garybruce

Artistic Direction at ABT

57 posts in this topic

When talking about style and a living, breathing tradition, perhaps we should use the French word "ecole"? That clearly has broader implications than the American/English word "School," which always suggests bricks and mortar first of all.

I've only seen ABT twice in the past 10 years, but my experience of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was not overwhelming.

I'm not talking about the excellent, if not always well cast, leads. I'm talking about the combination of all dance elements in the production. (I assume this is is one of the things that garybruce meant when he used the term "art direction" at the beginning of this thread.)

The Sleeping Beauty, for example, was wonderfully danced by just about everyone on stage. But it was not danced in a a stylistically unified or consistent manner. Nor was it danced in a way that suggested either the the royal setting, the presence of powerful spirits, or the grandeur of the themes. As a package, it looked "nice." It was danced with great technical skill if not with all that much sense of time and place. It was bright. It was snappy. It was youthful. It was, even with extensive editing, rather faithful to the broad outlines of story and music.

Perhaps, on second thought, that IS what "American" style means to most people. For something like SL or SB, I prefer the aesthetic unity still visible in companies operating from and within a sense of "ecole."

P.S.: Thanks, gary, for introducing such a provocative and useful topic. Let the good posts ROLL! :wub:

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Most students who make it from the beginning levels of SAB to the advanced are not asked to be in NYCB. The majority of the NYCB dancers came in as intermediate- advanced students and are "Balanchinized" for a few years. They arrive at the school at 15 or 16 yrs old and by 18 they are in the company.

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Yes, that is my impression, too.

Speaking of the various écoles, it is interesting to note that there are a lot out there, but only three that I can think of directly feed companies, or at least have for some time: the mysterious "French School" of the Paris Opéra, the Vaganova School, and the Bournonville School. The Royal Ballet School is often thought of as a Royal Academy of Dance School, and as well, the National Ballet of Canada. Neither one is. They each have their own proprietary curricula, and even though they enter many RAD candidates to examination, they aren't RAD. Will these schools be long-lived and produce many generations of dancers for their companies? Too soon to tell.

PS. The Cuban School is definitely on the radar, but we'll have to see if it survives Doňa Alicia.

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American Ballet Theater definitely started out with resident choreographers and a cutting edge vision for that period in time: early 1940's. Lucia Chase and Oliver Smith brought in Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille and Mikhail Fokine restaged many of his Diaghilev ballets for them. I personally feel that it is a good thing to have a national company that does the Russian full-length classics especially since many regional ballet companies do them as well. Do we really want to wait for Bolshoi or Kirov tours to see "La Bayadere" or "The Sleeping Beauty" let alone to see Diana Vishneva or Nina Ananiashvili?

Also I think that the very eclecticism of the company is what contrasts it with NYCB and makes it crucially necessary to the ballet scene in this country. The NYCB has programming that when you see it season after season can become stale. The Balanchine and Robbins ballets are classics but their successors as choreographers aren't on the same level. Mr. Gottlieb meet Peter Martins. You had people like Richard Tanner doing a xerox of a xerox of a Balanchine ballet. People coming in for one new Diamond Project work feeling their way and not being invited back. Wheeldon was a great addition for the time he was there. I mean you have the neoclassic tutu work to Tchaikovsky or Mozart, the leotard ballet to Stravinsky or Ligeti and the jazzy Robbins work, etc. The few fun razzle dazzle Balanchine romps like "Stars and Stripes", "Union Jack" or "Western Symphony". Then lesser lights do riffs on that. After a while it can get stale when the real masterpieces have been seen multiple times. (I will admit I am really enjoying NYCB a lot these days due to Bouder, Reichlen, Mearns and old vets like Whelan and Woetzel).

As far as I know, they never had a school in those days and the main victim was the corps which always was very inferior to the New York City Ballet corps de ballet. I believe that Arlene Croce believed that Makarova's work with the corps when she staged "The Kingdom of the Shades" from "Bayadere" in the 1970's transformed the corps and Elena Chernichova under Baryshnikov worked on them too. The corps is nothing to be ashamed of now.

