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Alexandra

Clement Crisp interview on what is wrong with ballet today

21 posts in this topic

"Unleash" is the right word to use! I have to say that I found his diatribe/ode to be both interesting and, at the same time, rather funny...

I did find this section to be rather thought provoking:

That generation of dancers, which was so accomplished, didn’t know how to pass it on, did not understand the urgency of the need.

And they had no understanding, it seems to me, of the past. Some of the Fokine repertory comes back, a bit of the Nijinska, occasionally - but I’ve always believed that a company like the Royal Ballet should be full of dancers who know the stylistic differences between Petipa, Nijinska, Balanchine, Massine, Fokine - and also had those works in their bodies, just as any pianist will know his Bach, his Beethoven and Mozart. If you don’t have that kind of general knowledge in your body, even as corps de ballet, everything has to be “retaught” and reinterpreted and further degraded each time. The great thing about Russian tradition is that everything is nursed and looked after, it is rigorously handed down, and there is no fooling around with changing this, changing that - as Ashton has been changed, shall we say. Style is going, so that you must accept dancers kicking their legs up in the air in entirely the wrong places. That occasionally happens in St Petersburg too, of course. But it was interesting that the great Aurora we saw this summer from the Kirov was Janna Ayupova, who was markedly better than that tedious Zakharova kicking her legs up into six o'clock all the time.

And then one looks at a Royal Ballet repertory which brings in ‘Don Quixote’, which the Royal Ballet is never going to be able to dance, not even as well as the Paris Opéra, because they don’t have the right coaching. They have no one who understands the energy, the vigour, the panache.


And do wonder if some of what he says here has a basis in truth...I cannot speak with regard to The Royal Ballet...but I ask this question in regard to the ballet world in general. Is there truly a loss of "lineage"...of knowledge being handed down from generation to generation?

Clement Crisp definitely gets the award for Curmdugeon of Critics!

Thanks Alexandra - I enjoyed reading the interview.

[ December 26, 2001: Message edited by: BW ]

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I was hoping someone else would jump in here first, but since they haven't...yes, BW. I disagree with some of Crisp's opinions on individual artists, but not on his general take on things. I think the break in lineage is the most important, and saddest, thing I've seen in the time I've been watching ballet (since the mid-1970s).

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Well, don't sugarcoat the bad news for us, Clement. Tell us what you really think.

There is much to remark on here, and I do not have the expertise to comment on much of what he has to say, but it does seem plain that the Royal Ballet began with a great basis upon which to found an enduring national classical tradition and has pretty much muffed it. As for the "no personalities" thing -- with all due respect to Crisp, who's seen a lot more than I have, this does seem to be a perennial complaint, heard every couple of decades or so.

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I enjoyed the interview a lot even if I had to look at my dictionary every two words! I find Crisp tremendously "British" and always too much ... critic but I don't have the deep knowledge he has to discuss his thesis. I agree with him about the fact that

Style is

going, so that you must accept dancers kicking their legs up in the air

in entirely the wrong places.


There's nothing which annoys me more than six o'clock arabesques!

I don't agree about his ideas on Kylian and Mats Ek (above all the latter, whose Giselle is for me a true masterpiece).

antoP.

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Good to see you again, antoP. We don't hear from you often enough smile.gif I agree on the style issue as well. We're losing steps, too. Footwork is out, all the small steps. It's all about big effect.

Dirac wrote that the "no personalities" complaint turns up "every couple of decades or so," and I agree with that, but that doesn't invalidate Crisp's complaints. I think there's a notion that every generation scoffs at the next one coming up, but this isn't so. Stars are recognized when they appear. Nobody ever said Nureyev didn't have personality smile.gif

They do seem to come in waves. Taglioni, Elssler, Cerrito. Although there will always be individuals who disagree, the consensus was rapture -- no one was complaining "she's no Bigatoni." In fact, Taglioni was treasured becuase she DID remind people of the stars of a generation or two ago. And after the first stars of the Romantic Era, there was a lull. A very long lull, broken only by the tragically brief careers of Emma L and Guiseppina B, both of whom were the kind of dancers that, even as 16-year-olds were Stars. There weren't complaints about Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky and Bolm, nor about Markova, nor Alonso, nor Lifar (there were lots of complaints about Lifar, but lack of personality or individuality was not one of them). And when Margot came along people didn't write, "Well, she's nice, but she's certainly no Markova." When Nureyev first danced in Russia there were sighs of, "Finally! Another Chabukiani. We can revive some of his roles."

