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So let's talk about provincial and international companies.


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#16 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 November 2001 - 12:20 PM

The founder of the National Ballet of Canada, Celia Franca, was speaking before a performance about the early days of the company now celebrating its 50th year; it was the sort of anniversary talk that was long on nostalgia and charm and short on information. Questions were taken; I wanted very much to ask Ms. Franca if she could explain what she thought was the national style of the company. I refrained for many reasons, but I also wasn't sure that question could be answered. I mentioned that to a friend as we sat to watch the performance. A true reflection of Canada's ethnic makeup (he's half French and half English Canadian) he laughed at the thought of having to answer the question. "It's so like us. No sense of identity whatsoever."

Viewing three "national" companies in the past week, the National Ballets of Cuba and Canada and American Ballet Theatre, was a very interesting lesson in identity and style, both international and provincial, and the idea of a "national" company. What does it mean to be a national ballet company? Like the National Ballets of Cuba and Canada, American Ballet Theatre is the company by which the United States has represented itself. New York City Ballet is no less important, but at least in earlier years, saw itself provincially as New York's company, and only recently attempted to think in terms of a national constituency. American Ballet Theatre falls short on a few important points, it does not have the thing that gives the Canadian and Cuban companies their names, state sponsorship. More importantly though less obvious, it does not have a school that produces its dancers or its style.

All these companies provide a fascinating contrast in the role of a national company. How does it go about developing a style? I'm not sure a company chooses how, often circumstances choose for it. Cuba was cut off from Western influences, so looking at the company, one sees the product of both Russian influences and even more, the style of Alicia Alonso from her own career in the forties. Both the United States and Canada are heterogeneous cultures; Canada perhaps more so than the States, we have an isolationist streak. It's not a question of sophistication, it's a question of the world and culture they reflect and serve. There are virtues to both being international in outlook and to being provincial.

The National Ballet of Cuba is a threadbare, eccentric and important company that presented a group of tidbits at City Center bunched together under the title of "The Magic of Alonso". We got anything but grand scale productions; state sponsorship is limited by the resources of the state. Production values were dismal, with scratchy and fuzzy recorded sound, impoverished sets and costumes that looked alternately gaudy but without expense, dowdy or under-decorated. The stage of City Center, as it had for ABT, looked cramped and without illusion. But what one saw on that stage was a company with a profound sense of identity and training, developed from its isolation. All excerpts presented were classical ballet, with nary a modern influence in sight, but their choice to do so and the very fact that they presented a repertory we all hold in common made it that much easier to discern what makes them distinct.

The first excerpt edited from Act II of Giselle emphasized early on the divergence between the Cubans and companies we are more familiar with in America. There were the familiar gravediggers and the fireflies, but the moment the Wilis appeared their ports de bras set them apart. There were no legato movements; the arms were kept stiff and rigid, moving in slicing and chopping motions with the fingers held stiffly together. It was as if we saw a corps of Wilis trained in karate. For some of the audience, it was ridiculous. "Totally Trockadero," one person remarked. I recalled a teacher who had danced with the Royal Ballet in the 40's and 50's who would insist on the difference between resting position of the corps in Les Sylphides, with the wrists crossed and the arms held softly curved like a wreath or garland across the breast, and that of Giselle, with mitten-like hands held with the palms flat and facing in, rather than up; a shield, not an offering. It looked ridiculous to us as he taught it, but he was from the same era as Alonso, is she merely preserving in isolation a tradition that differentiated the ballets blancs? Years after ridiculing my teacher, I found the brutality of Alonso's Wilis fascinating. You knew Hilarion was going to die the moment they stepeed on stage, and so did he. I am not sure how much the corps works changed from their standard version to accommodate the small stage of City Center, but I found the changes (breaking into smaller groups, removing a few dancers) to be of interest in comparison to the strictly linear choral forms we usually see. Alonso's Giselle looks nothing like her Swan Lake, and if only for that, has interest and merit.

The casting of the company exhibited another old-fashioned tendency, that of emploi. The company was double and triple cast in their roles, but the Cubans had their Giselles and they were not their Swanildas. Typing was not dogmatic; in the course of their run some dancers did many roles, but others were confined more specifically, and it seemed wisely to what they were most suited. The casting I saw on opening night seemed to reflect the company at its most natural. Galina Álvarez was a very old fashioned Giselle, especially in look (the company favors the old fashioned hair over the ears hairdo in many of the classics). Her Albrecht was the big and heroic Víctor Gílí. He functioned as a mainly as a porteur, but one loved him for how he greeted Myrtha with a grave low bow when he realized he was trapped. Álvarez' style had melting pathos, but was also oddly allegro in her sharp accuracy even in adagios. Interesting that almost all of the company has an allegro style even in adagio; they are determinedly accurate in their execution. There are very few times one feels spontaneity from the Cubans; they are well schooled and well drilled, but watertight. Alonso was the original ballerina of Theme and Variations, a ballet that calls for exactly that sort of dancer. Is this aspect of the Cuban style a look back in time at Alonso much as the French of Quebec might have been how they spoke in Normandy in the 17th century when they emigrated?

