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Long vs. Short

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#1 Dale


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Posted 27 February 2000 - 06:23 AM

I was reading an article by Octavio Roca on ABT's new Swan Lake and it, to me, brought up some interesting thoughts about evening length ballets vs. one act works.

Roca wrote: "In the parochial dance world that plays down the role of narrative ballet, this may be the occasion to reconsider the role of George Balancine's so-called abstract dances in today's repertory and perhaps to rediscover the work of the other genius of the Balanchine generation, Antony Tudor, together with the entire enterprise of dramatic ballet. Everyone except critics seems to love story ballets, even as many American critics betray an inordinate fondness for ballets devoid of dramatic content. Are such favorites as Giselle, the Nutcracker, and Swan Lake the highest achievements of an art form or simply guilty pleasure in which an audience must be indulged? ...."

And he quotes several ABT people: "Frankly, even the idea of abstract ballet never made sense to me," said (Kevin) McKenzie. "When I was a dancer, I never really wanted just a meaty dancing part. I always wanted a role. I have been very lucky."

"What keeps us interested is not the steps," (Susan) Jaffe said. "It is not just technique. It's funny, when I started out I had scholarships to both the School of American Ballet and ABT. I chose ABT, because I always wanted to dance Swan Lake and Giselle. The Balanchine repertory is beautiful, but it didn't call for my soul."

How many people out there agree with these sentiments?

Personally, I believe great one-act ballets can contain just as much story and emotion as longer works. The works of Balanchine and Robbins are even more immeadiate for me and emotionally touching because they don't contain "roles" but feelings. They're more universal, for me, because they are about men and women, not a prince and a swan, or a fairy tale. That's not to say I don't appreciate the classics but there is room for both forms, without placing one over the other.

And I was puzzled by Jaffe's statement. 1) when she said she chose between SAB and ABT did she mean NYCB and ABT. Because one is a school and the other a company. 2) I disagree with her assessment of the Balanchine repertoire -- I guess she never saw Serenade or Liebesleider. There is a lot of "soul" in those ballets.

#2 Guest_Ballet Dad_*

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 07:24 AM

Regarding your question about a SAB vs.ABT, ABT did operate a school at the the time that Susan Jaffe came to New York City. Their school and training programs were disbanded in the mid '80s, I assume due to financial considerations.

Fortunately, in the last couple of years, they have been able to reistablish summer training classes, held at a few locations throughout the country, including their studios on Broadway.

[This message has been edited by Ballet Dad (edited February 27, 2000).]

#3 Dale


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Posted 27 February 2000 - 07:57 AM

A peek at Jaffe's bio shows she went to both schools. But what I was wondering is whether she had to chose beween NYCB and ABT?

#4 Paul W

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 11:50 AM

Dale, you've definitely initiated a very significant and interesting discussion!! I don't think from my point of interest its so much "long vs short", or "evening length vs one-act". It gets more to the premise and the question posed in your quote from Roca's article.

I take the premise to be that Roca sees a dichotomy between the critical dance community (critics) viewpoint on the merit of narrative vs abstract ballet and the public (audience) view of the same. Add to the premise the quotes from McKenzie and Jaffe and this is sure to generate some sparks here.

I agree with Roca's premise. This is something I have struggled with from the beginning of my heightened interest in ballet. The current thread(s) on Emploi have been very interesting, but have been a bit depressing and frustrating because of the realization that there is so much more behind this art form that is forever beyond the scope of discovery for an infrequent ballet-goer. The issue you've raised once more is also related to how frequently one is able to go to ballets.

I disagree with Jaffe in general (can't contest her emotional and interpretive perspective as a dancer) because I can sense the incredible "soul" that is present in Balanchine's "abstract" ballets, even having only seen a few only once. I can understand McKenzie's statement about wanting more of a role (dramatic in the sense of filling out a narrative, I presume) than just a "meaty" (technically ?) part. Narrative ballets allow a dancer to develop more depth of interpretation I think.

From the perspective of a critic, or of one of the many articulate participants on this site who write from NYC, I can see that the abstract ballets become a very intense experience. Manhattnik, Leigh, you yourself Dale, and many others are able to see Balanchine night after night. You interpret from a different database than I do. You can explore the nuances of the different casts and grow to have a keen understanding of the "intent" behind the abstractness. For me, and others who can see but one performance or so a year (and even can miss a particularly desired performance such as Mozartiana because it was canceled during the one opportunity Posted Image ), growing to appreciate Balanchine's art is not so easy as absorbing the narrative ballets. To infrequent ballet-goers a single performance of Swan Lake or Giselle or Fille is much more easily appreciated (even if it might be a bit below par or less than authentic to the classic original). I guess my point is that the general public (non critics like me) loves the narrative ballets more because it takes a great deal more exposure to abstract ballets to make contact with their "artistic essence". Balanchine's ballets are definitely beautiful and the dancers are joy to watch even once, but the meaning is frequently elusive and only grasped through seeing multiple performances.