However, ABT currently is in a state of being an international dance boutique displaying international wares without any kind of central dance aesthetic or personal vision. Kevin McKenzie started out with the Joffrey in the seventies and they were famous for curating and restoring old lost ballets by Bronislava Nijinska and Massine and then doing modern stuff by Arpino and others. Plus doing Ashton and Cranko when other U.S. companies weren't. Kevin seems to be following something of a Robert Joffrey template especially during the City Center season with things like "The Green Table". Kevin has borrowed all sorts of classic Cranko, MacMillan and Ashton ballets from the National Ballet of Canada and Royal Ballet. However, there are several things missing here and he has revived as many of the 20th century classics as he can. When it really comes to going out on a limb and doing let's say a Massine, Nijinska, a lost early Balanchine, a lost Ashton, Leo Staats or other such work, he isn't doing much to rescue these pieces. With the death of lots of those Ballets Russes era dancers many of these almost vanished ballets will become unrevivable.

A genius choreographer is another desiderata but almost every company is looking for one nowadays. Also Kevin McKenzie as a stager of the 19th century classics is decidedly a mixed blessing. He was absolutely the wrong person to do "Sleeping Beauty" because he had no sympathy for Petipa's courtly formal style and leisurely abstract dramaturgy. Anna Marie Holmes would have put something presentable up there, especially with a different design team.

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Did the lack of School drive ABT's rep in the first place? Is there a specific system that would prepare a dancer for deMille or Tudor, for example, more than any other. (Maybe Cecchetti, at least for the Tudor?) Many of the ABT ballets that have survived over the years required formidable dance-actors, which I think is more emphasized and encouraged than taught.

While there may not be a training academy like RDB, POB, or the Vaganova School in the US or Canada, where children are admitted at an early age and there is an expectation that these are the dancers that will fill the rank of the affiliated company, why would the training at Kirov Academy in DC be that much less of a School, for example? If an Artistic Director wanted to form a coherent style, especially in the corps, there are a number of distinct schools/programs that could be unaffiliated feeders, given the number of trained students each year vying for a small number of contracts.

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Interesting points, Helene. At the beginning, ABT, I have read, considered itself a Fokine company -- not quite a school, but at least an attitude. BUT it needed to be eclectic in order to dance Tudor-Robbins-DeMille, and other choreographers. I think this only became a problem when the company started dancing a lot of Petipa. It didn't have its own way (School) of dancing Petipa. KAB has been a feeder school to ABT in the past ten years. I've lost count, but I think they have seven KAB graduates (disclaimer: I teach ballet history at KAB), and it is a Vaganova school (and School), but, as Mme. Vinogradova once said about Michele Wiles, "They have already started to change her," after she had been in the company about a month. The current direction doesn't want that look/style/School. Too extreme? Too European? (That's a defensible point.) I think that's why they're trying again to start a school, and press releases indicate that they're consciously working on defining a classical style -- taking bits from several techniques, as the Royal did when it started.

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BT's first members contained a large contingent trained by Mikhail Mordkin. Other sources were SAB (even then!) and various Ballet Russe students. Having a dedicated company in the city your school serves as a big plus; it provides a venue for consumers to view the finished product. The Kirov in DC is a good school, but what company do they fill? The Maryinsky? The Universal? There is no there there when your school is remote from the company.

Corps work was largely the province of the ballet master and/or the regisseur. Dimitri Romanoff was remorseless about "Les Sylphides" - not an eyelash out of place. Other corps as in Giselle were subject to the vagaries of the ballet master schedule and sometimes did not receive the heavyweight supervision needed to achieve "together would be nice!"

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The current direction doesn't want that look/style/School. Too extreme? Too European? (That's a defensible point.)

Quite a change from when I first saw the company in the early 1970's, where having a European or Russian, or Latin American style sold tickets, at least among the principals. Makarova put on her own shows with Nagy as a tender, thoughtful partner; seeing Fracci and Bruhn in the same roles was like travelling to another continent.

KAB has been a feeder school to ABT in the past ten years.

