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Artistic Direction at ABT


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#16 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 04:51 PM

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...?

#17 bart

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 04:54 PM

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.

#18 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 05:14 PM

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!

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 05:27 PM

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.

#20 Mel Johnson

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 06:33 PM

I have to disagree with that definition of "school".

#21 printscess

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 07:18 PM

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.

#22 Alexandra

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 08:00 PM

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: )

#23 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 08:12 PM

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...?

#24 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 August 2008 - 10:20 PM

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.

#25 Mel Johnson

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 03:03 AM

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.

#26 bart

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 06:00 AM

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:

#27 printscess

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 06:55 AM

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.

#28 Mel Johnson

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 07:09 AM

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.

#29 FauxPas

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 08:07 AM

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.

#30 Helene

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Posted 12 August 2008 - 08:45 AM

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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