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Balanchine centrism?

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#1 Alexandra


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 02:20 PM

This is pulled over from another thread (The Kirov in London) so that if it turns into a discussion it will have its own place.

In a discussion of how some Kirov dancers reportedly don't love dancing Balanchine, which drew some surprised comments, I posted that outside America, or perhaps particularly outside New York, people are not monotheistic and, although they rank Balanchine as a good, very good or great choreographer, he's not the only choreographer. This drew one "what do you mean? We do not!" response, and I thought this deserved further discussion.

Discussion, please :) Not a food fight. It would be interesting to hear from people all over (including, of course, New York) and a variety of opinions, but perhaps we could just state the opinion and not argue over it, at least until a few opinions had been stated. (Arguments often discourage the less pugnaciously inclined amongst us to stay away.)

I've lived in Washington all my ballet-going life, and have usually, though not always, felt a Balanchine-centrism in New York reviews, especially of the Ballet Review branch of the trade. In reading earlier reviews, especially when ABT was young and vital, and the Royal was ruling the roost where the classics were concerned, bringing what we thought was first-rate Petipa, as well as new Ashton works, there was a more pantheistic view. For a long time, I've seen not so much an intolerance of anything that wasn't Balanchine as viewing ballet through a very Balanchine lens. (I'm going to put up a companion thread on who are the great ballet choreographers?)

What do you think?

#2 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 02:52 PM

Okay, I will be brave and state publicly that I have never been a Balanchine worshipper - HOWEVER - as a dancer I really did enjoy DANCING his work! It is the musicality, and the challenging technique and speed that made his work such fun to dance, at least for me. As an audience member, there are some works that I like, many I do not, but I have great respect for the vast body of work produced by this man.

#3 Alexandra


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 03:48 PM

Thanks for being brave, Victoria, but my post must not have been clear. I wasn't looking for a thumbs up or down on Balanchine, but rather to address the perception (which often appears in print) that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, are Balanchine-centric and not only look at other companies and choreographers from that vantagepoint (which would be only natural) but not only don't recognize any other choreographers and style except Balanchine's.

I hope that's clearer. I was hoping not for "Yeah, I don't live in New York and I hate Balanchine" but "That's certainly the view from Topeka" (or Paris) or "I've lived in New York all my life and love Balanchine but I love other stuff too." (please give examples :)

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 04:22 PM

I'm not really interested in whether Balanchine was the genius of ballet. He was a genius of ballet, and most importantly, my genius of ballet. If I need to adjust my eyes to look at other choreographers, I can, but it takes effort. I've seen other great works and I respect them but frankly, I am uninterested in becoming more ecumenical about it simply for its own sake.

I also would say it's dimly provincial to laud an NYCB dancer for hating Bournonville Divertissements or Illuminations and I wouldn't call them a "true" NYCB dancer if they did. There are those that did; dancers are highly partisan for reasons that have little or nothing to do with a work's quality.

There were other geniuses before and during, there will be others after. Those who wish to love someone else more, God bless you. I will not and do not need to defend loving Balanchine's works best.

[ 07-04-2001: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

#5 Diana L

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 07:13 PM

Whenever I see a company from outside NYC come here and perform a Balanchine ballet, I always wonder if the director stays up late to get the review from the paper to see "how they did" compared to the hometown team. It's unfortunate that in the press it is often compared to how City Ballet does it. Having NYCB perform half the year adds to them being favored and Balanchine being a demi-god, but we also get so many visiting ballet companies that I've gotten to appreciate other choreographers. I don't think I'd ever want to see NYCB perform "La Fille".
In the spring I really debate about seeing ABT or NYCB. But the Diamond Project is also supposed to expose new choreographers, unfortunately I think most of it gets shot down because of the enormous rep that people already love, which in itself pigeonholes NYCB.
So, I am a New Yorker, but I love to see other ballet companies perform things from their own companies reps as well as Balanchine.

