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Ballet companies and modern/contemporary dance


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#16 Alexandra

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 04:35 PM

A few points that I forgot, re Terry's and Jeannie's very sensible questions above.

First, the Royal Ballet's decline, which is very well-documented, began in the mid-1970s, when contemporary ballets began to seap into the repertory. From the time I came to ballet I've been reading "Ah! Finally things are beginning to be put right" followed by, in a few months, "Well, maybe not...."

Second, some critics I know who have the opportunity to watch Paris Opera Ballet more closely than I have been sounding alarms there for the past three years. One negative effect contemporary ballets do have is that, paradoxically, they don't develop individuals in the same way classical ballet seems to do. Several people have written (and I think they're right) that when the last of the Nureyev etoiles retires, the chinks in the Paris armor will be very visible. Also, the current director of the POB is very contemporary-oriented. They're still classical because of their school, and because there are people who believe in classical ballet on the staff. When they go, all bets are off.

Third, I'd nominate as Exhibit A the Royal Danish Ballet in the 1970s, when nearly everyone, Danish and foreign critics, noticed a decline. The director benched the two classical ballerinas, there was no male classical star, and the repertory was nearly completely very small-scale (i.e., 8 to 12 people) modern dances or theater pieces. This had an enormous effect on the quality of the way the classical repertory -- on the one or two programs a year it was performed -- was danced. Danish television broadcast two or three RDB telecasts a year throughout this period, so there is a lot of evidence. The RDB came back, briefly, when the directorship changed and classical ballets began to dominate the repertory again. It wasn't just the scheduling of those ballets, however, but the fact that the three people staging/coaching/directing them knew how to bring them back.

Finally, ABT is also an interesting study, from the opposite point of view. Robbins and DeMille were very upset in the mid-1960s when they heard Lucia Chase was going to stage "Swan Lake" and argued passionately against it, partly because they thought the company really wasn't up to it, but mostly because they knew that it meant a shift in emphasis away from contemporary and experimental works like theirs (which were ballet; "contemporary" in the sense of "made last year" not in the sense of a genre). Critics have pounded ABT since that first "Swan Lake" that, although they often have excellent principals, they're off-the-mark in presentation and classical style.

So that's the view from history :) I can't do the Russian companies justice and so won't try.

#17 Terry

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 04:59 PM

Alexandra, one question:

You mention about 2 great RDB principals during the 1970s. Was one of them Eva Evdokimova? I understand that she had been RDB school trained, and IMO was a wonderful Bournonville dancer.

Thanks.

#18 Natalia

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 05:06 PM

Thanks, Alexandra - eloquently stated, as always. Right-on.

I'm far from a Russian Expert but have watched & followed the Kirov for some 20-25 years and, indeed, I see a few flashes of 'Trouble in River City' (the River Neva, that is). Most Westerners don't see these troubles, as the Kirov rarely, if ever, performs the questionable works abroad. I am refering to certain 'modern ballet evenings' that have been presented during the past 3-4 years. No, not the wonderful Balanchines; rather, the "Ratmansky Ballet Evening"...or "Roland Petit Evening"..or that short-lived fiasco ca 1997, "Goya." I can't speak for the new "Nutcracker," as I haven't seen it but some might place it in the loser category. As for the future, be on the look-out for the Kirov's "Neumeier Evening" promised for autumn 2001. I'll hope for the best. :) As a result of these new, sudden forces in the Kirov repertoire, there may be a deterioration in the quality of the soloists...all those 180-degree Guillem extensions and such. The corps is still pure-gold in the classics...but how long will Nina Ukhova (the female corps' legendary coach)be around? Nina - eat your Wheaties!

#19 Alexandra

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 05:08 PM

Terry, Eva Evdokimova was one of the dancers trained "outside the walls" that Flemming Flindt took into the company (meaning not only foreigners, but anyone not trained at the RDB school had been barred beforehand) but she wasn't a principal there and left because, according to dancers of that generation, because she was told she wouldn't become a principal there -- because she was foreign born.

The two benched classical ballerinas were Kirsten Simone and Anna Laerkesen. It's not that they were literally benched, of course, but they simply weren't often cast.

#20 LMCtech

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 06:52 PM

I think the comments on the training are very astute. If a company keeps its classical focus in class, they tend to be more successful all around.

I think one of ABT's problems is that they have such limited rehearsal time, they can't spend much time of issues of style and choreographic intention.

And I think a lot of a company's success depends on the company's ability to accurately carry out the choreographer's vision.

I would also not want to see Paul Taylor do 4Ts or Mark Morris do Giselle. I also don't want to see ABT do the Hard Nut (they don't have the acting ability) . And I have been VERY disappointed in all the ballet company performances I have seen of any of Paul Taylor's works (lack of emotional depth.

