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Ranking the 20th century ballet choreographers


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 02:30 PM

This is a companion to the Balanchine centrism post I just put up. I'd be interested in knowing how you rank the major 20th century choreographers. Either, who you like, or who you think are the greatest. If possible, please state why.

For me, the Big Three are Fokine, Balanchine and Ashton. Fokine is mostly on faith, I'll admit, for I've just seen shards of his work, but they're solid shards and I once read extensively about him. For me, these three are equal. There are some ballets that are better than others, but on balance, I think they're, all three, top of the line.

One a separate cloud, over to the side, are Tudor and Massine. Tudor, because he produced so little, in comparison, and, although he was associated with a company later in his career (unlike Fokine) he was fallow for a very long time. Of what I've seen of Massine, I think his craft is first-rate, but I just haven't seen enough.

The next level for me is Robbins, MacMillan, Cranko. I find all of them problematic, I think they've all produced some fine, and some less fine, work, but compared to their peers, not to mention successors, they're solid second-rank very good choreographers, in my book. I would put Grigorovich in here as well, although I haven't seen anything of his that I really like or admire, and I think much of his work is wrongheaded. Despite this, there is a craft and an artistry there.

There are some European choreographers whose work I haven't seen enough of to really judge. Some Bejart is good, some, I think, is absolute schlock, but that's based on less than a dozen ballets. Likewise with Roland Petit. Some of his ballets at least provide very good performance opportunities and are solidly constructed, others are often called "merely cabaret," and I think that's an insult to cabaret. I once admired the work of Hans Van Manen a lot, but have only seen about a dozen of his ballets, and I don't think he developed into a truly top of the line choreographer.

Of the other -ines, like Lichine, and choreographers like DeValois, Robert Helpmann, Andree Howard, I cannot speak.

Well, at least I'm brave :) How would the rest of you divvy up the prize money?

#2 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 06:15 PM

You've pretty much hit the names I would have, (except I probably would put Tudor slightly higher on my own personal list and Fokine slightly lower, but that's preference.) The only names I'd add in are Nijinsky and Nijinska, but particularly Nijinska.

I've got plenty of ambivalence about his work and where it takes us but in terms of influence for the last two decades of the century, I think Forsythe merits inclusion.

#3 Diana L

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 07:04 PM

I'm going to toss in Agnes DeMille and Martha Graham. They both seemed like the first women to be successful in a man's world. I have to admit that I've not seen many of either's works, but I liked what I saw.
I don't have a favorite, but Robbins is up there. He made ballet easy for me to understand, I always thought it was tutu's and storybooks but he made me laugh first!
I often wonder if it must be hard for new choreographers. All those before them seemed to take all the great music!

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 09:04 PM

Argh, I can't believe I dropped Nijinska! She's hard to place, though. "Les Noces" gets a gold medal in my book, and "Les Biches" is nice, but I haven't seen anything else. I guess I'll put her on the cloud with Tudor :)

Diana, I'm sorry, but I'm going to toss out Martha Graham -- ballet choreographers only, please. I forgot DeMille, too. She's always ranked about two notches down from Robbins, but I'm not sure that's fair. His best is better than her best, but she's got a good solid middle.

#5 vrsfanatic

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Posted 04 July 2001 - 10:00 PM

Perhaps L. Jacobson could be add to this list. His work is not well known is the US, so perhaps this could influence the selecton, but the few pieces I was able to see were remarkably inventive with very cohesive format, structure, artistry and drama.

Otherwise I agree with Alexandra's list. I find Fokine perhaps the most interesting on this list because I never saw two Fokine pieces that were the same. He was quite true to his 5 principles I believe they are called.

#6 Andrei

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Posted 07 July 2001 - 11:05 PM

The first rank - Nijinsky, Balanchine.
The second - Fokine, Jakobson, Bejart.
The third - all names mentioned before.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 08:53 AM

I realized I'd omitted several people whose works I barely know, but I think are important: Leo Staats (I've only seen Soir de Fete, which might be dismissed today as a mere divertissement, but which exhibits a command of both structure and vocabulary that put him at the top; Balanchine admired him, I've read, and he didn't praise many other choreographers). Lifar is important, but from the little I've seen, I'd put him in the DeMille category.

There are a lot of Russian choreographers we just don't get to see these days -- first would be Lavrovsky. After having seen his "Romeo and Juliet," finally, I'd really like to see more -- and I wonder if he got eclipsed simply because he was followed by an active choreographer. (I see him as Ashton to Grigorovich's MacMillan, but that may be way off base.)

I've only seen tiny bits of Vainonen, Goleizovsky and Jakobson, and don't have a clue about Gorsky -- social reformer, or great choreographer?

I never know how to rank Nijinsky because I think the only thing we have is Faun and a lot of legend.

Others? Whether you're adding to the mix or just reranking the Top Ten, it would be interesting to hear more views.

[ 07-12-2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

#8 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 10:29 AM

The interesting question also becomes, is there a way of getting this works viewed again at all?

I wonder how much of the natural shakeout ofart (or dance) over a century is that you're left with 2-3 "geniuses" and then some people with a local reputation (like Lifar in Paris?) I'm not saying surviving this selection proves genius, only wondering if that's how it goes.

#9 Mashinka

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 11:05 AM

First of all, a word about the Soviet choreographers: The Bolshoi recently revived Lavrovsky's "Paganini" and brought it to London in '99 and a few years ago I saw another Lavrovsky piece danced to Prokofiev's 1st Symphony performed by students of the Bolshoi school. What both these pieces had in common was pretty relentless dancing requiring a high degree of technique from the dancers. Paganini had a slightly dated look but was redeemed by the dancing.

