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Ballet companies and modern/contemporary dance


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 06:30 PM

LMTech posted some very interesting points on the Ballet in San Francisco thread, and I thought it might be a good idea to pull them out and start a new thread. (Terry raised some good questions as well, and may want to reraise them again here.)

This is what LMTech wrote: "I wonder though if the regional companies aren't doing story ballets and Balanchine/Ashton/ Macmillan because of the copyright/ expense issue. It is after all cheaper to make bad ballet than to stage good ballet.

"But I digress...how does all this affect SF?
Do you think it's good or bad that we have all this contemporary ballet here. I think it offers more dancers a chance to make a living. Dancers who don't fit the classical ballet mold.

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#2 Alexandra

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 06:46 PM

In response to LMTech's points:

First, I think expense is partly the reason, but not completely. Balanchine works are not expensive; Nacho Duato's are.

I'd also say that if there are dancers who can't dance ballet, then they shouldn't be in a ballet company. I know a choreographer who was invited to stage a work for something calling itself a ballet company. The director had already picked the dancers he wanted use -- something that's not usual, but that's not uncommon -- and when the choreographer outlined his ideas, he was told, "Oh, no. These girls don't dance well on pointe. We want something contemporary for them." To me, this is cheating the audience. I may like Broadway show tunes, I may like rock'n'roll, but when I buy a ticket to the symphony, I want to hear music commonly associated with a symphony. The notion that a conductor would say, "Well, we're really short of viola players and cellists this season so we brought in a synthesizer" would simply not be tolerated.

Whether it's good or bad -- I think it depends on the director. IMO, Helgi Tomasson is one of the better artistic directors. I don't worry when he acquires contemporary/crossover/modern dance works, because I know he knows that that's what they are. Tomasson seems to be acquiring ballets/dances that suit particular dancers, putting the dancers/performers first, in the interests of giving the audience a first-rate theatrical experience (a very European concept, btw). I think this is a perfectly acceptable way to direct a ballet company. I'd be surprised if he had a dancer who wasn't capable of performing in a classical ballet, and I think ballet is his first priority. Novelty works -- meaning everyone knows they're not deathless classics, but they suit the spirit of the times, or are just plain fun -- can be part of a serious repertory, I think, but everyone has to realize that these are novelties. The problem is when the audience screams its approval for Novelty Number 5 and the board says, "Great! Let's have a rep made up completely of these ballets" and the artistic director goes along with it (which I don't think would happen with SFB). So whether in San Francisco or New York or Detroit, I think it's great that there are a lot of companies where dancers can make a living, but if they're not dancing ballet, they're not dancing ballet. (There was a great answer to this on alt.arts.ballet once. "You can call roller skates ear muffs if you want to, but they won't keep your ears warm!" :) )

There are other companies, though, where the director is perhaps not as experienced nor as thoughtful as Tomasson and really can't make distinctions among different types of work, much less good, bad and indifferent work. This is what people who question the wisdom of putting contemporary dance works in a ballet company's repertory are usually screaming about. (I think there is a huge audience -- i.e., "market" -- for contemporary dance and would be very happy if some of the smaller companies would just admit that they're not ballet companies and call themselves contemporary dance companies. They're doing this in France and I think it's not only honest, but sensible.)

All of these discussions and questions are in an attempt to look at ballet in a broad context, beyond what I like, or what the dancers like, or what the boards think will sell, because ballet is such a fragile art form. Probably the main technical reason to be wary about contemporary dance in a ballet repertory is, as Joan Acocella once wrote, "If that's all they dance, pretty soon that's all they'll be able to dance." That's a consideration as well.

Other thoughts?

#3 BalletNut

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 09:06 PM

Originally posted by alexandra:

Probably the main technical reason to be wary about contemporary dance in a ballet repertory is, as Joan Acocella once wrote, "If that's all they dance, pretty soon that's all they'll be able to dance." That's a consideration as well.

Other thoughts?


Alexandra, that sounds exactly like what has happened at the Oakland Ballet: a few years ago, they were reviving Nijinska ballets like Bolero and Le Traine Bleu; now they are commissioning works from modern dancers and with "popular" scores. :) The effect on the dancers' technique is very obvious, unfortunately.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 09:39 PM

Good example, Ballet Nut.

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 11:00 PM

I'm going to re-post something I wrote last June on the subject:

Pidge mentioned the shift in repertory in her home company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens almost completely away from ballet.  I've seen this in other companies and wanted to make some (I hope) non-judgmental observations on the reasons.

1) It's easier and cheaper to maintain.  Contemporary ballets often require smaller casts and recorded music is more accepted, or even required.  Going beyond that, a classical work can be brutally exposing to dancers in a company with limited rehearsal time, a minimal budget and not enough money for the women to have decent pointe shoes all the time.  The right contemporary work in an effective production can make a company look more polished than it is.

