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Acocella to ballet stars: "Stop flirting with the audience."


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#1 bart

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 01:00 PM

Here's a Link posted today by dirac:

Stop flirting, Joan Acocella tells dancers in The New Yorker’s Critic’s Notebook.
http://www.newyorker...tebook_acocella


The situation is worse, of course, in lighter-hearted pieces. When American Ballet Theatre performed Twyla Tharp’s “Baker’s Dozen” last year, the cast couldn’t stop telling us what a fun bunch of people they were. (Craig Salstein, in his solo, practically gave us his phone number.) But this is going on in darker pieces, too. Strangely, the problem has no relation to talent.

A while ago I posted about the lead dancer at Ballet Florida, a charming young woman, who virtually ignored her partner in Tchaikosvsky Pas de Deux and in an over-the-top duet by Vicente Nebrada, while making flirtatious eye contact with the audience. She seemed to be communicating to the crowd: I'm ecstatic :wink: to be dancing this for you. Can you tell?

My other local company, Miami City Ballet, doesn't seem to tolerate it. Or, possibly, the dancers are just focusing on dancing well so they don't have time for this kind of distraction.

So: what do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon yourself in recent performances? How do you respond when you observe it?

#2 Helene

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 01:15 PM

In a post-performance yesterday, Peter Boal mentioned that he told dancers in Diamonds to stop smiling so much, and that a broad smile to the audience wasn't appropriate for the ballet. They listened: Jewels was given three superb performances this weekend.

#3 SandyMcKean

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 01:28 PM

I was also at the Q&A last night where Boal talked about smiling.

Interestingly, his comment was in response to an audience member who asked why some dancers smile and others don't. There seemed to be a definite element in this lady's question where she seemed to be wanting ever more of the happy-happy smiles. I think it was that implication that had Boal slam the practice....and slam it so hard that he even admitted that he had told some dancers to cut it out in Diamonds.

P.S. While talking about this issue Boal painted a very interesting image. He said that he imagined a dancer to be in a box with 4 walls -- one of which was glass. We the audience were privileged to be able to watch the dancer thru that 4th glass wall. He clearly sees separation of dancer and audience as vital (while also saying that the audience was of the upmost importance in any performing art).

P.S. I wouldn't be surprised that Boal read the article of which you speak bart. Not hard to imagine that a NY'er like him reads the New Yorker. (Of course I have no evidence of this.)

#4 kfw

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 01:54 PM

In Acocella's piece on Suzanne Farrell Ballet in 2003, she quotes Farrell saying that her students lack musical sensitivity.

"They don't know a waltz from a march," she says, wonderingly. "When the music changes from three-four to four-four, they don't hear it."

If many young dancers can't hear time, I guess it's not so surprising they can't hear mood, and smile their way through Emeralds and Diamonds.

#5 Hans

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 01:57 PM

Apparently Farrell can't hear that a march is 2/4, not 4/4.

#6 Quiggin

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 02:03 PM

Many San Francisco Ballet dancers are smilers and it sort of destroys the dance, as if they're saying pay attention to my mouth, not what I'm doing. It's really terrible in The Four Temperaments, and in the last round of Liebesleider performances in New York there seemed to be a bit of smiling and it's not such a happy ballet.

I think Peter Boal's four walls distinction important. Kyra Nichols in a talk in SF differentiated between in-the-box ballets and ones that were not.

I like dancers when they appear to be listening intently ahead for the next phrase of the dance. As if they don't know what it is quite going to be--and they're going to quietly meet it half way.

#7 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 02:52 PM

Many San Francisco Ballet dancers are smilers and it sort of destroys the dance, as if they're saying pay attention to my mouth, not what I'm doing. It's really terrible in The Four Temperaments ...


Interesting! I noticed the SFers smiling in the "Themes" section of 4Ts during their visit to NYC in the fall of '08 and thought "Oh, isn't that nice!" I thought it was such a pleasant break from NYCB's stony stares. I wouldn't necessarily want to see it that way every single time, but during that performance, at least, I rather liked the effect ... Chacun a son gout!

#8 Quiggin

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 04:06 PM

I thought it was such a pleasant break from NYCB's stony stares.


In The Four Temperaments their looks don't have to be stony, but they should be at least contemplative. The themes figures are sort of Janus ones--or Janusaries for what is to come. They face opposite directions and they go off on different sides of the stage. And what is to come is fairly intense.

There are Balanchine ballets that can take smiles--and whole movements that are smiles in themselves.

#9 bart

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 04:42 PM

Is it really just a choice between smiling or not smiling? A smile -- whether serene, joyful, slap-happy, exhilerated, or coy -- can be integral to a role. Acocella seems to be focusing on the "knowing smile" -- the "self-conscious smile" -- even the "conspiratorial smile." (Wink, wink.) This breaks that imaginary wall separating dancer from watcher. It also, for me, destroys the illusion that the dancer -whether in a happy ballet or not -- is genuinely absorbed in his or her movements, in the other dancers on stage, and in the music.

There are ballets that call for the "stoney-stare," I know. But there aren't all that many. If this is indeed typical of any company or individual dancer, something seems to have gone wrong.

Facial expression is a crucial element in the illusion created by dancing on stage. I wonder: how much attention is paid to it in ballet schools and during rehearsals?