The costumes for the court in the polonaise from Act III of Sleeping Beauty looked dowdy even if they were relatively expensive; they were an unflattering bronze color with terrible wigs. And yet, the company was quite elegant here, and in a specific way. Their courtliness lies in their drilling, not in their spirit. The company mimes that way as well. It's obvious they know the importance of mime, and they know they are supposed to mime; but they mime without differentiation. The only gesture you see is "look at her!" unlike the French or the Danes, who will talk among themselves and create a living crowd, not merely a dutifully attentive one. As Aurora in the grand pas de deux, Lorna Feijoo, was very able and winning, and again very mannered. It felt like she had been drilled to death in every single position and port de bras, and yet it was impressive in its controlled artifice. Óscar Torrado along with Nelson Madrigal, with whom he alternated the role of Desiré are the company's classiques. Both men have good lines and excellent technique, but the company had one unfamiliar habit, of not having completely stretched feet in coupé jétés en tournant, not the most essential thing, but in a gala program like this one sees that step disproportionately often. It's my guess that this demand on a man's line came after Nureyev came to the west and did not become de rigeur in Cuba.

Alonso's production of The Nutcracker contains a Waltz of the Flowers with garlands of flowers and demisoloists but no soloist. The production is more tropical than most I'm familiar with, with pale, sherbet-like colors, but it was a thin sherbet without much creaminess to it. The choreography had too many steps and too little sweep and architecture. One had no idea why there were demi-soloists; they did not lead the action nor summarize the corps' dance, they just did tricks. Laura Hormigón was a very capable Sugar Plum Fairy with Nelson Madrigal as her cavalier. She introduced yet another type in the array of ballerinas, the tall, extended virtuoso.

After the intermission we got the other tall virtuoso of the company in Coppélia and the best dancing of the night. Viengsay Valdés was a powerhouse of a Swanilda. Tall, long limbed but softly rounded and a prodigious, confident virtuoso in both turns and profoundly long balances, she still had a sense of risk and playful spontaneity and a delightful femininity to her. Gílí was a completely different Franz than his Albrecht, boyish and winning and a secure partner but without the same security of technique as Valdés.

It wouldn't have been a gala program, it seems, without the obligatory Don Quixote, and this was a good-naturedly trashy one with Mercedes, Espada, matadors, swirling (and awkward) capes and knives. As Kitri in the pas de deux, Alihaydée Carreño had a bad night, and though she and her Basilio, Joel Carreño have the same last name (I do not know if there is a relation) it was not a dancing match made in heaven. Like many Basilios he is much better in his variation than he is as a partner. Like Valdés, he is a virtuoso, sailing through doubles en dedans sauts de basques but his partner seemed rattled by his partnering. People have mentioned giving spare shoes and other supplies to the company and it looked like she was fighting a lousy pair of shoes rather than her own technique. Even so for him, there's a difference between being a decent partner when your partner is having a good night and the more difficult task of being a decent partner when she's not on.

The grand waltz from Act II of Swan Lake was shown and then the pas de deux without the corps, although this might be simply because they needed to change costumes. There was less differentiation in Álvarez' adagios then there was in the style of the corps, but the Cubans regard the differences in the classics as profoundly important, it can even be seen when they take their bows in character. Giselle does not bow like Aurora who does not bow like Swanilda who does not bow like Odette, and Gílí maintained a completely different character in the bows as Albrecht than he did as Franz. To eyes brought up in a more cosmopolitan environment it seems a bit much, and yet how nice not to see a generic classical style, interchangeable for all the ballets.

The finale of the evening was a scene presented from the second movement of Sinfonia de Gottschalk, "Creole Celebration". It was a sort of Theme and Variations of the tropics. There is a difference between a Southern and Northern elegance, I'm not attuned to the bravado of the southern variety, but also, Alonso is also not a choreographer on the level of Balanchine. Theme and Variations presents a society with many layers, this functions more as a défilé, introducing all of the principals doing their favorite tricks.

