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Coaching or the Lack Thereof


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 18 January 1999 - 11:33 AM

This was posted by Dale on the Great Ballerinas #2 thread, commenting on posts by both me and Marc H. on the notion that the central problem in ballet today is the lack of first-rate coaching.

This probably should be a different thread but...the developement of dancers or the coaching of ballets seems to be the biggest problem these days. I was reading the reviews in the latest Dance Magazine and almost all pointed out that the ballets weren't being taught right, that dancers performed the ballets in a homogenized style. I don't think it's because the dancers are not talented. They can do it, but they're not getting the support they or the ballets need. Is it a money issue? Do companies feel that coaching is a place where they can save a few bucks? Or do dancers feel that they are out of school and don't want to "take lessons" any more. I know that in music there was a point where instrumentalists felt that while they always had to practice, there was some point where they didn't need to study anymore. However, opera singers never stop working with their coaches. Even the best of the best still take lessons. I've noticed that Nina Ananiashvili still works with her coach just to make sure she's not slipping. It's sad to hear that this is happening at the Kirov, where it always seemed that older, retired dancers stayed around to help the next generation.
Dale

#2 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 18 January 1999 - 03:30 PM

I would like to add a few things with regard to the situation in the Kirov Ballet. First of all, I don't think anybody has doubts about the talent of the artists considered. The Kirov has talent aplenty... The question here is rather, is it used in the most profitable way? Secondly, the older dancers, magnificent, first-rate artists in their time, are still around to instruct the new generations as well as the established dancers. Asylmuratova too still works daily with her coach, as indeed do all the others.
So what's going wrong then? I don't have the answer right here, but let's conclude with two remarkable things.
What's the influence of a coach on his/her pupils nowadays? I would be tempted to say, very little. I don't see the "mark" or the "stamp" of a coach on his/her pupils anymore. You can no longer possibly say: "This dancer is definitely a pupil of coach X". On the contrary, artists with styles that are as different as black and white seem to be coached by the same person. Also, ways of moving, styles (some will call it modernization), that were totally alien to what the coaches have always been defending in their time, are now accepted blindly.
Finally, the presence of coaches doesn't prevent the dancers from permitting themselves a degree of interpretative freedom, which frequently distorts the boundaries of tradition and style. For example, London 1997, Kirov Ballet, four Giselles in a row, four different, in many ways fascinating, interpretations: Asylmuratova, Makhalina, Zakharova, Dumchenko. Yet, only one of the four, Dumchenko, seemed to have more than just a superficial eye for the romantic image which - correct me if I'm wrong - this ballet still demands (or perhaps this is no longer the case at the end of the 20th century?) The others, no matter how remarkable in their own way, took liberties with plastique, style and characterisation (even the dresses were all different) which added nothing at all to the romantic spirit of the ballet, but were actually completely beside the point.
Many will argue that these individual approaches are proof of artistic personality. Maybe so, but at the same time the essence of a work, be it romantic, classical or neo-classical, is neglected and eventually lost. So, what are the coaches doing?

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 18 January 1999 - 06:05 PM

I think what you've observed is happening everywhere (except, from the little I've been able to see, in Paris). I think there are two things happening. This is DEFINITELY an opinion; I have no facts!

I think the American influence is responsible for some of it. In the 1970s, American Ballet Theatre, despite it's stars (Makarova, Baryshnikov, et al) was not a great classical company. Critics decried this; the new audiences coming into ballet for the stars had no way of knowing, had no past with which to compare. All that mattered was "technique" which became divorced from style.

What was once a blemish has become de rigeur. How do you coach a teenager if he looks at another teenager, doing more or less whatever he/she darned well pleases, and getting rewarded with good reviews, cheers, and, in some cases, big bucks? The stylists among the great dancers have always taken a back seat to the showmen. That's not new, and it won't ever change.

Another thing that has happened, at least in some companies (I can't speak for Russia) is that the artists, the great coaches or those with the potential for great coaching, are interested in working, in what goes on in the studio. What matters today is what goes on at the fundraising event, at the cocktail party. While the two arenas are not necessariy mutually exclusive, the gladhander is much more visible than the artist, is more likely to convince a board of well-meaning though not knowledgeable people that his Grand Scheme will bring Great Ballet to their metropolis, and, once given the title of "artistic director," they think they are one. It must be fun to go into a studio and tell everyone what to do. and there's nobody around to say, "Hey, wait a minute. This is Giselle. I read here in the notes something about "Romantic style.""

