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Ballet and politics?


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13 replies to this topic

#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 12 July 2001 - 04:43 PM

Nah, not our Elian Gonzales ballet from years past!

We don't usually discuss ballet here from a sociological viewpoint, perhaps this might be an interesting time.

On a previous thread, Jeannie mentioned that the driving economic force behind ballet until the last century were monarchs and rulers. I added that politics probably shaped ballet - it began in monarchy that probably accounts for the hierarchical structure of most ballets, emulating a court with the ballerina at the top.

I'm sure there are many observations we can make about how ballet was formed by its environment, and that continuing evolution.

#2 LMCtech

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 11:50 AM

I'm going to jump straight to Balanchine.

If he hadn't come to America, I don't think he ever would have been able to develop his art to the level he did.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 12:10 PM

Hmm. Provocative and interesting, LMC, but why?

I don't think you're wrong, it just needs explanation. Balanchine nearly had "better" opportunities in France, England and Denmark, in some ways, America is simply where he "wound up."

And yet, to bring this back to the topic of the thread, there is obviously something in the American culture that either suited him or he adapted his outlook to suit it.

If so, what makes Balanchine an "American" choreographer? Moving the question beyond Balanchine, is the reason we're also putting Ashton up at the top of the heap of the century, or Bournonville and Petipa of the 19th century as well because they either define (or reflect perfectly - which??) the cultural style of England, Denmark or Imperial Russia?

Conversely, how does being "stateless" affect a choreographer? (Or a dancer - it is one of the comments frequently made of Nureyev, that he had no home after he defected. He worked in Paris, finally, but his passport was Austrian.) Alexandra's discussion of Fokine would probably continue here. I also think Tudor was in many ways stateless, and I think it is pertinent.

[ 07-13-2001: Message edited by: Leigh Witchel ]

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 12:58 PM

I never can resist "what ifs :)" On Tudor, I've read several critical assessments (books, reviews) that said that Tudor was always essentially English and didn't quite transplant -- certainly not in the way Balanchine did.

I think of Balanchine as a crab (no, she said wearily, this is not an insult). Put him down, he starts burrowing in instantly; the beach doesn't matter. I think he could have worked anywhere, because the world of the theater was his world; everything else was extraneous, spice. He came here, he became intrigued with America, he used American material, both from popular culture and the very bodies. I think his ballets would have looked very different if he had stayed in Paris (he was maneuvered out of that job by dear Lifar; it wasn't pretty) or in Russia -- and how he would have adapted to the Soviet aesthetic is a fascinating piece of conjecture. Could he have worked in England? He didn't seem to like the English; I don't think the "if you are awake you are already vulgar" was a sour grapes statement; I think he meant it. While he was interested in some of the Danish dancers in the 1930s and needed a job, I think Copenhagen would have been too small for him. One of the many things that's fascinating about Bournonville--given that it's very difficult to talk about either Bourononville or Petipa, or other 19th century choreographers because so much of their work has been lost or changed--is that he's the only artist in ballet history that's generally considered "great" who spent nearly his entire career in a provincial theater. I think if we had Perrot's works, Bournonville's would look very small--but there would have good bones, and his work in Vienna indicates that he had the capability to make larger-scale works, just not the means. (One Danish balletmaster, on a fussy day, said to me, "Bourononville had six good dancers and the rest were supers.")

Back to Balanchine, he had an incredible opportunity -- he got to paint on a blank canvas. He captured the imagination of both the city's intellectuals and artists, and the general balletgoing audience. That's an opportunity he couldn't have had in Paris or Russia. But I think he would have adapted equally well, just created different work.

#5 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 01:14 PM

Balanchine's own metaphor for himself was actually not that different. From Taper's biography: "I'm like a potato, I grow in any soil."

#6 dirac

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 02:57 PM

Balanchine was receptive to American culture in a way that other emigrés were not, but I had the impression that his eventual arrival here had at least as much to do with the closing off of his European options as anything else. (It's funny, we think of Balanchine and Kirstein as being Made For Each Other now, but at the time both of them seem to have had somewhat mixed feelings about the other guy.)

I think Balanchine would have been a genius anywhere he went, but I wonder if his influence would have been quite as far-reaching and his aesthetic as dominant if he'd been able to wrest the Opéra from the fell clutches of Lifar or set himself up somewhere else in Europe. Instead, he established a school and a company in the preeminent city of the world's rising power.

