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McMillan's "Manon

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#16 colwill



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Posted 05 October 2000 - 03:13 PM

I have only watched this ballet once on 20th July this year(between the Kirov productions) and thought it was great. I found it a feast of dancing with lavish costumes and lovely music. I watch ballet for the sheer pleasure it gives me and do not get too concerned with the nuances of the choregraphy.I was impressed by the emotions portrayed by the principle dancers, Gillian Reeves and Carlos Acosta. Ballet is for enjoyment not nit picking.

#17 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 05 October 2000 - 03:45 PM

Originally posted by colwill:
Ballet is for enjoyment not nit picking.

Certainly a wise attitude to take in the theater. But it really is OK to nitpick here. That's basically the point of this forum, to discuss ballet!

Just don't let our nitpicking get in the way of your enjoying Manon (or anything else), if you wish. But hopefully, we're picking nits to lead to a deeper understanding of ballet, rather than to rip it to shreds.

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#18 Salome



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Posted 08 October 2000 - 01:23 PM

A few points, forgive me if I’m a little incoherent and sorry about the length!
Regarding incongruousness of character, last night I saw Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, in the production I saw it could be described as neither lewd nor vulgar but I did find it insincere and lacking in depth character, I think this is frequently the case with any opera or ballet that is adapted from a book. The narrative structure of the opera is far from ideal and differs considerably from the ballet but my principal problem was that they had tried to make Manon a consistent character. Manon was portrayed in the first two acts as being innocent, rather shy and almost frightened of the men around her, this made her thirst for jewels and riches all the more implausible but was necessary to make her behaviour in the third act seem to be in character, it was in my opinion unsuccessful. Human beings are complex animals and not everything they do can be ‘in character’. In fact, if a character acts in a way that one finds odd or unexpected I think it only serves to deepen that character further. In this way I find MacMillan's Manon more plausible, this seems to prove that attempts to make characters 'consistent' frequently don't work.

Regarding differences in attitudes between Americans and Europeans, it is a point I find very interesting and I do hope others (anyone French?) will offer an opinion. I think this all comes down to culture, not superficial culture but deep-rooted social attitudes. From the opinions of the people here I think we can safely presume that nobody is offended by the inference of sex or immorality in Manon (and presumable this could be taken as a reasonable cross-section of the American public?) rather I think it is the character of Manon herself and her attitudes to the men around her that proves a problem.
The MacMillan Manon, danced by Guillem at least, is not an innocent girl but a fully grown woman, and a real person aware of what she is doing and capable making her own decisions, she is a victim but only of herself, she does what she does not merely for survival or necessity, to ward of starvation, but because she has an insatiable thirst for material things, she is a decadent living merely for pleasure and ‘this ceaseless round of pleasure was so essential to her being’. Manon is living purely for herself without ties or responsibilities and she is willing to give up even the man she truly loves for this pleasure, she is selfish and materialistic and fails to be moved by love. She is a very French heroine of the Decadent tradition, and everything she stands for goes totally against what is held to be desirable in American culture. Decadence was extremely fashionable in France (in certain circles!) for a long time and (although of course we hate to admit it!) anything that was fashionable in France eventually became so in England, it is that decadent streak, that desire to live purely for pleasure, that still runs through Europe today, it is part of our accepted culture, especially among the section of society who regularly attends the theatre, we have a taste for unusual emotions and are unafraid of them whereas in America I think this is still considered to be undesirable and alien and preference is given to 'normal'love between two people, which should be stronger than anything else. Our different tastes are most apparent when one looks and the difference in English and American comedy (I mean, come on, we did make Monty Python!)with us celebrating the surreal and downright wierd and the latter focussing on more-or-less real life situations, we have much more of a taste for the unusual. This ‘streak’ aids our appreciation of this particular ballet as it is part of our culture and we can identify with the central character, we are also very familiar with the very complicated social attitudes of the time.
(This is of course only a suggestion! Anyone else have one?)

(I have here removed what I said about Ashton which was written in haste and didn't express at all well what I wanted to say)

[This message has been edited by Salome (edited October 09, 2000).]

#19 Alexandra


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Posted 08 October 2000 - 01:48 PM

Salome, thanks for that -- it wasn't incoherent at all, but quite interesting.