Goliezovsky had a very difficult life as he was out of favour with the authorities for much of his career. Some of his very early work exists in snippets on video. He seems to have been rediscovered shortly before his death and is now regarded with reverence in Russia. His version of the Polovtsian Dances is simply stunning and if it were better known I firmly believe it could assume the status of a classic. His solo work "Narcissus" was performed by the Bolshoi in London in May and was very well received by both audiences and critics.

One choreographer I rate highly is Christopher Bruce. In my opinion he is the finest British born dance maker working today. However as most of his career was spent with Ballet Rambert, I suppose he could easily be classified as a modern rather than classical choreographer. How is he rated in the US? He is quite unique. He produces work with a social conscience and his ballets Swan Song and Ghost Dances are to my mind masterpieces.

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 12:18 PM

Mashinka, that you for the information on Russian choreographers. As for Christopher Bruce, he was for awhile (perhaps a long while?) a resident choreographer with the Houston Ballet. I'm not sure modern dancers would claim him, and I'd call him a blend of modern and classical, which I suppose makes him contemporary or third stream (a term invented, I think, by Kerensky, an Anglo-Russian critic, that I wish would catch on!) I can't comment, really, because I've only seen two of his pieces.

Leigh, your question is one that continues to fascinate me. If you look at the history of ballet with your institutional lens on, I think the luck of history has a great deal to do with it. Fokine was homeless -- think of it, at a time when we're bewailing that there aren't any great classical choreographers roaming around -- no one would have him. He taught class for two years in Copenhagen and staged one program of works, and the administration wouldn't let him back in, because he wasn't Danish (same went for Balanchine. There's provincialism, and then there's provincialism.) He did work with ABT, but he was pushed out there, too. He's criticized for peaking at 30 (the work he made after this time is often seen as remakes of his older works). He made a "Midsummer Night's Dream" and a work to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," both of which I'd like to see.

DanceView published a very interesting piece by Leland Windreich (which is in his collection of essays) called "Balanchine's Salad Days" where he remembered ballets of Balanchine's he saw in the 1940s, when Windreich had been a teenager. Not the ones he did for Ballet Society, but the ones for various traveling companies. He made a good case that they weren't all A-plus works, but also a good case that the reason for it was that Balanchine was working outside of an institution -- not enough time, not within the primary aesthetic of the company, and, most importantly, not his own dancers. Would Balanchine have achieved what he did without Kirstein? (please put the bottles and rocks down :) )

There are other choreographers (perhaps Lifar?) on the other hand who are in the C Conference who somehow manage to fall into, or steal, a classical company, have a lot of institutional support, and produce watchable work. Never underestimate the power of constant rehearsal and a beautiful theater.

One of the problems with institutions is that there is a constant power struggle -- new ones coming up, wanting a chance. This means getting rid of whoever stands in your way. Each generation doesn't have equal talent. Or does it, but lacks equal opportunity?

Sometimes, too, recognition is a big part of the game. When Balanchine made "Apollo," Diaghilev supposedly looked at it and said, "It's Petipa!" This excited him. There were others who thought it was retrograde, and going backwards against Fokine's reforms (and others who thought it wasn't classical enough and incorporated too much of the current sports craze to really last). What if Diaghilev had said, "None of that old stuff. I want something new, new, new. Stop piddling around with this nonsense and make another Barabau"! What if Massine had said yes to Kirstein? What if Ashton had gotten that letter? What if De Valois had liked Tudor best? What if Peter Martins had a band of passionately supportive critics?

It would be interesting to make a historical matrix of choreographers with Leigh's question in mind. As for how do we get to see them, I like to think that, somewhere, the Royal Ballet of Ruritania is keeping them all, lovingly tended, until the borders open again.

#11 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 02:20 PM

Originally posted by alexandra:
Would Balanchine have achieved what he did without Kirstein?


The answer is no, and it's no slight to Balanchine's genius. You can either work in any soil or fertile soil. Balanchine could achieve something in any soil, but when someone makes it possible for you to have adequate rehearsal time, and your choice of dancers (and more). . .Kirstein deserves credit.

Facilitators don't usually get praise, but look in front of many great artists and you'll see someone quietly paving a smoother road to make their travel a bit easier. There are others that could be named as well, perhaps we ought to?

#12 Natalia

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 03:36 PM

Name any Medici ruler in Renaissance Florence...any French King from Louis XIV on down...any Tsar in 19th-century Russia...the Danish royal family...etc.... Mere commoners get into the mix primarily during the 20th century, although wealthy private citizens maintained household "serf ballet troupes" in 18th-century Russia.

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 04:31 PM

Yup.

Politically, ballet is institutional, labor intensive and requires surplus. It grew up in monarchy and that probably explains the tendency towards hierarchical formats rather than ensemble ones.

These are probably two new discussions.

#14 pleiades

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 09:44 PM

I am far less knowledgeable than most of you about technique and the art of choreography, but I wondered why there was no mention at all of Jiri Kylian? I have rarely been so affected by anyone's work, but then that's just me.

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 12:01 AM

It's no disrespect to Kylian's talent, but I think he wasn't mentioned merely because he's not really a ballet choreographer, but rather one of the choreographers who makes third-stream (the term Alexandra uses most) or fusion choreography.


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