#6 vrsfanatic


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 07:57 PM

I am not sure if this qualifies or not, but I started out as a New Yorker and have lived in many cities in the US as well as internationally. For me I find it difficult to separate my childhood, adolecent and young adult memories of Balanchine and the reality of what it is today. Choreographically, a few changes, but that also existed when I was younger. What has changed for me is the way it is being danced. I just do not know any more. I have not seen NYCB since 1987. I ran out of State Theater, Symphony in C, my first Balanchine ballet to perform. My own student standing there in my place in 2nd movement. I must say I was astounded. I have seen ABT, Kirov, Maly, CPYB, MBC, and the list can continue. Certain pieces are very good, but not all and I would have to say I had to leave the US to be able to see other things. Not that the opportunity was not here I just could not see I was so brainwashed by the Balanchine marketing machine.

#7 AmandaNYC


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 11:26 PM

I think we can get into (if wanted to, but I don't think we do) a larger question and issue-- I happen to think NYers (me included) tend to be very NY-centric. Unless you lived elsewhere (and I don't mean LA, SF, Chicago or most places in the Northeast...), I think you get a skewed view of things here. Of course, everyone has his or her own biases. My mature ballet education (as opposed to classes when I was 7) came from watching NYCB and mostly Balanchine repertory. And, I love it. So, I fully admit that I tend to look at other dance through that lens. I even have trouble watching other companies do Balanchine. I'm not Balanchine-centric. I'm NYCB-centric! But, back to the larger point-- I think many NYers tend to be NY-centric. I think our defense mechanisms take hold as we try to rationalize living in a place that costs so much, that we must love the city dearly and think what we see and do hear is like no other city. And these processes take hold quite unconsciously. Ok, now i have gone off on my social psych (my grad school background) theory on NYC. I know these are vast generalizations, but I think there is much truth to Balanchine-centrism, as part of a larger NYC-centricism, though there are plenty outside NYC who are Balanchine-centric. (Hope all the NYCers don't hate me now.)

Personally, I find that once I see something that just clicks with me, it is hard not to have a negative feeling (or just less than positive) reaction to things that aren't in line with what clicks. For example, I fell in love with Kistler's dancing on first sight. TO this day, I can't enjoy a Nichols performance in any of their shared roles. And, I also fell in love with Balanchine (first subscription perf: Square Dance, Prodigal Son, Symphony in C). It's a tribute to Robbins' genius that I can enjoy his ballets in their own right, as he is master of another type of ballet. But, so when Martins or Wheeldon attempt ballets in the Balanchine mold... I just pine for Balanchine. So, I'm not really sure I should call myself a real ballet fan, as I tend not to enjoy other ballet companies I see. I like to be educated and take in other companies, but, enjoyment-wise, they tend not to do it for me. They leave my unfulfilled.


#8 AmandaNYC


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 11:27 PM

btw, does my love of my signature quote make sense now?

#9 felursus


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Posted 04 July 2001 - 11:53 PM

I, too, am a New Yorker born and bred. The first ballet performance I ever saw was the NYCB. At the time, and for many years after, it was the ONLY company - the heir to the Diaghlev tradtion (to my child's mind). I will admit to pining somewhat for full-length ballets with pretty, elaborate costumes, but I was willing to trade them in for purity of dance. I have to add here, that my mother was a worshipper of Martha Graham and barely tolerated my love of ballet - something she tried to wean me from. Somehow sseing "Clytemnestra" at age 9 didn't quite hit the spot! In the 60s I became enchanted by the Russians and the Royal Ballet, and Balanchine's flirtation with extreme exaggerations began to annoy me. It started with those claw-like hands and the extreme angularity of movement he seemed to like in those days.

I agree with the person who said he/she didn't like watching other companies perform Balanchine. I think most European companies have a major stylistic problem with it. The Royal Ballet performed AGON and SERENADE while I was working at the ROH. The SERENADE was fine. I think it's one of the few Balanchine ballets that "travels" well. The RB definitely had problems with AGON. I think it's partly because they are trained to dance within the "box" and Balanchine definitely requires moving beyond the box. It's hard for me to adequately express what I mean in words.