A few points on cultural differences. I think there are a lot of Americans who like "Manon." I don't think it's a question of nationality, really -- and certainly I don't think that most Americans would object to, or care, that Manon is "immoral" and there are a lot of Americans who go to the ballet who understand history and cultural references (and we have our own weirdos and counterculture figures).

I think it's more about what people look for in a ballet, and this cuts across countries, although Americans bred on Balanchine may be a separate subcountry. People value different things. Some prefer a narrative ballet and characters and want psychological twists and turns, want to analyze behavior, and they don't have any interest in analyzing the choreography. Some people look at the bones of the ballet, the choreography, the musicality, *how* the choreographer created and the dancers show those characters (and after often willing to put up with rather dreadful performances by dancers who show no personality). That's a cultural divide that's almost uncrossable, I think, although we persist in thinking that if you only saw it 100 times rahter than 99, or sat in the left orchestra rather than the right, you'd see what I see Posted Image (It actually is possible to cross it, but one has to want to take the time -- and I mean cross it from either, or both, sides -- and have the interest to do it.)

I will say something on Ashton, though. Yes, there are people who really truly find Ashton deep and a greater choreographer than MacMillan. Many people (of whom I am one). This, again, depends on your definitions and perception, in this case, of "simple" and again depends on whether you're looking at the clothes, skin or bones of the ballet.

(Almost) everyone sees the outer layer first and usually makes judgments, especially of "like" or "dislike" on that outer layer. Many people are quite happy to remain there. Other people, for a variety of reasons, start to see beneath that layer. If you see "La Fille Mal Gardee" as a simple, rather silly story about two young lovers and funny parents, then you won't think much else about it and you'll wonder why anyone cares about it except as an entertainment for children. If you look at the choreography, you'll see it's a masterpiece. If you start analyzing the work, in the same way one would analyze a novel or poem or painting, you'll see that what seems superficially simple isn't.

I think that in one way, comparing Ashton and MacMillan is like comparing a lyric poet to a short story writer. They're doing different things. The poet isn't telling you a story, although he may use a story in his poem. You read him for the beauty of language, of the rhythm. Or the game for the reader is how well he follows the rules, if it's a sonnet, and for tryign to decode the poem, find all of the allusions. In the short story, you care about how well it's written, but mostly you want to know how it turns out. (Of course, there are rancid poems and very great short stories. I'm not trying to make that a value judgment.)

It's also difficult to compare what is currently in repertory of Ashton with MacMillan--comparing "Manon" to "Les Patineurs" doesn't give a true picture of either. MacMillan made some very ordinary ballets when he was younger -- "Danse Concertante" being my least favorite of several such types. Not bad, just absolutely ordinary. "Concerto" isn't much either, especially if you're used to seeing really first-rate "abstract" ballets. Ashton made some very dangerous works in middle-age -- "Dante Sonata," which has, miraculously, just been revived; "The Wanderer," "Tiresias," "Persephone." The most interesting Ashton works were the most tailored to specific dancers and, therefore, nearly impossible to revive convincingly.

The two ballets I've seen where a direct comparison can be made are "Romeo and Juliet," and I don't have any hesitancy in saying that the Ashton is the finer piece of choreography.

MacMillan seems to arouse passions, and I understand that. I loved the books of Daphne DeMaurier, but she's not as good a writer as the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf. This doesn't mean that DeMaurier is bad writer, and it doesn't mean she's not enjoyable. (She's much better than Danielle Steele, for example, who has undoubtedly sold the most copies of any of these ladies.)

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 08, 2000).]

#20 Salome



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Posted 08 October 2000 - 02:29 PM

I do agree with your comments about Ashton, I think what I said came out wrong (must slow down!), when I referred to him I really meant 'popualar' Ashton such as Fille, just as Manon is in England 'popular' MacMillan, rather than the more dangerous works you mention which I think are on a different scale altogether. I wasn't commenting on the quality of the choreography but quality of emotion which I find more real in Manon than Fille, I am not even saying that I prefer MacMillan to Ashton, merely that MacMillan is Gericault to Ashton's Ingres, they are different and can be appreciated on different levels.

#21 Alexandra


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Posted 08 October 2000 - 03:33 PM

Salome, first off, let me say that I'm very glad you've joined the fray and hope to see you here often. I especially like that you're bringing in other art forms. It enriches the discussion.

