garybruce

Artistic Direction at ABT

57 posts in this topic

I know it's a long standing issue that ABT has a problem with artistic direction if only because dancers and critics keep harping on it over the decades. From Gelsey Kirkland's memoir twenty two years ago to Alistair Macauley's seasonal review last month in the NY Times, ABT's lack of artistic vision keeps coming up. I don't know why anyone complains about a situation that has never been an issue, for ABT doesn't pretend to be a dance company; therefore, it doesn't need artistic vision or direction.

ABT has always marketed itself on the star system, not the company system, offering great international--not American--dancers to headline tonight's ballet. The ballet choreography and overall company quality both become irrelevant, probably because management thinks it too difficult to achieve financially and artistically. They must fill 4,000 seats for ten weeks every year with a limited repetory, and great international stars attract balletomanes on a long-term basis more effectively than anything else. What's key about the star system is that people will pay to see stars in anything regardless of performance quality. You can bank on it.

So we get Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci, Mikail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, ad infinitum. Indeed, I believe two-thids of ABT's current lineup of soloists and principal dancers are foreigners, and the company even lists their legal firm specializing in immigration issues on their website! Talk about outreach. In Russia and France, their companies are bastions of national dance culture, and they each have distinctive styles that arise out of that culture. ABT management must have realized that there isn't enough interest at home to develop enough first rate ballet dancers, so they, like the Metropolitan Opera, resort to being a "headliner" venue instead. And they get to stop worrying about artistic vision. "Variety" is the marketing term.

Share this post


Link to post

1-Wasn't NYCB originally created to counteract all of the above...?

and if so...

2-Did they succeed...?

Share this post


Link to post
1-Wasn't NYCB originally created to counteract all of the above...?

and if so...

2-Did they succeed...?

1 - Yes

2 - Yes, IMHO

Balanchine provided some two dozen masterpieces (and 400 other ballets) to his company on which to base both repertory and style, whereas ABT decided to stick with classical, for which hardly anyone has been choreographing more ballets except the English (Ashton, Macmillan, etc.)

ABT could never find a great choreographer on which to build a house style, I guess, and so they embraced the past. I don't know of any American choreographers who work in the classical style; they've chosen modern or neoclassical.

Share this post


Link to post

Well, NYCB was founded on a different artistic precept, but certainly not to counteract Ballet Theatre. Ballet Theater came about in 1940; The first incarnation of NYCB was several years before that and NYCB itself was formed in 1948.

Back to the original question - I think ABT likes to consider itself more than a vehicle for stars - it certainly likes to advertise itself as "America's ballet company." And as long as it does so, we have the right to measure them by their artistic output. If the company doesn't want to produce great choreography, fine, you can't wish a great choreographer into being. But for the company to make third-rate productions of the classics the backbone of its repertory and then bill itself as America's ballet company? Sorry. There's no excuse. I'll cut ABT far more slack when they clean up their classics.

Share this post


Link to post
I don't know why anyone complains about a situation that has never been an issue, for ABT doesn't pretend to be a dance company; therefore, it doesn't need artistic vision or direction.

ABT has always marketed itself on the star system, not the company system, offering great international--not American--dancers to headline tonight's ballet.

I'll have to quibble with that. ABT, in its Ballet Theatre days, was not based on the star system but on presenting a repertory of vibrant, new, ballets by choreographers from America (Robbins and De Mille, Eugene Loring, et al.) as well as England (Antony Tudor) and Russia (Mikhail Fokine and Leonide Massine, among others).

I'm not sure what you mean by "doesn't pretend to be a dance company," but I think ABT has always considered itself a ballet company. It has also promoted American stars at different periods -- when there are American dancers who measure up to international standard (snowballs down, please :lol: ) The company was very proud of Cynthia Gregory and Fernando Bujones, to name two. I'll leave it for atm to come in and tell us about the first generation of American stars.

I agree with the criticism of ABT's productions, but I think a lot of the people who are complaining are doing so because they're comparing the current company to past glories.

Share this post


Link to post

I don't know what their mission statement is, if they have one, but perhaps they are essentially doing the "American" approach... ie taking people from everywhere, as we do in America. putting on a range of performance themes, not focusing on a narrow genre.

