miliosr

Homogenization of the Classical Ballet Repertoire

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Very interesting article by Gerald Dowler in the November 2008 issue of Dancing Times regarding the increasing "sameness" of repertory among the major international ballet companies (and even some of the not-so-major ones). (He says everything in two pages that I've tried to articulate on this board and failed to do!)

Dowler posits that, by trending toward the same repertory, these companies are losing their distinctive stylistic approaches as they ignore the legacy works that are/were peculiar to their original artistic successes. In other words, the move away from a "local" repertory toward a perceived international repertory standard has the (unintended?) effect of diminishing the distinctive company styles that go hand-in-glove with the original, "local" repertories. (He levels particular fire in the direction of Copenhagen [no Bournonville this season] and London [only one Ashton/only two MacMillans].)

My own feeling is that the trend toward a global mean is here to stay. But be careful what you wish for -- once certain works (and their corresponding styles) are gone, they're gone for good. (Cue ominous horror movie music . . . )

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Very interesting article by Gerald Dowler in the November 2008 issue of Dancing Times regarding the increasing "sameness" of repertory among the major international ballet companies (and even some of the not-so-major ones). (He says everything in two pages that I've tried to articulate on this board and failed to do!)

Dowler posits that, by trending toward the same repertory, these companies are losing their distinctive stylistic approaches as they ignore the legacy works that are/were peculiar to their original artistic successes. In other words, the move away from a "local" repertory toward a perceived international repertory standard has the (unintended?) effect of diminishing the distinctive company styles that go hand-in-glove with the original, "local" repertories. (He levels particular fire in the direction of Copenhagen [no Bournonville this season] and London [only one Ashton/only two MacMillans].)

My own feeling is that the trend toward a global mean is here to stay. But be careful what you wish for -- once certain works (and their corresponding styles) are gone, they're gone for good. (Cue ominous horror movie music . . . )

How can we access the article??

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I read it in the print edition. I'm assuming they have a Web site but I don't know if current articles are available on it.

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I went to the website, but the article does not appear to be available online. I will have to get the print edition. :o

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So, here is Dowler's take on what constitutes the international repertory:

19th century ballets (in a multitude of stagings): The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake

Ashton: La Fille mal gardee

Balanchine: Agon, Apollo, Ballet Imperial, The Four Temperaments, Jewels, Prodigal Son, Symphony in C, Theme and Variations

Bournonville: La Sylphide

Cranko (if at all): Onegin

Forsythe: in the middle somewhat elevated, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

MacMillan: Manon

If you throw in Giselle, Balanchine's Serenade, MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet, Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, Tharp's In the Upper Room and something by Wheeldon, then you pretty much have it.

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miliosr, you describe very well the effects -- present and future -- of this homogeniation. Does Dowler -- or do you -- have any explanations as to WHY this is occuring? And what it is about these particular works by these particular choreographers that gives them entry into the magic circle?

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I'll give one guess:

All the above listed works are "proven" works with a "track record" of bringing in audiences and money to fill a declining bank account. They are easily understood by most audiences--even those with limited classical dance experience--and therefore most are money-makers for the companies that produce them. And like Hollywood, most big-time producers (or large classical ballet companies) prefer to "greenlight" a writer/director/actor (or choreographer) with a proven track record before taking a chance on the unknown.

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Dowler talks a little bit about the "masterpiece/moneymaker" aspect but he spends more time discussing two other phenomena:

1) Dowler posits that internationalization (which I take to mean as cheap jet travel, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the Information Age [i.e. blogs, YouTube, etc.]) -- has created a situation where dancers, choreographers, and companies can go pratically anywhere in the world (and audience members can watch them anywhere even if it's via YouTube.) But he believes this global movement has come at a price -- the regional isolation which produced distinctive repertories and company styles has disappeared and, consequently, the regional differences have blurred into one and a certain "international" style now prevails.

Dowler's thesis isn't new. Arlene Croce rang the alarm bells in 1996 (!) in a New Yorker article titled "Our Dancers in the Nineties". Even 13 years ago, she was worried about what was happening to the world's major classical ballet companies.

(What I would compare the Dowler/Croce thesis to is the phenomenon Terry Teachout has written about regarding opera singing/classical musical playing at the dawn of the recording industry. Listening to the those early recordings today reveals extreme differences (bordering at times on eccentricity) in singing/playing styles between performers depending on region. But as performers and listeners alike began to listen to recordings en masse, the eccentricities disappeared as everyone began to converge around a new "international" mean.)

2) Dowler also thinks the artistic directors of the world's foremost companies have a hand in it because they are in a competition with each other (my words, not his) to have the biggest, brightest, "most international" repertory. That they are increasingly programming the same works (and, by extension, chasing after the same trends) doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody. (In defense of the company directors, Dowler does point out that local choreographers of talent are thin on the ground and, therefore, company directors don't have much recourse when it comes to finding local talent to reinforce a unique company style via an unique repertory.)

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http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123819010175560705.html

Here's the money quote:

"The choreographer [balanchine] hoped to make his mark and that of his company with fresh and experimental new works in a dance world that was then all too ready, in Balanchine's view, to see ballet in a kind of bell jar of nostalgia, where revered works from the past were a company's ne plus ultra."