My analogy to poet versus short story writer isn't as good as it could be Posted Image I think Ashton is more than a fine draftsman (more than Ingres, although I can see why you chose him). I think that one difference that isn't qualitative but merely a difference is that Ashton is a classicist and MacMillan an expressionist. But aside from that, I really believe that MacMillan is to Ashton as Robbins is to Balanchine -- not quite on the same level. (I know people who would both raise and lower MacMillan in that equation) and I think that that is the way history will judge him.

I don't love everything Ashton has done (the many animal dances, for example, although they're quite clever) but I definitely see depth there. In a way, this is similar to the "Divertimento No. 15 is fluffy" debate we had a few weeks ago. There are undoubtedly many people who go to "Divertimento" or "Monotones" and see only -- hmmm. Dancers dancing. Ir's hard to write about, hard to talk about. (I can't resist adding, this is what Jack Anderson in the New York Times was up against trying to write about Leigh Witchel's work last week. A pure dance tutu ballet to Mozart was reduced to "pretty poses.")

This reminded me of something Violette Verdy said in an interview I did with her for my book so I looked up the quote and copied it. She was speaking of Bournonville, but what she said could apply just as well to Ashton (and some Balanchine): "People don't appreciate it [Bournonville ballets] because of its happiness. People think that anything too happy canít be important, when the most important thing is really sheer happiness. Itís the most important thing, but people want to have more drama before they obtain it. Some people can go directly to it. That is true genius."

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited October 08, 2000).]

#22 Helena


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Posted 09 October 2000 - 04:02 AM

I find all these points of view very interesting and have really enjoyed reading such thoughtful writing.

I read somewhere, though I can't find the reference at the moment, that Ashton had seriously considered the story of Manon as a vehicle for Fonteyn. It would have been very fascinating to see what he would have made of it, and I think it's a fairly safe bet that it would have been very different from, and in my opinion superior to, the MacMillan version, which I find shallow in every respect. I think Ashton was far better at conveying character and expressing feelings, including erotic feelings, through choreography than MacMillan, who though not exactly explicit tends to be fairly graphic, or, dare I say, obvious. Ashton's Marguerite and Armand is certainly the most erotic ballet I have ever seen (original cast, live, essential!), and it has no obvious sex at all. I feel that the closer you get to representation, the further you get from depth.

I'd like to add a word about Fille here, too. It may appear to be light, but I think it actually says something quite profound about youth, happiness and the joy of living. It's been called Ashton's Pastoral Symphony, and I suppose Beethoven's work could also be seen merely as something light and pretty. I see Fille as every bit as much an "evocation poetique" as Ashton claimed Marguerite to be, and it has the advantage that it is not at all dependent on the original cast.

I love Alexandra's quotation from Violette Verdy. Great art can be just as valid on the subject of joy as it is on other subjects.

#23 Salome



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Posted 09 October 2000 - 09:17 AM

Helena's comment made me think that maybe I merely need to see more Ashton, it took me a long time before I could get past the popularity and surface prettyness of Beethoven's 6th.

#24 Alexandra


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Posted 09 October 2000 - 09:42 AM

Salome, that's a good observation, although it would be hard to do. But when what is being run in repertory is "Fille," and "Beatrix Potter," with occasional "abstract" ballets -- which I think are now reverting back to the "divertissement" status they had in the 1930s -- it's easy to see how Ashton is not taken seriously. (I made this comment before and unleashed a torrent of "Fille is a great ballet; it's not the same as Beatrix Potter," which was a charming suite of dances for a children's film absolutely not intended for the stage. I KNOW this Posted Image But if you're a content person, you'll only see the story, and the two will look quite similar.)

Other important parts of Ashton's oeuvre were his dances in the classical ballets, which have all been thrown out -- by Dowell, which I've never understood, as he must realize how much he owes Ashton for his own career. The waltz in "Swan Lake" was a gorgeous piece, and probably put in to uphold the company's classical standard, as you need 6 very good young classical dancers to do it. The fourth act of "Swan Lake" is also very beautiful, as is the Garland Waltz in "Sleeping Beauty."

#25 Manhattnik


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Posted 09 October 2000 - 11:38 AM

Perhaps one of our Joffrey contingent could tell us which Ashton ballets are extant there these days?

I remember the lovely job they'd do with Les Patineurs, both Monotones, Jazz Calendar (I missed Illuminations).

I wonder if Dowell didn't like being seen as a creation of Ashton....

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