Now here's my next question, Alexandra. How do you make the distinction between Contemporary ballet and modern dance. I have my ideas, but at the present moment I'm having trouble putting them into words. I think it goes beyond "Ballet is in pointe shoes. Modern is barefoot..."

#21 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 07:50 PM

Lemme take a whack at this one, LMC.

I think the reason you're having trouble making a terminology distinction is that while ballet is codified, and Graham technique also is, "modern" and "contemporary" dance mean different things to different people and at one time or another, both were used as catch-all terms. At this point, I consider Graham or Taylor to choreograph Modern dance, but not, say, David Gordon, who does post-Modern work.

Maybe a useful distinction would be to consider "Modern" dance as being one of the forms which does not use ballet technique as a root form for its vocabulary and "contemporary" for those that do? By that distinction, Duato, Kylian, Tetley, Neumeier would be contemporary. The problem with "Modern" as I know the term is that it leaves out Pina Bausch, The Judson Church and many others; I just want to clarify that between the terms "modern" and "contemporary", one hasn't described every form of dance that isn't ballet.

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

#22 Alexandra

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Posted 27 June 2001 - 09:02 PM

Jeannie, we were posting at the same time -- from the little I've seen of the Russian companies, I agree with your analysis. (And I also think it's important to point out that often when we only see a company a few times it's hard to tell what's going on because we're not getting the whole picture. Did we get a bad night? A bad cast? Or is "Swan Lake" really on the skids? -- rhetorical question) I think the problem will be if the dancers and backstage people think that Neumeier/Petit/Bejart, etc., are better than Petipa -- not different from and fun to do, but better than.

LMCTech, I think it's harder to differentiate between contemporary and modern than between those two and ballet, because modern dance has been so fluid. I'm as alarmed at the changes -- deterioration, if you will -- in modern dance as I am in ballet, but I hold back from crusading against it because I believe that modern dance has reinvented itself in each generation and it's up to each generation to define it.

I agree with what Leigh wrote -- that there are a lot of different definitions for "contemporary dance" and I don't think the dust has settled on that one yet. (Believe it or not, a lot of what I write on aesthetic issues is an attempt to explain the current thinking, not just my own opinion.) Personally, I wouldn't use "contemporary" unless the choreographer/company did, or to mean "made last year" or last week.

I start with vocabulary as the basis for any definition. I call what I'm seeing in ballet companies "crossover dance" or "ballet-moderne" or "hybrid dance". Crossover is when, say, Lila York or Mark Morris makes a work for a ballet company (they're crossing over from one artform to another), hybrid is like Glen Tetley and John Butler (who blend some of each; one witty friend said "they've taken the artificality of ballet and the awkwardness of modern dance.") "Ballet moderne" is this stuff that really isn't either. I'd call Kylian modern dance, but would be happy to stand corrected on that -- but I see him as starting from a modern dance base that goes beyond expressionism and is rooted in technique. Nacho Duato imports whole chunks of modern dance works -- Graham, Limon -- into his work and the notion that he's doing anything new galls me. It might be pretty and fun to watch, but new? No way.

Perhaps "contemporary" is the best description for the work of most of the younger choreographers now, but a lot of it looks like just plain dance to me -- a little of this and a little of that.

One parallel between what's happening in ballet generally and in what happened in modern dance is that, in modern, once upon a time, you could tell by looking at a dancer whether he was Graham or Limon or Humphrey or Horton or Cunningham. Then there was a generation of teachers that had a Graham base and went on to Cunningham. Then the next generation took the Graham floor and the Horton bar, and liked that (as my modern teacher in grad school said) "Cunningham movement is all centered in the head." This generation knew exactly what it was doing and from where it was taking what movement and what theory -- BUT their students didn't. It was all Ms. Jones's class (or whoever was the teacher). Now they are teaching.

So it all gets diluted and blended and nothing is anything any more.

If I could wave a wand, I'd make lots of contemporary dance companies -- not modern, not ballet, but contemporary -- and then the other two would be separated out and go back to doing what they once did very well.

I'd like to thank Terry and LMCTech for asking such good questions and continuing to make this a dialogue as well as for being interested in understanding this issue. I'm not looking for agreement, nor to try to convert anyone away from contemporary dance to ballet, but to try to look at the effects of some things that may seem harmless or pleasant. I bring this up every time the question comes up, but you might be interested in reading the interview with Bruce Marks on the main site in the Ballet Alert! Sampler. He was one of the leaders in bringing -- urging -- crossover dance on ballet companies and as a dancer went from modern to ballet. But one day he looked at his dancers doing a Graham ballet (ballet in the sense of "a dance work") and said, "This isn't what my dancers are trained to do."