Oh, he doesn't see the irony in what he's written!

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Oh, he doesn't see the irony in what he's written!

I have to differ with you on this, miliiosr. The whole point of the WSJ article is that Balanchine's Swan Lake expressed his own carefully thought out and evolving reflections on the traditional version.

Here's something from near the end of the article:

Unlike any number of more elaborate multiact stagings nowadays, Balanchine's one-act creation does more than call itself "Swan Lake." It calls viewers to the heart of its music and, in so doing, mesmerizes them.

There's nostalgia here, of course. But it's not the kind one seals up and displays in a bell jar.

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Does the quote refer only to Swan Lake?

I ask because NYCB seems to have become just as much of a 'museum' (not that that's necessarily a bad thing) as many other long-established ballet companies.

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What I was objecting to was the snooty tone -- "Oh, those poor unfortunates stuck in their nostalgia and unable to recognize the way forward!" Accusing past audiences of nostalgia makes me grit my teeth when here he is writing about a work that's 59 years old. Is there really nothing more current for him to write about in his column? If the answer is no, then I have to ask myself whether the classical ballet has a creative future if all it can do is endlessly recycle the warhorses from the 19th century and the Balanchine repertory from the 20th century. (I'm overexaggerating to make a point but the point remains.)

And as for the notion that Balanchine's version "speaks" to modern audiences more than other versions, that would probably come as "news" to a lot of people around the world.

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What I was objecting to was the snooty tone -- "Oh, those poor unfortunates stuck in their nostalgia and unable to recognize the way forward!" And as for the notion that Balanchine's version "speaks" to modern audiences more than other versions, that would probably come as "news" to a lot of people around the world.
I must once again disagree, miliosr.

Happily, you've posted a link to the article, so everyone can make his or her own decision as to matters of content or tone.

For anyone who is curious about the Balanchine version, or who loves or detests it, Greskovic's piece is well worth reading. :wink:

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The whole point of the WSJ article is that Balanchine's Swan Lake expressed his own carefully thought out and evolving reflections on the traditional version.

Don't kill me people, but the more and more I read about B's SL "version" the more I compress my brain to try to understand what makes it different from other takes. What I saw was just a traditional Act II with some IV additions...(the mechanical swans and the props making it even more antique-looking on my eyes...). As per the music, isn't the same beautiful T's used in every production ...?

Don't know, but I couldn't really see that famous Odette's depersonalization so often talked about... :wink:

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More in Hubbe's defence: the RDB has been dancing Symphony in C for more than 50 years, and had La Sonnambula several years before NYCB did - they've just done their 160th performance of the first and their 222nd of the second, though admittedly only the more senior dancers will have done them before. Only Symphony in 3 Movements is new to the repertory.

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The whole point of the WSJ article is that Balanchine's Swan Lake expressed his own carefully thought out and evolving reflections on the traditional version.

Don't kill me people, but the more and more I read about B's SL "version" the more I compress my brain to try to understand what makes it different from other takes. What I saw was just a traditional Act II with some IV additions...(the mechanical swans and the props making it even more antique-looking on my eyes...). As per the music, isn't the same beautiful T's used in every production ...?

Don't know, but I couldn't really see that famous Odette's depersonalization so often talked about... :dunno:

I have to disagree, but I'm biased because I like it, I guess: B's SL is a late modernist take on the ballet. It's sleek and condensed, and many of the corps configurations suggest a family resemblance to some of the "art deco" formations of Serenade and Four Temperaments. Much of the choreography is entirely original with a lot of B's signature steps.

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Don't know, but I couldn't really see that famous Odette's depersonalization so often talked about... :dunno:
In general, I agree. I suppose one has to see this in the context of the kind of theatricality and occasional distortion that was common in those days -- and against which Balanchine was responding. He also, it appears, disliked the tradition in divas created their own personal Odette/Odile's, so that one spoke not so muich of Petipa/Ivanov's Swan Lake or Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake as of Mme. X's Odette and Mme. Y's Odile.

Balanchine's version has its differences, but -- as you imply, Cristian -- these are not SO different as to represent a repudiation of the original version or a permanent replacement for it.

(The elimination of the Prince's story and the Odile sub-plot are significant. I assume that Balanchine thought that they were unnecessary for entering into the tragic story of Odette.)

Regarding the topic of "homogenization," and the Dowler piece kindly summarized by miliosr: perhaps every major company -- those with a great tradition of their own -- should keep in its rep two versions of (or approaches to) Swan Lake. One would be the version of Petipa/Ivanov that evolved slowly and gently in the context of a company style. The other would be the latest "international" version or reinterpretation, suitable as showcases for jet-setting global stars.

The former would be preserved as much as possible; the latter could change with the tides of fashion. The dancers would be challenged; the audiences would have a chance to compare; the company would remain true to their history while not being trapped by it.

Good for NYCB for now having a version of both in their rep.

