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dancers who trancend bad material

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#1 Ed Waffle

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Posted 26 November 1998 - 12:29 AM

This jumps from a related thread, "The Not Terribly Good Club"

Dancers can do anything—of this I am convinced to a moral certainty. One of the things they can do is take a moment in what may be a terrible piece of choreography and create a character that sears itself into our consciousness.

Dale Braun wrote about a wonderful and moving performance by Nina Ananiashvili and Angel Corrella in Stevenson’s "Snow Maiden." I had written concerning two performances, on by Kristen Wenrick, the other by Mabel Modrono as Flora in the same choreographer’s "Dracula." Thre may have been other posts to Ballet Talk which discuss great dancing in otherwise dull or worse ballets—there have been a few on aab.

Stevenson bashing is as challenging as shooting tuna fish in a barrel, although more fun, and this post does not address his artistic shortcomings but is an attempt to use those shortcomings as an example of the astonishing ability of dancers to accomplish the impossible. Dancers seem to have a divine spark that allows them to transcend the mundane to infuse the stage with their presence and which we are able to share.

This spark is made up of musicality, command of technique, strength, grace (a loaded term which I will leave ambiguous) and much more. It does not exist only in stars—Ms. Wenrick and Ms. Modrono are wonderful dancers who may never have the star power of Ms. Ananiashvili, but their ability to thrill a watcher to his core is unquestionable. And I do not care to venture any further on that particular limb.

I am not referring to star turns in pas de duex done in gala concerts, or other isolated but contextualized pieces, but exceptional dancing and characterizations in works that would otherwise rank between forgettable and execrable.

How common is this—dancers who transcend their material, who are much better than the choreography they are given to execute?

#2 Alexandra


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Posted 26 November 1998 - 01:50 AM

Ed, I think it happens a lot. For a variety of reasons, great dancers outnumber great ballets, and have for at least 150 years. (The current drought is not the first.)
The Royal Danish Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet have both been without a choreographer of the first rank for three times the lifespan of any American ballet company. The Royal Danes used to have a reputation of "they make bad ballets look good." They had to. They had the finest schooling, and turned out a world-class male dancer every two or three years for about 50 years. Their dancers had to learn to substitute stagecraft for choreography.
In one of the interviews I've done for my book on Henning Kronstam, the dancer I was talking to was going through the roles he remembered Kronstam in, and came to one that is always mentioned as one of his "greatest hits." "That's what Henning was good at," said the dancer. "Making something out of nothing."

Problem is that in companies where the artistic director doesn't have, shall we say, the finest artistic instincts, but just has to fill seats and make both performers and audiences happy, "selling" and "pandering" rather than "making something out of nothing" is often the rule. Also, there are those who cna make something out of nothing and those who can make nothing out of a great deal.


[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited 11-26-98).]

#3 Jane Simpson

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Posted 11 December 1998 - 08:04 AM

On the other hand...one of the things I used to find most fascinating about the RB's David Wall was that he couldn't do this. There was something about the complete openness and honesty of his dancing style that made him into a sort of litmus test for bad choreography - however hard he tried to pretend that it was really quite OK, it still looked bad. I'm certain he wasn't doing this at all on purpose, by the way. I still use him as a yardstick - 'What would this look like if Wall was dancing it?' - and find it very effective.

This is in no way a criticism of the many dancers who *can* make silk purses out of sows' ears - I'm deeply grateful to many of them - but I just find it interesting that for some dancers it doesn't work!

#4 Alexandra


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Posted 11 December 1998 - 11:15 PM

This is more to Jane's post than Ed's original one, but yes, you have a good point. ABT used to have a crew of dancers who wore their opinion of the choreography on their sleeves -- not quite what you mean by Wall, the artist who couldn't condescend to the material, but sometimes commentary is permissible.

The best/worst of these was Leslie Browne. She would practically hold her nose when forced to dance something she didn't like (MacMillan's Concerto, first movement, I think, comes to mind.) No transcending here.


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