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The Ballerina -- A Swan Song?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 01 January 2002 - 12:10 PM

An article by Tobi Tobias for Mirella's "TuTu Review" that struck me as discussable.

The Ballerina - A Swan Song?

Apart from a few senior artists whose powers have been waning for some time, neither NYCB nor ABT harbors anything you could genuinely call a ballerina. It may very well be that the species is nearly extinct.

http://www.mirella-d...com/Issue3.html

#2 liebs

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Posted 01 January 2002 - 02:21 PM

I'm very grateful to Mirella for commissioning these thoughtful articles. Tobias has many good points but I cann't help but feel that given the lack of world wide perspective (she doesn't talk about the current state of the Royal, Bolshoi, Kirov or Paris Opera)in the article, she is using her thesis primarily to criticize the current administrations of NYCB and ABT. Not that there is not alot to criticize in those directorships.

But one could also claim that neither Farrell or Dowell or the other directors of the above mentioned companies have nurtured ballerinas either. Wheeldon's interest in Asanelli seems to me to be the closest contemporary nurturing of a dnacer's individual qualities that we've seen to date. Maybe, he'll become a great choreographer as she becomes a great ballerina - a symbiotic relationship.

Maybe as Tobias suggests we are not in an era that wants ballerinas in a traditional sense. And in that way, ballet is reflecting the popular culture where the glamour of stars like Garbo, Dietrich and the two Hepburns has been replaced with the efficient modernism of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts.

I also feel that there was a strong elements of "Sheeznofonteyn" in the article. As a ballet goer, not a critic, I remember and enjoy the glories of the past while also enjoying what the present moment has to offer.

#3 Manhattnik

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Posted 01 January 2002 - 03:04 PM

Two words: Ashley Bouder

#4 Lolly

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Posted 01 January 2002 - 04:43 PM

I think Alina Cojocaru of the Royal Ballet is well on her way to being a phenomenal ballerina - she isn't my absolute favourite, so I think i'm unbiased in saying there really is just something about her when she dances which is so exciting!

I may be completely out here, but I think Covent Garden audiences also want a partnership as much as a new ballerina. We haven't got two dancers who exclusively, or even regularly dance with each other. I'm sure Darcey Bussell has said before that we like the romance of a partnership, we want to believe they are in love... smile.gif

#5 Drew

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 01:15 AM

I agree with much of what has been said -- especially Liebs' remarks about Tobias's lack of international perspective and an underlying sigh of 'sheeznofonteyn' throughout the article. I almost wonder if the article is really about the dearth of ballerinas or about the dearth of those rare figures who seemingly transcend 'ballerina' to become ballet history legend. (A few fans might place Guillem in that category but probably not many on this board...though from the point of view of historical 'influence' she qualifies as something more than the sum of her performances.)

Legends aside, I personally feel that at NYCB the situation is not as dire as at ABT: in my eyes Ringer is a real, old-fashioned ballerina who certainly dances as if she believed every performance were her last (cf. Tobias quoting Fonteyn). Whatever else one thinks of Whelan -- I think very highly of her -- she is a very individual dancer who has been allowed to develop over many seasons, in her own way, and with ballets created for her that do try to cultivate her unique gifts. That is, her career exemplifies the kind of 'ballerina' career that Tobias mourns. (Whelan is senior, but her powers are hardly waning.)

But actually, despite the above remarks, I thought the articule made excellent and important points. I was especially struck by its reflections on the failure of certain dancers to develop as one might have hoped or anticipated. (For me, Mckerrow is a particularly enigmatic case.) Companies aren't responsable for every career that slows or disappoints, but it's surprizing, as Tobias says, that more careers haven't been salvaged. Some of this may be lack of choreographers, but casting, programming, coaching (or lack thereof) presumably all play a part. And the lack of attention to partnerships also surprises me, at least at ABT where the repertory could benefit from some good old-fashioned chemistry, and management has never been shy about box office potential. I was also interested in her comments about the companys' constantly pushing the latest newcomers -- though it's hard sometimes to parse out cause and effect. If you really believe there is no talent at the top, why wouldn't you look for newcomers?

Tobias tries to make a more general cultural point, but I'm not sure she is quite accurate when she equates Julia Roberts with Meg Ryan as an example of today's 'pragmatic' heroines vs. yesterday's glamor queens -- because Roberts is a more hybrid figure and certainly gets packaged and discussed as if she were an updated version of an old-fashioned movie star. This board is not 'moviealert!' but I mention it, because the one point where Tobias lost me altogether was at the end of the article when she claims that we might as well admit that the era of the ballerina is over. One may or may not think Julia Roberts can compete with Grace Kelley et al. but there is always a 'place' for that kind of figure, and when it comes to classical ballet, much of the repertory positively demands such figures. We may be in transition ballerina-wise or just having a dry spell (as per above, I actually don't entirely agree), but that hardly means the era of ballerinas is over and done. Actually Tobias may have just been trying to bring her point home with a flourish. Maybe she does believe she will never see another Fonteyn, but never another ballerina? Geez, I'd practically give up going to the theater...