#23 LMCtech

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Posted 28 June 2001 - 08:44 PM

Leigh, I like your definition based on vocabulary. Ithink I can live and work with that.

Alexandra, I like what you say about the different modern techniques blending into nothing. I am a dancer of that latter generation you mentioned. I am just now after ten years of modern dance training starting to realize where "all this stuff" I've been doing is coming from. And a lot more stuff is startng to come in from ethnic dance, too. (But that is another topic.)I also like the idea of a third type of company. I think some people have been trying to create just such a genre, but they haven't yet been successful.

Next question - Do you think the same thing is happening in ballet classrooms as in modern classrooms? When parents call the school I work for asking which technique we teach I give them a line written by the administration to placate such calls, but the truth is no one style is being uniformly taught by all. Could this be another factor in the mushing of the ballet world.

In college they went over all the different terminology we were supposed to use in reference to the different dance chorographers we were studying (modern, post-modern, contemporary). I always found them difficult to use, because so many 20th (and 21st) century dance makers didn't fit in the categories very well. I'm having an even harder time applying those terms to ballet.

Do you think there is anything we can do as audience members to stem the tide of mush?

#24 Alexandra

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Posted 28 June 2001 - 09:04 PM

The neat thing about modern dance -- at least in theory -- is that, since it continually reinvents itself, if modern dancers really care about these issues, they can deal with it. All it takes is one Isadora searching for her solar plexus, and we're back in business :) (For me, the most disturbing thing about the modern dance evolution is that the whole point of it was to be expressive, and we've lost that. Nanatchka and others would disagree, of course.)

I definitely think a similar thing has happened in ballet technique. A generation ago, people could look at a dancer and tell where he had been trained. I don't think you can tell that now -- I'm not sure even a teacher could tell that, certainly not in all cases. It's interesting to go back and reread the reviews of ABT in the classics. In the 1960s, it's "Yay! Our team can do Swan Lake!!!!" The thought was that refinements would come later. In the 1970s, it's, "ABT needs serious help in coaching classical style." (Croce et al.) In the 1980s, more of the same. In the 1990s -- the stylistic mush has become accepted by most, I think, and the emphasis is all on technique -- understandable, because ABT has such wonderful dancers. All of this is compounded by the fact that Americans seem congenitally driven to watch dancers' legs at the expense of everything else, so "upper body dancers" never had a real chance here.

What can we do as audience members? Good question. Be aware. Know what you're watching. Give feedback to companies. Don't fall into the "they really can't do the classics well and look so much better in the contemporary stuff" trap. When the nice telemarketer calls to renew your subscription and says, "And there's the all new program!!!!!" try to let them know that the word "new" doesn't necessarily sell it. "But is it good?" [Again, to avoid a misunderstanding, we have to have new works. We all pray for new works. But "new" and "good" aren't synonyms.]

I don't know what else to do except play the boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes." If someone says it's wonderful that we have three modern dance choreographers coming in to do works for us, ask why is it wonderful? Why don't they work in modern dance and revitalize that genre before it gets mushed in the blender? Why not do an exciting, vibrant, young proudly contemporary dance company?

Any other thoughts? (Sorry for once again writing a book.)

#25 salzberg

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 05:22 AM

Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:
Some people come to see the dance, but just as many come to see also the lighting


There's another reason to come?

#26 salzberg

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 05:26 AM

We all pray for new works.  But "new" and "good" aren't synonyms.


Indeed, a work that's withstood the test of time is more likely to be good than is a work that has not yet been examined at length.

#27 LMCtech

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 02:41 PM

Sometimes I think "Oh, yay, three modern dance choreographers are making ballets for company X. Yay, they're actually going to get paid to make a work." Then I think, "Why aren't they using a ballet chorographer?"

#28 LMCtech

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 02:46 PM

We have in the past discussed the whole "truth in advertising" thing, as in if you are a ballet company you should do ballet, not modern. In that vein, what do yu think of Alonzo King's Lines Contempoary Ballet. Is that finallly truth in advertising, or not?

#29 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 09:04 PM

LMC - Comes a point when we'll discuss definitions until the cows come home and 90% of the audience calls all dance "ballet".

I think contemporary ballet is as close a term to what King does as any other. It isn't classical, but it's based on ballet technique.

And I've thought the same thing when I see announcements for new repertory.

#30 Alexandra

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Posted 29 June 2001 - 10:24 PM

I haven't seen enough to say. From the few pieces I've seen, I'd agree with Leigh. The "contemporary" saves it. I've read interviews where King says how much he admires Balanchine, and to me, it seems as though he's one of those choreographers whose interest in ballet goes back as far as "Agon." Which is a ballet (and a contemporary classical one) but not considering the other aspects of ballet -- the aesthetic -- makes it need the qualifier.


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