On the other hand, I don't think you could come along and set a traditional classical ballet on the NYCB and have them look good in it either. Yes, I know they do a full-length Swan Lake and a Sleeping Beauty these days BUT these ballets were staged/choreographed especially for them, and their stylistic quirks fully taken into consideration. I am reminded of the fairy variations in the SB Prologue: the music is so fast it reminds me of all those recordings where they are played so quickly one thinks: "But no one could ever dance the variations that fast." Ah, but the NYCB do!

I think I'm rambling now. It's 1 am, and my brain has already done a grand jete into bed... :)

#10 Terry


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Posted 05 July 2001 - 01:06 AM

I think that if you're born in a certain city or a cultural center in which the people around you have also grown up seeing a great Choreographer X, then I think this "centrism" is likely to happen. I think that many Londoners will always like Ashton/MacMillan, and many Stuttgartians (?) will like Cranko, and many Danish will like Bournonville, so forth.

I do think though, that the problem always stems when the "centric" audiences see other companies performing the Choreographer X's works and start comparing. OF COURSE, it's going to be different. I'm not saying that the style should be lost, but there are going to be many things that are going to look tremendously different. I don't like to say that this is inevitable, but for eg, many RB dancers and audiences who have grown up seeing Macmillan, is often likely to not enjoy another company's performance of Macmillan as much as theirs. So what do we do then? Do we keep on giving these companies a chance, or do we keep on comparing them to the home company and just claim that they'll never be able to perform this in the REAL style? It's such a difficult question, but I'm always torn with this question... Ok, I guess I haven't answered the heart of the question...so back to the point.

I think that if I had grown up my whole entire life in NY, and had grown up watching NYCB, then I would probably have strong feelings for Balanchine. IMO, I think many Balanchine ballet are great, and I enjoy seeing them. And this centrism I think will continue (if there really is) as long as NYCB continues to perform mostly Balanchine repertory (I'm not saying that it shouldn't.) Part of this I think has to do with the fact that no other company gets to give as many performances as NYCB here...and NYCB's major repertory is Balanchine. But I don't think that this centrism is occuring because NYCB fans are only seeing Balanchine. NYC always attracts many companies from all over the world every year, and they have opportunities to see other choreographers, even though I sometimes feel that the attendence rates are not very high for smaller, more developing foreign companies (BRB, for eg). So I don't think that the centrism is coming from the fact that these fans only see Balanchine, but that they've grown up seeing it and that they've always loved watching it.

#11 Patricia



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Posted 05 July 2001 - 10:49 AM

I grew up and still live in the NYC tri-state area. My introduction to NYCB occurred at an early age and its impact remains. How could it not be when Balanchine, Robbins, and Kirstein were all still alive and active? Outside of taking class, watching NYCB was an invaluable arts education. Though I tend to judge other choreographers against Balanchine and Robbins that does not stop me from loving the works of Ashton, Tudor, Graham, Taylor, and, most of all, Morris. I look forward to seeing Christopher Wheeldon’s future work; I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen so far!

My “company loyalty” has wavered some. I think Peter Martins is a disastrous artistic director. His ballets are amateurishly derivative of others (BESIDES Balanchine) and anti-female. This particular ballet company never needed to add SLEEPING BEAUTY or SWAN LAKE to its repertory. That Suzanne Farrell is “banished” is infuriating. However, I am sure he will remain because the socialites forever see him as their prince.

As for the Kirov dancing Balanchine...Almost every major American ballet company is directed by a former NYCB dancer. It is entirely possible to see a Balanchine ballet brilliantly danced in Miami rather than at Lincoln Center. To me that’s not just okay, it’s welcome.

The rest of the ballet world doesn’t have this luxury of comparison. British dance critics are notorious for treating Balanchine with coldness (rather ironic being that Ms. Bussell is an exceptional Balanchine dancer) – and for believing that the Kirov dances better than anyone else. Everyone has their favorites, just that some are more vocal than others. Yes, the Kirov has been dancing Balanchine for quite some time, but I doubt that any of the “black and white” ballets will ever make it into their repertory.