As to Roca's question of whether dramatic ballets are only a "guilty pleasure" or the "highest achievements of an art form", that too can't be answered by one who has not seen repeated performances. I'll take the guilty pleasure and run at this point. But I also feel that way about Balanchine's work! Posted Image

[This message has been edited by Paul W (edited February 27, 2000).]

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 12:27 PM

The form itself of neither one is inherently better! It depends on the author and (crucially) the production.

As one who spent most of my dance life turning up my nose at story ballets because I had seen them in dreary productions, I have to say that after a throwing myself into studying them for a bit, my opinion has broadened. I could never go without the abstract masterworks of the 20th century, but the narrative masterworks of the 19th century can be as moving an experience.

I have my own opinions about what a stager should do to make them work (the first is NO FREUD IF THE NARRATIVE IS PRE-FREUDIAN)but more importantly, as an audience member, one needs to approach a narrative ballet with a different set of eyes from an abstract ballet. I try to, as much as my viewing experience will allow me. I look at dancing not for itself, but for its integration into the narrative, I look for a cogent and logical story, and for the dancing to serve it. If it's a narrative work, the narrative should come first.

I also look at abstract work for its integration, but the focus or linking point could be many other things; its musicality, the stage design, the choreographic language. But for me, any good dance is a dance that knows what it has to say and uses all the resources at its disposal to say it.

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 12:52 PM

Paul and Dale-
I think what Jaffe is saying is not that Balanchine doesn't HAVE soul, but that it doesn't speak to HER soul.
Posted Image

#7 Alexandra


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Posted 27 February 2000 - 01:59 PM

Thanks for raising this, Dale. My eye stopped at that very passage.

First off, I think it's a crashinginly inaccurate statement. I don't know a critic who doesn't like story ballets. That doesn't mean they swallow every production of a story ballet. I think the division is between people who value choreography and people who aren't that concerned about it -- either because, as Paul points out, they are more casual viewers, or because they just don't care, like readers who don't mind a book with good characters and a well-developed plot, even if it's badly written versus those who will tolerate, or even prefer, a boring story with an unlikable hero if the writing is top drawer.

I found Jaffe's comments interesting, because when she was a young dancer, she was very blank, dramatically, and seemed to be very "it's the steps, look at my technique" to me. I never got the impression that she was aiming to be a dramatic dancer (like Ferri, for instance, who would seem to have been a "soul" person from childhood.

Paul, I think your points are very good ones. I always sympathize with your comments about how much there is to learn. I've always puzzled, though, over why this is such a shock to ballet people. I think when people discover opera, they understand that they can enjoy an occasional performance, or they're going to have to dive into musical terminology and performance history if they're going to hold their own in those intermission brawls over who the greatest is in this or that role, and for many people, this seems to be part of the fun. But for many people who come to ballet, there seems to be an assumption that there's nothing to it except what's before us on stage at that moment -- aside from the fact that there are technical aspects of dancing the average audiencegoer doesn't know.

Re Balanchine "versus" story ballets -- again, a false dichtomy. It's good versus bad choreography. (And Balanchine ballets DO have a story. The wonderful thing about them is that it's a different story for each person, or each season of life, or from one performance to another.)

Now, the dichotomy between Balanchine and Tudor is a real one, I think. I'd love a re-examination of Tudor and I wish his ballets were more frequently performed. Why not a Tudor festival, to try to get back some of the really rare ones, like "Shadow of the Wind" (is that possible?) or the ballets he did while at NYCB. It is true that the kind of ballet that Tudor (and Massine) made became out of fashion in the 1950s when Balanchine became The Man (in the same way that Graham ballets became old-fashioned in the wake of Cunningham) and this mirrors a similar dichotomy in painting. I don't think the story ballets that are being done today, though, have anything much to do with Tudor. His work *was* fine choreography, as fine as Balanchine's, IMO. He's a first-rate choreographer. It's the stories themselves that don't quite hold up now (Pillar, in a post-feminist age, doesn't pack the same punch as it did in the '40s, nor does "Undertow.") Perhaps if ABT had stuck to their Tudor guns, they would have found a way to make those ballets work, in the same way that the Danes did for so long with their Mr. B. (whose ballets survived both realism and modernism. So it can be done.)