2) Audiences like them.  Most audiences come to the theater for an entire theatrical sensation.  Some people come to see the dance, but just as many come to see also the lighting, the costumes and the overall picture.  The distinctions that we talk of here are immaterial to them.  If a dance is excitingly produced with good lighting and professional production elements, the dance becomes just another element in the treat.

3) There is an entire faction that believes in it.  There is a good portion of directors out there committed to eclectic repertory, many of them looking to the Joffrey ballet as their model.  And there is an audience devoted to contemporary repertory as well, actively preferring it to more classical.  With Les Grands, I'm not even certain I'd call their current choices much of a "shift".  They company seemed for a long time to have contemporary works as their center, with Netherlands Dance Theater as their model.  The times I've heard of them doing classical or neo-classical work (Giselle, Agon) are also the times I've heard them get unfavorable reviews. 

None of what I've said is disturbing, at least not to me, but the only rueful observation I'd make is that I consider true eclecticism to be very rare indeed.  The companies I've seen that shine in contemporary works tend not to do justice to more classical or neo-classical ones.  Dancers need to work on pointe assiduously to do it really well; classical port-de-bras and demeanor are not something you take down from a shelf when needed.  In small cities, for a dance company to survive it needs to be all things to all dance lovers, but sometimes it might be better to be one or the other.



#6 Terry

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 11:05 PM

Well, my question is: shouldn't dancers even if they are classically trained, be able to dance any forms (but probably more towards contemporary), because ballet is really the foundation of all dance styles? Of course they should be able to dance the classics, but isn't part of the reason why contemporary dance is being offered greatly in SFB, for eg, is because these dancers are able to adjust to different forms and styles of dancing when demanded? It must be so difficult for the dancers because they have to be able to perform classical, neoclassical, and contemporary works.

Anyway, IMO, I think that dancers in major ballet companies today should be able to dance both contemporary and classical pieces. If they are professional dancers, then I think they should be able to dance both just as equally well. (But this doesn't always happen, of course.)

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 11:26 PM

I'm not sure modern dancers would agree that ballet is the foundation of all dance styles. I don't think dancers can dance all styles equally well. The more eclectic a repertory becomes, the less individual it becomes. Fine classical ballet technique is a very sophisticated combination of things. As Leigh wrote, style isn't something you can take off a shelf. It's not a hat, but bone and sinew and skin, something that's integral to the way a company moves.

The trend towards eclecticism in dance is a bit like the Wal-Martization of America. Many more people love, shop at, and work at Wal-Mart than at Sally's Hat Boutique, or Chanel (is there still a Chanel? Does it make polyester skorts in 29 lollipop colors for $19.99 each?), but that doesn't invalidate the loveliness of boutiques. In ballet, I don't believe Wal-Martization is inevitable. More and more dancers/balletmasters are becoming alarmed, as I wrote earlier, partly, I think, is because there was so much emphasis on the primacy of the choreographer that even balletmasters and dancers thought that style/technique was integral and would always be there. They're seeing it's not, and looking to the causes and moving to correct them. In the case of SFB, again, if it survives, and grows, as a classical company it will be because Tomasson keeps strict classical standards in the classroom AND provides enough of a core repertory that uses the dancers' classical technique.

#8 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 June 2001 - 11:30 PM

Terry - I've seen some dancers that can, but I don't think that versatility really is the greatest virtue of a dancer. Also, contemporary style is not interchangeable with classical style. The center of gravity is different, as is the attack and the port de bras. Neither style is like a coat you take on and off, you have to invest in them. Most importantly I don't want dancers to get so indoctrinated in versatility that they think they should dance Forsythe and Petipa with the same attack. Sure, be versatile, but not like a salad bar, and not at the expense of ballet.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 11:16 AM

On a lighter note, why not add skating (ice or roller)? The Kennedy Center put in an ice rink for the Curry company; it needs to be used. And then we could move on to ice hockey; same thing. For the spring season, we could do Irish step dancing (Riverdance like you've never seen it before) and have a hula competition. How versatile shall we be :)

#10 Terry

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 02:37 PM

Well then, why do these major ballet companies including POB, RB, ABT, SFB, Hamburg, etc, etc, etc, stick to this idea of contemporary and the classics if it isn't such a good idea as some of you seem to be implying (at least, that's the way it sounds to me, but if I'm wrong, then please let me know).