I think during the lulls -- and I very much agree with Crisp that we're in one, have been there for a long time, and the dancers who are called "great" now are not, in my opinion, at the same level of their predecessors -- one hears "oh, they always say that and he's an old **** and don't pay any attention." But the moment the real thing comes along, people recognize it.

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Alexandra, not to get off the track, but it was my understanding that quite a lot of people did feel that Fonteyn was no Markova, (including Ashton at the beginning) and thought Markova's leaving was the worst thing that happened to de Valois. But to get on track, I do agree with much of what Mr. Crisp said, especially about bland critical writing.

As for the break in tradition, I was really struck by the report in ballet.co that in an interview, Cojocaru reported learning Symphonic Variations very quickly, from a tape of Cynthia Harvey, and from reading notes while riding the subway (or rather the underground!) It was so stunning to think that at the Royal Ballet someone was dancing that major, difficult and subtle role not having grown up watching it, and seeming not to understand that it is more than just a certain type of epaulment. I would have thought that reading about WWII would be more revealing than just watching a video, or that talking to Harvey, who after all did learn it from Ashton, might have been arranged.

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Mary, to your off-the-track (but really on the track smile.gif ) comment, what I've read and been told was that Markova was very much missed at the beginning and yes, many people were convinced that the company couldn't go on without her, but Fonteyn wasn't pushed out as the company ballerina instantly -- there were several candidates and Fonteyn, at least was very, very young (17) so I thought people realized that there was potential but knew it was too early. They were still writing "hope she doesn't grow too tall". I've never gotten the sense that they thought she was inferior. There's one story -- and I can't remember which book it's in now -- that there was a performance of "The Lords of Burleigh" where, the author said, "We all knew that night that Margot was THE one." I do think that Ashton was skeptical at first, but since the story is always "but then she broke down and cried in rehearsal and I knew I could work with her" I've always wondered if her "hopelessness" was that she wasn't doing what he wanted. At any rate, she was, still, in her teens.

I agree with your comments on Cojacaru. We're running an interview with her in the next DanceView (by Marc Haegeman) in which she makes very similar comments. She's not complaining, just describing how things are.

I think that goes to both Crisp's and Tobias's article -- there may very well be young dancers who could be ballerinas (and I think Cojacaru is one of them) but they not only have no choreographers and get no help from their companies, in some cases they're actually pushed off-course by the companies.

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I'm not sure I agree about the loss of information handed down through the generations in the Royal Ballet. We still have Monica Mason and Donald MacLeary, and Sir Anthony has to be involved in any revivals of Month and The Dream, at least. They all coach the dancers in roles they themselves danced, and pass on vital details about the ballets they know and love. And they also give masterclasses which the public can attend so we can hear about it too. The masterclasses have also been televised.

I do agree that no longer having a resident choreographer is a bad thing, and we need to develop the talents of the choereographers we do have at RB (and we do have them!)

And I disagree most vehemently that the principal dancers in RB at the moment are not fit to dance the roles! How dare he! We have some great dancers, but there does seem to be a gap between principal dancers of Darcey Bussell's age and principal dancers of Alina Cojocaru's age - there is little in between, except in soloist rank.

Regarding the amount of non-English schooled dancers in RB at the moment... I have always thought of it that we are the best of the best and everyone wants to come and dance here, so we have the bast dancers from all over the world. I do strongly believe we need to keep the English style in the repertoire, but i don't neccesarily think we need English dancers to dance in the English ballets.

i've just read this back and i've said "we" a lot, like I am in RB... i'm not, I just love the company. smile.gif

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Venturing off track, I can't quote chapter and verse offhand, but I also had the impression that Fonteyn was considered inferior to Markova in the beginning, even allowing for the age difference, specifically in terms of technique -- it wasn't just Ashton feeling that he wasn't sure he could work with her, but that she wasn't doing what he wanted technically in comparison to Markova.