And now, one, two dancer generations on, there are few left who can reproduce it. Those who can see it -- a small percentage, it seems, of today's artistic staffs -- can not necessarily show it, much less convince young dancers that they must soften their arms, not show the virtuosity, not kick the sky just for the hell of it -- in short, do none of the things they've seen rewarded.

Finally, we are two dancer generations away from the great artists (in the sense of complete artists, the Fonteyn, Kolpakova generation). If you've never seen it on stage, how do you know what it looks like?

Alexandra
who sees little hope

#4 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 19 January 1999 - 02:50 PM

Indeed, we are two generations away from the great artists, though the gap shouldn't be as wide as it is now. But it seems to be a favourite policy of many artistic directors to evict artists who could fill the gap. Experienced dancers are carefully neglected, if not actually sidelined. We saw what happened in the Royal Ballet. The situation in the Kirov Ballet is not very different. Beginning artists no longer have "living examples".
Film and video may give some idea what a dancer of a previous generation looks like. Yet, the dancers of the new generation admit without blushing not to bother with those old performances. Why should they, anyway? What they do on the stage is cheered and encouraged.
Mentality changes, so does the public. Many witnessed the different taste of the balletgoers in Russia nowadays. The ones who used to go in the old days can't afford it any longer to watch a performance in the Maryinsky or the Bolshoi. Those who fill the theatres today, the new rich, definitely want to see different things. Even a world-class ballerina like Altynai Asylmuratova is no longer appreciated in Russia (somebody like Kolpakova or Komleva probably wouldn't stand a chance), after all she doesn't go for the flashy tricks and the cheap circus acts. And above all, she is in her late thirties and that's far too old... "Technique" and style are no longer going hand in hand in Russia either, it seems.

#5 Jane Simpson

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Posted 19 January 1999 - 05:16 PM

One of the most encouraging things in the Royal Ballet at the moment is that Sarah Wildor is being coached by Antoinette Sibley. She (Wildor) talks of Sibley as her 'mentor'. I don't ever remember hearing of a one-to-one relationship like this in the company before. Even more amazing, Wildor said in an interview recently (words to the effect that) 'We don't talk much about technique; what astonishes me is the quality of her poetic imagination'. Poetic imagination! I didn't know there was a dancer left who thought in these terms.

#6 Paul W

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Posted 19 January 1999 - 10:48 PM

In my humble opinion:

The idea that today's coaching of dancers is somehow compromised from what it used to be strikes me as a charge that has not been demonstrated sufficiently. Jane's anecdote about the Sarah Wildor and Antoinette Sibley dancer/mentor relationship can't represent that unique a situation can it?

I think that rather than a change in the quality of coaching, it is the pressures on today's ballet companies (financial primarily) that contribute most to a perceived "less than finished" quality to dance performances. I again refer to the Hartford Ballet's traumatic step backward in the last six months after five years of moving toward more classical ballet productions of ever improving artistry. It was (apparently) too expensive for the management board and (perhaps) did not reflect the current modern world's orientation toward glitz, so Hartford Ballet has now become a company without the word ballet in its title. I don't think there is as much (proportionately) private money supporting ballet today as there was two ballet generations ago. (Am I wrong ??)

I agree with Marc's comment that "magnificent, first-rate artists" are still around to mentor new dancers. Why do they seem to produce less artistically finished dancers? I may be naive about this, but my view is that, if this is actually true, it is more likely because the majority of today's dancers are too much influenced by the "fast pace" and impatience inherent to our modern society.

Those dancers who are dedicated and have put the effort in with their coaches are probably the ones we talk about on this web site.

#7 Paul W

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Posted 19 January 1999 - 10:49 PM

Sorry, this was a repeat of above message.

[This message has been edited by Paul W (edited 01-19-99).]

