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Clement Crisp interview on what is wrong with ballet today

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#16 Alexandra


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Posted 03 January 2002 - 11:18 AM

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 ]

#17 Helena


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Posted 03 January 2002 - 01:39 PM

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 ]

#18 Lolly


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Posted 03 January 2002 - 03:08 PM

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?

#19 katharine kanter

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 05:32 AM

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.

#20 Alexandra


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Posted 07 January 2002 - 10:14 AM

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.

#21 leibling


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Posted 07 January 2002 - 10:21 PM

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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