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Modernizing the classics


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#1 Pamela Moberg

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Posted 22 March 1999 - 05:20 PM

In my profile I said that I hardly ever get to see live ballet. As a reason I mentioned
long distance - actually, that was baloney as I have been known to travel 250 kilometres
to see a performance.
Here is the real reason:
The other day I found the following letter to the editor in my local paper (Gothenburg
Post on the west coast of Sweden). Translation:

"When one reads the forthcoming schedule of the Gothenburg Opera one realizes that the
new director is the third one in succession who does not like classical ballet.
It is strange that the Vienna Opera, Paris Opera, Munich Opera, the three operas of
Berlin, not to mention Det Kongelige[Royal Danish Ballet] in Copenhagen and the Stockholm Opera persist in staging ballets which the current Gothenburg director calls "trolls in tulle".
Why cannot we watch Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Les Sylphides and Coppelia in the manner in which they are meant to be performed?"

I could not agree more. This surely must be a sign of a desperate lack of fantasy, artistry
and imagination when the the classics have to be "modernized". What next, Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Ravel and Chopin etc. orchestrated for a dance trio playing at tea dances!
Today, in music at any rate, there is a trend to play music as it was once intented to sound - on authentic old instruments. Let the same be true for ballet, retain the basic idea of the original and kindly dance it in that manner. Please spare us Giselles in asylums and Auroras as punks. And Sylphides in a fitness center with a poet taking steroids.
Naturally ballet, like everything else must evolve, but then for crying out loud, compose
new ballets. Leave us the classics intact - we also need fairy tales! If modern choreographers are so devoid of imagination that they must rehash old works I feel rather sorry for them.
So just let our opera houses play the classical repertoire - we want to see Aida and Rigoletto - Sleeping Beauty and Coppelia - as choreographer and composer once intended them to be shown.
Of course, it can be argued that this is only my problem - living where I do or for that matter that I am an old reactionary. But I would like to know if anybody else has any views on modernizing the classics.

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 22 March 1999 - 08:29 PM

I think I'm a moderate on this issue.

I don't mind the updating or revision of a classic (ie Mats Ek's Giselle which takes it out of the realm of ballet entirely) if it is presented as a variant. The Ek Giselle is meant to be a parallel creation to the Perrot/Coralli version, they pretty much intersect only at the music (Actually, I've never seen the Ek version, and would be very much interested in seeing it.)

I mind very much when the new versions supplant the baseline version. If the Ek version and "modern" Giselles and Swan Lakes become the baseline, then something is very wrong. It's not healthy for an art form when someone takes the branch of a tree and tries to make it function as a trunk.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 22 March 1999 - 09:00 PM

I think there's a lot of sense in Leigh's answer. I'm a traditionalist (surprise!) and would like to see "Sleeping Beauty" as it was intended to be seen -- or as close as is possible. I'd like to see the 19th century ballets treated with as much respect as, say, "Agon." Wait 'til they start toying -- seriously toying, as opposed to a little change here, and a another there, Leigh! Then see how moderate you are!

And so my opinion on this or that "updating" depends pretty much on my feelings for the orginal. (Do what you will to Coppelia or Don Q. Touch a hair on the head of Giselle or Beauty, and I'll squawk.)

Part of this attitude was absorbed at my dining room table. I was brought up to loathe, detest and despise movies based on books that changed the plot. The party line in our family was, "If that man wants to tell a story, then he should tell his own story, not borrow someone else's title, character names and basic plot and then ruin it." I think that works for dance, too. My objection to Ek-y or Neumeier-y "rethinks" is that, to me, they're the kind of thing any self-respecting balletomane can think of him or herself over coffee after a performance. I don't need to see it.

Alexandra
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#4 Natalia

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 10:54 AM

I totally agree with Alexandra. I like my renditions of the classics "pure and straight-up." I'll even go one step further than Alexandra & state that Don Q and Coppelia should not stray from the versions now considered as "classics" - The 1902 Gorsky Don Q (as performed by the Kirov) and the 1890s Petipa-Ceccheti Coppelia (as NOT performed now by the Kirov when the $^%&*# Vinogradov version took over). Heck, I even prefer my Humpbacked Horse in the StLeon-Gorsky setting of Novosibirsk above the horrible 1960s Schedrin version that is the only one available at present in St. Petersburg (at the Maly-Mussorgsky Theater)!