#11 Natalia

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 03:14 PM

Paris Opera Ballet is referred to, by many experts, as today's premier ballet company. Yet, they have, for about 20-25 years, combined the classics with modern ballet (Carolyn Carlson, et. al.). Modern & 'American Jazz' dancing are included in the POB Ecole's core curriculum. Has the POB deteriorated since its incursions into the territory of Modern Dance/Jazz? Has it improved? Just playing Devil's Advocate; I don't feel strongly, one way or another. But perhaps POB should be our Exhibit A in this discussion?

#12 Alexandra

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 03:48 PM

POB is a very good case study. I was just reading an interview with Patrice Bart (balletmaster at POB) that Marc Haegeman did for the next DanceView -- this really isn't intended as a plug -- and he addressed this question. For Paris, no it hasn't hurt (and I'd agree with him) because they're so sure of their identity. (But remember, when they wanted to really do experimental dance, they set up a separate modern dance company for Carolyn Carlson. It wasn't mixed in with the regular company.) Their school is so strong that anything they dance takes on its flavor. (Bart made the point of how classical even Forsythe looked when POB danced it.)

One of the problems may well be that other companies look to Paris (some European companies do, at least) and copy them but, as people almost always do when they copy, they take the outside, what's visible -- the rep -- not all the things that go on beneath the rep.

Has the Royal deteriorated? IMO, absolutely, but dancing contemporary works is not the prime cause of that. (Nor, actually, do I think dancing contemporary/crossover works would ever be the prime cause of deterioration, as I tried to explain in the references to SFB above. It's direction.) Hamburg dances Neumeier, not a hodgepodge rep. Hamburg, ABT and SFB aren't in the same league with Paris, IMO.

Terry, would you want the Paul Taylor company to do "Four Temperaments" or "The Dream" or "Paquita?" Or, for that matter, Rambert Dance Company, or any other company that identifies itself as a contemporary dance company? That may be one way to look at the question for those who seem not to understand the point that the vocabulary, the very use of the body, is different. I can't emphasize this enough -- this is the point/problem/issue, not a question of taste, of whether you like the works or not. At some point, when a ballet company dances enough works that are not ballet, it ceases to become a ballet company.

#13 Terry

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 04:15 PM

My point /question is, what is wrong with ballet companies doing contemporary pieces, when they can balance both repertories, and when they can still have a strong classical foundation and do it well? Of course, as many of you noted, POB would be the best example of this. If a company can't do both of them well, then they shouldn't be in the repertory; but POB, does both contemporary and classic pieces extremely well and that is why they have it in their repertory. Plus, they maintain the best standard of classical dance, IMO in the world today. Of course, contemporary dance has different dance vocabularies, no one I don't think would disagree with that, but, really, my question is why do classical ballet companies today increasingly dance both contemporary and classical pieces, when it is not the case other way around (and I think I would rather see a classical company do contemporary than a contemporary company do classics :))?

[ 06-27-2001: Message edited by: Terry ]

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 04:16 PM

[Apologies, this post is duplicative of Alexandra's, who was responding at the same time as me]

Jeannie -

Valid point. I think Paris (and I haven't seen the company enough, but Alexandra mentioned SFB exactly this way a few posts above) are examples of companies which keep their bedrock (which in their case, seems to be training rather than repertory) classical enough so that it remains home base, everything from it becomes an excursion rather than a mixture. What I've found interesting about POB is that they tend to dance everything classically (including Le Parc and Forsythe's work) rather than the other way around. In another sense, I'm not sure POB and the top companies who have dancers at that pinnacle of technique can be used as a useful model in this aspect when you start travelling down the ladder of companies.

Also, and I ask this of someone who sees POB with more frequency than myself, given the extreme size of the company, and overlap of a certain amount, has the company formed itself into "wings", certain dancers tend to do the more classical rep, others the more contemporary? I had heard that was what had happened at another large European mixed company, Dutch National Ballet.

[ 06-27-2001: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

#15 Natalia

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 04:30 PM

Alexandra & Leigh - I now understand perfectly your explanation of the POB phemomenon (great at both classical & modern). In my visits to POB & by watching them on TV-video, it seems that most etoiles and principal dancers are extremely versatile - even than Queen of Classicism, Platel, was amazingly wonderful in Neumeier's Sylvia!

Anxiously awaiting Estelle & other POB-regulars' comments....

Funny thing in all this is the fact that ABT has a greater/older tradition of eclecticism than does POB...yet ABT doesn't seem to fare as highly in experts' opinions than does POB. Perhaps this is due to ABT's dancers coming from so many dance academies, not just in the USA but around the world? Yet..how many ballet troupes can afford to maintain a filial-academy...and to populate its professional company *only* with dancers from said academy? Are the 80% of ballet troupes without an affiliated school (or without sufficient graduates from that school to merit a place in the company) in this world doomed to mediocrity?

[ 06-27-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]


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