#8 Jane Simpson

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Posted 20 January 1999 - 05:00 AM

Immediately I'd posted the message above, I thought the last sentence was too sweeping. I still think it applies to the RB but don't know enough about other companies to generalise: so apologies to any dancers who'd feel insulted!

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 20 January 1999 - 08:48 PM

Paul wrote:

"The idea that today's coaching of dancers is somehow compromised from what it used to be strikes me as a charge that has not been demonstrated sufficiently. Jane's anecdote about the Sarah Wildor and Antoinette Sibley dancer/mentor relationship can't represent that unique a situation can it"

In a word, yes. It is very unique. Even in Russia, as you may be reading in the posts about the Kirov.

I have one anecdote about this. I interviewed Nina Ananiashvili for my biography of Kronstam, because she had worked with him in Copenhagen. We talked a lot about coaching, and I asked her if there was anyone of Kronstam's level at the Bolshoi now. "Oh, yes," she said, naming Semyonova and two older dancers not known to me (or at least I couldn't understand their names when pronounced in Russian as opposed to Amero-Russian). I asked, "Any under 80?" There was a pause, and a very sad, "No, there is not. It is a big problem everywhere now, isn't it?"

The Sibley-Wildor situation is also unique because, even where there are still great dancers who are also great coaches living, the management often does not allow them to coach.

With regard to the Hartford situation, I think it's quite complicated. Does a board have to cough an infinite amount of money to fulfill a director's ambitions? I don't want to say too much because I did not see the company dance, but I have seen their promotional materials, their programs, and many photographs of the dancers, and none of what I have seen looks like good classical dancing, no matter what the director's intentions. This is not surprising; it is not possible to create a great classical ballet company in five years.

I think one of the biggest problems today is linked to money, but it goes beyond that. It's hype, bringing in audiences, getting attention, being an overnight success.

I'm sure the Hartford Ballet performances were enjoyable to many people, and I know it was important in the community and got people excited about ballet, which is great. But in matters of style, productions, casting, all of those "beyond technique" things, I'd suggest it might not be taken as the classical ideal.

I think Paul's point about the dancers succumbing to our fast-paced society is very true, but that's also the artistic director's job. If the dancers respect this person, they'll allow him/her to set the tone. Dancers, I am sure, want to be as good as they can be.

Finally, one of the most difficult problems is that, with the proliferation of dance companies -- which now pay very good salaries for artistic and administrative staff -- there are a lot of people who want the job who do a great job of selling themselves to the board, and who may be terrific fundraisers, but they're just not cutting it in the studio. Unfortunately, they don't see it that way. The woods are virtually crawling with "great coaches," or those who think they are. But they're not. And that gets us back to what we were talking about: great coaching, or the lack thereof. They can get away with it, because there aren't that many knowledgable, cultured people around who can, if you will, be Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle (I know great coaching. Great Coach was a friend of mine; and you, sir, are no Great Coach.)

One of my colleagues said something very wise a few months ago. "It's not just that there's no Balanchine. It's that there are no Lincoln Kirsteins." And no small cadre of men and women who formed the Camargo Society, either.

It's a very complicated question. Like the public schools, though, I don't think that money will solve anything.

alexandra

#10 Marc Haegeman

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Posted 21 January 1999 - 07:21 AM

It's surely great to hear about the Wildor-Sibley relationship at the Royal Ballet. Is this an exceptional case ? I was in any case surprised to find out that in the Kirov Ballet some principals do not even have a coach. How do they manage ? They work on their own, sometimes assisted by a fellow dancer.
A company that takes such pride in its lineage of reputed ballet masters should at least be able to provide proper coaching for all its soloists. No wonder that some dancers in the company feel slighted.

#11 Paul W

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Posted 21 January 1999 - 11:05 PM

This thread gets more depressing than ever. Have we then seen the last of the great classical style dancers? No classical style coaches, no impressarios with classical style commitment, no continuity of classical artistic knowledge. Maybe it's inevitable because artists need to be creative and concentrating on classical style dance is eventually limiting to any dancer or choreographer or company? Somebody say it isn't so.

A somewhat parallel analogy that comes to mind is when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Baseball (if remembered as another classical form of movement and drama) was never the same again.