It will be interesting to see how close the Kirov Ballet's "new-old" Sleeping Beauty will be to the 1890 Petipa original. I will keep my hopes up until I see the curtain rise on the upcoming Met season, in which this revision is supposed to premiere. But I will be holding my checklist of "passages" (movements/moments/settings) from the original which should be included in any version that dares call itself "1890 petipa original," e.g., Lilac Fairy in heeled slippers (as a character role), the rolling panorama, & the Grand Pas de Deux in Act III being, in reality, a Grand Pas de Quatre for Aurora, Desire & two of the Jewel Fairies. I, for one, am praying that they can pull it off...but I don't want to get too excited & set myself up for a major disappointment, so I try not to think too much about it. - Jeannie

#5 Guest_Juliet Shore_*

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 02:51 PM

Don't hold your breath for the lilac high- heeled slippers, Jeannie!

We'll hope for the best...

#6 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 06:53 PM

Alexandra -

We see eye to eye on "changes here and changes there." That's usually not updating, that's usually deterioration.

I'm less distressed by someone creating a parallel version, as I said, unless it is meant to supplant the baseline version.

Here's an odd situation. At NYCB, we're about to get a new Swan lake by Martins. Will it live alongside the Balanchine version?(which really is a variant in and of itself, except within the Balanchine canon) I'm sure that any Swan Lake seen at NYCB is going to feel like a variant to those familiar with a more traditional production!

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 23 March 1999 - 08:34 PM

Betcha it's curtains for the Balanchine one-act "Swan Lake," unless the NEW "Swan Lake" is a flop. Betcha. If it's like it was in Denmark (rumor has it), the second act in Martins' production is quite like Balanchine's.

Alexandra

#8 Dale

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 07:14 AM

The thought crossed my mind that with a full-length version of Swan Lake at NYCB, that Balanchine's would not be performed. It's a shame. However, maybe not. As with Martins' Sleeping Beauty, the production requires permanent sets - meaning usually a one or two week string of performances. The company could schedule the one-act version anytime during the season without worrying about the sets. I was told that they company always has strong turnover when the ballet is scheduled (although that could be due to the Swan Lake factor). It certainly would allow them to jazz up a weeknight performance and make a little money.

#9 Kevin Ng

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 10:04 AM

I too would be loathe to see the Balanchine "Swan Lake" disappear from NYCB's repertory. But I guess Peter Martins is not the person who would show Balanchine's version alongside his new full-length version in the same season, as he would not welcome the inevitable comparisons between both versions. We can all too easily conclude which is the superior version.

#10 Natalia

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 10:26 AM

As Alexandra hinted, I wouldn't be surprised if the Martins full-length SWAN LAKE "bumps" the one-act Balanchine out of the repertoire. But if the rumors about the Danish version are true, then the Balanchine portions will continue to exist within the context of the Martins version. I am hopeful because Martins already did something similar--he has maintained Balanchine's exquisite "Garland Dance" within the context of the full-length SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Here's another positive thought: Why can't the two versions co-exist? Other major ballet companies do this, e.g., Paris Opera Ballet maintains two totally different full-length SWANS and two GISELLES. The Kirov was performing two RAYMONDAS (K. Sergeyev & Grigorovich) and two SWANS (K. Sergeyev/Ivanov and Vinogradov) in the mid-1990s. I think that the NYCB audience can handle it (if, of course, the SWAN LAKE is a success). - Jeannie

#11 Alexandra

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Posted 24 March 1999 - 10:53 AM

I agree they could easily coexist. Especially since the Balanchine is not really the second act excerpt that ballet companies used to do, but a compact, complete ballet. (It feels like you're getting the whole "story.") Who knows? Maybe it will be used in the seasons when the four-act "Swan Lake" is resting.

I was remembering that Tudor's "Romeo and Juliet" (One act. One long, long act) disappeared when ABT got a three-act version. Now, Tudor's "Romeo and Juliet" had never been popular -- beloved perhaps, but not popular.