American baseball has players from all over who make the grade, though baseball was born here. In a sense I can see that ABT wants to be good at all things ballet and dance, a smörgåsbord, the classics, international star power, a basic repertory, some new pieces and put on a traveling "act" around the country and the world. Perhaps they are good at lots and great at nothing.

I think this may be a uniquely American approach to this art form as the dance genre is both founded in classical roots and infused with newer artistic efforts. ABT sees itself as fashioning a creative approach to a ballet company. They make room for artists and perhaps less room for classical, technical historically driven performers. And they, as most American arts endeavors must market themselves to a wide audience because there is no way to fill the house is they parked themselves in one niche and excelled.

They are somewhat all things ballet/dance to all people and all can find something to love about them and somethings to not love. In the end if they can inspire people, keep the entire genre alive, their approach may ultimately prove clever. If the narrow focused approaches are not economically viable, we may not have any dance/ballet companies at all in this country.

Just a thought.

Share this post


Link to post
I'm not sure what you mean by "doesn't pretend to be a dance company," but I think ABT has always considered itself a ballet company. It has also promoted American stars at different periods -- when there are American dancers who measure up to international standard (snowballs down, please :lol: )

I think it was Arlene Croce who described ABT as a dance entertainment company, by which she probably meant that commercial interests took precedent over artistic concerns--hence, the reliance on paying top dollar for headliners and letting all else take a back seat. It was what Baryshnikov was referring to when he said that NYC Ballet was the most ethical company he had been with.

ABT does dance classical ballet, but have never settled on a house style of instruction or repertoire. And their productions vary in quality significantly as a result. Too many people aiming at different targets.

As for American versus international ballet stars--I agree that not enough Americans choose to study ballet for cultural reasons but also financial reasons: careers are short and poorly paid compared to athletic and other entertainment professions.

Share this post


Link to post

I get a sense that a point being made here is that the AD issue isn't all that important since ABT really isn't a ballet company, its choreography merely a vehicle for foreign stars and its dancers mere background for them. Yet, going back to that end-of-season Alastair Macaulay summation, I find it to be very pro-ABT and very anti-AD. The critic spends a lot of space on Sleeping Beauty, I think because it most graphically illustrates the problems with the artistic side of Kevin McKenzie's direction.

Mr. Macaulay, by the way, prefered what he saw to what he'd just seen The Royal Ballet do with the same ballet. And he says "the dancing at corps level shows a shared understanding of classical style that comes out of more than rehearsals alone: the fragrance and sparkle of the steps, beaming through, express a whole ethos. At soloist level the dancing is often more distinctive yet." Sounds to me like there're some pretty good home team dancers here, not just scenery to back star leads. And I, and others too, found much to admire in ABT's corps in Bayadere. Credit for this was given to Natalia Makarova, here to refresh her work's performances. And no doubt that underscores the point. This IS a company of REAL dancers, with true esprit de corps, just give them artistic direction and they will excel.

The problems lie with artistic choices. Often poor, "third class", productions of the classics. I remember the earliest performances of Mr. McKenzie's Swan Lake, right in the middle of White Swan he'd inserted an upbeat, virtuosic celebratory leaping solo for the Prince, after all "it's about him, she's just a bird." But, as with many early failings with his Sleeping Beauty, the AD was willing to make corrections. Yet so many gross artistic miscues ought not to have been there in the first place. Moreover, too much of the too little new choreography that find its way onto the Met stage just plain fails.

It is hard to give Mr. MeKenzie a passing grade for the A part of AD. But for the D part, it may be another story. For one, he has averted the very real threats of financial failure. And, at least as pointed out elsewhere on this Forum by an outside insider, Nina Ananiashvili, relations between dancers and administration are civilized, and there is a great sense of family about the company. Not irrelevant considerations at all. So what we do have is a dance community of really fine dancers, who can with coaching and artistic direction dance finely. And people are getting paid. For me, all we need is someone who can see and impose what is right for the classics. There's a darn good company just waiting to dance.

Oh, and America does produce some pretty great dancers, it is just that most of them, but not all, are across the plaza and across the country.

To next year!

Share this post


Link to post

One huge difference between ABT and NYCB is that Balanchine said to Kirstein "but first a school". Therein lies a crucital difference in the 2 companies. NYCB builds from within, ABT does not.