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



#6 Calliope

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 10:36 AM

After the reading the article, I couldn't help but go back to the Crisp interview where he says we stopped going to the ballet to just enjoy it.
I thought Tobias was quite on with many of her remarks. I especially agreed with her comments on likening ballet to the Olympics. Before ever seeing Gillian Murphy I remember hearing about her turns. A lot of the dancers are categorized as "turners". They're often the "exciting ones" to watch. After the SAB workshops every year, whoever gets the most press (and a contract) is generally the dancer to watch. And then they fall by the wayside the following year, or become injured. The amount of time that dancers are given to learn roles is astounding. We've talked about it here, how sometimes 17 year olds are given "ballerina" roles way before they're ready. And having that 17 year old "thrown" on stage as a debut the night of the performance. How can they learn the significance of roles that way?
The lack of "great" choreographers right now, must surely also contribute.
We also don't have any Nureyev's or Barishnikov's either.
Given that the POB, Bolshoi and Kirov come for such few performances and the way companies showcase dancers on tours, I think it would be hard for Tobias to garner an opinion from overseas. The press coverage today is certainly different than it was during Fonteyn's time. I think that also added to her onstage persona. How she conducted herself offstage was almost as beautiful as how she danced onstage.
IMO Jenifer Ringer and Kyra Nichols are NYCB's two Ballerinas. Ringer especially. Like Fonteyn, not technically perfect, but she knows the difference between her roles. Her leaving the company and coming back on her terms (and having a fan in Robbins) I'm sure helped.

The young audience nowadays doesn't know Fonteyn, LeClercq, Farrell and the others. Yet there are endless comparisons in the press ( i.e. Kowroski compared to Farrell) and maybe that's not fair either.
On the movie front. What separates the actresses, much like the dancers today, was they had brilliant directors to work with and mold them into studio names. If you look at the works of Audrey Hepburn, Garbo, Grace Kelly and Dietrich, they were far from great actresses (technically that goes to Katharine Hepburn) but they had a "look" and personality the audience loved. Nowadays you can take Streep and Roberts, one is the brilliant technician and the other the public sweetheart.

Maybe we don't "need" ballerinas?

#7 Michael

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 11:15 AM

I think it's our culture that has changed and not the species of dancers we produce. The fact that we can't find indisputable "Ballerinas" today is a sign of the cultural marginalization of Ballet as a major art form in the popular imagination. Ballet in Ashton's day still carried great mainstream cultural weight and presige in general, and not just among the devoted in the artistic capitals, and a dancer like Dame Margot implicitly commanded a cultural stardom beyond anything the art form is capable of in the present environment. It's not just Ballerinas we don't have anymore, what about male dancers with a prestige and stardome like Nureyev's?

I thus agree with Tobias that our inability to find a "Ballerina" is related to a cultural change but think she doesn't go far enough to explore the implications of this. If she did, though, she'd write an article more about culture than about dancers and that wouldn't make good reading.

Also -- although this is just quibbling on my part -- she says a good deal of in my view inaccurate things about individual dancers. Miranda Weese is not burnt out. Briefly injured she may be, but there's no "burn out" here. Just see the British press's reviews of her in Edinburgh last summer, which were with only one exception raves. Weese in fact may be a perfect example of what's going on culturally -- She's amazing, but ballet in general is no longer glamorous enough for her status and skill to elevate her to cultural stardom nation-wide. Ballet dancers are not going to be household names anymore. Would that change if Ruth Page and ABT still toured the boonies (Alexandra Danilova in South Dakota)? The fact that this has also stopped is probably itself just another sign of the same times. Will the Royal Danish Ballet again play to packed houses in Detroit? (Nor is it true in my observation that Maria K doesn't know who she is on stage).

[ January 02, 2002: Message edited by: Michael1 ]



#8 Drew

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 05:50 PM

Michael1's remarks seem to me to reflect an ambiguity in the article. Are we bewailing the lack of ballet stars who become great public symbols (Fonteyn, Ulanova, Chauvire)? or the lack of ballerinas? Just "Ballerina" is a very serious honorific in my book and ballerinas are a rare enough phenomena. Still, one might go a generation without the emergence of a Pavlova, but I hardly think you can have great classical ballet without genuine ballerinas -- though you can fake with good principals. For me Ringer IS a ballerina and Weese is a superb principal (just an opinion to clarify what I mean...On another thread I'd be happy to say why I think so).