#7 LMCtech

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 05:11 PM

But I think if he had been in a country that wasn't quite as receptive to him or that could provide him with all that raw talent, he would have been less able to push the envelope as he did. I'm not saying he would have been less successful, just less radical.

#8 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 08:12 PM

LMC, I have trouble with that for a lot of reasons. Balanchine was an experimenter since his youth in Russia, and encouraged in it both there and in Diaghilev's company. With "The Young Ballet" in St. Petersburg in the 20s he was already doing ballets to text accompaniment and many other experimental things he would not even do in America. I recall an interview with Danilova where she remarked that when confronted with "modern" and "new" dance she had already seen something just like it in her youth in Russia.

I definitely think America formed Balanchine. I do not think the evidence is there to support saying it made him a radical inventor, nor even that America was the only environment that might have happened in.

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 08:57 PM

I really doubt very much that Balanchine would have survived WWII had he remained in Continental Europe. Georgians were "non-Aryans" in the Nazi "race hygiene" theory, which could even find excuses to include the so-called "high Russians" in their list of the Elect.

#10 Alexandra

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 09:16 PM

I think LMCTech's take on Balanchine would be shared by many, but I agree with Leigh. (I also don't think that Balanchine was great merely because he "pushed the envelope." His career can also be seen in the context of carrying on a noble tradition.)

France has never shirked from the new, and I'll bet Paris would have loved good avant-garde works -- as would London, many of whose critics dismissed Ashton as too old-fashioned for years.

I think Balanchine's "envelope pushing" is related to the music he used. Give him modernist music, he made a modernist ballet. Give him Tchaikovsky, he did Theme and Variations. Balanchine was Russian Orthodox and quite conservative in many ways. I never bought the image (not that he was selling it) that he woke up every morning, thrilled to break yet one more rule. I think he made work, using the materials at hand, using, bending, breaking or reviving rules as he needed them. The genius, for me, is that he had such a huge palette. I think he would have used that in any country, and I think -- as long as he had a company to work with -- he would have achieved the same stature, even though the works would have been different.

#11 felursus

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Posted 13 July 2001 - 11:16 PM

I think Balanchine like the fact that everything in America was "new", that it didn't rely on old traditions, that people were free to "break the mould" and to experiment freely. He came here at a time when the musical environment was "jumping", when Hollywood was at the height of the studio system, when Broadway was full of new plays and musicals, when there was a lot of inventiveness in the arts. I am the daughter of an Hungarian violinist who came to this country in 1927 - brought in by Walter Damrosch. My father (I was a "late-life surprise package") personally knew and worked with many of the musically creative minds of that era (and in fact met Balanchine on more than one occasion at the home of mutual friends). He said that although there was a lot of creativity in Europe prior to WWII, no where was "the new" so actively sought as in this country. A Balanchine who had remained in Europe (even assuming that he would have survived WWII) would have been a very, very different Balanchine, because the influences on his life would have been quite different. I'm in the "not convinced" group: I don't think that the environment in Europe would have brought out the best in his genius. :cool:

#12 Cliff

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 12:22 AM

Going back to Leigh Witchel's comment,

Originally posted by Leigh Witchel:


On a previous thread, Jeannie mentioned that the driving economic force behind ballet until the last century were monarchs and rulers.  I added that politics probably shaped ballet - it began in monarchy that probably accounts for the hierarchical structure of most ballets, emulating a court with the ballerina at the top.


Hadn't the age of royalty passed by the 18th century? It seems to me that if the political ethos of the times shaped ballets, then the Enlightenment should have left its mark. Such as a ballet about a congressman and an intern...


Cliff

#13 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 05:17 AM

in a film clip in the two-part balanchine biography from pbs in the 1980s, he talks about being at a party at lady cunard's in london and complaining about there being nothing to do (in england or europe, i'm not sure which), upon which, he says, this big american said "what are you going to do?", his response being 'i've got to get to america, because there's nothing here'. big american said, 'i'll get you to america!", balanchine's response was 'who are you?" and american's response was 'i'm an american!', and, as balanchine says in the film, 'and that was lincoln."
(slightly paraphrased because i'm on first cup of coffee).

#14 LMCtech

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Posted 14 July 2001 - 12:08 PM

Felursus, that was exactly what I was trying to say, but wasn't being very clear. A potato can grow in any soil, but it will be a better potato for having grown in better condotions and I think that is what happened to Balanchine.

I also think that the ballet dancers in America have always been just a little different than their European counterparts and that flavored the work as well.


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