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In David Vaughan's book "Frederick Ashton and His Ballets" (pp. 110-111): "At the beginning of the Wells season Ashton revised 'Les Rendezvous'; among other things he added the pas de quatre of the four 'little girls.' This was Margot Fonteyn's first creation of an Ashton role (she was still listed in the programme as 'Margot Fontes"). At this first encounter with the young dancer -- she was fifteen years old -- he found her, he has said, 'stubborn, difficult, but musical and elegant.' 'Le Lac des cynges' was given on 20 November [1934], with Markova and Helpmann. Fonteyn also danced as a Peasant Girl and a black cynget in 'Lac' and later in the season (5 February 1935) appeared as 'airy, fairy Lilian' in 'The Lord of Burleigh.' According to P.W. Manchester, 'that was the night everyone knew she was going to be the one.'" [she was still 15 in February 1935. I hadn't remembered that she was accepted as "the one" that early.]

I'm all for debunking myths, but sometimes the debunking itself becomes a myth, and this seems to be happening now with Fonteyn. I've read a lot about that period and I can't remember ever reading "She's no Markova!" but I'd be very interested in reading that, if someone can find it. One other point on Fonteyn that may seem paradoxical. She was accepted as a ballerina very early, and yet she's considerered not to have reached her peak until very late -- when she was in her 40s (after the partnership with Nureyev began). He pushed her technically and emotionally. It's hard to understand this, not having seen her grow from that girl of 15 to the woman of 45 who, by several accounts I've read and heard, delivered an extraordinary performance at the Royal Ballet's premiere of Kingdom of Shades "besting" not only the three soloists, all ballerinas or ballerinas-to-be, but Nureyev. I suppose this goes to what Crisp and (on another thread/link, more specifically, Tobi Tobias) said about all of the things that go into making a ballerina besides birthright. If Fonteyn hadn't had Ashton, hadn't had an institution that nurtured her, she may well have remained Fontes.

Lolly, thanks for joining in and don't be shy of speaking with a partisan voice smile.gif It's nice to have a "we" be for the Royal Ballet instead of ABT or NYCB, so you are most welcome.

You raise several interesting points, and I thought I'd address the "passing it on" one. Often great dancers don't make great coaches, and even when they do, they're only part of what makes a dancer. If a ballet is revived that the company management doesn't care about -- and the dancers will know this -- the original cast could come in and coach and it probably wouldn't matter. The dancers also need enough rehearsal time and, probably most importantly, they need to absorb the style, the way of moving, in their bodies and they need to dance that way consistently. Someone may be able to produce an interesting moment in a masterclass, but it will be gone when the ballet, given only two performances, say, comes back into repertory next spring.

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I can't resist putting my oar in on this diverted topic! I have quite a lot of evidence about early opinions of Fonteyn - I have several books published in England in the 1930s, which give contemporary critical views of both Fonteyn and Markova. I also saw both dancers, as did my mother, who saw Fonteyn from the mid-1930s.

There seems to have been a feeling among the older balletomanes at this date that only Russians could really dance. Arnold Haskell, in his book "Balletomania" (1934 and just pre-Fonteyn) says he believes from experience that Russians are "physically and temperamentally better suited" to ballet than any other nationality. The teenage Fonteyn's adverse critics compared her with Toumanova and Baronova, her exact contemporaries. She was less experienced than they were, and certainly less showy. Markova was considered an honorary Russian, although she was English, and is actually included in a list of Russian dancers in Haskell's "Ballet", written in 1937, when Fonteyn was 18. Fonteyn is in his list of English dancers. By this date he appears to have reconsidered his view that only Russians can dance. He says of the 27 year old Markova that she is a dancer in the direct line of Pavlova and Spessiva, though "technically she is less finished and her emotional range is smaller". Of Fonteyn (aged 18, remember) he says "Together with Baronova, she has the greatest range in contemporary ballet....in Giselle she gives the most outstanding performance to be seen in ballet today."