The question Michael1 raises of ballet's larger prestige in the culture seems to me to have more bearing on the question of the public legend, like Fonteyn. Actually, in Britain, Darcey Bussell has gotten a lot of general press, and one thing I have noted (with puzzlement) is that many of the recent articles about Rojo and Cojocaru include remarks along the lines of, 'well, perhaps these new young principles will be devoted to their ART and not worry about having their picture in "Look" magazine' -- remarks that are, I assume, meant to be digs at Bussell. As if the critics resent her popularity. Oh well, sheeznofonteyn.

However, I take it Tobias's point is that wider cultural changes regarding personality/glamor/stardom are reflected in ballet's ARTISTIC development in a more fundamental way -- and that without the proper guidance even a talent like Kowroski will not be able to give audiences the KIND of memorable performances that cause us to be talking about Farrell decades after her retirement -- quite apart from whether or not a wider public joins in recognizing her importance.

Actually, as far as "cultural" prestige goes, I don't think one should underate the role the cold war played in the extraordinary attention and glamor that attached to the Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership or (in the West) even of the attention to figures like Ulanova. I'm NOT saying the cold war alone did it or that Fonteyn wasn't a star before Nureyev's defection, but when people discuss this phenomena I think many different layers and historical moments are getting fused together. When Nuryevev appeared on Merv Griffin Merv wanted to know about one thing only -- the defection, likewise with Makarova on Letterman. And in both cases the interviews I saw were taking place YEARS after the defections. There were also a tiny number of artists throughout the fifties, sixties etc. who were as great as Fonteyn, Nureyev -- i.e. Erik Bruhn, and, in a specialized repertory, Fracci, or, for that matter, the non-defecting Soloviev ot Kolpakova -- who did not get the kind of attention Fonteyn/Nureyev did, and ONE reason for that was the atmosphere of cold war romance/intrigue that followed Fonteyn/Nureyev wherever they went.


But Tobias's concerns I think are mostly elsewhere. When she says ballerina, surely (I HOPE) she means a Kolpakova as well as a Fonteyn?! That is, she means (among other things) a female ballet artist who at once embodies and transforms the art in definitive performances of major roles. I believe, that can take place -- and HAS taken place -- in the absence of the wider and wilder audiences of the ballet boom. But I'm inclined to agree with her, nonetheless, that many promising dancers today need direction that they are not getting. Or, at any rate, that's how things sometimes appear.

On a drearier note...Ballet may at different times have gotten wider cultural 'play' than now but except for the interest generated among NY artists and writers in the fifties and sixties by Balanchine, I don't believe ballet has ever been truly culturally 'prestigious' in the U.S. (and I am a bit skeptical that the situation has often been much better elsewhere)...In the U.S. at any rate, it has never been taken as seriously as other arts, even other performing arts...and actually the fascinating notion that "ballet is woman" is implicated in the overall view of ballet as less an art form than just a bit of glamorous entertainment, showgirls by any other name. (This isn't what I think (!) but certainly ballet history has in some ways even been shaped by this attitude...think Gautier or even Kchessinska or for that matter recall Act I of the Kirov's re-creation of the 'original' Sleeping Beauty -- I can't be the only one who thought Ziegfield...)

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

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



#9 Calliope

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 07:30 PM

Well said Drew!
Could the lack of attention ballet has gotten/gets be a result of the geography of the country? It seems that the cities with the larger populations have companies (and that's relatively new compared to the history of Europe's) but also, they rarely tour.

#10 dirac

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Posted 02 January 2002 - 07:47 PM

I thought that Tobias was not ignoring the international scence so much as using ABT and NYCB as exemplars of the argument to come; I don't think she intended to plow through each company of prominence one by one. I don't think Tobias is wishing for the good old days, she's just identifying and analyzing a current issue. The "ballerinas-are-gone-forever" aspect of her discussion may be overdone just a bit, but I see her point -- are we looking at a fundamental change in attitude and not just the recurrent reasons (no choreographers, no directorial guidance, etc.) responsible for past fallow periods? Peter Martins, of all people, may have put his finger on something when he remarked in his autobiography that Suzanne Farrell's perspective on her role as ballerina was crucially different from the younger dancers coming up behind her; "she has the grand style," he said, and the newer girls did not think of themselves in those terms. (He may simply have meant that Farrell could be a pain, but it's an instructive observation just the same.) I think also of what Maria Tallchief says in "Six Balanchine Ballerinas" about the responsibilities of a ballerina and how the first dancer must assume responsibility not just for herself but for the ballet; she must symbolize something larger than herself. Maybe this is what is missing?
(As for actresses -- we still have the glamour, but it assumes different forms. Depends on what you prefer. I'm a big Grace Kelly fan, but I'm also grateful that we're past the era when movies were so fearful of reality that Claudette Colbert could do a touching deathbed scene in "Boom Town" with no other cosmetic alteration apart from some gray lipstick. It is true, however, that there were some things they did better way back when. Compare "The Women" dressed by Adrian and "The Women" dressed by Isaac Mizrahi. I rest my case.