Ironically, ABT is quite big for seven to make an influence, especially if the company is trying to change their style.

For a smaller company, with a corps in the 20-30 range, seven dancers could have a huge influence, especially if the Artistic Director chose those students deliberately for their style and training.

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The current direction doesn't want that look/style/School. Too extreme? Too European? (That's a defensible point.)

Quite a change from when I first saw the company in the early 1970's, where having a European or Russian, or Latin American style sold tickets, at least among the principals. Makarova put on her own shows with Nagy as a tender, thoughtful partner; seeing Fracci and Bruhn in the same roles was like travelling to another continent.

Yes, in Baryshnikov's day they were aiming for a Kirov style and had a Kirov balletmistress to work with the corps. There were a lot of complaints that Baryshhikov had completely changed the company and was trying to turn it into Kirov West. (And a lot of people who were very happy about that.) But now there are dancers from lots of different schools (and Schools :o )

KAB has been a feeder school to ABT in the past ten years.
Ironically, ABT is quite big for seven to make an influence, especially if the company is trying to change their style.

For a smaller company, with a corps in the 20-30 range, seven dancers could have a huge influence, especially if the Artistic Director chose those students deliberately for their style and training.

Yes. The school isn't trying to be an influence. It's just a school -- one of many schools in this country that teach Vaganova. We have graduates in many different companies with many different styles, and I'm sure the others do as well.

I think that the pre-Baryshnikov ABT was proud to dance Tudor ballets "in Tudor," if you think of style as a language, and Robbins ballets in his style, and "Les Sylphides" like Fokine, and "Swan Lake" a la Ivanov. One of the divides between Europeans and Americans on the style question has long been that we criticize them for dancing Balanchine, say, in their own company's style, and they criticize us for not having a style.

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I think that the pre-Baryshnikov ABT was proud to dance Tudor ballets "in Tudor," if you think of style as a language, and Robbins ballets in his style, and "Les Sylphides" like Fokine, and "Swan Lake" a la Ivanov.

And, of course, they HAD Tudor -- and Robbins -- other lesser creators like de Mille -- in the studio. They also had Fokine earlier on -- and people who had learned directly from those who had participated in the original Swan Lakes.

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Not to make it a competition of any kind, but Harid also has had at least 7 graduates in the various ranks of ABT since 1996. If one scrolls through the bios of the dancers, both American and not, one will find that ABT has a rather large Vaganova influence amongst the ranks.

There were quite a few Vaganova trained and influenced ballet masters and one company teacher at ABT during the Barishnikov years and in the the School of Classical Ballet, the entire faculty was trained in a Soviet ballet program either as dancers, teachers and/or both. During those years an attempt was made to form a school and a uniform schooling.

The question of a school and schooling however has yet to be sustained long enough to produce a generation of dancers to feed into the company since the 1960s. Hopefully they will be able to maintain the existing school long enough to see positive results. It is highly unlikely however that the company will hire students from only their school.

Only time will tell. :o

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I'm of two minds about this. One is that for a ballet like La Bayadere, having 32 perfectly trained Shades that are all sprung from the same School is breathtaking. If you don't believe me see the POB and Kirov dvd's. The ABT will never have that kind of perfect uniformity. Even if they did, say, Symphony in C, their corps de ballet will never look as natural as the NYCB, or even the Kirov, who dance in the style of the School no matter what.

On the other hand, at the ABT there is a feeling of Marco-Polo-esque wonder. When East meets West, North meets South. This kind of meeting of disparate styles has produced some of the greatest partnerships, and it would never happen at companies where everyone is from one School, and Outsiders Not from the School are not welcomed.

For examples of great partnerships that happened when two dancers of disparate Schools met, there's Fracci and Bruhn, Makarova and Nagy, Fonteyn and Nureyev (well they weren't ABT but you get my point), and in more recent times, Bocca and Ferri, Acosta and Rojo, Cojocaru and Kobborg, etc, etc. This year when I saw Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part dance together, I realized "only at the ABT would this happen." Two dancers from two totally different places and schools, dancing like soulmates.