There are also some very revealing comments in the later book by William Chappell, "Fonteyn: Impressions of a Ballerina" published in 1951. (This book was my constant companion when I was eleven!) He says that at the very start of her career, when she was 15 or so, many older balletomanes were not convinced. And even later, he says "She was not a showy dancer. Pyrotechnics and dazzle did not enter into her work at this time. She danced with a quiet unforced ease, and a charming modesty which reflected truthfully her offstage personality. It was, needless to say, too gentle for the public taste, and in the early years of her career her gifts were not obvious enough for the ballet audience. They could readily appreciate a series of brilliant fouettes or rapid pirouettes, but the beauties that lie in a harmonious line, a clean flow of movement and the poise of a head were invisible to the majority." (Still true, I'm afraid!) He also makes the telling comment that "I can think of no great dancer who has appeared similar to another great dancer." It was clear to him by the time Fonteyn was 15 that she was "growing up to be Fonteyn and not Fonteyn/Markova".

There are no adverse comments on Fonteyn's technique in these books, only comments on her lack of "showiness". I think it may have been Ashton's comment about her feet being "buttery" when she was a little girl that may have started the idea that she was "no Markova". I certainly remember Markova as being a "sharp" mover and Fonteyn as being a "soft" mover.

Whatever the public thought, many critics were predicting Fonteyn's career by the time she was 15. My mother, a young balletomane at the time, was never in any doubt that she was going to be a great dancer, and had the sense not to compare her with anyone.

[ January 03, 2002: Message edited by: Helena ]

[ January 03, 2002: Message edited by: Helena ]

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It has struck me since I wrote my previous post that in 1934 Haskell was not an "old" balletomane- he was only 31. The idea that only Russians could dance was obviously widespread.

On the subject of the innate conservatism of most ballet fans - Clement Crisp included, though I deeply respect his views, and agree with many of them - I cannot resist quoting a wonderful poem, originally a revue sketch, by Herbert Farjeon, dating, I think, from the 1930s, "When Bolonsky danced Belushka":

"Of ballet fans we are the cream,

We never miss a night;

The ballet is our only theme

Our Russian accent is a dream,

We say the name of every prim-

A ballerina right."

and:

"It's true that many lesser clans

For ballet also thirst,

But they are merely nouveau fans,

It's we who liked it first,

And we who know it best, becos,

Ask any connoisseur,

The ballet isn't what it was,

When we were what we were."

and further on in the poem:

"When Bolonsky danced Belushka in September 1910,

What a wonderful night that was! what a wonderful sight that was!

We are positive that nobody has really danced since then!"

and:

"Something happened then YOU'll never never, never see,

So don't talk about these others, but apply your mind to me....

Though today's Boutique Fantasque'll do for Haskell and his lot,

It is not good enough for us! It is rather too rough for us!

We miss the old precision, on the beat and on the dot!"

And it finishes:

"You'll never know the throb, the glow, the bliss that we knew then,

When Bolonsky danced Belushka in September 1910!"

So, you see, things never change.

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Thank you for that, Helena. I've read all of the "only the Russians can dance" comments too. I think you're right; that was a very general feeling and it lasted a long time. I think it would be very understandable. London had seen the Diaghilev Ballet and loved it. (For those interested, Nesta McDonald wrote a very detailed account of The Diaghilev Ballet in London and America). And then the post-War Ballet Russe, with the Massine ballets, was extremely popular, too. I think everyone, even its backers and most avid fans, would have said that early the Sadlers Wells Ballet wasn't on the same level, nor could it be expected to be. And I'm sure there are people who never "got over" the Ballet Russe and stopped going to the ballet when it died -- there certainly were Americans who did, and who never accepted New York City Ballet as a company on the same level. I think London, especially, took another Russian hit when the Bolshoi came in the mid-50s.

So in that way things don't change. But I think Crisp is talking about a company's diminution compared to itself, rather than looking at a company at its best and moaning that they're not like the Russians. While the complaints, in this instance, about the Royal aren't new, they've been consistent since the 1970s, and become more insistent during first the Morrice and then the Dowell directorships.

I think there will always be SOME people who will have a favorite and not be able to stand seeing anyone else in those ballets. There probably were prople who thought that Sibley and Seymour "were no Fonteyns" but I think most thought they were simply different, and were happy that the company was turning out a new generation of ballerinas. There was enormous excitement about the Byrony Brind generation that came out of the School at the beginning of the 1980s -- ah! The company would be renewed! But it didn't happen.