If the Cubans only presented in New York what was made in Havana, in Toronto, the National Ballet of Canada was showing works from George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan as well as their own artistic director James Kudelka. Some of the difference could be that of seeing a company on tour versus seeing it at home. The Cuban's sole aim in that program in New York City was to show us what was Cuban; the Canadians were performing for Canadians. It's a tricky issue, even outside of dance I know that national identity provokes long discussions in Canada.

Mozartiana was well staged by Suzanne Farrell, it suited the company and they danced it well. I saw one of three principal casts; Greta Hodgkinson gave a delightful and impressive performance. This is a ballet that needs a ballerina who can be moving in the Pregheira, but confident and secure in the Theme and Variations, and Hodgkinson surmounted both with ease. Her musicality in the first of her variations was simply delicious. There are a series of passés done to a pose at the last "bump" in the music, the way each ballerina handles how to phrase it is her mark. Hodgkinson's timing was razor sharp, just playful enough to make one smile, but not so insistent on her wit as to be arch. It was a performance that showed the virtues of an international style. Hodgkinson could have looked right at home at the State Theater in New York; I'd be interested to see how the Cuban ballerinas transplant out of their native repertory. Versatility is over-prized now; one of the most memorable passages by Kirstein about Balanchine likens him to a woodworker who loved his exotics as much as his mainstay woods because both were necessary for his marquetry. But Hodgkinson shows us what's good about a ballerina who can dance in Esperanto. The supporting corps of women and children did a fine job, as did Richard Landry in the Gigue (although the costume, particularly the breeches, needed to be better fitted on him.) Hodgkinson's partner, Geon van der Wyst, did not match her at this performance.

James Kudelka was trained and danced with the National Ballet of Canada, leaving to become Principal Dancer and Resident Choreographer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, but returning to Toronto to eventually become Artistic Director. The virtues of his Pastorale, made for the company in 1990, well outweigh the flaws, for me this makes the flaws all the more frustrating. Set to Beethoven's sixth symphony, the action takes place in a beautifully depicted glade (the Canadians don't have unlimited funds, but the difference between the production values they can deploy as opposed to the Cubans is stark.) The first movement sets the mood of the work, with soft walks that heighten to dance and a corps that gently but insistently churns and swirls. The patterning is ingenious and Kudelka matches the music masterfully. The second movement is a series of four duets that are acrobatic, but still delicate and flattering to the women. If a heritage can be detected, it's in the partnering that links back to the European influence of the acrobatic lifts of MacMillan and the skittering runs of Kylian. The Scherzo presents a rustic family; here again Kudelka's theatrical instincts serve him well when he uses children and character dancers here. It's always a joy to see a company with the resources and desire to put more than a single generation of dancers on the stage. It is this continuity that makes a style possible. Amidst the figures dressed in cream 18th century garb, Kudelka presents a solitary woman in black. Who is she, a widow? Does she own the land where they are dancing? She walks discontentedly among the dancers. Kudelka seems fascinated with her unhappiness in the midst of pleasure of the other dancers, and this conceit is what makes the ballet falter. The "storm" in the symphony comes and rather than treat it as a literal storm à la Fantasia, Kudelka goes Freudian on us, it's a psychic storm, and every man comes onstage wearing a black mask to leap about the widow. Kudelka can't quite figure out how to make his narrative whole, the storm abates and the widow dances with a single gentleman, but what is happening to her? Is her psychic storm passing as well, or is it just another dance? And though there is a quartet of men loosely linked to the widow, it damages the construction of the piece to have one of them double as her partner in the final duet. Why him, besides seniority? The switch in relationships is never adequately dealt with. The atmosphere Kudelka has created in the other dance episodes is so luxurious and radiant no narrative is necessary. The extra layer of interpretation and narrative is an anchor on a work that wants to rise into Beethoven's ether.

MacMillan's Solitaire closed the program. I'm not quite sure why it was chosen to end the evening rather than Pastorale, as it's more negligible in content. It's a dated work set in a similar world of prancing and innocent teenagers as Jerome Robbins' Interplay, but with a darker side than that work; the heroine here never fits into to any of the groups she plays so insistently with. It provides variety and charm, but this performance did not state a strong enough case for its naïveté, but I'm not sure any could for me. I've never been a fan of that genre.