#10 Hans

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 05:14 PM

We do pay attention to facial expression in ballet class. The look must be alert, yet calm--simultaneously serene and engaged. One learns to not make faces during difficult exercises, but a smile every now and then, during a particularly enjoyable combination for example, is welcome. In Gretchen Ward Warren's Classical Ballet Technique, there is a description of the appropriate classroom expression, as well as expressions to avoid. One classroom expression that particularly irritates me is usually found on teachers who demand that their students always appear to be extremely alert: eyes open a little too wide, eyebrows slightly raised, and a sort of half-smile on the lips. While one does not want to appear bored, the 'One too many cups of coffee' look is going too far in the opposite direction.

#11 Helene

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 06:39 PM

One of the finest uses of facial expressions I've seen was in Doug Fullington's "Balanchine's Petipa" lecture demonstration #2. In it, Lucien Postlewaite partnered Kaori Nakamura in "La Bayadere". His face was on the one hand live, expressive, and focused on his ballerina, but on the other hand, subtle and refined. This was in a studio in full light, with the "audience" feet away from him. He's very young -- I'm not even sure he's 25 -- but it was an impressive display of control and maturity.

#12 kfw

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 06:40 PM

Hans, I remember reading something somewhere once about a fixed smile being used as a tool to mask effort. The basic idea stands to reason, but there was more to it than that, something technical I can't recall. Do I have that right? In any case, Macaulay reviews PNB's Jewels in tomorrow's Times. See those now forbidden smiles here. :wink:

Macauley reports that

The Pacific Northwest “Rubies” at once showed what had been missing from Miami City Ballet’s recent New York performances of this dance: fun, repartee, naughtiness, even devilry. The Seattle audience, rightly, kept laughing out loud.


This makes me wonder if, to use bart's wording, the conspiratorial, wink, wink smile is appropriate in Rubies, or in other ballets or sections of ballets where showing off is part of the point. Or do the feelings and the motives show to better effect if they're directed the other dancers enacting the story onstage?

#13 Helene

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 06:50 PM

It's funny -- Boal said that "Rubies" is the ballet in "Jewels" in which a full smile to the audience is appropriate :wink:

I remember in Merrill Ashley's book, she said that her now-husband told her after they first met that she had two expressions: I can't remember her wording for frozen smile, and the other was "pained ballerina look", which I misread as "painted ballerina look."

#14 LiLing

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 07:10 PM

I agree with Acocella's condemnation of dancers who "woo us, grin at us, give us saucy looks." I did cringe at her naming names though. That just seemed unnecessarily harsh.
Facial expression and focus should be an integral part of the total performance, and appropriate for the work, and the role, not something arbitrarily plastered on.

#15 SandyMcKean

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Posted 02 February 2009 - 10:51 PM

I like dancers when they appear to be listening intently ahead for the next phrase of the dance. As if they don't know what it is quite going to be--and they're going to quietly meet it half way.

I love this mental image. I couldn't have put it so nicely into words as you do here, but I think this is exactly what I see when a dancer's performance truly moves me.

Is it really just a choice between smiling or not smiling? A smile -- whether serene, joyful, slap-happy, exhilerated, or coy -- can be integral to a role. Acocella seems to be focusing on the "knowing smile" -- the "self-conscious smile" -- even the "conspiratorial smile."

You are right on the money bart. There is nothing wrong with smiling; and in fact, smiling might be mandatory if the role calls for it. It's the "pasted on smile" (for smile's sake alone) that is inappropriate. Certainly the types of smiles you quote from Acocella are completely out of place.

This makes me wonder if, to use bart's wording, the conspiratorial, wink, wink smile is appropriate in Rubies, or in other ballets or sections of ballets where showing off is part of the point.

Ironically, the production of PNB's Jewels gives a perfect example of how even the conspiratorial smile can work in Rubies in spite of it not working in Diamonds. Opening night Jonathan Porretta danced what I call the "cheeky boy's" role in Rubies. When he is on stage with the quartet of male dancers, leading them around the stage as if they were some sort of team of horses, there is a moment when the "cheeky boy" runs along the edge of the stage, completely down stage. When Porretta did this, he not only smiled, but he gave a hearty winking laugh and devilish look directly at the audience. He completely broke the 4th glass wall in that moment. It was appropriate for that moment, and invoked great laughter from the audience (just as it should IMHO). Notably when Peter Boal made his comment a few days later at the Q&A about having chastised the dancers for too much smiling in Diamonds, he did not say a word about Jonathan's outrageous cheek in Rubies. Interestingly, on Sunday afternoon when Olivier Webers did the same role, although he is an excellent actor and very accessible to the audience, Wevers did not ham up this moment as much as Porretta had opening night. Personally, I thought Poretta's choice was the better one (and judging by the laughter, so did the rest of the audience). Rubies is so full of wit and playfulness that "showing off", as you put it kfw (later edit...initially I said bart here, sorry kfw), is completely appropriate.

Just to overkill the point about Rubies, I can't resist mentioning another part in Rubies where the music is somewhat serious, and the dancing wholly into that syncopated Stravinsky thing, when suddenly the music totally shifts to light-hearted laughter. At at that moment four girls (I think it is 4) come out and whoosh though the other dancers. I call these four girls the "bathing beauties" because to me their movements remind me of flappers from the 1920's in whole body swimming suits frolicing on the beach! Too serious there and the entire illusion, and wit, of "seeing" that particular music would be lost.


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