[ January 03, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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I think it's very intriguing that de Valois' telegram to Fonteyn when she first danced Giselle at the age of 17 read 'And some have greatness thrust upon them'. You can read a lot into that!

I also like Fontyen's own letter to a friend when she heard that Markova was leaving the company: "I cannot think what will happen.. without her; we shall all have to work very hard, but even hard work won't make a Prima Ballerina if there isn't one". I don't think, from what one reads about her at that age (16), that she was being disingenuous.

(Helena, have you got a lovely book called Talking of Ballet, by Jasper Howlett (a pseudomyn, I believe)? It's a fan's view of the early Vic Wells seasons and he/she certainly picked out Fonteyn at an early stage.)

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The "some have greatness thrust upon them" quote raises another question, and that is why could companies produce choreographers and dancers so easily in the early days of the 20th century? Were there really six great choreographers in Diaghilev's company jostling for position and so he was just lucky? We read of how he educated choreographers. No one is doing that today. Rambert had two young men in her class, Antony Tudor and Frederick Ashton. Is there a class somewhere today with two 20-year-olds who could be Tudor and Ashton?

The Paris Opera Ballet was, shall we say, not at its best with Nureyev walked through the door. You, you, you, you and you, he said, picking out the etoiles for the next two decades. I saw the same thing happen in Denmark, when the RDB worked. There were dancers who were (almost literally) kicked and tricked into being good, or very good dancers. They were cast with exceptional care -- a soloist might convince you s/he was a star in certain roles, but not in others; choreography was modified slightly if someone had everything to be successful in a role but technique. There were also a few dancers who did not want to be ballerinas. They had civil servantitis and were the subject of perennial complaints -- she doesn't work, look at that body and she does nothing with it, she won't come to rehearsal, she doesn't care. So there's a lot that goes into it.

It seems to me that it's that eye -- the Diaghilev eye, the Rambert eye, the Nureyev eye -- that we do not have.

It's also what the company directors are looking for -- that's the first step; what they do with the talent later is another step, and that's lacking too, but it's the perspective that's changed. When ABT last revived "Les Patineurs" a few years ago, the Fonteyn part looked like nothing. (As long as I've seen it in this company it's been given to the Pretty Girl Who Can't Dance). All the focus was on the turning girls. I thought, if the same sensibilities were running the Sadler's Wells Ballet then, it would not have been Fonteyn who had greatness thrust upon her, but Mary Honer.

[ January 03, 2002: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Jane, I have read Jasper Howlett's comments quoted in other books and articles, but have not actually read his/her book.

Alexandra, that is very interesting about "Les Patineurs"; I can well believe it, and have a nasty feeling it wouldn't be so different at the Royal Ballet. I haven't seen Les Patineurs since the 60s - or if I have I've forgotten.

You are right, of course, that Clement Crisp is comparing the Royal Ballet with its former self, and I think you are also right about the "eye" of whoever promotes dancers. I have often wondered if there is some young girl working at the back of the corps who could have "greatness thrust upon her" if only someone would notice her. (I've also always been intrigued by that telegram.) Yet it seems very odd that Dowell, for instance, did not have "the eye" - he had all the background that should have developed it. Maybe there truly was just no-one there - he was quick enough to recognise Cojocaru, who everyone seems to see as the RB's next great hope. (I am not certain about her myself - I like her very much, but I am not as convinced she will become a great dancer as I was, for example, about Dowell himself at a similar age - of course, it could be thet I am now more experienced and cynical!)

Certainly I feel that if today's ideas of "what ballet is" had applied between World War 2 and say, 1970, Rowena Jackson and Nerina would have been the famous dancers, not Fonteyn. I don't remember anyone even beginning to think at the time that this was the case. Alexandra is right that Seymour and Sibley were recognised immediately as wonderful dancers, and few if any people said "Sheeznofonteyn" about either of them. Seymour had many of Fonteyn's "faults" - unreliable fouettes, for instance - but she was instantly recognised as a great artist. I suppose de Valois, Ashton and MacMillan had something to do with that! They recognised artistry, so we were allowed to see it. Would Seymour be given a chance today?