To pull this thread back to Pamela's original question, for those NYCBers who have seen other "Sleeping Beauties," how does that work as a production of a classic for you?

Alexandra

#12 Estelle

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Posted 25 March 1999 - 11:19 AM

Pamela, I understand your opinion (especially if the Gothenburg Theater schedules *only*
"modernized" versions of the classics), but I agree with Leigh in general. Ek's "Giselle"
(since he quoted it as an example) doesn't intend to replace the traditional Coralli/ Perrot/ Petipa version, it simply uses the same music (and a plot with a some similarities- but in general, it seems to me that plots aren't exactly the most interesting part of classical ballets, so that suing him for plagiarism would be a bit exaggerated...) It's not a parody, neither a "modernized version". Perhaps it'd have been clearer if he had chosen another title. And Alexandra, perhaps our tastes differ too much, but I think that it's worth seeing (may I invoke the opinion of Yvette Chauvire, who
said she liked it?) After all, did your family despise Mozart's "Les noces de Figaro"
and Rossini's "Le barbier de Seville", which are "after" Beaumarchais' plays?

Perhaps one part of the problem is that even
ballet fans sometimes disagree about the "right" version of classics. There doesn't seem to be any 100%-faithful version of "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty", and perhaps if we saw the original versions with the original casts, we'd be quite shocked (Pierina Legnani's silhouette looks a bit different from today's standards, for example). I don't say that to excuse the people who think they can add any stupid invention to the original choreography, but just to mean that such "modifications" are accepted more easily when there is no "canonical" version. (For example, classical
music doesn't suffer from those problems,
probably because there are notated versions which people usually respect).

About the "Swan Lake" thread: I'd like to point out that, though there officially are two "Swan Lake" in the POB repertory, as Jeannie said (Bourmeister and Nureyev), Burmeister's version hasn't been danced since 1992, and doesn't seem likely to be danced soon (the POB policy seems to be very "Nureyev-only" nowadays). Neumeier's version of "The Nutcracker" entered the repertory about five years ago, but was danced only one season, and since then they stick to Nureyev's version. On the other hand, there actually are two "active" "Giselle" (Bart's
production after Perrot/ Petipa, and Ek's).

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 25 March 1999 - 08:42 PM

A couple of things, Estelle (and BTW, I didn't mean "sue" for plagiarism, but "sue" for needless or harmful tampering!). I agree that most ballet fans disagree on what is the right version of a classic, but I think there are still some dancers and balletmasters who know. We may not know what "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" looked like exactly (although we do have a pretty good idea of "Beauty,") but we do know that this music (with intact choreography) was intended for Aurora's maids of honor and not for the Four Suitors, for example. I don't think there are very many people would would want to try to reconstruct the ballet -- complete with heavy 19th century costumes and chunky (although not always) 19th century bodies, but to be respectful to the choreography. "Swan Lake" has been so thoroughly -- trashed and mutilated; sorry, but I don't know nicer words! -- that it would be hard for many companies to go back to a traditional version now, although the Royal Ballet did keep good versions of both Lake and Beauty that worked, that held the stage, based on the turn-of-the-century Stepanov notation until very recently. It's interesting that there's a move in Russia to try to get back what they've lost while they still can. Soviet Realism did much damage, I think. I finally saw the Bourmeister version this year and, although I understands its historical importance, it really shocked me. To me, it denuded the ballet of any meaning. I think the plots are important, and this version, by removing the mime, reduced the story to a very trite love story: no dynastic pressures on Siegfried, no exposition of the complications of the curse, no oath, no betrayal. Cutting every shred of identifiable Petipa and replacing it with what to my eye was inferior choreography didn't help. (I like some bits of the choreography in Nureyev's Swan Lake, but not his twisting of the plot, making it the attempt of the Tudor to turn Siegfried against women, and the bringing the Swans indoors, white dancing against a white background, is, to me, simply perverse.)

I think when the few classics we have are well danced and well directed, audiences do still enjoy them, that the way to renew a classic is through new dancers (well coached!).