Share this post


Link to post

Those early years of Ballet Theatre were truly marvelous...we were insulated then---the English hadn't arrived with their evening long ballets and the only Russians we saw were the grainy film versions. I suppose I still 'rue-the-day' when we were invaded! I remember when ABT was planning the Makarova Bayadere---and I wrote them a letter objecting to the million dollars they were spending on 'this chestnut'....these ballets should have been left to the Europeans.....the closest thing we have now of the perfume of the old Ballet Theatre---is Paul Taylor; the wit and drama can still be sniffed...and our 'American' dancers were top drawer---we had Hightower, Kaye and Alonso (yes, I have always considered Alonso an American dancer) who more than held their own against Markova, Toumanova and Riabouchinska; unfortunately I wish I could say the same for today's ABT principals.

Share this post


Link to post
Those early years of Ballet Theatre were truly marvelous...we were insulated then---the English hadn't arrived with their evening long ballets and the only Russians we saw were the grainy film versions. I suppose I still 'rue-the-day' when we were invaded! I remember when ABT was planning the Makarova Bayadere---and I wrote them a letter objecting to the million dollars they were spending on 'this chestnut'....these ballets should have been left to the Europeans.....the closest thing we have now of the perfume of the old Ballet Theatre---is Paul Taylor; the wit and drama can still be sniffed...and our 'American' dancers were top drawer---we had Hightower, Kaye and Alonso (yes, I have always considered Alonso an American dancer) who more than held their own against Markova, Toumanova and Riabouchinska; unfortunately I wish I could say the same for today's ABT principals.

Just to clarify: shoud we not have a ballet company that have a classical repertoire but wait for Kirov and Bolshoi and Royal to give us Swan Lake and Giselle, my two favorite ballets?

What about Baryshnikov, Makarova, Julio Bocca, Alessandra Ferri, Nina Ananiashvili, Malakhov, Carreno, Corella, Gomez and so many others - who spent their entire ballet career on the American soil? I think this view should be very discouraging for them all. How sad. All these dancers spoke of their love of ABT and American Audiences.

Share this post


Link to post
What about Baryshnikov, Makarova, Julio Bocca, Alessandra Ferri, Nina Ananiashvili, Malakhov, Carreno, Corella, Gomez and so many others - who spent their entire ballet career on the American soil? I think this view should be very discouraging for them all. How sad. All these dancers spoke of their love of ABT and American Audiences.

To develop ballet in America at a minimum means that America's national ballet company should have a majority of its principals and soloists Americans. ABT's foreign hiring policy has communicated to American dancers one thing: they aren't good enough for national recognition, which has done more to impede ballet's attraction to young Americans than anything else.

Share this post


Link to post
ABT's foreign hiring policy has communicated to American dancers one thing: they aren't good enough for national recognition

Which American dancers have ever said they've gotten this message? And there are ABT dancers -- Julie Kent, Susan Jaffe and Ethan Stiefel, just to mention a few recent names -- who have achieved national recognition.

Share this post


Link to post
To develop ballet in America at a minimum means that America's national ballet company should have a majority of its principals and soloists Americans. ABT's foreign hiring policy has communicated to American dancers one thing: they aren't good enough for national recognition, which has done more to impede ballet's attraction to young Americans than anything else.

I don't see ABT having a problem this way. If anything, the company "looks like America", which has a long and honorable tradition of welcoming the immigrant and the refugee. Many of the foreign-born artists at ABT have become naturalized, and to discriminate based on national origin is simply abhorrent.

Share this post


Link to post
To develop ballet in America at a minimum means that America's national ballet company should have a majority of its principals and soloists Americans. ABT's foreign hiring policy has communicated to American dancers one thing: they aren't good enough for national recognition, which has done more to impede ballet's attraction to young Americans than anything else.

I don't see ABT having a problem this way. If anything, the company "looks like America", which has a long and honorable tradition of welcoming the immigrant and the refugee. Many of the foreign-born artists at ABT have become naturalized, and to discriminate based on national origin is simply abhorrent.

At the very end, ABT TRULY is what US is...a melting pot. What's more american than that...?

Share this post


Link to post

I'd love to see more discussion of Printcess's piont about ABT's nver having had a feeder school. This must definitely have had an enormous impact on the company's artistic vision (or lack of one) over the decades.

The lack of a unifying school tradition seems much more important than whether or not dancers were trained in New York City, Arizona, Maryland and South Carolina or Spain, Cuba, Ukraine and Argentina.

