Balanchine was constantly putting him off, giving him vague encouragement or ignoring the suggestions. This went on for decades. On the whole Balanchine was less interested in narrative ballet, but in a ballet like "Stars and Stripes", he captured the essence of the American band music and the theater of parades with the bones of classical ballet. Or in "Western Symphony", with its loving parody of "Swan Lake" and all those American dancers with flouncy Western dresses doing the classics. The juxtaposition is so grand.

The interesting question for me is what Balanchine would have commented on if he had stayed in Europe and what he would have shown us about Denmark or France.


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