I don't know what my family would have thought of Marriage of Figaro (or whether they would have known about Beaumarchais), but I think the principle is that a genius can get away with anything; that's why he's a genius. I hadn't thought about the role of the title in the Ek "Giselle" (which I've only seen on video and so I hesitate to try to comment on specifically; it might "feel" very different in a theater). That's an interesting point. I think the music would still be a barrier. That's the difficulty of transplanting classics to another place and time. (I admire Chauvire from photos and reputation; I never saw her dance. There are some productions dancers, even great dancers, recommend that I can't stand. Think of Nureyev's productions! But I wonder if she thought it was good, or that she would like to have danced the role? I think there's a big difference.)

Perhaps it matters what one thinks of the tradtional "Giselle" (or whatever) and how many memories you have of it, how annoyed you get when you see it "ripped off" or changed or this or that detail now gone so that a whole scene doesn't make sense any more.

alexandra

#14 Estelle

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Posted 26 March 1999 - 06:49 AM

Alexandra, I hope that you didn't thought that I was advocating the mutilation of the classics! But simply noticing that people might feel "freer" to do so since there already are several versions of classical works being performed... Do dance historians
agree about which sections of the original
choreographies are preserved? Such a list would be interesting...

About Chauvire: I think that she said both (that she liked it, and that she'd have liked to dance it). Perhaps she said that just to be polite (it was in a radio program about Ek's "Giselle", she was interviewed with a young soloist who was dancing that role for the first time), but it didn't seem so. She said that at first it was difficult to stop remembering the choreography of the classical "Giselle", but that after a while it didn't prevent her from enjoying Ek's choreography.
Myself I saw "Giselle" on stage only twice
(and many times on video, but it's different), so perhaps I'm less sensitive to the changes.
I was talking about the title, because perhaps it'd be clearer for the audience if the title was different (and the choreographer couldn't be accused of trying to attract the audience by "cheating". To play the devil's advocate, I might say that Bournonville's "Sylphide" came after Taglioni's version... but as you said, "a genius can get away with anything! ).

By the way, talking about "modernizations", what did you think of Peter Schaufuss' recent versions of "Swan Lake", "The Sleeping Beauty", etc.? (I guess I know your answer Posted Image ) They were shown in France recently (and received bad reviews).

#15 Alexandra

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Posted 26 March 1999 - 10:48 AM

Oh, no, Estelle! Anyone who has reservations about Nureyev's "enhancements" is definitely an anti-mutilator, in my book.

I think dance historians agree enough on which sections were preserved to at least have a discussion about it, if that makes sense. By that, I mean that in Anglo-American dance history, the "correct" texts for Petipa were always considered to be the Royal Ballet productions, based on a set of notebooks taken from Russia during the Revolution. That, at least, is a starting point. John Wiley's book "The Tchaikovsky Ballets" goes back to earlier sources. I am not advocating trying to recreate something exactly -- the ballet of the dwarfs in "Swan Lake," for example, would probably not go over well today. And there are some changes made early on that were organic to the ballets. (I'm on much firmer turf with Bournonville than Petipa. In Denmark there are dancers who know exactly what was changed when. I'm assuming there are in Russia as well.)

Do you think of Bournonville's "La Sylphide" as tampering with a classic? To me, since his version was done four years after the original, it was more transplanting a hit; "La Sylphide" wasn't a classic yet. I would say that's closer to Ashton's version of "Romeo and Juliet." He wasn't changing the Lavrovsky; he was doing something completely different. (Or maybe like today's "Dracula" which has sprung up all over America now. Several productions of the same story, most with different scores and different choreography.) Bournonville kept only the story, and the spirit of the ballet. The steps were quite different. Also, back then, it was the custom for every company to do the hits from Paris. America even had a native production of "Giselle" in the 1850s.

I haven't seen Peter Schaufuss's productions of the Tchaikovsky trilogy. But using those scores to do a fantasy on Tchaikovsky's sex life is not anything I'd get on a plane to see. I really don't consider him a choreographer. He's definitely a marketing genius, but not a choreographer. Hope Paris Opera doesn't get that version!

Alexandra

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited March 26, 1999).]


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