#11 Mashinka

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Posted 03 January 2002 - 11:52 AM

First of all I feel that the very word “ballerina” has been debased. It is now seems to apply to any female dancer that has ever donned a pair of point shoes whereas it should only be applied to those at the very pinnacle. A principal dancer is just that, a dancer capable of dancing principal roles in the repertory adequately. The ballerina is the one whose dancing is inspired.

It isn't just Tobi Tobias who lacks a worldwide perspective on the current status of the ballerina; in many ways I think we all do. Here in London, the only foreign company we see on a regular basis is the Kirov, so that the days are long gone when I would be prepared to give an educated opinion on companies such as NYCB, ABT or the Royal Danish. This has a lot to do with spiralling touring costs but also the diminished status of the ballet in recent years. A ballerina needs to develop an international reputation to avoid becoming a "ballerina" only in the parochial sense. Tobias mentions Nina Ananiashvili, a ballerina who has danced just about everywhere in the world in front of highly appreciative audiences. She is as familiar to those of us in London as to those in Moscow, Paris, New York or Tokyo. That is what I mean by an international reputation.

Here in the UK parochialism is taking dangerous hold, especially in the world of opera. Lesley Garrett a diva? Ask them what they think of that in Milan! And as for Russell Watson, well, words fail me. Is this the future of ballet too? Over hyped, under talented stars created by a media department? I shudder at the thought. If you get famous enough in Britain you eventually get your picture in Hello magazine alongside the soap actresses and wives of soccer players. Many of us feel a little uneasy when we see dancers there.

Michael1 is quite right to blame changing cultural values for ballets decline. Dancers too are the product of their age and it is becoming depressingly apparent that few leading dancers understand the roles they dance, certainly here in the UK that is the case. Another factor is the alarming taste for tall, often skeletal dancers. I have a video of a televised Kirov performance of Raymonda made in the early 1980's. The interval talk is given by Ninette de Valois who makes the comment that some of the variations looked wrong because the dancers dancing them were too tall for the steps. A valid point. All the famous classical roles were originally danced by small compact women. Check out the photos of the time. In the 20th century Margot Fonteyn was widely regarded as having the perfect proportions for ballet but today few ballet masters would give her lovely body a second glance. With male dancers the weight/physique question is rarely an issue, though the men will soon have to be a minimum of six foot five to effectively partner all those big girls. It is becoming common knowledge that in certain European Co's certain male dancers are resolutely refusing to dance with certain female dancers for fear of injury. Remember that a ballet audience is made up of more than simply balletomanes and for them the physical appearance of the female dancer is a major factor in their enjoyment of the performance. Am I the only one to have overheard comments about “scrawn”?

Popular culture has condemned us all to living in a world of artistic mediocrity with charlatans parading as artists. Up to now ballet has kept its integrity fairly intact with the ballerina being a rare species but not an endangered one. I just pray I don’t hear the Swan Song in my lifetime.

#12 cargill

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Posted 03 January 2002 - 12:11 PM

I do agree with dirac when she said Tobi Tobias was talking about a trend, and using the US examples that she knew as illustrations. And I think promising dancer is sometimes confused with real ballerina. She is saying, I think, that companies, especially NYCB, are full of talented dancers, who are not necessarily being fully developed, and I must say I did agree with her examples. Not to get personal, but Weese is a beautifully endowed dancer with a wonderful technique, but for me, at least, she seems to be holding something back in the more classical (tutu)roles, not really making them her own. And Korowski is a wonderful commedienne, but to me she doesn't communicate more than physical attributes in works like Serenade. Yes, she has an astonishing arabesque, but, as I wrote about another of her performances, it doesn't seem connected to her heart.
And if, as Danilova said, the main characteristic of a real ballerina is modesty, Ansanelli is far from approaching ballerina status, since she often (though not in the works Wheeldon made for her) seems to be more interested in making the audience notice her than in what is going on around her.
Ashley Bouder is another phenomenal talent, but at this stage is nowhere near a real ballerina in the traditional sence. There is a really disturbing pattern at NYCB of the disappearing principal--it seems people are promoted and often never used. Dancers have to grow in a role, dancing it over and over. When I was interviewing Maria Tallchief, she said she thought Somogyi was one of the most talented dancers ever to join NYCB, but so far, she seems to just the thrown on at the last minute. The Stars and Stripes at the gala last November got almost no rehearsal time, and that is no way to develop real potential.
I think Tobi was saying that the disappearing ballerina is mainly the fault of company directors. Again, we have no idea of all the issues facing them--financial, etc., but can only judge by results, and though NYCB, ABT, and others have wonderful dancers, I too think ballerinas are thin on the ground.