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 21 January 1999 - 11:36 PM

It is depressing, but there are what I think of as candles -- like Sibley coaching Wildor. The scariest thing about ballet is that it only takes one person to destroy or damage a company or a tradition, but it can also be saved or restored by one person. It's happened.

Every time I see a new, young dancer who seems to relish dancing classical ballet, I think there's hope. It's like seeing a rose flourishing on a crabgrass lawn, sometimes, but you take your miracles where you find them.

alexandra

#13 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 22 January 1999 - 09:14 PM

Some thoughts off the top of my head on this matter: It seems to me that too many people are busy coaching young "super-stars" for competitions, instead of coaching young artists in roles within the companies. All the coaching seems to be technique and "trick" based, flashy pas de deux and variations, rather than developing Giselles and Odette/Odiles and Juliets. But this is not really a new thing in American companies. When I was dancing in ABT, a long time ago, there was no coaching going on there at that time, and I don't believe there is now. They have a staff of ballet masters and ballet mistresses, and they teach class and put the ballets together, but where is the coaching for the principals? I don't see it. Nor do I see evidence of it in other companies. It is indeed a very sad thing. ABT has Lupe Serrano right there in NY now, teaching some company and studio company classes, but is she coaching? I don't think so. They have some incredibly talented dancers in the soloist and even corps ranks who could be developed with coaching, but it is not done. And it was not done years ago. Why? Money? Time? Misplaced priorities? All of the above? Dancers learn roles from video tapes and go into rehearsal and do them. Very little, if any, coaching takes place. Sometimes it seems like the directors just wait for the artists to appear in front of them, instead of doing something to develop them.

Sometimes when choreographers create or stage a work, they coach their dancers, but generally, the coaching for the classics does not seem to exist. Perhaps there are some directors out there who do, or who have people who do, but in my experience I have seen very little of it. Ben Stevenson in Houston seems to spend more time than most in coaching his principals, but even there it is not always the case. Too much time with videos and not enough one on one in the studio! And too much time on technique and not enough on artistry and musicality.

Okay, I'm down off the soap box now ;-)

#14 Alexandra

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Posted 23 January 1999 - 10:17 AM

Victoria, I think you're absolutely right. ABT was always the best bad example of this, but the difference was that, 20 years ago, people (critics, regular balletgoers, other ballet dancers and artistic directors) understood this and excused it, understanding the company always lacked money and was doing the best it can. But they did not imitate it.

The difference today is one, that this understanding no longer seems to exist, and ABT's performances have become the standard. They've got all the stars, they're so exciting. And you have people in charge of companies who do not know enough to see that what's on stage is not what it could be.

I hate to bash ABT, because I've enjoyed so many of its performances and admired so many of its dancers. They have had, and have now, wonderful, wonderful dancers. They could be a truly great company. But they won't be wiithout coaching.

Another problem is that the three Old Companies (Kirov, Paris and Royal Danish) used to operate with an overlord, if you will, who knew the talents of everyone on the staff and assigned them differents roles. Someone might be a great coach in certain roles; someone might be good with stars, others with very young dancers. But the "overlord" (balletmaster) knew the strengths and weaknesses of all and assigned accordingly. That is gone too.

Part of all of this is result of what might be thought of as the artistic equivalent of a power vacuum. In the absence of a great talent, a genius, the moderate talents, the mediocre and even, in some cases, the truly terrible, spring forward to claim artistic pre-eminence. "I worked with soandso; I can do everything." And there's no one there to shame them into silence, and no one there to stop them. When this situation goes on for long enough -- one audience generation, it seems, is enough -- then what is seen becomes the norm, becomes acceptable, becomes the standard.

Victoria's point about coaching for ocmpetitions instead of for the stage is a wonderful one -- I hadn't thought of that, but I'm sure you're right. Thank you for a new soap box! Please bring that up on alt.arts.ballet the next time someone rants about those snotty people who don't lilke competitions and what harm can it do and all the winners go on to become great stars and so there.

This thread has so many long posts that it will soon become impossible, and so I'm about to start a new Lack of Coaching thread and lock this one off.

Please, all new thoughts, go on to Lack of Coaching #2.

alexandra


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