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 03:02 PM

Didn't Suzanne Farrell say that there is no such thing as an abstract ballet (in an article by Roca)? She was exactly right. As Alexandra said,

...Balanchine ballets DO have a story. The wonderful thing about them is that it's a different story for each person, or each season of life, or from one performance to another.

An abstract ballet would be boring, like those paintings from the forties that consist of a red rectangle on one side of the canvas and a blue one on the other. They show the contrast between the colours and nothing else. It's like looking at a colour wheel. (I hope I didn't just offend anyone who likes those. I just happen not to, and am using them as an example Posted Image.) For an abstract ballet, you might as well go watch a class (although, granted, there are people who enjoy watching ballet classes). It always infuriates me when someone writes (in an article) about "abstract" ballets. I always wish they would define what an abstract ballet is, and how it differs from a plotless one, which is what Balanchine created (although plotless ballets are not always entirely so, as can be seen from Alexandra's quote above).

I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that when people say that Balanchine's ballets don't have a soul, they obviously haven't watched them enough. Agon has a soul, just as much as Liebeslieder or La Belle au Bois Dormant do. It's a different kind, and you might have to look a bit harder for it, but it's there. And isn't there a saying that goes something like, "the harder you have to work for something, the more you appreciate it"?


#9 Paul W

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Posted 27 February 2000 - 04:23 PM

Thanks Veronika, for pointing out the (rather significant Posted Image) distinction in the reference to "soul" in what is attributed to Ms. Jaffe ("...it didn't call for my soul"). I agree, she doesn't imply that Balanchine's work doesn't have soul. So my apologies to Ms. Jaffe. Posted Image

Alexandra, you mention your surprise that new ballet-goers might be shocked to find out how much it takes to understand ballet,

"...comments about how much there is to learn. I've always puzzled, though, over why this is such a shock...".

It isn't really a shock so much as an enlightenment to the rich history behind ballets produced today, and how important this history remains in the minds of true afficionados... It IS a really WONDERFUL challenge!! I didn't mean to imply that I wish it were different, only that it definitely does take a major long term effort, which does require more frequent, regular ballet viewing (not painful by any means, but expensive if you live in the boonies Posted Image).

Alexandra and Intuviel Posted Image , I don't disagree with your views that Balanchine ballets have stories associated with them; But, I think the similarities and differences in meaning as we use the terms "abstract", "plotless", "story-ballet", and "dramatic" are all a bit fluid in this discussion. Words are getting in the way a bit. I respectfully submit that one can't really say that Balanchine ballets have stories to the same extent that Swan Lake, Giselle, Fille, Onegin etc... do. I am not in disagreement that individuals are led to perceive a story by skill of the choreographer and the artists in dancing the ballet, and agree with the perspective you expressed about these stories:

"a different story for each person, or each season of life, or from one performance to another"

This is what I would term abstract, its not concrete, its not absolute but ambiguous.
And that "ambiguity" supports what I was trying to say initially, that it does require time and effort to fully understand and appreciate Balanchine's work, ie. to get to this elevated level of appreciation; as I said before I do find the dance movements and physicality of the dancers quite beautiful in his ballets. But, to date I have not come home from a Balanchine ballet with the same awe & reverence for the work that I sense being expressed by Manhattnik or Leigh in posts of recent days. I might be absolutely blown away by the beauty, but I am also often a bit puzzled.... For some reason, it never puzzles me at all that swans become beautiful women, dead unwed maidens haunt primeval forests, a princess and all her associates fall asleep for 100 years without consequence, and mice turn into armies to fight against toy soldiers.

#10 Brooke


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Posted 27 February 2000 - 10:14 PM

I almost hate to add my point here because I'm afraid of the repercussions...........dare I say that some Balanchine ballets do not have stories to this group?
Concerto Barocco, for example....... no story, you've got your first violin and your second violin backed up by the rest of the orchestra (8 corps. girls)........no story, just a physical representation of the music......
that's what is so brilliant about a lot of Balanchine's works - there is no "story" - it's music in motion......
As for soul...no one who has seen the melancholic variation of Four Temperaments done well can say that Balanchine doesn't give the dancers an opportunity to put themselves into his works........
I think the story ballets are easier for the general public to accept - it's cut and dry - you know how you're supposed to feel at the end of Swan Lake - "oh how terrible, two lovers forever separated by circumstance.....tragic".......
Abstract is defined in Webster's dictionary as " not concrete; that which does not reproduce the recognizable".......isn't that the point of art? To make you think.........make you question why a performance evoked certain feelings in you? To ask yourself why you feel moved even though nobody told you to feel that way?..............

just some thoughts........