#13 katharine kanter

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 11:56 AM

Allow me to say that I agree with much of what Mashinka has to say. But we must all remember one thing: sooner or later, there has got to be great choreography, or there will be no great dancers. Ballet will keel over and die from sheer boredom.

That is point one.


Point two, is that the present choreographic emphasis is on displaying the body. The aesthetic ideal today is the fashion model, both in the man, and in the woman. This means the tiny pin-head, on the spider-like limbs, as I am wont to say. Looks absolutely terrific in fashion photography. Has nothing whatsoever to do with the criteria for being a first-rate dancer.

In Europe, this has now gone to ridiculous extremes.

The third point, is that there are major technical difficulties involved in teaching very tall people with endless limbs - centrifugal forces, as any professor will tell you. In fact, any professor, unless he belongs to the Claude Bessy school of thought, would rather teach a shortish-to medium-height student with ballon, than an aethereal endless waif, no matter how lovely the waif may look on the programme-cover photo shots.

Overall, over the last 20 years, the population, at least here in Western Europe, has got taller. But not to the extent one might imagine, wandering across the Opera stage in Paris !

Ballet is not a "look". It is not about fashion, or chic. It has to do with dancing to music. Whether the person can interpret music, as a poet, an actor, and emphatically, as a technician, are the criteria for choosing people for our schools and companies. Of course, they have to be well-proportioned, and reasonably agreeable to look at, but then again, what about Gaetano Vestris (Good Grief !) ?

Fourth point: Dancers today are under pressure to do stuff that a circus acrobat might find frightening. They work under enormous stress (Forsythe !!!!!). They no longer have time to read, or to study music seriously.

Ulanova was a great reader, and knew most of Pushkin's poetry by heart. Most, if not all, the great dancers of the first part of the 20th Century, were very well-read, musical, and well-informed people. They had a life outside the theatre, they knew and discussed with people other than dancers.

This is no longer the case in the ballet world, because people no longer have the time, nor the physical and mental energy, after having their limbs stretched out of joint all day, fighting injury, trying carefully to do each movement not to be hurt ! And I am not exaggerating to make a point.

And so, most dancers today have no imagination, no phantasy, performances are dull as dishwater, no matter how technical it all may be. Ergo, no people of ballerina status.

To end this posting, a quote from Marc Haegemann, on Irina Zhelonkina, which I find to the point in this whole discussion:

"Irina Zhelonkina has been a dancer with the Kirov Ballet since 1989.

She was born in Tcheboksary and trained at the Vaganova Ballet Academy (pupil of Natalia Dudinskaya) in Leningrad. In 1995 she was made a first soloist. With dancing that is remarkably restrained in manner and unemphatic in technique, with featherlight, effortless leaps, and flowing movements, Irina Zhelonkina has become a supreme classicist. Her physique combines delicate, feminine charm with an exquisitely refined plastique. Of middle-height, beautifully proportioned, with chiseled legs and arms, in a way a dancer like Irina Zhelonkina looks out of place in the Kirov company of the nineties, dominated by slim, long-limbed ballerinas.

Irina Zhelonkina has never been in the forefront in the Kirov company. Western audiences mainly know her as the tireless soloist, performing in numerous pas deux and solos of the Petipa-classics. Zhelonkina is the Kirov's ideal interpreter of those charming, witty, and virtuoso pieces like Harlequinade and Carnival in Venice, or Street Dancer in Don Quixote (and few will forget with what lightness and ease she skimmed through the solo with the bells in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai), but proves also very much at home in the nocturnal, romantic atmosphere of Chopiniana. All too occasional appearances in leading roles provided a tantalising glimpse of her artistic potential: she is a true Petersburg Aurora, an aristocratic and proud Gamzatti, a vulnerable Shirin in Legend Of Love, a mischievous Ballerina in Petruskha, and a touching Polish princess in The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.

Irina Zhelonkina prepares her roles with Olga Moiseyeva."


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