What I do think could be VASTLY improved with the ABT is the quality of their productions, from Swan Lake to Sleeping Beauty, and their programming/repertoire.

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I've only seen ABT twice in the past 10 years, but my experience of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty was not overwhelming.

I'm not talking about the excellent, if not always well cast, leads. I'm talking about the combination of all dance elements in the production. (I assume this is is one of the things that garybruce meant when he used the term "art direction" at the beginning of this thread.)

The Sleeping Beauty, for example, was wonderfully danced by just about everyone on stage. But it was not danced in a a stylistically unified or consistent manner. Nor was it danced in a way that suggested either the the royal setting, the presence of powerful spirits, or the grandeur of the themes. As a package, it looked "nice." It was danced with great technical skill if not with all that much sense of time and place. It was bright. It was snappy. It was youthful. It was, even with extensive editing, rather faithful to the broad outlines of story and music.

Perhaps, on second thought, that IS what "American" style means to most people. For something like SL or SB, I prefer the aesthetic unity still visible in companies operating from and within a sense of "ecole."

Yes, that is what I was referring to--the ways in which the various dance elements cohere in a single overall vision of ballet. And perhaps the American contribution to ballet may just be our athletic approach to everything--presented with pace and energy but not much sense of tradition or even story context. Given the various schools of thought, any AD should select which would take precedence over the other styles in terms of his company's repertory, instruction and production values. But Kevin McKenzie has been AD of ABT for 18 years, which means the ABT Board of Trustees want this directionless direction or he would be history.

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Yes, that is what I was referring to--the ways in which the various dance elements cohere in a single overall vision of ballet. And perhaps the American contribution to ballet may just be our athletic approach to everything--presented with pace and energy but not much sense of tradition or even story context. Given the various schools of thought, any AD should select which would take precedence over the other styles in terms of his company's repertory, instruction and production values. But Kevin McKenzie has been AD of ABT for 18 years, which means the ABT Board of Trustees want this directionless direction or he would be history.

I agree! I think you've nailed the approach -- but I don't think that dancing the 19th century repertory "with pace and energy but not much sense of tradition or even story context" is much to be proud of.

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And pardon the personal observation, but I truly believe that McKenzie owes his long tenure at least in part to being a really, REALLY nice guy! :o

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In part, no doubt, but the board must be happy with his product. After a while, in the nature of these things, doesn't a board become the boss' board, anyway?

It should also be noted that ABT rarely takes young corps dancers directly into the company from . . . whatever school/s provided earlier training. ABT II (Formerly Studio Co., formerly ABT II :o) serves as a transitional phase where, presumably, the young dancers master whatever stylistic elements the artistic staff demands.

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For examples of great partnerships that happened when two dancers of disparate Schools met, there's Fracci and Bruhn, Makarova and Nagy, Fonteyn and Nureyev

And don't forget, way before all of them, the first "in" BT's partnership, where the Caribbean met Europe: Alonso/Youskevitch.

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Are "showcase for stars" and "choreographer's vision" mutually exclusive? Did showcasing blockbuster superstars like Baryshnikov do wonders for the box office but sink the company once Tudor & choreographic company departed? ABT always showcased stars, didn't it? Why has no choreographer been resident since Tharp left? Was Tharp's rehearsal process so expensive that they were loathe to go there again? Why is there no resident choreographer?

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It's not the rehearsal process that's so expensive with Tharp, it's Tharp herself. Her fees are just as high as Jerome Robbins'.

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Re: Faux Pas' question:

"Do we really want to wait for Bolshoi or Kirov tours to see La Bayadere or Sleeping Beauty?"

A resounding YES from me; along with POB and Royal Ballet they do it a lot better than we do. McKenzie may be a 'really great guy' but lacks imagination in his week (weak??) long programming of the classics. ABT lost their uniqueness when they took the Russian route. I know what has been lost. My early ballet-going was nurtured with the 'triple bill'---ABT, Ballet Russe and NYCB all had 'triple bills'. When the Ballet Russe put on their shoe-string production of Raymonda; it was looked upon as a joke. I am an optimist and I believe there is a lot of choreographic talent out there that begs to be developed, but ABT's priorities are elswehere---another production of Corsaire or Don Q? Fortunately, Tudor, deMille and Robbins worked in a different time--by today's standards they wouldn't have a chance.