#11 cargill


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Posted 28 February 2000 - 10:21 AM

To me ballets like Concerto Barocco (would that there were more of them!), don't necessarily have a story, but they do have a mood, like most Balanchine works; man seeks and does or does not find. Even 4 Temperaments, which is so extraordinarily about the music, has Melancholic, which is about as personal as it comes. But the mood/story is just one of the subtexts of the choreography and the dancing, and of course it differs with each viewer.

#12 Guest_Douglas Royds_*

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Posted 01 March 2000 - 12:51 AM

The word "narrative" implies a sequence of connections, that is, consequences - this happens, then this other thing happens because that happened. Looking at it this way, I can see why people are suggesting that Balanchine's ballets do have a story. His sequence of connections is happening at a level deep inside the choreography. The problem for much of the viewing public is that these connections simply aren't visible to the untrained or inexperienced eye.

Unfortunately, this is where a lot of the arguments declaring ballet inaccessible and elitist arise. Inaccessible, because the first-time viewer - or even the tenth-time viewer - might not be able to understand these connections. Elitist because, unfortunately, there are among the ballet-going public a number of people who would declare the above lack of understanding to arise from a lack of intelligence (and hence, by contrast, their own understanding reflects their great intelligence).

As I understand it, Balanchine chose to strip away the traditional idea of a story - and the associated costumes - in order to focus the viewer (and presumably himself) more clearly on the dance itself. Leigh says

any good dance is a dance that knows what it has to say and uses all the resources at its disposal to say it.

We talk about plot "development", and I think that Balanchine probably "develops" his "story", in the context of a sequence of connections, as well as any narrator.

Shakespeare's plays work on a variety of levels, once one penetrates the seemingly impenetrable English (which I find takes me about 5-10 minutes at the start of each play)! On the first viewing, you are entertained and challenged by the obvious, and concrete, plot development, and laugh enthusiastically at the antics of the comic parts he liked to throw in. By the tenth viewing, or after studying the play, you are entertained and challenged by the superb intricacies of his character development, and the subtle interplay of hints and connections in his language. Both first time viewer and seasoned critic can be delighted by the same production, assuming it is well-produced.

I think we need to capture some of this quality of multiple levels, if ballet is to survive and to thrive. I suspect that these multiple levels are the reason that both Shakespearean theatre and opera are thriving, while ballet struggles. We need choreographers who can weave a Balanchinean interplay of hints and connections through the language of their choreography, while draping it on the framework of an accessible plot development, perhaps with Shakespearean-type comic elements worked in.

Even the most beautiful of Beethoven's works had a simple tune that you can whistle.

#13 Natalia


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Posted 01 March 2000 - 12:49 PM

In this Dancemagazine article, I find Roca's blanket-comment about critics' disdain for story-ballets the most puzzling. TRUE...certain powerful critics in New York have a special attachment to NYCB & the Balanchine tradition, & love to take pokes at naive story-ballets that are "general audience" favorites (Merry Widow, the Eifman ballets, etc.). Perhaps Roca is sticking his tongue out at these critics? Nonetheless, NOBODY--not even the NYCB-gushers--can be categorized as being completely inflexible and, thus, I find his blanket-statement upsetting.

I remember Octavio Roca's critiques in the Washington Times--conservative rival paper to the liberal Washington Post--as being, very often, 180-degrees differing from critiques in the Post of the same performances. It's GREAT to have an ultra-conservative, pro-Russian/Cuban, pro-fairy-tales viewpoint or two in-print out there Posted Image but not to the point of being irresponsible & just-plain-nasty, as this seems to be. Just my 2-cents worth!

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited March 01, 2000).]

#14 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 02 March 2000 - 05:47 AM

there's that balanchine documentary from the 1980s in which they included a bit of film from the opening night at lincoln center; balanchine is making the point in an interview that even in a ballet without a story that there is already a story when a boy and a girl dance together...i'll get the film out and post his exact words. he may be more accurately speaking of a mood but i kind of agree.

#15 Kevin Ng

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Posted 02 March 2000 - 07:02 AM

Yes, Mme. Hermine, I remember those words of Balanchine which you quoted from this wonderful 2-part documentary which I saw when it was broadcast on BBC in the 1980s.

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