Though American Ballet Theatre presented a new ballet by Stanton Welch as part of their City Center season, their main acquisition was Balanchine's Symphony in C. Both are part of ABT's commitment to international style, where they prove that there is no ballet they cannot perform. Like the Canadians, ABT has always been the servant of two masters; they tout their original commissions, but leave most of the ones from earlier years that might have formed a company style unperformed. I assume they took on Symphony in C to acquire another impressive and opulent ballet for closing mixed repertory programs, but it's an odd choice for a City Center season. The ballet was performed often at City Center by NYCB, but the version set (credited to Victoria Simon and John Taras, who owns the rights to the work) is the larger, New York State Theater version without the corps doubling up on parts. The finale barely fits on the stage. ABT dances it well, some of them closer to the current style at NYCB than others. The ones who originally danced with NYCB (at the soloist level but also below) tend to fare best in that respect, but Sean Stewart in the fourth movement and Adrienne Schulte as a demi-soloist in the first are also particularly successful. I was enchanted by Irina Dvorovenko in the first movement for all the wrong reasons, let's just say it was an extremely vivid performance. In the second movement, Julie Kent danced with a beautiful upper body and adagio quality, but also to me a misguided interpretation. This is conjecture, but I'd say she developed a character to make sense for herself of the progression of the ballet, and noticed rightfully the links to Odette and the adagio in Swan Lake. The problem is that's a red herring. The character of the dances in Symphony in C is determined solely by the music. The ballerina can suffuse the adagio with a moving air of pathos if she wishes, but when the fugue comes along and even more so the reprises in the finale, the music brightens and so must she; it doesn't matter what she is feeling.

Dim Lustre was made by Antony Tudor on ABT in 1943 and is part of the theatrical and identifying style that ABT had given up years before in favor of an international one. What would have made the Tudor look specific to ABT has long ago vanished and we got a well-danced performance without much sense of a narrative or style. The dancers look uncomfortable with the manners and costumes of the ballet and they perform the work dutifully.

When presented on the same program, the similarities of Bruch Violin Concerto to Symphony in C feel less important than its divergences. They could help to define a style for American Ballet Theatre. Some of the irregularities seem awkward (why are there two couples in the first movement? Are they related thematically? Is there a musical reason why each of them dance when they dance?) but what we see as Balanchine's clarity is also a choice and a style. Genius can make such a powerful case for certain methods that all the alternates go from being alternatives to being wrong. The freeness of Tippet's work is awkward, almost naïve, but it's also refreshing; we don't see a corps deployed that way, we don't see music partitioned like that. The work has a different sort of formality than that of Balanchine. How interesting it would have been for ABT to have developed its own sense of classicism as well as its own style.

Does the hope of creating a national style lie in the productions of the classics, as it has for Alonso and the Cubans, or in the productions of new works like Kudelka and yes, Balanchine, who created a native style for New York City that I hope we treasure. It's ironic that now Balanchine has become one of the emblems of the international style, everyone has to do him, and it's service mark protected. Much as one abhors seeing a corrupted Swan Lake, Giselle, or Sleeping Beauty, wasn't it also in the little changes to inspired productions that a national style took root for the top companies in the world? Or does it reside where it does for the French, in schooling so thorough and particular that everything they dance becomes their own style?

What would provincial Balanchine look like versus international Balanchine? We might have seen a glimpse of one possibility in the performance of Dvorovenko, who made little or no accommodation from her own native training. I have my own reasons for taking pleasure in it, but could I show that to a group of neophytes and say, "That's Balanchine"? It's again a question of serving two masters. A company with a provincial style serves to reaffirm the identity of its audience and when touring to broadcast it to the world as the Cubans just did or the Kirov, Paris or NYCB did on its tours. An international company functions importantly as an importer for its own people, bringing the world to them, as the Canadians did with Mozartiana. I don't think there's an intrinsically better or worse choice; but because I live in a city with a great provincial company, I wouldn't mind seeing a uniquely Canadian Mozartiana or even a Cuban one.

#17 liebs

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Posted 13 November 2001 - 09:45 PM

Of the three companies, I only saw ABT at City Center and was struck by the dilution of Rodeo, much like what you describe, Leigh, in Dim Lustre. The ballet still works but almost inspite of the performances.

I wonder whether ABT feels that plotless, abstract one act ballets are more important, better than narrative ones and hence has abandonded the comittment to that wing of their repertoire. It was certainly that repertoire that put them on the map in the first place.

But we are certainly lucky to live in a city that offers both provincial and international companies.

#18 Drew

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Posted 13 November 2001 - 01:03 PM

Yes, thanks -- I was especially interested to read your analysis of the National Ballet of Cuba. I saw them many years ago -- when they did travel with some quite attractive productions as well as fabulous principals of both sexes. I remember, too, their 'well-drilled' quality, but after reading your review I wish I could see those performances again...I feel as if I would see more.


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