Despite the myriad of upheavals at the Mariinsky Theatre, and Russia, some perceptions may never change. Based on what I have read in articles or heard in interviews - NOT backstage gossip - Balanchine may well be forever regarded as one who “left;” i.e., a “betrayer.” Even Maestro Valery Gergiev, a musician I admire above all others, has difficulty comprehending Balanchine’s impact on ballet simply because he came west.

Finally, the entire Kirov organization is in a state of constant transition. Finances are better, yet remain precarious; last-minute schedule changes the norm; touring non-stop. I hope the ballet company is able to adjust to “western influences” in repertory as well as the opera and orchestra have. It will take time. Just as ballet training, whether it be as a dancer or audience member, does.

#12 Jane Simpson

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Posted 05 July 2001 - 11:57 AM

Originally posted by Patricia:
British dance critics are notorious for treating Balanchine with coldness (rather ironic being that Ms. Bussell is an exceptional Balanchine dancer)  and for believing that the Kirov dances better than anyone else. 

Sorry, but I don't think the first half of this is true - most of the British critics I read love Balanchine; and I don't see why believing the Kirov to be the best dancers should make someone 'notorious'!

#13 Alexandra


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Posted 05 July 2001 - 01:02 PM

Welcome, Patricia :) I think the "the British hate Balanchine" idea stems from the 1950s, when many of the British critics were skeptical, but I agree with Jane that it's not the case now. Generalizations are difficult -- while there are a lot of Americans headed by ex-NYCB dancers, there are a lot headed by dancers who aren't NYCB, and even some of those (like Tomasson at SFB) don't have a Balanchine-centered repertoire, although your point about Balanchine being danced brilliant by other American companies such as Miami is one well worth making.

So far, we've gotten lots of posts with points worth making and well made -- please keep 'em coming. Some from people outside New York, too, please.

#14 Natalia


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Posted 05 July 2001 - 01:39 PM

This from a Washintonian who has attended many performances of ABT and NYCB in their respective 'home theaters,' through the years -

I would *never* state "New Yorkers are Balanchine-centric" because I've notice equal amounts of passion among New York audiences at ABT and NYCB performances. Each group is sooooo unique that I would think I'm in a different country, let alone city...let alone across the Lincoln Center Plaza! [Out of respect to the two sets of sudiences -- the NYCBers and the ABTers -- I will refrain from listing the 'unique traits' that I've noticed in each group...catch me in person, at a private event, & I'll list them. ;)]

In other words, I believe that it's a bit unfair to (a) categorize the NYCB regulars as THE New York Audience and, thus, (B) categorize New York balletomanes as being Balanchine-centric. True, there is a large group of Balanchine-centric balletomanes in New York City...but they alone do not represent 'New York,' just as the Russophiles who pile into The Met on a 'Nina Night' or to the Eifman seasons at City Center represent New York.

p.s. - I'm writing in generalities. There is no intention to imply that, if one is a New Yorker who loves ballet, then one is 'either-or'...I know lots of folks who equally love & support both troupes. :) But, in general, the two audiences are unique.

[ 07-05-2001: Message edited by: Jeannie ]

#15 cargill


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Posted 05 July 2001 - 01:52 PM

About the "British hate Balanchine" issue, there was an interesting article in some quarterly (I forget which one, maybe Ballet Review) discussing the whole issue, especially the received gospel that the NYCB was not popular when it first came to London. The author quoted extensively from early reviews praising his choreography, not all of them by by Richard Buckle! Somehow this idea got around about the benighted British, but I remember when I was there in the early 1970's, almost every review I read (a slight exaggeration!) said the Royal Ballet should do more Balanchine.
Coming to the US after having lived in England, I was struck by how narrow the US writers seemed, it was Balanchine or bust, pretty much. Having lived in NY for a number of years, I think a lot of that is just what they had the chance to see. Nutcrackers or bad Swan Lakes or the 1000th production of Giselle were often the only story ballets around, and Balanchine was so much better than that.
But having lived in both countries, the idea that the British just don't get Balanchine is not true as far as the writers go, and the idea that New Yorker's only like Balanchine does have a bit of truth.

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