Share this post


Link to post

Whoa, wait a minute - Ballet Theatre School was around for lotsa years, and then under Baryshnikov, there was the Classical Ballet School, and now there's the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School!

Share this post


Link to post

It's never had a School. Not the buildings and the classes, but a School -- a choreographer whose ballets shaped its classical dancing and/or a teaching method that defined the company and gave it a style. Washington School of Ballet was a feeder school for ABT for about 20 years, and there are other schools who've supplied dancers over the years, but it's not the same thing, and First, a School means: if you're going to have a great classical ballet company, you have to have a School. Balanchine was importing hundreds of years of European tradition. All of the great European companies born in the 18th century started with a school, and the company grew from that.

Share this post


Link to post
Whoa, wait a minute - Ballet Theatre School was around for lotsa years, and then under Baryshnikov, there was the Classical Ballet School, and now there's the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School!

JKO has only been in existence for a few years.

Share this post


Link to post

Mel, I'm not going to argue over definitions. What I wrote is not an esoteric, personal definition of School as it's referred to in ballet, but one that critics and historians have used for a very long time. I'm sure you've read it. When Russian critics commented upon the [now] Royal Ballets first visit to Russia, for example, one wrote, "We wondered if they would have a school, the company is so young, but they have an excellent school." She wasn't referring to the RBS, but its technique.

Printscess, yes, JKO has only been in existence for a few years. It isn't that ABT hasn't wanted to have a school. It's always been the poor cousin -- without a theater of its own, without a huge endowment to draw on. They have made, as Mel noted, many attempts to start a school (in all sense of the term) and I hope this one succeeds. A company needs to be able to train dancers to its own standards, to have them dance the way the artistic direction wants them to dance.

Re atm's comment above: In Charles Payne's book on ABT (the big silver coffee table book) he writes about the fight within the company when Lucia Chase decided to stage "Swan Lake" in the 1960s. Robbins and de Mille argued very strenuously against it, saying that it would change the company's aesthetic, really its reason for being. (The company danced "Giselle," "La Sylphide," "Coppelia" then, but the emphasis was on the triple bill, preserving some Ballet/s Russe/s ballets, but the main focus on new creations. But accbob's point -- that we should have a company that does the big classics to our taste and for our dancers and audiences -- is also a good one, and that's the way ABT started to go. (I'd like both :wub: )

Share this post


Link to post
To develop ballet in America at a minimum means that America's national ballet company should have a majority of its principals and soloists Americans.

"Americans" meaning citizenship, either being born with or aquired...?

Share this post


Link to post

I can't speak for Gary, but I'm pretty sure he means trained in America. A good example would be the difference between the Delgado sisters in Miami, who were trained in the US, and Carlos Guerra, who was trained in Cuba. It's the same issue at the Royal - or for that matter at Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Style is in the training - which loops back to the earlier discussion.

Share this post


Link to post

Not to enter a dispute on the definition of school, merely discussion, but it does not exclusively mean a method, a system, or even a place where a style is inculcated. BT School was an intake point (a "feeder school") for the company, and the company did not use it as a SINGLE-intake point, either. Ballet Russe school was more like that for its record of student placement with the Denham Ballet Russe. Even Joffrey didn't have much of a record of training dancers up from the get-go, and putting them into the company. Denise Jackson is the only Joffrey dancer I can think of who was trained from primary grades at the American Ballet Center. The School of American Ballet is really the only school in NYC attached to a major company which has acted as a single-point supply, and even they have been noted for "skimming", taking high-functioning intermediate students and training them into the Balanchine style after learning the rudiments elsewhere. For quite awhile, they were a "feeder school" for ABT, too, in fact if not intention.

School in the sense of method isn't really found in the major companies in the US. The National Ballet of Canada used to be a pretty dedicated Cecchetti-based place from top to bottom, but no longer. Most schools use the "International" lexicon, freely based on Cecchetti, with interpolations from all over. Even SAB doesn't have a complete method, as it uses the International lexicon instead of having different names for steps to match the distinctive ways they have of doing certain things. I don't know how many dancers in NYCB today are exclusively SAB products, but I suspect that it's fewer than you'd think.

I don't know if such a long-view definition of "school" were in place when it was said, "But first, a school." All we have is little more than a sound bite, and not much of a context of conversation to indicate whether the objective were a freestanding method, or a pragmatic measure for obtaining dancers to dance together.

Share this post


Link to post