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Re: Faux Pas' question:

"Do we really want to wait for Bolshoi or Kirov tours to see La Bayadere or Sleeping Beauty?"

A resounding YES from me; along with POB and Royal Ballet they do it a lot better than we do. McKenzie may be a 'really great guy' but lacks imagination in his week (weak??) long programming of the classics. ABT lost their uniqueness when they took the Russian route. I know what has been lost. My early ballet-going was nurtured with the 'triple bill'---ABT, Ballet Russe and NYCB all had 'triple bills'. When the Ballet Russe put on their shoe-string production of Raymonda; it was looked upon as a joke. I am an optimist and I believe there is a lot of choreographic talent out there that begs to be developed, but ABT's priorities are elswehere---another production of Corsaire or Don Q? Fortunately, Tudor, deMille and Robbins worked in a different time--by today's standards they wouldn't have a chance.

ABT went corporate after Baryshnikov left in 1990--during his ten-year tenure he had aggressively introduced new choreographers into the repertory and promoted American dancers to solo and principal positions. After his departure, the ABT Board embarked on a strategy that protected their downside financially. Unless they think their foreign headliner + Russian strategy is a failure, they will continue on the same path. However, given the recent success of their fund raising efforts, that doesn't appear to be in the cards. Perhaps several more "guest artist" debacles like this year's Diana Vishneva (who apparently canceled every appearance) and thinking will change.

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The Baryshnikov era repertory was odd, though. On the weekends they did The Classics. During the week, the same small company-within-a-company did modern dance pieces. (Cunningham, Taylor, Tharp, David Gordon, Karole Armitage, etc.) The old ABT rep was pretty much thrown out. Ironically, when McKenzie took over, one of the things he said he wanted to do was to bring back that old rep, and they did a performance of "Three Virgins and a Devil" that pleased even those who'd seen the original. Then things changed. Rethinking? The board? I don't know.

I've been thinking about atm's comment that Tudor, Robbins and DeMille wouldn't have a chance today -- probably that's true. One of the problems with today's Program A, Program B way of doing things is that each new work has to be a Hit. (This is an especial problem for smaller companies who only do four programs a year.) No place to work in a small work. The last one, unless I'm forgetting someone, that had a success there was the late Clark Tippet, who was allowed one work a year, except for the year they couldn't find a place for him. (That was before McKenzie's tenure.)

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I hate to bring up the Vishneva "thing" from last season, but I believe she is one of the main marketing tools being the Russian ballerina and someone who got oodles of publicity with her Beauty tour. But she injured herself and was taken out of the line up for the whole season.... except of course the Gala where the money people attend. And they were dodgey about whether she would perform and refused, at least, in word, to exchange tickets where she had been scheduled to perform.

As I stated earlier, Kevin seems to be fashioning the offerings as a bit of the classics ("reinterpreted?") and some new pieces like Thwarp, with dancers from all over the map. I don't mind the mix and match of the companies dancers as they have some good talent, but I would like to see them do some real Petipa and so forth accurately so we can see how it looked when it was created. I haven't been thrilled by the newer stuff, but occasionally it is fun for a change, so long as the main body of work is more classical.

Sleeping Beauty did not wow the critics nor the audiences and if that was an example of "artistic direction", I'd say it was nothing to write home about. Nice try, no cigar.

Just saying.

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PS. The Cuban School is definitely on the radar, but we'll have to see if it survives Doňa Alicia.

Oh, it has survived already. Remember that she's been legally blind from a long time ago, so the "thing" has been passed by already to hundreds of others, teachers and dancers, for a while now. Continuity has been basically carried on by some of her most beloved pupils, Mme. Mendez (RIP), Mirtha Pla (RIP) and currently Mme. Araujo and Mme. Bosh-(both Varna winners during the 60's, BTW). This is without counting the long list of principals that still bring the style to their respective current companies out of the island.

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