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Don't kill me people, but the more and more I read about B's SL "version" the more I compress my brain to try to understand what makes it different from other takes. What I saw was just a traditional Act II with some IV additions...(the mechanical swans and the props making it even more antique-looking on my eyes...). As per the music, isn't the same beautiful T's used in every production ...?

Don't know, but I couldn't really see that famous Odette's depersonalization so often talked about... :dunno:

Not only Odette's depersonalization (which, btw, I don't see much of these days).

Like some of his other ballets, Balanchine's Swan Lake hit me as an epiphany during a performance in the 1970s when I was still a pretty inexperienced, balletically speaking. During the big Waltz, a voice said to me, "Look at all those women impersonating swans!", the point being that I saw women (and not even necessarily dancers) on stage sketching swans, rather than embodying them fully. That was the intended effect -- not to be an Ivanov swan, just to suggest what one might have been like. It's a subtle distinction -- totally absent in today's NYCB performances of the ballet -- and perhaps since I did not come to the performance loaded with expectations about what I was about to see, I was open to it.

It's probably very challenging for ballet masters to get the dancers to give just the right amount of swan-ness for this to be evident to most viewers. I would probably go so far to suggest that many ballet masters don't even realize that that was Balanchine's whole point, since it was not his style to explain things in those terms.

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A laughable motif repeated in B's Swan Lake -- and I think intended to be laughable -- is the point that the Hunters (i.e., the men Prince Siegfried's hunting party) partner the Swans in several ensemble passages. Thus the hunters, dressed in Forest Brown with little hunting hats, enter to each get a black swan on each arm and proceed to dance with them.

I've no idea whether this was in the original 1950's City Center version of the ballet, or whether it crept in during the several re-choreographizations later on. This ballet was substantially remade and revised over the years; there were solos and dances in the 1950s version that have entirely disappeared and the black costumes for the swans were a fruit, I believe, of the most recent revision.

Anyway, I nearly laugh out loud at that touch of having the hunters enter en masse to dance a deux and a trois with the swans in the corps de ballet.

The ballet shouldn't be taken too seriously; it's a bit of a pastiche and, as such, quite agreeable, and is always popular with audiences. The trouble with it from the critical point of view is that by its very nature it insists on being taken seriously, as the underlying work is a Drama. B's treatment, though, is pastiche - perhaps justifiable as one of his stylizations - but suffering from the lack of integrity that pastiche implies, and thus open to criticism on that score.

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This is a bit Off Topic, but it does relate indirectly to the issue of changing styles and ballet versions.

The ballet shouldn't be taken too seriously; it's a bit of a pastiche and, as such, quite agreeable, and is always popular with audiences. The trouble with it from the critical point of view is that by its very nature it insists on being taken seriously, as the underlying work is a Drama. B's treatment, though, is pastiche - perhaps justifiable as one of his stylizations - but suffering from the lack of integrity that pastiche implies, and thus open to criticism on that score.
An interesting comment, Michael. I'd love to hear more.

"Laughable" is not quite the same, it seems to me, as something which makes one smile. "Popular" is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you are dealing with fairly sophisticated audiences.

Also, I tend to think of the Balanchine version as a "reduction," a "distillation," a "reworking," and perhaps a "comment upon" the inherited version. Some of us do take it "seriously" (although, of course, nothing in life, by definition, should be taken "too" seriously :P ).

It would be helpful to hear what "pastiche" -- a word which usually has quite negative connotations -- means in this context, especially as it applies to Balanchine's version of a classic text which has, in its history, often been subjected to reinterpretations, alterations, abridgements, expansions, and even distortions.

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A laughable motif repeated in B's Swan Lake -- and I think intended to be laughable -- is the point that the Hunters (i.e., the men Prince Siegfried's hunting party) partner the Swans in several ensemble passages. Thus the hunters, dressed in Forest Brown with little hunting hats, enter to each get a black swan on each arm and proceed to dance with them.

I've no idea whether this was in the original 1950's City Center version of the ballet, or whether it crept in during the several re-choreographizations later on.

There is no mention of this motif in the excepts of reviews in Repertory in Review, so perhaps it's a later addition. (Paging atm711!). In any case, Croce, writing in 1979, experiences it differently:

I am caught up in it as in no other version of the ballet, because, although it isn't the traditional Swan Lake, it's the essence of what attracts me in Swan Lake. To mention just one moment: during the adagio (which is a jeweler's appraisal and resetting of Ivanov), the hunters come out and stand with a swan on each arm, and all at once the bewildering beauty of the ballet's fantasy about hunters and swans and sorceres crystallizes in a single heraldic image. The choreographer has done the dreaming for me.

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I'm not sure that the hunters supporting the swans is unique to (or even original with) B's staging. I seem to recall seeing them in footage (becoming an obsolete term, to be replaced, perhaps, by "megabytes"?) of another SL, although which one escapes me now.

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alterations,(...) and even distortions.

The latter being closer to my personal view, both by changing the original ending-(a la K.Sergueiev)-or erasing part of the story and its characters-(a la Balanchine).

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As far as I know, the hunters partnered the swan-maidens in the original Petipa-Ivanov production--each hunter had two swans.

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