The lack of first-rate choreographers is a mystery, but I think it may have something to do with lack of general artistic education. The creative spark has always been rare, of course. There is really only a handful of great choreographers in the history of ballet, and the many, many failures are now largely forgotten. I am living in hope. Yet perhaps the shift in the perception of "what ballet is" is so profound that I and others whose tastes were formed in the Ashton/Fonteyn era are doomed to be disappointed. I do hope not.

[ January 03, 2002: Message edited by: Helena ]

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This is fascinating about having the "eye" to spot talent. I think very often in the Royal Ballet, the dancers who are given chances are the ones who are always given chances. This means that often they are not entirely suited to the role, they are simply flavour of the month, or season, and have to be shown off to sell tickets. This can be seen in current castings where Alina Cojocaru and Tamara Rojo seem to have everything. Yes, they are both good dancers, but surely they can't be ideal for every role?

This is why it was fantastic have an outside "eye" for Onegin, in Reid Andersen. He picked sometimes the most unlikely castings, and some people were outraged that their favourite principal dancer was not cast (Sylvie, in most cases wink.gif ) Yet this produced the most fascinating dancing on stage I have seen in a long time. The combination of different and fresh personalities on stage and partnerships which haven't been seen before, along with giving starring roles to members of the corps just took my breath away. I made no secret of the fact that Johannes Stepanek's solo as Lensky almost left me in tears. He was in the Stravinsky Staged triple bill last season but usually can be found at the back of the stage playing a village boy.

So also, perhaps yes, everyone can be great if they are only given the opportunity to show their talent. And that means the "eyes" in charge have to be open minded enough to really LOOK when they are casting the season, and examine who they think would really fit the ballet, and not just who they want to fit it. (Then we might just discover a new ballerina too. smile.gif )

I think I really should be telling this to Ross Stretton, don't you?

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People read Clement's reviews, essentially because his attacks on sacred cows are screamingly funny, well-written, and, judged by today's namby-pamby standards, fearless. He also happens to know something about choreography.

The hard core of dancing - need we all be reminded of this ? - is choreography. Or should be. The general public has become bored with the ballet, because most choreography today, including "revivals" of the "classics", is dire. No amount of ballerina-dom will get us round that fact.

In 1993, Lloyd Riggins (principal, Hamburg Ballet, also artistic advisor to RDB) gave an interview to "Dance Now", where he said, inter alia,

"One of my main goals is to create new story ballets. From the books I read, I try and outline ballets from them, finding out what is suitable or do-able. Eventually, I would like to try maybe commissioning libretti from writers or poets, after discussing with them the world of the story ballet. I have already found half a dozen stories, that I've outlined into ballets, that I would like to produce and choreograph."

But, once one has got the story, one has got to get the steps ! Teaching today is focussed on the step, rather than on the enchaînement. The teacher wants to have the step perfectly executed. A clean step, rather than a flowing, musical enchaînement, integrating the "step" difficulties, into the expressive whole, as in Bournonville's schools.

Dancers have now had ground into them from an early age, that dancing is the execution of individual steps, perfectly, rather than reciting a poem (the enchaînement), which itself, is part of the larger poetic composition.

There is an excellent article by Maria Fay, available through Internet search engines, called "Where has the Magic Gone", which deals with these issues, seen by one of Europe's leading teachers. I'd strongly recommend reading it, as background to this discussion.

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I think the point that ballet today is focused on the execution of individual steps rather than the combination of those steps is a good one, and can't be made often enough. I hear/read it said by teachers frequently (there's an interview with Bruce Marks on this site in which he says the same thing). There are teachers who try to break students of the step-step-step habit, but it doesn't seem to be working.

I think you need both choreography and dancers. I've seen wretched ballets saved by dancers, and fine dancers look anonymous in mediocre choreography. Choreography lasts longer than dancers smile.gif but even the greatest choreography needs well-trained artists to make it look its best.

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A very interesting and relevent article. I wonder if also part of the reason for there being few true ballerinas today stems from the way young dancers are coached in the roles chosen for them. There has to be coaching- but what happens when the coach is another dancer who has had little experience in that particular style? Can any amount of "research" give a would be coach the knowledge to convey intricacies of a given role to a new dancer? Then what happens when the coach who has never danced a particular role unintentionally conveys artistic choices that only he or she would make? This does not leave room for the young dancer to develop his or her own mind, and couldn't this be as bad as no coaching at all?

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